After giving up guitar for a decade or so, former Life Without Buildings guitarist Robert Dallas Gray is starting to build a name for himself in the world of solo improvised guitar music.
Tempted back into playing by former De Rosa frontman Martin John Henry, the pair started recording together as Whin. But, in parallel to the Whin recordings, Robert has been working on solo material in a not dissimilar vein.
itm? recently caught up with Robert to discuss his recent solo release ‘The Rain Room’ and what has brought him to this point.
Robert is quick to acknowledge the role that Martin played in motivating him to start making music again.
“I didn’t play the guitar at all for about 10 years. But when I started playing with Martin, I just started taking an interest in the guitar again, and found that I was just playing a lot of little things that I didn’t even really consider as pieces.
“However, when Martin heard me doing one of those, he said that it sounded like a solo guitar piece and a kind of a light bulb went on.
“One of the first things that came about was the piece that became ‘Morning’ on the Whin record. It ended up as a duo piece but started out with me playing solo.”
Robert’s solo endeavours have produced two records to date.
“I did ‘Reels’ in 2021 and thought of it as an album but it was only five, long tracks. So, I’m calling this my first full length record because it’s got four more tracks and it feels like a bit more of a substantial thing. I’ve done the CD as well and it’s gone well.”
Robert then explained why he’s making music that’s far removed from his former band’s output.
“What a couple of people have said, which I really like, is that they’re a quiet place to be. And that’s why I play them as well.
“I’m not playing them because I think I need to record this song but because I want to be in that place for a while surrounded by those sounds and embedded in them.
“So if people get the same thing that I get from it, that’s success as far as I’m concerned.”
Robert then talked about how the different ways in which he makes the music although the different methods tend to have one thing in common.
“Mostly from when the kids are playing video games in the evening, and I get a chance to sit and play the guitar!
“Previously when I was playing guitar, it was very much in the indie rock tradition of moving your hand around until something sounds good. So I never thought of myself as being able to play solo, because why would anybody be interested, and I didn’t even know that much technical, music theory. “A lot of the pieces, even some of the ones in ‘The Rain Room’, like ‘July 1989’ again, came from exactly the same place in just playing around with sounds. And then they gradually developed into certain little meditations on playing and listening and hearing the guitar.”
However, Robert was about to discover a new way of working.
“A kind of door opened because I started reading about jazz harmony and I had never been able to get music theory to click before. But when I started reading about jazz harmony, it suddenly all fell into place for me.
“And so I started reading a lot about music theory and doing a lot of little exercises and learning stuff.
“You know, I’d be playing a little exercise and thinking, well that’s interesting and out of that would come another piece. So a lot of pieces came out of just playing bits of jazz standards and bits of exercises or learning something new, a new inversion or a new way to play a chord. ‘Reels’ was a lot like that, just learning bits of theory.”
If Robert has established different ways of writing his pieces, there is still room for the unexpected.
“The recorded versions come from a backbone of knowing what I’m going to do. But sometimes accidents just happen and it works quite well. Like when I was recording one of the tracks, ‘Stolen Moments’, a truck went past and my neighbour started mowing his lawn so I thought, oh, well, there’s no point in keeping that and I just started messing around. The improvisation was really free and actually really good and, as I wasn’t going to get that again if I tried to do it, that’s the one that’s on the record.”
In addition to the two records, Robert has also issued recordings of live performances and he explained his thinking behind these releases.
“I’ve got like a good little Zoom recorder that I can get decent recordings on, and I just think it’s a nice thing. I like to listen to live recordings and I feel like some people are probably going to be interested in that, I would be.
“I’ve only played live a couple times and those are the two gigs that are recorded. There’s stuff played live that I couldn’t get to work for either of the records but there’s also pieces that aren’t recorded anywhere else because I do try and try stuff out.
“So I just put them up for free on Bandcamp, you don’t pay anything and I don’t feel like I’m swindling anybody if I’ve done a load of bum notes or whatever!
“So, it’s quite a nice little, not throwaway, but casual thing that’s in addition to the properly recorded records as well.”
In terms of where he fits in in the musical landscape, Robert has a couple of touchstones.
“In terms of precedents one of the key ones for me is Loren Connors. He’s very well known in that free circle as a guitar player who’s been working on things since the late 60s.
“He started out doing fairly standard folk blues stuff, and then by the mid-70s had drifted into doing free music, and by the 80s was doing just all kinds of stuff, some of it very, very beautiful, some of it noise.
“So he fits into that kind of free music thing and he’s known in that. So that’s the reference point and people will say, ‘That’s like, Loren Connors’. And it is, that’s an influence and it’s a guideline for how to do this sort of stuff for me.
“But then, at the other end of the scale, certain things like Talk Talk and Mark Hollis’s solo stuff is kind of understood by people who do sort of indie rock. They’ll say it kind of sounds like Talk Talk and both of those things suit me absolutely fine. I love both of those artists and they’re both big influences.”
Robert has been surprised by the reception that ‘The Rain Room’ has received.
“It’s exceeded my expectations. I mean these days, my expectations are very, very low. You know, if you sell 50 of something, that’s probably the equivalent of selling five thousand, 15 or 20 years ago. So I’ve made my money back on the CD and that’s all I was aiming for.
“It’s hard to hear a record that you’ve been working on for a long time. And to my ears, I didn’t think people would really get to it because it’s very low key. But some people have really hooked into that, which has been really nice, it’s a real boost for that to happen.
“That’s all you hope for, you know, that somebody’s going to get it. People have got it and that’s enough for me.”
‘The Rain Room’ is available as a CD and download via Robert’s Bandcamp site.
‘Reels’ and the two live performances mentioned above are also available from the site.
‘Any Other City’ by Life Without Buildings has been reissued on pink/black splatter vinyl as part of Monorail Music’s ‘The Glasgow School’ series of reissues of “the most important and best music” from Glasgow. [More info]