One of my most vivid memories of my parents (post-divorce, but also in general) being genuinely pleasant towards one another is back in 2000 or 2001, during a road trip home to Virginia from dropping my older sister off at college in Ohio. We were driving through the mountains at nighttime, and my dad proudly put on a new CD he’d discovered. That CD was none other than White Ladder by David Gray, and we all agreed it was one of the best things we’d ever heard in a long time. Nobody talked, really, we just let songs like “Please Forgive Me” and “Babylon” fill up the empty space. And so I’ll pretty much always associate the record, now twenty (technically twenty-two) years old, with headlights and nocturnal Appalachia and an overall sense of well-being.
I’m sure there are millions of other stories that, while likely not exactly the same as mine, are firmly anchored to significant memories of White Ladder. In fact, I know there are after speaking with Gray over the phone recently about the milestone anniversary.
“There’s so many crazy stories; it’s hard to take on all the details, really, because it’s actually quite profound. The music is there to connect with, and I’m sharing something that’s a part of me; other people can see themselves in it, so they invest in it. There are stories of addiction, jail, death of a child, death of a parent, death of a wife, marriages, children being born, best times of our lives, mad drug highs on top of Mount Everest. There’s all kinds of crazy shit that people throw at you. It’s wonderful. Life is more outrageous than fiction, really, isn’t it? I’m overwhelmed. Sometimes you read or hear something and it just stops you in your tracks. White Ladder has made such a strong connection.”
The commercial smash has aged incredibly well, something which Gray attributes to the fact that it was an LP that always knew exactly what it wanted to be.
“It’s genuine. It’s not calculated, it’s not marketed, it’s not made to fit a niche. It’s a thing that happened. And that’s one of the most glorious things about the record, and one of the things I’m proudest of. It’s for real. We didn’t give a fuck about selling lots of records. It was wonderful once we did, but that wasn’t the goal.”
“I can’t see it happening again; it’s sort of a now or never thing. This just felt like (for many reasons) the time that we should do it; I suggested doing a twenty-five year tour, but people get sick, they get old, and it’s just like, no, we’re all here, we can all stand, let’s do it now.”
In the meantime, a remastered anniversary edition (including a first-ever vinyl pressing) of White Ladder has just been released for fans to relive all the magic that’s kept these songs fresh for two decades. Grab a copy of that here, and internet-eavesdrop on my full chat with Gray below:
So I cannot believe the album is twenty years old at this point. Or, longer than that, right? Twenty-two years old, technically? (And even longer than that when you factor in writing and recording!)
Yeah, it’s about twenty-two years old, is the truth of it. But it was a sort of movable anniversary date; I think the year it broke around the world was 2000, so we planned for that.
Take me back to when you first sat down to write it; how long was the writing process, and then what was it like during recording before you put out the first iteration of it in ‘98?
Well, I had a lot of songs written that I didn’t use, because I think Clune and I were experimenting in the studio towards the end of ‘97 to ‘98. When “Please Forgive Me” arrived at the beginning of ‘98 (January), I wrote that song and Clune came round and knew just what to do. He doubled up the rhythm, and we realized we had something that we’d been looking for for a long time. We thought, “Yeah! This is something different!”
It was a whole new sonic world, and that was what we were trying to pry open; something that spoke more about living in 1998, getting something unique and British, a sound that spoke somehow more completely about who we were than just traditional acoustic-style voicings that singer-songwriters generally use. So we were anxious to find this thing. Once that song landed, and then “Babylon” shortly after, and “My Oh My”, we began to see a picture emerging.
Although I’d had a lot of songs written, “Silver Lining” being one of them, that song made it onto the record, but most were left to the side. Because what I felt was needed were things that were more in keeping with this new mode, and somehow we’d be better off sort of starting from scratch. So to cut a long story short, some songs were recorded multiple times, like “My Oh My”; we couldn’t quite get it to work. But most songs, like “Please Forgive Me”, “Babylon”, “Sail Away”…once the song was written, and it worked as an arrangement, there was no demo – we just recorded it in the studio. So things were done pretty damn fast a lot of the time.
Certain songs would be more problematic, though; we’d be trying to unlock them, but when Iestyn Polson got involved in April, suddenly things moved on. He made everything sound coherent and convincing, and once all three of us were on the same page, we sort of combined all our know-how and energy, and made a kind of hybrid form that I realized was more powerful than anything I could have created on my own. Things happened very, very swiftly, and we didn’t labor over recordings.
It was more sort of just with the limited resources and equipment, trying to get the best thing we could. That was a bit of a challenge at times, but it made us very creative in terms of using the sampler or drum machines rather than actual drums, because we didn’t have any mics to mic up a drum kit. That’s what the record was like – it was quite spontaneous, and we usually worked four or five days a week doing the proper recording thing at my house. We’d have to stop by six o’clock since that was when the neighbor would get back from work and she didn’t like the noise. That was it, it was ten-thirty to six, five days a week. We treated it like this was the thing we were going to do until we’d finished.
Basically what I’m saying is, I don’t know how many months we were working like that…a couple of months, May to June, maybe, and then we had a period when we borrowed somebody’s photography studio and some mics so that we could record Clune playing the drums. We cut the drums on songs like “Say Hello Wave Goodbye”, “My Oh My”…various things. That was sort of the completion process, and then we mixed it back at mine. It was all incredibly handmade and incredibly sort of improvised.
I love all that stuff. I don’t like big recording studios, and I don’t like corporations. I don’t like anything that smells of money. So to work in this underhand, pirate, sort of guerrilla fashion, felt apt and comfortable. I preferred the outsider feeling, and just the intimacy we had in my house with no clock ticking. We could experiment as merrily as we wanted without worrying about money. You got this very direct, very unguarded performance all the time, and that’s what made that record so powerful. The songs and the performances are so natural, and they’re at the front of the recording. We didn’t have the means to build some big, powerful-sounding thing. We just didn’t have the means to do that. What we created was something urgently cheeky, and really, really creative, with just a few tools – the sampler, the drum machine, the keyboard, guitar, one mic…that was it. That’s all we had to play with, but with that, you can do a massive amount of things.
That was the spirit the record was made in, and when I listen back to it it has this real sort of coherence; it knows what it is, and that’s why (to me) it still sounds really good now, and doesn’t sound dated at all. We weren’t trying to make something that sounded like something else, we were just obeying the laws in our particular universe at that particular moment in time.
But it has this emotional power, because I think we flipped the sort of negative energy that all of us had that were involved from all the things we’d done that had never got anywhere, all the shit press reviews, all the dodgy record deals that had ended in complete, miserable failure. You can either become that guy in the pub who’s slagging the whole world off including the recording industry and the press and all the other singer-songwriters that made it, or you can try and do something more positive and just turn the whole thing around. And the only way you can turn it around is to make a better record than you’ve made before, and to just offer everything up again, not turn the other cheek. Just offer everything. “Here’s the lot. Take the lot. Kill me, or fucking let me live.” That was basically where we were.
Absolutely. And what happens when all of a sudden you find yourself with this huge amount of success? Does that put pressure on you?
It’s been difficult surfing the gravitational waves that have been emitted by the White Ladder explosion back in sort of 1999. The repercussions are very complex and difficult to deal with, and trying to lead a vital creative life, but also acknowledge this thing that happened…sometimes it’s impossible to do those two things at the same time. You’ve got to get some breathing space. So the aftermath, the success, was complicated on many levels. And then money, stuff…it all takes a lot of your energy. You get changed by things. You get changed by relentless good things happening to you, just like relentless bad things happening to you. [Laughs] Not that I ever want to sound like I’m complaining about the good things that happened, but it does change you, and everyone’s got an ego. You lose sight of important stuff, and you have to find your way painfully back towards the important things.
And as I say, negotiating all the time with the audience over this music that they want to hear when you’re trying to establish some space for something else to grow. That’s been the aftermath. It’s only been really recent years that I’ve turned around to face what happened without a sort of frown on my face. There’s an acceptance that’s grown, because I have won myself a little bit of space away from it, from the way that I’ve behaved as an artist and musician, in the tours that I’ve done and the way that I’ve made records. I’ve carried on doing this thing the way I want to do it, and it’s not always the most successful thing or commercial thing, but it’s won me a bit of space. I’m old enough now to be able to take the whole thing on board in a way that perhaps I couldn’t when I was closer to the heat of the whole thing. It’s been…I won’t use the word “journey”…but it has been a bit of a journey. [Laughs]
Totally, and you’ve had to play some of these songs however many times over the years to please fans. How do you stay in love with them, and are you reimagining any for this particular tour? Or because it’s an anniversary tour, will you play them fairly closely to what they are on the record?
Well I’ve invested a lot of energy reimagining them over the years as a way of not getting bored. Some songs are really hard to reimagine, though; they just want to be the way that they are. Because I’m getting my original band back together, and because I haven’t played with Clune (who’s such a big part of the record) for thirteen years, and because we’ve got the original equipment back, we’re going to be recreating the record. I don’t think we’ve tried to do that since, really, back in ‘99, beginning of 2000. It’s like going back to the very beginning of White Ladder, and we’re going to try to recreate it as accurately as we can. That’s our project, is to try and make it sound like the record.
Are there any of these songs that you’ve not played in a really long time? Anything you’re totally relearning?
There’s loads of songs on White Ladder that we’ve hardly played at all, like “We’re Not Right”, “White Ladder” (the title track)…we’ll be doing better versions of them than ever before, because back then we didn’t have the technology or the money to try to do them in an interesting way. We had a lot of stuff on backing tracks, like the drum beats and things. Clune was just doing kick drums and cymbals and bits and pieces on some of the tracks, because the sound was so important and seemed so integral to the songs. You don’t want the songs to sound “normal” because you’ve just got a normal kit on it. The fact that you’ve used crunchy samples is important, so we tried to honor the sound, but I think now we’ve got the means of actually regenerating a lot of the sounds individually, and Clune will be playing electronic drums as well as triggering samples in other ways, so it should be a much more energized version of those particular songs.
It’s been lovely; we had one day of rehearsals just to see if we could all stand upright and do it, and it was just so nice to play the songs in a low-key way. And that’s exactly what the record is; it’s a low-key record, we couldn’t push things because we didn’t have the means of production. It was lovely to hear the songs in this underdone way. Whether they remain underdone after we’ve added a crowded ten thousand people into the mix, we’ll have to wait and see! [Laughs]