Born into DIY, Birmingham's Wray Are Looking to Grow
Wray, a three-piece from Birmingham, Alabama, are fresh off the release of their second LP, Hypatia. Driven by repetitive drums and beautiful instrumental swells, the album seeps below consciousness and into the deepest recesses of your mind. It’s relaxing, freeing, rooted in ‘90s shoegaze greats like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. But there’s more to it than that polished shoegaze sound. I caught up with the band before one of their sets at SXSW, and in their retro-blue-interiored van, we discussed the roots of their sound, from their influences to their experience with the Birmingham DIY scene, as well as their future, which may see a potential change of direction.
MOLLY RAGAN: Music journalists are quick to categorize you as shoegaze. Do you agree with that label?
BLAKE WIMBERLY: I mean, I don’t think you can deny it, it’s just not something we really put out in the forefront.
DAVID SWATZELL: It’s much more than that, I feel like, but that is part of it for sure.
I definitely notice some krautrock undertones, for example you’ve got a serious motorik beat thing going on. Are there any krautrock artists or albums that have informed your sound?
BW: Neu! Neu! ’75 is the album that kind of got me into that whole style. Kind of the motorik beat.
DS: Yeah, Neu! was like the kings of the motorik thing.
BW: And I would say before that, for me personally, was Stereolab cause they definitely had some of that in there, that locked in beat.
DS: The first four CAN records are amazing. We do a cover of a song by the band Faust on our new record.
You guys have talked about how there’s a lot of hip-hop and punk in Birmingham’s DIY scene and how you all kind of play shows together. But then there’s this juxtaposition between your sound and what DIY denotes. When I think DIY, I think kind of rough around the edges and not really so put together, but then when I think of Wray, I think more polished and clean and you know what you’re doing. Being part of that DIY scene, did you ever feel a need to reconcile those two things?
DS: Well we grew up in the scene, just playing in punk bands and going to shows since we were like 14. And Birmingham had a really killer scene at that time. We had an amazing all-ages club, it was the best in the country and it was bringing in all kinds of punk shows and stuff. So when we were younger, we played in bands like that all the time. And that’s definitely still an influence for us. We’ve just slowly evolved into this kind of thing over the years.
DAVID BROWN: And a lot of those kids that are in the DIY scene—I mean, that’s such a broad term. There are older kids that grew up in the punk scene who put on DIY shows, but there is a much younger all ages scene with kids that are in college. I don’t even know half those bands. So there is a lot of that going on and a lot of house shows still. But yeah, the DIY scene in Birmingham has always been really good; people are always putting on shows. Like we can cross over into that and we can also play at one of the bigger venues.
BW: Yeah there’s a space that we’ve played a few times, the Firehouse, and it’s all ages DIY. It works there if we play a bigger venue.
DB: Yeah and we’re loud and somewhat fast.
BW: I would say, as far as our sound, I guess it can be a little rough but there is a polished tone to it.
DS: Yeah, I think we confuse people, like they don’t know what to do at a live show. Like it’s kind of fast and loud and really driving drums but it’s very dreamy on top of it. So the shows are like “I don’t know if I want to move around or close my eyes and zone out”.
Were there any musicians coming up with you around the same time in Birmingham who have influenced you or who you have influenced?
DB: There was a band called Plate 6 who started in the mid-late 90s and were on Cargo Records for a minute. They were doing some mathier post-punk stuff. And then they still play in local bands. They don’t do much touring, but that was a band we looked up to. There were a lot of bands we looked up to. There was actually a lot of shoegaze in Birmingham in the early 90s, but we’re all a good bit younger. I wasn’t going to shows at that point. But we know a lot of those older people who, you know, used to be in that scene.
DS: A lot of them are still involved in some way. They work at a studio or maybe play in a band that’s more of a hobby, doing something in that capacity. Running an Internet radio station or something.
BW: Well and I would say that besides bands, there were venues I know people went to a lot. In the DIY scene, there was Cave 9 and then many others before. And more recently was Bottletree. That’s later in our influential lives or whatever but it was a really great place that unfortunately closed down about a year ago. But that’s where we like, met up.
DS: The Bottletree kind of united the Birmingham scene is some way. A lot of bands kind of got their start there.
BW: Yeah, that’s where we played a lot of our shows in the beginning.
DS: They brought in a lot of really great bands to Birmingham who would’ve never come.
BW: Birmingham’s in the center of Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans, etc, and Bottletree put us on the map. A lot of people were just kind of passing us over, but they brought those people in. Just to see that and to be around it, around like-minded people, was pretty big for me.
So your album, Hypatia, just came out on January 15th. Have you guys been seeing much attention from that?
BW: No. [Laughs]
DS: Well we’ve definitely seen a shift since the first record as far as turnout at shows in the bigger cities, which has been nice. It’s been a slow build, I guess.
DB: Well, we don’t have any plans for a prolonged tour right now. When our first album came out, we went on tour with this band called Man Or Astro Man, which originated in Alabama and we know some of the guys. And they have kind of a cult following. We opened for their west coast and east coast tour, so we toured the whole country with them for like a month and a half or something. And we’ve made some fans through them, yeah. But that’s one thing that we haven’t really done with this album yet. We haven’t gone on a direct support tour, which would be ideal for us.
DS: We’d want to go on a big tour like that if it’s the right tour. There’s been a lot more doing long drives and getting to the bigger towns as opposed to just going out for two weeks and maybe having like 3 amazing shows somewhere and having like 3 shows somewhere that aren’t that great. Just like, we’re gonna drive straight to DC and then go to New York for a few days, and then Chicago. Now we’re working on getting out West.
I know your 2nd album just came out, but is there a third album in the works?
BW: When the first one came out, we already had half of this newer album, so when this new one came out, by the time we were done with that, we didn’t have anything left. So it has to kind of form before we can even talk about it.
DS: We’ll probably go in soon and do a single, maybe. We’ve talked about that.
BW: Yeah, and we’re trying to do it differently than the first two.
BW: Well, the first two were already written. The first one was very done. We came in, shot it all out and were done with it pretty quickly, with the recording at least. With the second one, schedules made it a little more spread out but it was pretty much the same. We worked a little bit more in the studio with it but not as much as we wanted to. So this one we’re trying to go in and take time to write in a specific setting or date range so it’s all together, rather than having songs that were written within months and months. There’s also time we would have to figure out with touring and the logistics with that. We all have our own lives so it’s hard.
DB: We also would like to stay progressive. And what that means to each of us is different so that’s one thing we haven’t really figured out. We’ve been talking about it. Like what direction each of us want to go with on another record. With this newer record, we seemed to lay back a little more than on the first one, because with that one we went in and it was a bit more aggressive, punchier. And this one is a little smoother and more polished. So I don’t know what we want to do next.
BW: Yeah, I mean we’ll mention something in a group setting, that’s one part of it, but we have to actually do it. And right now we’re having a hard time fleshing those ideas out, or really deciding where we want to go as a group rather than individually. Which I guess will come with fleshing it out, physically.
DB: One thing that we constantly talk about, is writing songs with a different approach. Typically the way we’ve always written songs is with a pretty specific formula. Blake and I will start riffing on something, bass and drums, and David will start filling it in with guitars, and then we’ll kind of deconstruct that a little bit, and then I’ll take it and add vocals on top of that. So, it would be cool to go a different route. Blake plays synth and we want to incorporate more synth into our stuff, but how we do that and have drums? I don’t know. It’s all about figuring that stuff out.
BW: And we’ve talked about working off of a vocal melody rather than starting with low end rhythm and stuff or with a guitar melody, just reversing it, or getting a song to where we would normally be like, okay let’s stop there, that’s a demo, and then deconstructing that. Flip it on its head. We still have to do it, though.
One last question. Do you have any music recommendations at the moment?
BW: I’ve been listening to a lot of electronic house music. I like a guy named Lone. I like the Field a lot. He’s kind of like a wall of sound, krauty, just 10-minute stretch of build and build and build. It’s very meditative.
DS: Every day is different for me. I like so many different types of music. So one day it might be like Dépêche Mode’s Construction Time Again. Actually lately I’ve been listening to a lot of early Stone Roses. I think it’s because the weather’s nice and it’s a feel-good, jangly, album so yeah. First Stone Roses record. It’s a classic anyway, so if you haven’t heard that, then you definitely need to listen to it.
DB: Someone turned me on to Robin Gibb’s solo records; he’s from the Beegees. He did two new wave soft rock records in the 80s that are really musical. They’re really cool records. And then FR David is another soft rock new wave artist from France. He does some pretty cool stuff. He did this song “Words” in the 80s, it was his one hit. All of his stuff is this weird, mellow, new wave soft rock. So that’s stuff that’s worth getting into.
Wray’s sophomore album, Hypatia, is out now on Communicating Vessels.
***This piece was originally written for KAMP Student Radio at the University of Arizona***