On ‘Outer Heaven,’ Greys Find Salvation in Postpunk

Toronto's Greys
Toronto's Greys
Ebru Yildiz, courtesy Buzz Records

One afternoon when he was a toddler, Shehzaad Jiwani walked into his father’s home office, picked up a guitar, and smashed it to pieces. He wasn't throwing a tantrum, though. He’d just seen the music video for Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time, and it had resonated somewhere deep inside his preschool brain. "I don’t think I was trying to make some kind of statement," Jiwani says. "I don’t even think I was old enough to know what that statement would even have been. I think it was more like, 'I’m going to do a thing I saw a guy do on T.V. 'cause it looks cool!' "

Now, it’s become his job (just playing guitars, though, not smashing them). Jiwani is the frontman of Greys, an unusually raucous postpunk quartet. Along with bassist Colin Gillespie, guitarist Cam Graham, and drummer Braeden Craig, Jiwani specializes in making a racket and expanding the contours of traditional songwriting, first on 2014’s pummeling If Anything and now on Outer Heaven, out today on Carpark Records.

This time around, Greys pivoted from ceaseless pummeling rhythms toward a tenuous balance of discord and harmony. It’s a risk that paid off: Chaos and beauty seep through in equal measure as Jiwani's lyrics tackle issues like mental health and violence. Noise aficionados won't be disappointed, though: Balanced as it may be, Outer Heaven is still hell for eardrums.

Calling the Voice from Toronto the day before Greys' album release tour, Jiwani shared his insights on songwriting, staying in the "Incubus Mansion," and, of course, Green Day.

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Village Voice: Outer Heaven is a lot more melodic than your previous records, and you sing much more instead of screaming. Was that on purpose?

Shehzaad Jawani: We absolutely did discuss moving in this direction, embracing the weirder aspect of what we like about our band and becoming a little bit more [pauses]...not reflective, but maybe, what’s the word I’m looking for — introspective. Taking our time. Considering every decision we make a little more. Which you would think would slow down the process, but it was actually written faster than the first record.

I think there’s still tense vocal moments on the record. And so that was a conscious decision. We go back and forth between being really dissonant, then harmonic and melodic with each other in our music. So the challenge to myself as a vocalist was: How am I supposed to sing over literal noise? Also, yelling got kind of old. I realized the songs I wanted to play live were the more melodic ones. And I’ve always felt like our songs, even the heavier ones, had traces of melodies in them. We’re very rarely screaming all the way through.

You have this great lyric on the new album, "My life is a fucking Green Day song." How much of what you write is autobiographical versus from the point of view of someone else or a character?

I think no matter what anybody writes, there’s going to be a percentage of autobiographical qualities to it, but the Green Day lyric was tongue in cheek. The very idea of relating to a Green Day well into your twenties is funny to me, because you think you’d grow out of that by the time you were out of high school or whatever. Cam, our guitar player, and I were listening to Dookie several years ago and "Longview" came on. I was like, it’s weird that I still relate to this and what was going on in their lives twenty years ago.

Usually what I’m complaining about in the song is something I don’t like about myself. Not so much about other people. It certainly can be sparked by other people. As much as this record is more extroverted, I don’t think I have it in me to write these topical political songs. [Although] we just wrote a song about Jian Ghomeshi. It was a pretty brutal couple of days reading people’s stories about that. And also, our mayor Rob Ford passed away at that time. And he was pretty widely reviled. So to see that Ghomeshi gets acquitted and Rob Ford gets this hero’s funeral was so sickening to me. So we wrote that. But that tune is still about how that reflects on me, it’s not so much about them. So I try and keep it in the realm of the personal.

What did it feel like listening to the record for the first time?

I don’t tend to listen to [the records] because I’m there for the mixing a lot of times, and I’m so burned out I don’t want to hear it anymore. But because it was recorded and mixed so quickly, it’s pretty new to me. I’m still excited about it. I heard it on vinyl for the first time and heard things that I forgot we even did — drones, tape loops, ambient things, and weird harmonies to create some texture.

We’ve already written a few new things because we were so energized by the writing progress. We feel like there are endless possibilities for us at this point. When we finished our first record I was kind of at a loss about where to take it. But now especially listening back to this, and jamming with these guys and creating all-new stuff afterward, I feel like we could just do this forever. I feel the most inspired and energized I’ve ever been, and so I’m excited for people to hear it.

You said you were reminded of things you’d forgotten in the recording, like ambient tape loops. Are you looking to translate those live?

We come from this school of thought that what you are doing onstage should just be relegated to the four people making the noise onstage, and the record should be a reflection of our live show. I would love to play the whole [new] record front to back, but the slower songs...I like to rip people’s throats out live, not make it this touchy-feely thing. I want to blow people’s heads off and then get off the stage.

I read that you dubbed the Airbnb you were all staying at in Montreal while you recorded the "Incubus Mansion"?

(Laughs) We kind of called it that because Braeden and I, we loved Incubus when we were teenagers. And they have this documentary of them recording in a house,which seemed like a lot of fun [to us] when we were kids. Like, they’re just best friends, hanging out, making music in this building. That seemed like the most amazing life.

Ours is obviously much less glamorous than that, but it kind of felt like we were getting to do that because we were in Montreal for two weeks making a record. We’d get up, eat breakfast, walk to the studio, stay there for like ten hours a day, then came home together. It was so much fun. It was the best possible way we could have made a record.

Greys play a record release show at Alphaville on Monday. Click here for info and tickets. 

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