Nathan Gray & The Iron Roses released the album Rebel Songs shortly before Christmas, and are shortly to hit the road with their new Melodic Punk music. It’s an album that promises to make waves through its distinctive two-part mission, firstly to bring a joyful development out of the suffering and anger that has become even more a part of our collective lives in very recent times, and secondly to create a diverse and inclusive environment for music fans who attend the band’s live events supporting the album and beyond. That’s relevant to the inclusive Iron Roses band line-up, including Gene Priest (drums, additional guitars, keys), Jedidiah Johnson (bass, vibraslap, additional guitars, backing vocals), Becky Fontaine (backing vocals), Jaelyn Robinson (additional guitars), and Philip “Eugenius” Smith (additional vocals).
The album Rebel Songs is certainly interesting and revelatory in blending genre elements with a Punk foundation. Accents of Pop, Reggae, Hip-Hop and more allow the individual songs to reflect lighter, more hopeful tones, while digging into their themes with a fair amount of ferocity and drive. Several songs on the new album like “Capitol Stairs”, “Rebel Songs”, and “The Reckoning” seem to speak very directly to our times and perhaps one of the best representations of the positivity that seems to drive this project is the recently released “Fired Up”. I spoke with veteran Punk artist Nathan Gray (BoySetsFire) about the ideas behind the album, the context for songwriting and recording, and his thoughts on the live play environment that he and the band hope to create for fans when they hit the road in February for their tour.
Hannah Means-Shannon: It must have been a particularly nice holiday season to have the album Rebel Songs out just beforehand.
Nathan Gray: It was wonderful, and a little terrifying, and a little bit of a struggle through it all. The album was supposed to come out in November and got pushed to December, which is a struggle to put out an album that close to Christmas. But doing a couple of album release shows was good, and it gives us January to keep pushing it out to people.
HMS: I feel like the music industry has faced huge shifts in terms of how the calendar functions. The way the year used to function has been totally obliterated and now we have winter and early spring tours, as well as lots of winter albums now and coming up. I think you’re not alone in jumping on that train!
NG: It definitely made a few end-of-the year lists, which was great. You take the good, you take the bad, and you keep moving.
HMS: I know the songs on the album are very timely, but how did you approach writing Rebel Songs? Have you been working on them as a post-2016 thing, or are they more recent?
NG: We were on tour in March of 2020 when we had to come back home because everything had started happening. We had to drive home from Portland, Maine. I say that I really started writing then, but I am consistently writing, so I have songs on my phone that I started in 2011. I go back to them, rework them, and put new lyrics to them. What I would say was definitely of this time was going into the lyrics and the feelings I was having on the more political and social aspects. I was wondering, “How do I make this different? How do I make this not angry? How do I make this joyful? How do I put out music that’s going to touch people on a different level?”
I already knew instinctively that we were going to go through some shit, collectively, as humans. I thought that everyone was going to have had enough of anger, feeling it themselves. What I turned to a lot at that time, and it’s something I do a lot having grown up through Punk Rock, was these old Clash albums with Strummer. I asked, “What’d you do man?” As you’ll hear in Rebel Songs, it occurred to me to bring in other aspects of music, like the joy of Reggae and Hip-Hop, but also, lyrically, I had to remember why I almost gave up on Punk Rock and why I didn’t. That was because when I first heard Punk Rock, it was The Sex Pistols, and I felt like it was the most nihilistic trash that I had ever heard in my life.
I thought it was catchy, but I felt like they weren’t talking about anything. They were angry but not doing anything about it because they didn’t care. I thought, “Maybe this isn’t for me.” Then, I heard that first Clash album, and thought, “I get it now. This is what I’m looking for. I’m looking for rebellion. I’m looking for that anger, but I’m also looking for someone to say they are doing something.”
So, The Clash, and other bands past that, broadened my perspective on what Punk actually means, whether it was Bad Brains, Bikini Kill, or any of these bands who turned Punk Rock on its side and brought a new enlightenment to it. I knew that’s what I had to do with this album. I wanted to express the angst and the anger, but at the same time provide light, hope, and a joy to it, so people wouldn’t just get lost in anger. That was really the impetus for this album.
HMS: It’s interesting because a lot of songs that address situations in the world are about raising awareness, but on some of these topics, we don’t really need to raise awareness because everyone has watched recent events play out. Instead, as you have said, it’s about, “What do we do now?” It’s also hard to avoid cliches, I imagine, when you want to lift people up, as if optimism alone can fix things. I think this album completely avoids a naïve sense of positivity.
NG: Yes, it’s hard. It’s also about bringing in a positivity that people can see themselves in. If they can’t see themselves in it, it feels fake. Not only that, we’ve been trained a little by the internet to be ironic about fucking everything. To not allow things to sometimes be simple. We’ve got that, then we’ve got the Instagram culture, which says, “I’m happy! Everything’s fine! Just be happy! It’ll all be good!”
HMS: I like that you’re calling out Instagram for that, particularly. I agree. I love the image-based allure of Instagram, but I totally see what you’re saying.
NG: It’s my favorite, honestly.
HMS: But on Instagram, particularly, I’ve become much more aware of the role that images can play in suggesting only one version of reality, much more than on other more hybrid platforms.
NG: Yes, and that’s why I think it’s up to folks who have influence, like myself or other musicians or artists to show bad days, to show things that suck. I try to do that as much as possible. If I’m having a day when I can’t get off the couch, everyone’s going to know about it. It’s what I’ve learned on my progress to this album. When I put out Feral Hymns, that was a very dark time. I put out all that darkness into the world, and said, “Look, am going through this, too. I have been a victim of sexual abuse and I’m standing here able to say it out loud.”
Then it started to click with me that through all the years I’ve been doing this, there might have been people out there needing to hear this. You can hear that you’re not alone, but you don’t always feel it. You may not feel it in your heart until someone helps you feel it in your heart. That’s been my mission from Feral Hymns, through Working Title, to this album. I’ve been creating that path to personal discovery and freedom. I want to help people realize that, collectively, we are all in this together. We can build a community that creates healing.
HMS: I’m glad you confirmed that because I have felt that I could see a continuum between the themes of the three solo albums, and a kind of movement in this direction. If this is the next phase, it sounds like it’s been a very hopeful step for you. First you seem to deal more with internal issues, and share them, on the first two albums, but this one seems to turn around and face the public in a more specific way.
NG: That’s exactly what I felt I needed to do, and you can even see it in the musicianship. With Feral Hymns, it was just me and a guitar. I felt like I needed to start there because it was so introspective and personal that I didn’t want to have a band to hide behind. With Working Title, I brought in a band, and I brought in some joy, but at the same time, I was talking about darker issues, relationships, and things I had gone through because of the trauma I had faced. I was showing that life is a roller coaster.
But from there, the next step was getting back to my roots and facing outwards to address these issues that are also affected by trauma. Humans create these problems, and if we are not working at the beginning, we don’t make it to the end. I’ve noticed, as we all can see, that the people who I would speak out against use a platform of anger. That’s how they bring people in. That’s how they attract people and I don’t want to use the same methods that the bigots use. You shouldn’t scare people into a belief, you show them that your belief is worth believing in. Instead, you show people what can create joy and happiness. I want to benefit everyone, and that reaches people.
HMS: I’m a Metal fan and a Punk fan, and I’ve noticed through going to concerts that creating a sense of community is a big part of that scene. Something I have found interesting about this album and what you’ve said about it is that you seem to have a concept of creating a space for people through this music that’s similar but emphasizes positivity and inclusion, particularly. And on top of creating that space, you’d like to bring in a helpful message.
NG: Yes, and that’s what I’m doing with the live show now. The band is not just one that I’ve brought in for recording, but for the live show, and it’s a very purposeful band. I have brought people into this who others in my audience can see themselves in, whether it’s someone who is Trans, someone who is a mother of two, or people who are not white, cis, male. That was really important to me. I want to have a welcoming aspect.
When I’m talking about these issues on stage, like Black Lives Matter, Trans rights, or anything within the LGBTQIA community, not everyone is going to feel comfortable coming up to me. But they may feel comfortable speaking to these other band members. A big part of what we do, and our show, is literally reaching out to people. We want people to feel part of a community, so after we play, we are down off the stage talking to people. I’m at the merch table. We are accessible.
I also do a careful selection of who I bring on tour and have tour rules. I don’t allow anyone to make anyone else uncomfortable. I think there has to be a hard line drawn in the sand on that. A lot of bands complain about “cancel culture”, well, fuck them, they deserve it! If they did not set up a comfortable or safe space for the people who deserved it from them, that’s a problem.
HMS: It’s interesting because it’s always been a kind of social contract between bands and their audiences, assuming a safe space was being created. And when that breaks down, particularly if that’s due to the band’s own behavior, it’s pretty awful because of that broken trust. There is a kind of “reckoning” now, to steal one of your song titles, because the internet has much more of this transparent.
NG: Thank you, internet, for doing one thing right. I think it is on us, as artists, as bands, to actually create that safe space. I care about my fans and the people who come out to shows believing in the artist. It sucks that someone might put their belief in someone who doesn’t give a fuck about them. I realized that awhile back when doing more Hardcore music with BoySetsFire. I was going out every night after shows, getting loaded, screaming my head off, being an asshole, and then the next day, I wasn’t performing up to snuff.
But I wasn’t there to party. I was there for a specific reason, for the fans. Part of it comes from finding healing, but you have to come to that realization. As a musician, you pick this job, and you pick this life, knowing damn well that people are going to look up to you. You are a role model. I can’t make other bands do what I want them to do, but it’s on me to do better and to show that it can be done better.
How would we know that you can make a whole career and living doing ethical things if Fugazi didn’t show us that? How would we know that feminism could be this powerful thing in Punk Rock if Bikini Kill didn’t do it? It takes bands saying, “You can curse the darkness all day, but until you light that candle, you’re not doing anything.”
UPCOMING TOUR DATES:
2/25 – Providence, RI @ Askew
2/26 – Boston, MA @ O’Briens
3/01 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr. Smalls Funhouse
3/02 – Indianapolis, IN @ Black Circle Brewing Co.
3/03 – Knoxville, TN @ Brickyard Bar and Grill
3/04 – Memphis, TN @ Growlers
3/05 – St Louis, MO @ Red Flag
3/06 – Bloomington, IL @ Nightshop
3/07 – Milwaukee, WI @ X-Ray Arcade
3/08 – Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St Entry
3/09 – Chicago, IL @ Beat Kitchen
3/10 – Hamtramck, MI @ Small’s
3/11 – Cincinnati, OH @ Legends Bar & Venue
3/12 – Columbus, OH @ Spacebar
3/13 – Nashville, TN @ Springwater
3/14 – Atlanta, GA @ Boggs
3/15 – Richmond, VA @ The Camel
3/16 – Brooklyn, NY @ The Knitting Factory
3/17 – Baltimore, MD @ Metro Gallery
3/18 – Philadelphia, PA @ Milk Boy