To those who have lived in Cape Town long enough, Cafe Ganesh will no doubt be held in high esteem as an institution of the bohemian suburb of Observatory. This was to be the venue for the truly refreshing conversation I was about to embark on with Daniel Gray, who had already arrived and taken the necessary action of saving us a spot so as to avoid any complications during the Monday night rush. His unassuming and approachable nature is all too well affirmed when he offers to share his Black Label with me and pours some into a glass without hesitation.
Having grown up in Johannesburg, his life in music began when he started playing bass guitar in high school. He soon found his way into jazz, attending as many gigs as possible, especially those thrown by a collective of musicians centred around Carlo Mombelli – Gray’s bass teacher and mentor/hero. While always being intrigued by the world of producing and electronic music, the absence of a computer would see him maintain pure bass guitarist status throughout high school and his first few years in Cape Town as a student at UCT. He played in a myriad of bands while studying a BSc in Genetics and Human Physiology and continued to do so afterwards, playing virtually every night in between working as a waiter and saving up enough cash to buy himself a computer. “I’ve always been really interested in more abstract production and sound design and while I love playing bass, there’s always been this separation in my mind between the music scene, bass playing and band music and that of the art scene and the liberty in which to push conceptual boundaries”.
Gray, who says that his learning in musical theory only really covered the basics while the hunger for experimentation with and manipulation of sound was his primary drive, released his debut album, Fantsamagoria, in February under the moniker of grymttr. PLATFORM writer Elaby Mackenzie reviewed the album and described it as “a breakthrough album in the South African electronic music scene” and a “sight-from-sound manipulation with an intricate framework to keep it secure.” He launched the album through a collaborative process whereby he sent each track to a filmmaker to interpret as they wished in order to produce a video to accompany it. The album and accompanying films were then played to an appreciative and intrigued audience in an art studio in Observatory. While having just completed recording an album with his band, Momentss, and training to become a teacher, he has already begun working on new solo material and has recently released a tumblr dedicated to Fantasmagoria and its accompanying films. I wanted to find out more about his writing process and what exactly went into creating the album and experience of his debut album.
M: When did you first get the idea that you wanted to write a solo album? And when it did take the form of what Fantasmagoria became?
D: Well when I first got a computer I actually began doing some film editing work for artists and wanted to introduce a music element to that to supply a bit more accessibility to it. I’ve always been interested in weird sounds and I had a lot of composition ideas from playing with bands which I found easier to translate when working alone at the computer, just doing whatever I could morphing sounds out of recognition. So Fantasmagoria was my way of trying to connect the two artistic spheres – crazy sound design with more musical ideas – into a relatively cohesive album. The process started about a year before I released it and as the project developed and starting taking form as an album I started to think, “Shit, I’m not a DJ man, I’m not gonna be able to perform this stuff live. How am I gonna present this?” And I had these really grand, out-there ideas of people painting their bodies and doing free form movement with images being projected on to them… ja [laughs].
M: I think that’s the part about the album and the launch as a project that I like the most, is that it comes from a place of uncertainty and risk, but in itself is a creative solution.
D: Ja, I just think that there’s way too many DJs who pretend that they produce and a lot of producers who pretend that they can also DJ, and I didn’t want to mess around with DJing which in itself is such an art form. I didn’t want to pretend like I could do it and try and play my stuff live by triggering samples and tweaking a low pass filter, so ja. Eventually I thought maybe a music video would be the right direction and Thuli [Gamedze] does a lot of experimental film work, so parallel to Fantasmagoria we started corruptedarchives.com which is still on that sound design side of things with the intuitive-response-to-a-brief premise. So that took shape and I thought “I know quite a few artists in Cape Town who I think are doing really cool shit”, so I thought why not apply the corruptedarchives concept to the album. And at first I was like “No ways, people aren’t gonna be into doing this”, but then I just went and tried it anyway. So, in December  I sent a whole bunch of emails to people I know and whose work I liked and who I thought would be interested in the project. And ja, enough people got back to me that were keen for me to realise that it was something that could actually be done. Like, I still ended up doing a video and Thuli did two, which was cool. I mean, if more people had been involved I wouldn’t have done a video, but it was quite cool to do in the end, because that’s also what I enjoy doing so it worked out. But ja, it all kind of just fell into place during January. I sent them a track and the title and just let each filmmaker run wild with their interpretation with a six week deadline. And ja, we met like a week before the launch; me still not knowing what these people might have come up with [laughs]. But I was absolutely blown away by each piece. Everyone had such an interesting take on the track I gave them with some crazy parallels introduced through the direction that they decided to take. It was just a really cool process.
M: That’s great man, it’s really cool when you can just put yourself out there and get such a good, reaffirming response like that. You know, even though collaboration is a concept that’s gaining some momentum on a more macro and global scale, it can still be difficult to perceive that people would just be keen to get involved. And it’s great that your project can act as such a good example of that. So, in terms of your actual writing approach, do you have a structured planning process or not so much?
D: It’s a bit of both. Each track had quite a different process because some of them were compositions for which I had very clear ideas of what I wanted the end result to sound like. A lot of them were written on bass with some drums in mind or some chord changes or groove changes. Some of them would end up close to the original idea that I had and some would take a completely different direction. Some of the tracks were also just completely experimental – experimenting with contact microphones, putting them on to things and seeing what happens; just having fun really.
M: Ja, I was gonna ask, because I would imagine that a considerable amount of the album consists of completely original sounds. Is that the case?
D: A lot of it is. I did use one or two synths quite consistently and a few of the drum samples and hits I used were ripped off vinyls. The vocal samples were tiny snippets of old field recordings that this guy, Hugh Tracey, did through southern and central Africa from around the 50s to the 80s.
M: When it comes to those vocals samples, where does the journey, which I assume takes place on the internet, even begin?
D: Jeez man [laughs], I guess I’m really into traditional African music, so it’s either really dark shit or the more rhythmic and groove elements, but I just really like old sounds. But ja, I love digging through the archives and, like you said, venturing deep into the internet. Torrents are useful and YouTube is also a great tool, but the internet’s so deep dude. There’s also quite a lot of live bass on the album. A lot of it was manipulated to sound like a guitar. I did a lot of the percussion stuff live – shakers and hits. And then keys and synth I played, drums I programmed. Then a lot of contact mic recordings; like the opening track, ‘Munros’, actually has a bit of a story behind it. There’s an antique shop down the road here called ‘Munro’s’ which is just filled with tons of bric-a-brac which I love. I love digging in there and collecting things, I’m like a kid and a bit of a hoarder actually [laughs]. But I found this rectangular chunk of metal which was made like a flat plate with these stiff brazen rods sticking out of it at different lengths. So, instinctually I had to start plucking away at this thing to see what sort of sounds it made and what sort of sounds I could get from it. I eventually found out that it was from the inside of a grandfather clock so there’s obviously a mechanism which strikes the rods to make that tune that they all do – the really long annoying one. So I attached a contact mic to that and struck it with a pen and then manipulated those samples and distorted them so I have a little sample of them which I use quite a lot just for morphing sounds. I also sang actually, so some of the vocals are me even if it’s hard to tell. But ja, from an approach point of view it was pretty layered and varied from track to track.
M: I suppose one of the most difficult parts about writing on your own and especially with more experimental stuff is knowing when a track is completed. In a band set-up or when writing more conventional stuff you kind of have a good idea of when something is done. How did you find that process of finishing up and feeling happy that a track was completed?
D: Ja, I struggled with that a lot. It took me really long to write most of the tracks and the bulk of that time was in the second half of the year-long process. I just set myself a deadline of completing 40 minutes worth of an album by the end of the year. And then it all kind of fell into place and now I’m back to square one and I’m losing my mind trying to get back into it [laughs]. But ja, it’s just that age old thing of setting a deadline and sticking to it. It definitely helped with knowing when to ‘call it quits’ on a track. But I actually think I ruined most of the stuff I’ve ever made by just taking it too far and you can never get it back to how it was when you were really happy with it. But I’m happy with how all the tracks on the album turned out.
M: That’s cool that you’re working on new stuff. Is the solo-collaborative style of writing going to become a main focus or are you still keen to balance it with playing in bands?
D: Oh ja, definitely. I mean, look, I realised from very early on that I was never gonna make loads of money off music, especially when the club scene isn’t for me. I mean, there’s still potential for that in the band space, but on your own it’s hard, especially for the music I’m interested in making. In a way that’s what Fantsamagoria was for me – I mean I don’t know if I executed it perfectly, but it was for me to create a space for people to engage. Shit moves so fast these days, people are listening to so much music now; you hear it once and then it’s gone. So my response to that was to get people into a room, make them sit down, keep quiet, engage and see what they think. Otherwise people are just too distracted you know. We’re all really distracted and who can blame us? But as an artist it’s the toughest thing. Like you mentioned though, people are getting more and more into collaboration and the responses that you get are the best part. Like giving someone a track of mine and seeing how their interpretation and creation as a filmmaker is similar or different to what mine would be. And that’s the thing as well, collaboration can often be really difficult, working with people and being in agreement is not always the easiest thing. But it’s about compromise, I mean if you take something of yours and put it in someone else’s hands and say “go for it” then that’s the risk you take. So through the creative process you’re actually able to grow as a person which is also really powerful.
M: That’s what was so great about the launch for me was how listening to the album by itself and then seeing it with visuals was a completely different experience, because it was a completely new creation.
D: Ja, and it’s nice that it could become more than just something I did, you know? It became the creation of a community and could open up a forum or a dialogue.
M: And with the new stuff you’re writing, what kind of direction are you looking to take it in?
D: I’m actually wanting to hold back a bit more. I think Fantasmagoria was sonically very dense. But ja, I want to take a more intentional approach – less going on. Also in terms of the launch I now know what’s actually possible. But I definitely want to push that aspect even further, like adding in a live improvisation element to bring a more human touch to it. I’d like to rent a theatre or any seated venue and have like three or four people either minimally dressed or even in the nude with body paint and interpretive dance. I just like the idea of my sounds being presented through a visual context and I really want it to hold a human touch. But ja, it’s still just an idea [laughs]. I know that I would also want to push the creative process further and have it be more layered. So the back and forth of work between me and other artists happens more than once you know? Just to develop it more and take the ideas further, which provides the work with more intention and avoiding the risk of hit-and-miss. And also fine tuning the collaborative process, I’m really excited about that, for that growth.