Interview by Anthony Thomas
Jeremy Koren, better known as Grey Ghost, is a name you’re perhaps not familiar with but make no mistake he is no stranger to music. Amongst the chaos of BIGSOUND, I sat down with the man himself to talk about hip-hop, relentlessly touring and dynamics between frontman and band.
What appealed to you about hip-hop when you were saying?
My father is a musical director and keyboard player and he tried to get me to play a whole bunch of different instruments. I did violin lessons and guitar lessons, all that but it never really connected with me. I was more of a visual artist, I used to love drawing and that sort of thing. Music wasn’t a massive interest but as soon as I heard hip-hop, it just connected with me. I feel like hip-hop is very visual music, it’s so literally in the stories it tells. One of the elements of hip-hop is graffiti and arguably, it was graffiti that got me into hip-hop. I used to do a lot of pieces in my books and I threw up (onto walls) occasionally but then I became interested in the whole world. The fashion, the feeling of it, everything about. The reason it is so different to other genres is because you don’t need to practice. You don’t need your violin lessons, or a rehearsal room. All you need is a pen, you can just freestyle. You don’t even need a stereo, you can make the beat with your mouth. I love that it’s accessible to anyone.
Is rapping a skill that you’ve either got or you don’t?
Funnily enough, I teach rap. When I work with people you do see massive improvements but you’ve got to listen. A lot of people’s problem is they don’t listen to the beat. It’s the same with all musos. You can be a great jazz musician but if you don’t listen to the other players then there’s not much point. Obviously, it’s a lot more natural for some people but you can work at it. When I said you don’t need to practice, that’s true of trying it in the first place. You can do a rap verse without ever practising, whereas you can’t play a piece on the violin without practicing. That said, to develop further you obviously need to practice like anything.
Opinions on Australian hip-hop in Australia vary greatly. What has your experience in the scene been like?
I came up very much separate to the hip-hop scene. I’ve been in numerous different projects since leaving school. It was always with other musicians, as opposed to other rappers or DJs. I was the hip-hop element to my projects but I wasn’t part of the scene per se. I started to get some attention through my bands, particularly at the beginning of The Melodics, but it didn’t really pick up until I started to collaborate with Mantra. He’s probably the best in the country and we both have such different sounds but we connected and matched each other. I think that really helped people to respect what I do. From there I supported 360 and Seth Sentry and started collaborating with people like Illy. Now that I’m touring so much with hip-hop audiences I’ve become much more a part of the scene. When I was on the fringes of it, I found the more staunch aspects of it funny but as soon as I got to know everyone I realised they’re just a bunch of lovely motherfuckers.
Do you feel negative perceptions of Australian hip-hop culture come from unfair comparisons to American culture?
There is definitely a naive perception of hip-hop in general. A lot of people think that hip-hop is just gangsta rap but it’s funny because gangsta rap hasn’t been around for fucking ages. Maybe it’s starting to come back a little bit with Kendrick and A$AP Rocky, and people like 50 Cent and The Game before that, but really there’s so much more to it. Even more popular artists haven’t really been about that. I guess it all affects people’s perceptions of Australian hip-hop but I think it’s probably judged more so on earlier acts like Hilltop Hoods and Bliss N Eso. I love those guys and what they’re about but obviously they don’t represent the entire scene. It’s the same with anything though, hip-hop guys probably judge the folk scene by people like Josh Pyke.
What does having a multi-instrumental background bring to your production values when you’re cutting beats?
It defines them. Something I set out to do with this project was I didn’t want to make just another hip-hop record. I collaborated with very musically minded producers and incredible instrumentalists from bass players to drummers to horn players to string players and singers. I aim to pack a lot of colour into my music that’s for sure.
Elixir was littered with dark moments but there was a certain optimism tucked away in there too. Is that a character reflection?
It’s interesting you say that because it hasn’t necessarily come across in a lot of my music. Sonically, it’s a happy tune. Lyrically, it’s pessimistic. I really love conflicting sounds and words. It’s talking about how we all want to live forever and how it’s not a positive thing to want. I often think about death and how we need to accept it. I don’t accept it. I’m scared of it.
How closely do you work with your band?
I work very closely with my producers. I never just go and shop for beats. I’ll always sit down with the producers to talk about what I want and then write the song with them from scratch. Most of the producers I work with play instruments, so we build it and then we get the musicians in once the song’s written to flesh it out. Then live I’ve got them on board too.
Having that live band element must enhance the experience ten-fold for you.
You know, it’s really interesting. I have been working with bands for so many years now and as a frontman of a band there’s a lot more to hide behind. While not necessarily detrimental, it becomes a performance of its own. Take Radiohead for example. It wouldn’t matter if Thom Yorke didn’t say anything onstage whereas if you went and saw Kanye or Jay-Z and they didn’t say anything you’d say, “That’s fucking weird.” It’s all contextual. Creating a solo project has meant I’ve had to do a lot of touring literally on my own. I have an interactive duo show with my DJ but then I have a show with just myself and a laptop, which I’ve been doing on this thirty date Seth Sentry tour and I did the same with his last tour. It’s taught me there’s no time to breathe. You just have to grab the audience by the balls. You have to be that front person in the truest sense because there’s literally nothing to hide behind. When I come back to the band, it’s always a lot of fun but it’s also a bit of a headfuck because sometimes you just want to vibe out. So I’ve learnt to find this place where the band is behind me and I’m the front person of that band as opposed to just being a front man of a band who is all one. Contextually, it’s an ever evolving thing. You have to think about it, you can’t just go out there and do it.
Do a lot of people neglect to give that thought towards their live shows?
Yes. I have myself and I only started thinking about it when I did some tours on my own and came back to the band and realised it didn’t work. You have to learn those things and work out what’s the best combination. I love my band and having that raw, live energy but I also love being a proper hip-hop frontman.