UNCHARTED: Toronto’s Greys do “loud rock,” but not like those other assholes

On Toronto's heavy scene, the importance of In Utero, and how anyone who plays with more than one cab is an asshole.

- Feb 26, 2014
Uncharted is our showcase of independent artists we think you should hear. This week, Greys talk Nirvana, Toronto's (maybe) heavy renaissance, and why you should never be loud for the sake of loud.

Has there ever been a time when so many noisy Toronto bands were doing so well at the same time? I want to use the words "heavy renaissance," but I'm unsure if the Hogtown heavy set have ever even had a heyday to revive. Between Odonis Odonis, Beliefs, METZ, Surinam, and, of course, the subject of this profile, Greys, GTA music fans have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to eardrum-abusing music. When exactly did this scrappy little subset of the scene become the scene? It's hard to pick a watershed, but Hand Drawn Dracula's Milkin' It, a 20th anniversary tribute to Nirvana's In Utero co-curated by Greys and played by Toronto bands, is an excellent candidate.

Over three EPs, Greys (yes, named after the alien species) have positioned themselves at the locus of a vibrant indie rock community. And their standing's well-deserved — beyond a steely work ethic, their songs plain old rip. They grew up with Cobain on MTV, they were weaned on post-hardcore soul foods like Fugazi and The Jesus Lizard, they bite on '90s guitar stomp like Failure, and they do math like Jawbox or Drive Like Jehu. It's an ancestry that's close to my heart.

I caught up with singer/guitarist Shehzaad Jiwani while he cooked up some lunch and queued up the next episode of True Detective. We talked about the supportiveness of Toronto's music scene, his giant debt to In Utero, and how anyone who plays with more than one speaker cabinet is kinda just being a prick.

Greys' debut LP is ready for release this June by a label they've yet to announce. If you're around Toronto, catch Greys at The Beverleys EP release Friday, February 28, 2014 at Sneaky Dee's. We're giving away a pair of tickets, along with a whole bunch of Buzz Records swag. Click here to find out how to win.

It seems like every new act that comes out these days comes with their own ridiculous made up subgenre —  post-this or post-that — but you define yourselves as a “loud rock band” and it actually seems to be sticking. How intentional is that?

Shehzaad Jiwani: That’s just been our descriptor since we started the band. It was kind of a reaction to these really involved, pretentious explanations that bands give themselves to differentiate themselves from every band that ostensibly sounds the same as they do. I find the bands that go out of their way to describe themselves a certain way often just sound like one generic thing anyway. The opposite thing is to just be so irreverent that you’re annoying. So we’re trying to find a comfortable middle ground by not describing our band and letting people figure it out. And that’s kind of been the approach that we’ve always taken. There’s no real smoke and mirrors. If you like it, you like and if you don’t, you don’t.

But you guys aren’t decibel junkies like, say, My Bloody Valentine trying to shake the stage and make fans puke?

No, I think that stuff is really obnoxious. Any band that has more than one cab in it per person is kind of an asshole. Like, give me a fucking break. Especially, when you’re playing little DIY spaces. Chris Colohan [of Cursed and Burning Love] said this to me one time: "That’s really great that you saw Cursed and you were very impressed by that, but give it a rest." Coming from that guy, it kind of speaks volumes.


See I was wondering if I had been doing it wrong if I’ve just been listening to you guys quietly in my apartment on my tiny earphones?

No, that’s fine. We’re not one of those bands that’s loud for the sake of being loud. Yeah, it’s noisy and we play loudly, but I like to think there’s more to it than that. I guess maybe we should change it to "noisy rock band."

You guys have just finished recording a full-length. What can you tell us about that?

It’s done. It’s coming out in June. It’s 11 songs, under 35 minutes. I think that if you listen to it, it’s a really gingerly paced record. It was made with that in mind. It’s supposed to be sort of a digestible listen. Like how we were talking about a lot of those noisy rock bands, halfway through those records tend to be like you’re walking through mud. As much as we did all grow up on noisy stuff, I don’t want to say we left that stuff behind, but we’ve definitely moved forward. We value what goes into a full-length record and dynamics and giving some room to breathe.

On an EP, especially our last EP, which is just three songs, you can get away with being just this onslaught of sludge. Every time we’ve done anything, we’ve played to the format, because we’re very much believers in album formats, even 7”s. We did a split with Beliefs, and even in that we adhered to the idea of a split and tried to make it more than just a throwaway song.

If bands like say the Hot Snakes and Hum and Fugazi were audible influences on your first few EPs, who or what’s influenced this LP?

I think we’ve distilled all of these influences. The way Fugazi and The Jesus Lizard and Unwound approach their guitar playing is definitely going to inform a lot of what we do because a lot of how I learned to play guitar comes from those bands, but I feel like we’ve always had more of an indie rock approach to how we play the guitar. It’s never been particularly chunky, and I think that’s definitely apparent on this one. So like Polvo and the Swirlies and Sonic Youth and Wire and The Birthday Party have been a lot more of an influence. There’s more obvious stuff: Nirvana and Pavement. Obviously, you can pick out various influences, but I think there’s like ten different things in one song, which is what most good bands try to do. Sure, we come from a certain place, but we’ve made it our own thing.

Greys were partly responsible for that Nirvana tribute album that came out back in October. What’s the importance of a record like In Utero to you specifically? Do you have any memories directly around getting into that album?

In Utero is my favourite album of all time. Nirvana was a huge part of my childhood. I was only four years old when Nevermind came out, so I had some connection to them — I remember them being on TV a lot — but it wouldn’t be the same as a teenager getting into them for the first time. When I grew up and started buying records on my own, those were the first records that I had. In Utero was always my favourite over Nevermind. I don’t know why. I always kind of liked the noisiness, the frenetic, caterwauling guitars. They don’t really make any sense.

Strange, noisy guitars and strange noises in general have always been appealing to me. Even when my brother (he’s a lot older than me) went to raves in the early ‘90s, even the strange stuff that he listened to appealed to me. In Utero, specifically, as a kid was kind of my introduction to what I would later identify as noise rock. When you’re 10 or 11, you don’t know who the Jesus Lizard is, but without [In Utero] I wouldn’t have had the frame of reference for it. As much as it has songs like “Dumb” and “All Apologies,” it was really “Very Ape” and “Milk it” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” that were huge for me. It probably had just as big an influence on me as hearing the Pixies for the first time had on them.

It says you guys, along with The Wooden Sky and Hand Drawn Dracula “curated” the tribute. What does that mean? Did you guys get to pick who covered what? Did you already have ideas like: I’d love to hear Teenanger take on “Very Ape”?

Yeah, that’s literally exactly what we did. I used to live with some of the guys in Wooden Sky and they had done a cover of “All Apologies.” I remember asking them what happened to it, they played it for me, and I love their version so much. It’s really easy to make a song like that terrible, but they nailed it, knocked it out of the park. I don’t know how it came up, but me and Andrew, their drummer, were joking around about how it would be cool to put out a split with our band and their band both covering Nirvana even though we’re obviously two very different bands. And we just kept talking about that: different bands that we knew that also love Nirvana. The tracklist is more or less the wishlist.

As much as a tribute to Nirvana, that comp feels like a testament to a very active and very visible indie rock community in Toronto. I mean: Fucked Up, Absolutely Free, Odonis Odonis, and basically anybody on Milkin’ It are getting all kinds of opportunities. What’s going so right in the Toronto scene at the moment? Does it feel special to you or am I just reaching for an easy hook?

No, it absolutely feels special to me and I feel very proud. I don’t think it’s always going to be like this and I don’t think it always was like this. Our band basically started as a reaction to a lack of stuff like that. Everything that’s going on right now is totally a testament to people who are trying to make something for themselves. It has nothing to do with outside attention or other people getting attention or other people become "famous." Everyone is so supportive of one another and everyone has so much good to say about Toronto and all of its bands.

The people that were the first supporters of our band were other people in bands. The important thing to stress is that it’s never been competitive, I’ve never felt any ill-will towards another band and I’ve never felt like anyone has directed that at us. It’s always been very inclusive. A scene like this could feel very elite, it could be really intimidating for someone who’s not already a part of it to join, but everyone is so nice and welcoming. There definitely is a thing that’s happening right now and that’s why I think it’s important for the people who live here to take notice and for the promoters to really push what’s going on.

One thing I said about that comp around the time it came out was that we could have picked 16 or 17 completely different artists to do the same record and it would have been equally great…. I mean, all of us are still pretty young, so I can’t imagine that we were all aware of a time when there were this many great bands, but I can’t think of a single other time when there were this many. Like, I can name 20 bands off the top of my head that are fantastic and have put out records within the last two years. Not only that, they’re making waves elsewhere, too.

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