Robert Dallas Gray (Life Without Buildings) interview

I’m sure they won’t mind me saying so – they’ve heard it all before – but Life Without Buildings weren’t everyone’s cup of tea. The band, graduates of the Glasgow School Of Art, formed in 1999 but by the end of 2002, they were gone, leaving in their wake a handful of perfectly formed singles and a solitary, marvellous album, ‘Any Other City.’ Though they were quickly snapped up by Rough Trade Records’ subsidiary, Tugboat, supported the likes of The Strokes and Belle & Sebastian, played in Germany, Greece and Australia, with minor exceptions, they were generally either ignored or ridiculed by the UK music press.

Their champions were few but devout. John Kennedy at XFM and the late, great (Never Mind The Buzzcocks) comedian, Sean Hughes, both booked them for radio sessions and they were immediately embraced by Rough Trade Shops, as well as high profile indie bands like Franz Ferdinand and Maximo Park. Since the break up, that queue of admirers has slowly but surely grown, all the way down the street and far beyond. Moreover, at the end of 2020, the shock that their debut single, ‘The Leanover,’ had become the subject of a lip-synching craze on Tik Tok. At the time of press, the song has had over eight million plays on Spotify.

I must confess that my interest in the band was not purely as a fan. Almost a decade before Life Without Buildings existed, I shared a house with drummer, Will Bradley and we even formed two shortlived bands together. It was, thus, not entirely surprising when in 1999, he called me in my capacity as label manager for Rough Trade to ask if Geoff (Travis) and I might be interested in hearing a demo tape.

My initial reaction to that tape was one of perplexity. Sparse, cable-tight songs with complex, angular signatures, that reminded me much of The Go-Betweens’ ‘Before Hollywood’ album. Aloft though, what I perceived to be some sort of Kerouacian, stream-of-consciousness art poetry, spat with Tigger-like enthusiasm by vocalist, Sue Tompkins. Was it good? Was it bad? Was it genius? I needed a second opinion. I handed the tape to Geoff Travis and my A&R colleague, James Endeacott and waited. It didn’t take long. “What is this?! Where did you find it?!” followed by a sharp volume increase on the stereo was, back then, Rough Trade shorthand for “pass the cheque book.”

Much more recently, via Bandcamp I, quite innocently, stumbled on the beautiful, cinematic solo guitar music of one Robert Dallas Gray. Adding two and two together, I quickly surmised that he was, in fact, Robert Johnston, the former guitarist of Life Without Buildings. Small world. We talked over email.

Glen : Where and when did your love affair with the guitar begin? 

Robert : I first picked it up when I was about 10 I think. I remember loving the smell of guitars, the wood. But it didn’t really take until I was about 15 and I asked for an electric guitar for Christmas. By that time, I had started to really care about music and so it clicked – I could play Buzzcocks songs and stuff. That was a really bad white Strat clone. I grew out of that quite quickly and my folks bought me a Westone 335 copy, which I wanted because Terry Bickers (House Of Love/Levitation) had one. That got stolen out of my bedroom when I was watching ‘The Chart Show’* in the front room. It was replaced by the Japanese Jaguar that I still have today.

Were you in other bands prior to Life Without Buildings?

Robert : Only when I was a kid at school. We had a garage band and we played ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Here Comes the Summer.’

What was the Glasgow arts and music scene like in the late 90s?  I read somewhere that the Optimo club night was an important meeting place? 

Robert : It was really exciting. There was a ton of really good bands around and there was something going on pretty much every night of the week. Optimo was great – I went to it fairly religiously every Sunday in 1998/9. Apart from being a lot of fun, it was very much a taste-making thing – they were playing Liquid Liquid, ESG, DNA, all the sort of NYC mutant disco stuff, as well as loads of really good techno, electro, disco, even some rock stuff (they regularly played Television’s ‘See No Evil’ and everyone went mad). The Art School as a venue was less of a thing for me – it had been at one point, from before I went to study there but the music was kind of soul downstairs and really hard techno upstairs, neither of which really appealed to me much at the time. Between Optimo and places like the CCA**, the taste of that time really seems to me to have been defined, all the sort of punk–funk stuff, plus the stuff that was coming out of Germany at the time – Pole, Kriedler, To Rococo Rot, etc. But then you’d also go to the Variety bar on a Thursday night and Johnny Wilkes of Optimo would be playing dub and Detroit bass music and stuff. It was very fertile and diverse.

How did you meet fellow Life Without Buildings band folk, Will Bradley and Chris Evans?  What was your motivation for getting a band together? 

Robert : I’d known Will for quite a while – I studied photography at Glasgow School Of Art and he did a postgrad year on the same course when I was there. He did a really great talk and I was a bit awed by him but within a few years, we became good friends just from seeing each other around the scene. We always wound up talking about music and we had a lot of tastes in common. I didn’t get to know Chris all that well until later – I think around 98/99, through Will really, around when we started talking about playing together. We really had no ambition at all beyond wanting to play and be part of what was happening.

Did you ever intend to be an instrumental band?  Did you have any mutual influences?  The band name was taken from a Japan b-side.  Was that all you took away from them?

Robert : We did, right at the start – we thought we’d be something like Kriedler, with live instruments and electronic elements, sort of modern Krautrock. The Japan thing was me, I was really into them at the time. I don’t think they were any influence on us beyond the name though!

I read somewhere the original idea for Life Without Buildings was inspired by Disco Inferno, the late 80’s/early 90’s band that put the sampler to their very fore of their music.  A couple of things here  : i) Why did you chose not to take that direction?  ii) I’ve always been frustrated that the sampler didn’t become more of a central figure in bands, post-Disco Inferno.  Why do you think people fell out of love with sampling?

Robert : Yeah, Disco Inferno were in the mix for sure. Will and I particularly were huge fans. We tried to do that sort of stuff and it just sort of organically didn’t work! I think we realised quite quickly that if it was going to work at all, it was going to have to be a more traditionally ‘rock’ thing. Possibly because we weren’t very good musicians (well, Will is actually very good, but I think Chris would be the first to admit that he and I weren’t exactly virtuosos).

In terms of sampling – I think, in rock, it was just sort of a dead end. There was the early Young Gods stuff and Disco Inferno and they worked quite well but it wasn’t really a sustainable thing to incorporate – it just sort of ran its course. Even the use of it in Disco Inferno quite often felt a bit gimmicky and by the time of (their final album) ‘Technicolour,’ it had been sort of sidelined. 

How did Sue get involved with the band?

Robert : Well, Chris and Will and I were all at an event at Transmission Gallery. I think I might have been on the committee at that time or had recently left. And part of it was a group of women artists called Elizabeth Go, which was Sue and her sister, Hayley, Vikki Morton (who has played in a number of bands, currently in Rev Magnetic), Cathy Wilkes and Sarah Tripp. We’d seen some of what Sue had done before but that particular night it just clicked. We all had the same idea at the same time, that we’d ask her how she’d feel about being in a band. So then we started rehearsing with her and it came together really quickly.

I seem to recall everyone’s initial reaction to Life Without Buildings was dominated by Sue’s voice, words and stage presence.  She seemed to have an energy uncommon to that time but it certainly existed in bands like The Slits, X Ray Spex, The Raincoats, though I was also hearing a lot of early Go-Betweens in you or even (other) Postcard Records bands.  Did you feel you were doing something in that tradition or was your goal to create something much more unique?

Robert : Early on, I don’t really think we had a clue what we were doing. We were just trying stuff to see what would work. I think our reference points for what we thought Sue might do were things like early Patti Smith, Wire, that sort of thing. But Sue’s musical reference points were things like TLC and Missy Elliot – that was what she was listening to. I think it’s quite interesting that folk like Frank Ocean have turned out to be fans of the band because what people often miss about what Sue’s doing is that it’s as close to rap as it is to the early Rough Trade sound. She has a rhythmic flow to what she does.

From the band point of view, I always think there were two sides, the me side and the Chris side. The me side was things like (first single) ‘The Leanover’ – these very melodic, angular things – and those came out of yes, the early Go-Betweens but also stuff like Red House Painters, Sonic Youth, even Don Caballero. And then the Chris side was stuff like ‘New Town,’ very repetitive and rocky and that came out of Neu! and The Fall, that sort of thing.

Life Without Buildings : Chris Evans, Sue Tompkins, Robert Johnston (now Dallas Gray), Will Bradley

You released 3 singles in 2000 and the album came out in February 2001, so you must’ve been recording quite a bit, as well as playing live.  Your recordings are decidedly unfancy.  There’s a lack of frills, just the drums, guitar, bass and vocals.  Was that a conscious decision from that start, to be so stripped back?  Could you tell us a bit about your recording sessions/approach?

Robert : Yeah, we did try to record a lot and we weren’t really playing live very much. I think we’d done five gigs total when we went in to do the album and we were writing a lot in the studio (‘Sorrow’ and ‘PS Exclusive’ were written while recording).

We did want the record to be quite unadorned. We were thinking a lot about things like (Television’s) ‘Marquee Moon’ – that very dry, hard sound. I think we were too green on the singles to really get that but by the time of the album, we had a really good relationship with Andy Miller, who recorded us and he understood what we wanted and how to get it. He was very focused on performances, particularly with Sue and he would try to get us sounding as good as possible and then just capture it in quite a hi-fi way. Someone once called the record ‘mid-fi’ which is probably accurate – it was hi-fi recordings of a low-fi band.

‘Any Other City,’ the band’s debut – and only – studio album

On a personal note, I was always very apprehensive about the reaction to the band – either on record or live – because I was so deeply invested in you guys being liked!  I remember the staff of Rough Trade (West) being huge fans – possibly the post-punk history again?  – travelling down to Brighton and dancing all the way through your set.  John Kennedy was a big fan, as was Sean Hughes.  On the flipside of that, I think a lot of journalists and radio DJs just didn’t “get it” – possibly because you couldn’t be easily pigeonholed.  What are your memories of the media’s reaction?

Robert : In my memory, journalists really didn’t get it at all. Fair enough, you know. But I think there was, on the one hand, an element of journalists at the time not really being well-disposed to the kind of thing we were doing and on the other hand, just a sort of lazy sexism that was really rife at the time. We got so many comparisons to Björk and Altered Images – like, have you really not heard any other bands with women singers? It was just code for ‘weird girl singer, doesn’t compute’. We got a lot of that, which was predictable but a bit depressing.

On the other hand, I think audiences mostly really got what we were doing. I think our stuff is distinguished by being quite joyful and generous and you can dance to it. We weren’t trying to be pretentious or difficult at all, and when that clicked with an audience it was really great, they really responded.

You (famously) supported The Strokes on their first ever UK date.  What, if anything, do you remember of that?  You also supported Belle & Sebastian on tour? 

Robert : We did one show with The Strokes, which seems to have passed into myth. There are all these stories about us getting bumped from the headline spot, etc, which are nonsense. The Strokes were huge news at the time and we weren’t! All I remember is breaking a string, the drummer guy was nice and the other ones were a bit mardy.***

The Belle and Sebastian tour turned out to be a big mistake and I have to take the blame for that. I kind of talked everyone into doing it because I thought it’d be a good career move or something. Unbelievably stupid but I’d lost sight of what we were doing it for a bit at that point. The audiences really did not like us and Sue got heckled a lot (I’ll maintain there are few audiences more conservative than the white indie rock audience). That’s no shade on Belle & Sebastian – you can’t choose your fans, etc and they were nice to us and all that. But it was a bit of a nail in the coffin.

The music media’s obsession with The Strokes seemed to wash almost everyone else away for a while.   At Rough Trade, we were receiving bags of demos from bands who’d done everything they could to copy that Strokes’ sound, as opposed to creating something new.  Did you, as I did, feel the tide turning against interesting music and towards more basic, if perhaps more dynamic stuff?  (I’m particularly thinking about how The Strokes seemed to lead directly to The Libertines and The Libertines to the likes of Arctic Monkeys, etc, etc).

Robert : Oh well, we were just emerging from Britpop so honestly, while it wasn’t my thing, those bands seemed a lot more interesting than their predecessors! But by that time, I’d largely stopped paying attention to guitar music really. I was quite deeply into techno and that didn’t really change much for quite a while. I only really started paying attention to new guitar music again quite recently. It was, with few exceptions, techno for a few years, then I started listening to a lot of music from Africa. There was the odd thing I’d pick up on but I didn’t really start buying guitar music again until maybe three or four years ago.

Outside of the UK, you played in Germany and Greece but you were particularly adored in Australia.  What was your experience of playing over there like?

Robert : Oh, we loved it. I think you can hear that on the live record (‘Live at the Annandale Hotel‘). We got on really well with all the bands we met there – I still listen to a lot of the records that people handed to us. The venues were great, the radio was great – that’s how things like us could break through there, where they wouldn’t in the UK or US. The crowds just got it straight away, they treated us as we really wanted to be treated – it was just heads-down joyful dancing while we were playing. Such a great reaction.

Sue with avid fan during the band’s Australian tour, Dec 2001

At the end of 2002, you split.  Was it only Sue who’d had enough or did the rest of you want to carry on?  What would’ve album two have sounded like, do you think?

Robert : We did want to carry on I think but at the same time we were struggling to write new material and there were tensions in the band, mostly me wanting to do more noodly stuff. I kind of felt that, unless we just completely changed direction, we wouldn’t get another album out. The last thing we recorded was ‘Love Trinity,’ which I love and am very proud of. If we’d managed a few more like that, maybe that’s where it could have gone.

Life Without Buildings ‘Love Trinity’

Ever since, there’s been the odd assertion that you were ahead of your time, that you didn’t get your dues and you’ve been championed by some very respected names.  Do you think the band is better understood these days?

Robert : Yeah, I do. The thing that’s really surprised me over the years is, when I get to know people who’re quite a lot younger than me, they’re quite often absolutely bowled over when I mention that I was in the band. We seem to have been taken to heart by a sort of lefty, queer crowd and that’s personally very validating for me! I think young people today are much, much less conservative in their tastes; there are more women and queer people writing about music and there’s a lot more space for things to be odd or gauche or whatever. That kind of centrist-dad music journo attitude is fading away, thank goodness.

How did you first hear about ‘The Leanover’ becoming a “thing” on TikTok at the end of 2020?  Suddenly everyone was talking about you again. What are your thoughts on it all – both personally and as a band?

Robert : It was around Christmas last year. From 2014, when ‘Any Other City’ was re-released, I’ve had a running search on Twitter for the band name, so I keep track of when we’re mentioned and around Christmas time I started to see these weird mentions. I don’t use TikTok, so I didn’t really know what was happening and then a friend tipped me off that there like 57,000 videos of people singing along to the opening part of ‘The Leanover.’ I eventually read up on it a bit and it seems TikTok has done this with other songs before but in this case it was Beabadoobee (Filipino-British singer-songwriter) that started it – I’d actually known that she was a fan of the band. It was really nice and as you say, it got people talking about the band again and it coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the album, so there were some nice little pieces written about it. Jennifer Hodgson did a lovely one.

I think from Sue’s point of view – she has a young daughter and I think it was really nice for Sue to see young women engaging with something she’d made in that way. That’s something that’s much more possible now I think, for young women to engage with music like that and not to feel that they’re being excluded, like their interests and tastes don’t matter, which I think was the prevailing sense at the time we were doing stuff.

Moving on to your new music – solo, minimal, instrumental, just an electric guitar.  On the surface, it seems completely detached from your playing style in LBW.  Was the solo route a conscious move to break away from the past (I’m also referring to your name here)?  

Robert : Oh well the name I changed when I got married, it’s sort of a long story but it’s not anything to do with the musical side of things.

It all really started when Martin Henry of De Rosa (and now Whin) asked me to play something on a De Rosa track. It never happened but he also sort of started gently pestering me to start playing again, for us to do something together. At that time (2018 I guess), I’d barely played at all for about ten years. I’d gotten married, gone back to Uni, had kids, got a job, etc, etc and music had really fallen by the wayside. But Martin was quite persistent and we started sending some stuff back and forth and then he told me out the blue he’d booked some studio time with Andy (Miller), so we kind of had to get something together and that’s where Whin started.

But when we were rehearsing, we were doing these quite improvisatory things and at one point Martin said ‘you play like a solo guitarist.’ I’d approached improvising in the only way I could because I didn’t really have any music theory, so I’d worked with what I could control, which was timbre and space and feel. So that planted a bit of a seed, when he said that. And simultaneously, I was starting to learn about harmony in jazz. I’d tried a few times with music theory and it never clicked with me and then I read something about shell chords in jazz guitar and realised it was what I’d been doing, without knowing anything about it. So, I started to read a lot about jazz playing and theory and for the first time it all started to fall into place.

So while the Whin stuff was going on, I was also playing around with a lot of musical ideas and approaches that were quite new to me, and I was inspired by listening to a CD of Loren Connors that a friend gave me – I really liked that sort of journalistic approach, of putting down ideas quickly and then just leaving them there, releasing a lot and not being precious about it and I felt like Bandcamp as a platform really enabled that approach. So, when I had a few things, I just put together a set that felt right and put them out. Sue did the artwork!

I do think it’s recognisably my style, still – there’s a lot of melody, but I actually know the names of the chords now, ha ha.

Who was it who said that the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves?  I was reading somewhere about Mark Hollis’ recording technique in his later career where, although much was recorded onto a track, most of it was eventually subtracted.  I believe the same technique was employed on Japan’s ‘Ghosts?’  What are your thoughts on space, tempo and tone?

Robert : Yeah, I’ve heard that a few times. Most recently, there was an interview with Marisa Anderson and she said “don’t fill in all the spaces.” It’s definitely true. Mark Hollis is a big influence obviously. I named a track for him. I bought those last two Talk Talk records when they came out and they were really important for me, as they were for a lot of people but I only got round to Hollis’s solo record a couple of years ago. The thing with him is that you can hear that music is a sacrament to him – it’s a means of accessing a place in yourself and others. I read recently that pastoral music is named because it came from the kinds of music farmers would hum to their livestock to calm them; so I think music is much more deep in us as beings, animals, than we often credit. I do try to put that into what I’m doing, to respect what music is and to try to transmit that seriousness when I’m playing.

Nice guitars are obviously central to your solo music.  Where does your love of the Gretsch come from and what’s so special about that particular guitar/brand?

Robert : Ha ha, well, my guitars are nice but they’re all dead cheap. I’m a Fender guy really but years ago I got a notion that I wanted a Gretsch. I think the seed came from reading about Robert Smith playing a White Falcon. But they were so expensive. And then when I started playing again, I got back into learning about guitars and looking at pictures of them and all that and it turned out that the new budget range of Gretsch guitars was actually really affordable. So, I got one second hand, the big gold hollow body and started modifying it (that’s what I’ve always done with guitars and amps really – buy cheap things and then make them my own). And that sort of started a journey where I was exploring the kinds of pickups, for instance, that are special to Gretsch and eventually ended up with DeArmond copies in the big hollow body, which left me with a set of nice hand-wound Filtertrons sitting in my gear box, so I obviously had to find a place for them and that led to another Gretsch, ha ha. I do like the brand – they’re just very pretty and distinctive but also their cheap ones are just very well made, so they’re a great modification platform.

Just some of Robert’s guitars

Who are your guitar heroes these days?  I was at a Richard Thompson gig a couple of weeks ago – not my first by a long chalk – but I always leave with the rather despondent thought of “I should just give up playing guitar.”  Have we done everything we can with guitars?

Robert : No not at all. Big inspirations for me have been Tara Jane O’Neil – she was in Rodan but has a solo career over about 20 years now and Marisa Anderson. They actually made a record together which is really good but their solo stuff is just great. Tara Jane O’Neil is such an under-regarded artist – her stuff is just incredible. And I started listening to a lot of jazz guitar playing, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. I care a lot more about tone and sound these days. I find it fascinating to listen just to how people sound when they play.

Could you tell us a bit about your other project, Whin?

Robert : Well, you’ve got the brief history above but it sort of got hijacked by Covid. We’d never really planned to home-record everything but that was the way it worked out and it actually worked really well for us I think – we’d intended the stuff we were sending to each other to just be notes, they were all phone recordings or whatever but we came up with the strategy of playing into those very rough recordings and that really worked I think. It highlighted the kind of domesticity of what we were doing. Like you can’t record anything without a kid’s voice being on it, in our circumstances. I’m really happy with what we’ve put out so far – the two EPs, and we’ve got most of an album in the can now, which I’m really excited about. We’ve got people in to do guest spots on a lot of things and it’s always such a joy when you get a recording back from someone and hear how they’ve responded.

You recently played your first ever solo concert, at Lanternhouse Arts, Cumbernauld.  How did it feel to be back onstage, particularly as a solo artist?   

Robert : Ehhh, utterly terrifying! It was like back to the early days of Life Without Buildings. I was so terror-struck that I was outside of space and time. But I’d rehearsed really hard, so I was able to fall back on that and I got through it OK. It was a really friendly crowd too – I knew about half of them I think, so that made it easier. I’d like to do more now.

Robert, live at Laternhouse Arts, Cumbernauld, 29th October 2021. Photo by Pat Vandeleur.

You release your solo music yourself, digitally only, via Bandcamp.  Do we need record labels any more?  Do we need to make physical records?

Robert : No, I don’t think we do really. I think the industry is in a state of transition, you know, when the only way for musicians to make money via product is to sell vinyl basically as merch. That’s not sustainable. It’s an industry in decay and something else will have to come out of it. I think the record companies largely signed their own death warrants by throwing their lot in with Spotify and frankly, hell mend them. Things like Bandcamp make it possible to produce and distribute music so easily that it can be done almost as a hobby and while maybe it’s a shame that music has been so de-professionalised, I think that’s maybe not such a terrible thing. I think really we’ve always been amateurs, sharing things more out of love and enjoyment than a desire to make a living in it and you can be a part of that very easily now.

What are your future plans for music?

Robert : Just going to keep at it! The Whin album should be ready soon and I’ve got another solo thing in the works. I’ve also started doing this thing that my friend, Isobel McKenna, suggested – she runs a label called Vivarium Sounds. She suggested we do a cover of the Shaggs’ ‘It’s Halloween’ and we did, with Jill Lorean singing on it, as Guisers. So, we might do these occasional seasonal cover versions, with the proceeds going to good causes. It’s nice to feel part of this sort of stuff again.

Five new records/bands our readers should check out?

Robert : Oh, I recently got into a bunch of artists working in Australia via the Mess Esque record, which is Mick Turner of the Dirty Three, with a musician who works under the name McKisko. All her stuff is really good but the record from that scene that really blew me away was by an artist called Seagull, the album, ‘A Voice in the Ward.’

I’d also mention my friend David who was in the band, Dananananaykroyd and now records under the name, Lose a Leg. His proper albums are great, very intricate and orchestrated but he also does a series called Balaclavicord, which are sort of more tentative and loose. The most recent one, ‘IV,’ is fantastic.

There’s a great new band called Poster Paints, which is Carla J Easton and one of the guys from Frightened Rabbit – they’ve put out a couple of singles which are really redolent of sort of mid-80s indie pop, really great stuff.

The artist datassette put out a really fantastic record recently, ‘Void Fill Product,’ if you like sort of skewed techno.

And I’ve been really enjoying the live record by Les Filles de Illighadad on Sahel Sounds.

Favourite Life Without Buildings track?

Robert : It’s always going to be ‘The Leanover.’ That was the one where we first realised it was actually going to work.

You can listen to and buy Robert’s solo music on his Bandcamp page

Whin are also on Bandcamp

‘Any Other City’ was re-released on vinyl on 30th April 2021 by Tugboat/Rough Trade. You can pick it up from Norman Records.

Footnote : Inspired by this interview with Robert, I went through a box of old cassette tapes in search of an early recording of the band on Sean Hughes’ Greater London Radio show back in March 2000. As the band testifies during the interview, at the time, they only had six songs written. The session is acoustic and judging by the imbalance of vocals and instruments, microphones were at a premium. My recollection is that Sean was rather hungover, after a night out with Stephen Jones, aka Baby Bird but as you’ll hear, this didn’t deter him from enjoying the interview and session. Afterwards, the lot of us headed straight to the pub on Sean’s suggestion! Tracks are ‘Envoys’ and ‘The Leanover.’

Notes :

* Popular weekly music video programme which ran in the United Kingdom from 1986 – 1998

** The Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow

*** Midlands/Northern British adjective to denote “sulky or grumpy”

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