Nathan Gray and The Iron Roses perform with BlackGuyFawkes and Drake Talbot at the Big Room Bar on Saturday, March 12. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. 

From 1994 to 2007, and then again from 2010 – 2015, Nathan Gray fronted the post-hardcore band BoySetsFire and for many people, that’s extremely important. But, for me, that band was not in my orbit and while they released six full-length albums during their career, I’m fairly certain I’ve never heard a single song. I mention this to Nathan when we meet up on Zoom to talk about the latest release in his solo career, Rebel Songs, which was released on December 17, 2021. I can actually see a sense of relief on Nathan’s face when I reveal this.

“It’s been a little difficult to break away from that. What I’m doing now is nothing like what I was doing,” he tells me. “It’s a little hard to push people in the right direction some times so it’s wonderful when I get to talk with someone who’s like, ‘Well, I don’t really know the other stuff, so I’m just talking about this’.”

Are the BoySetsFire fans supporting your solo work?

I always have this sort of cult following to an extent that will go wherever. That’s awesome, absolutely great. For the most part, because this is very unlike what I was doing – and you have a lot of BoySetsFire fans who want to hear another BoySetsFire album, they don’t care about anything else – I can’t provide that for them and it’s just not going to happen. I would say on this upcoming tour, we’ll probably have 20 to 50 people at a show as opposed to 200 to 500. I’m going to be honest with you, that’s sort of great. I’m in that phase, especially with this album, that I want to prove myself again. I don’t necessarily want it to be easy. I don’t want it to be, “Oh, the guy from BoySetsFire. I’ll go.” They are going to get a completely different experience.

I recently played in Columbus with Frank Turner. It was awesome how many people came up to the merch table after and were like, “I was told I’m supposed to know who you are but I have no idea who you are.” Awesome. I’ve been in touch with some of these people and on this tour coming up, they’re going to show up to these shows. It’s great to be able to get out there and really push what I’m doing now and who I am.

That Frank Turner show was pretty unique. It was held in Kemba Live but it was presented like a small club show.

Local H was playing upstairs (at the A&R Music Bar) and we were supposed to play downstairs (The Basement) and because it’s so loud from upstairs, we had to move. Frank Turner’s crew sort of set up a makeshift stage and PA for us to play. It was awesome. On top of that, I want to put forth the fact of how awesome they are because they actually didn’t have to invite us to do the same thing. They could have just left us in the other room. They were very gracious. Doug, who does the sound for them, did the sound for us and they really made a lot of moves to not just help Frank have a good show but also us.

On your record, I hear the same spirit of what Frank’s doing. I wrote down “Springsteen. Gaslight Anthem. Joe Strummer.” That’s what I hear in your music. That’s what you’re going for, right, the working class, blue collar rock?

To an extent. You’ll also hear, with songs like “Radio Silence” and “Look Alive” and “Grace,” you can sort of go with Joe Strummer on that with the reggae aspect and things like that and also the hip-hop stuff I brought in. That straight-forward melodic rock, power pop-almost type of thing is very me. That’s what I normally do. So when I went to do this album, and let’s be honest, a lot of singer/songwriters do that. It’s something that’s been done so how do I do something that ups it a notch? Albums that really influenced me were Rick Springfield’s Working Class Dog and the first Goo Goo Dolls album, Hold Me Up, which is very similar in that style. But if you look back to the midwestern punk sound, like Soul Asylum, they also had that vibe to it. I was thinking, “How do I step it up a bit?” because, otherwise, it’s just that again. It was very important to me to look back at Joe Strummer, who was a hero of mine and was really inspirational in my getting into punk rock because when I first heard punk, I was a little turned off by it, to be honest. I first heard the Sex Pistols and I was like, “Ew, what the fuck is this?” The music was cool but the words to it were so nihilistic and just giving up. “Society sucks and I hate it.” Okay.

But then I got to hear the Clash and they were like, “This sucks, let’s go get ’em.” That’s what I wanted out of what this is, this ferocious punk thing. I wanted someone with some energy to them. I really looked back to that. “How can I change this up?” A lot of it was bringing joy to it all and bringing that positive energy. I have a lot politically and socially to say so how do I do that without the context of all that anger that BoySetsFire had? I found that it was in bringing in styles of music and thoughts that I had never explored before, like reggae, like hip-hop, and bringing in that energy and that joy and that resistance music feeling. Taking what has been done and creating something new out of it and hopefully that takes me on a path forward. You can’t just reinvent the wheel over and over again. You take what’s known and what you do best and you add to it and you bring in new influences and you bring in things that challenge you and force you to move forward.

I grew up listening to ’80s hair metal and, obviously, there’s a huge difference in the lyrics between, say, “Cherry Pie” and a Bad Religion song. You got that education earlier than I did through the music you were listening to.

Funny enough, I don’t even remember how this happened but I was listening to punk rock and at the same I found an Abbie Hoffman book in our school library. And the Yippie movement and the ’60s and the ’70s and the Black Panther movement, I just started getting all that stuff and it was [make the sound of his mind being blown]. It was everything and everything was connecting with the punk rock I was listening to. And then going back to MC5 and stuff like that, it was like, “I have been missing out.”

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Wilmington, Delaware. I was there until I was around 11 and then we moved down to Pensacola, Florida until I was 19. Past that, I’ve just been in this area. I’m in Maryland now but that’s just right across the border from Delaware.

What was your schooling like and do you think that’s what lead you into punk rock?

To an extent. I think being the class clown and always being rebellious is what led me into that. We lived in trailer parks and run-down housing most of my life. My parents actually do pretty well for themselves now but when I was growing up, not so much. I’ll look at old pictures of our houses and be like, “Oh god, we lived in that house?” We never noticed because I had a great family and it was fine.

I don’t want to say that had anything to do with it though because there wasn’t a lot of anger in that. I didn’t really notice I was poor. My dad’s a pastor so we went from church to church to church to church while he was figuring out what he was doing. There was definitely a time period when we were in Florida where things changed very drastically for me. I speak about this a lot in my music and live, being sexually abused in the church I was in and it was definitely a starting off point to finding a subculture or a fringe group. I would say that started with this one guy, who I’m still friends with today, his name is Jacob. He was sort of my lifesaver in that situation. He was a gay man at the church we were at and he was sort of my idol. I looked up to him a lot. He, unknowingly, saved my life in several situations and got me out of something he didn’t even know he was getting me out of. He was real into new wave music. He would sit me down with some headphones and I’d just listen to all his albums.

At that same time, I started going to school at this one school and there was this one guy, Gordon, who would make me mix tapes with Black Flag and Violent Femmes and all this stuff. I’m just getting hit from all sides and in this, I feel like I was trying to find a place to not just put my anger and my sadness and things I wasn’t able to cope with at the time, but also find bands and people who were being joyful and expressive despite the depression in their lyrics. That’s what I was drawn to, bands that had that dark atmosphere and even the lyrics were a bit dark, like The Smiths, but the music was like, “Fuck that, we’re still moving.” Punk, in a lot of ways, had that. There was that dark, depressive feel in the lyrics but at the same time is almost rebelling against it’s own lyrics in the energy behind it. That really drew me to it. I would say that, more than my class status or anything of that nature, had a lot more to do with it.

Are there two versions of your touring band, one in the U.S. and one overseas?

I’m trying to fix that, trying to make it one band. When I started doing the solo thing, I started with an album called Feral Hymns which was just me and a guitar. That was very purposeful because I had to get through some dark material. I was getting some healing for some shit well too late. I couldn’t just go into it full band forward. Did that and then came out with Working Title. I brought in a band but I didn’t really have a band. Now, with this album, I’ve decided a band, which is going to have their own autonomy. Nathan Gray and The Iron Roses. I have a full band. That also means that I built that here but I can’t yet afford to take them to Europe with me so I have to sub out when I go to Europe. That’s the only thing it is right now. What I would like to do is move forward into having a solid band that goes everywhere.

Being a band that is very politically and socially conscious and, not only that, but has a driving message of diversity, if people don’t see that diversity on stage, you’re going to look like an asshole. “Hey, we’re all about diversity.” “Really? Because you’re five white guys up there.” I can build that band but I don’t know if I can build five of that band.

When you were putting the band together, was it a Biden-like moment where you said, “I need to have this and this and this” or was it just the nature of people you knew or were hanging out with and putting the right people together that fit what you were looking for?

A little bit of both and I want to be honest about that. If I’m not, it’s obviously going to be bullshit. You have that group of people that you hang out with, that you trade music with, that you just always know. Like, Phil, who plays guitar for me, he got in touch – he does his own rap albums – and sent me a song that he did where he sampled a BoySetsFire song just to see if it would be cool. I was like, “Yeah, that’s totally fine. Oh, by the way … It started with me trying to incorporate hip-hop into what I do. Can you listen to some of this stuff and just make sure I don’t sound like an idiot?” I’m not going to do it if it sounds contrived. I sent it off to him and we went back and forth and he said, “This is great. You’re doing it in a very different way. You don’t sound like you’re trying to do it and much as you’re trying to do your take on it.” Then I had him do his rap on “Look Alive” and it was in that time I was like, “Wait, you play guitar!” We had already been friends for a little bit so it’s a combination of those things where you have this friendship that builds and builds and builds until you’re like, “You’re in my band now.” You pick people because you know them, they’re friends, you know who they are and you’ve sort of vetted them but at the same time you pick people who give an example for those that come to shows.

My friend Jaelyn, who plays guitar and is a trans woman, we’ve actually known each other, she’s been like a sister to me for like 10 years. That’s different, we’ve actually been close friends for a long time. Bringing her into the band was a no brainer.

Becky is a close friend, she used to live in Columbus. She does back-up vocals and helps manage the band a little bit.

When I was thinking about it, as much as you don’t want to get into tokenism, you do need to be mindful of the fact that you’re going to be playing shows that you want to bring a diverse crowd to. If you don’t sent an example for diversity, they won’t come.

The punk scene, as open as we claim to be, we’re not as inviting as we think we are to people from other cultures, to people of color, other experiences. When somebody comes to a show, I want them to see on stage something that mirror their experience. I want them to feel comfortable because we have a bit of a mission when we do shows. I talk a little bit between songs. I don’t go on and on, but I do enough to let people know what we’re about before we get into the next song. One of those missions is less overtly political than it is setting a tone and that is just loving on people, letting everyone at that show know they are loved, that they’re respected, that they’re cared for, that they’re in a safe environment where they can dance and sing and have a good time. When you do that, people feel connected to you and people feel like they want to come up and talk to you about their experiences. This face might not be the one they feel comfortable talking to but, if I can give them other people that more mirror what they feel their experience might be, maybe they’ll be able to talk to one of them. That’s important having that representation up there to where people can feel like they are part of it. We’re not just the band they come to see, we’re part of the whole experience together.

We’ve been through a lot the last four or five years, from politics to the pandemic. How does that work it’s way into your songs?

As an example, I wrote the song “Capitol Stairs”. I feel like it’s one of the most important songs on the album. It is obviously about the Capitol building and the attack on the Capitol building. When I first started writing that song, it was coming out a lot angrier and pointed at the people who had done this.

As I was thinking about it, I started thinking about the brokenness that we all have and that we all share in this world and how it’s used for political gain. I started thinking in the realm of going from “Screw you, you did this” to “That wasn’t really the brightest move, was it?” Going more in that vein of “Are you getting it now? Is this getting through to you because I hope it is.” At the end of the day, I think people like me have a mission to reach people like that and not just to say, “Screw you, you’re the bad guy” because the fact that that’s how this works. These fascist forces, that’s how they get people. They go to people and see the brokenness in their heart and they go, “You know why you have that? It’s because of those people.” That’s how they do this. It causes this whole chain reaction. It’s not always easy and I have not always succeeded at this at all, but I have tried my damnedest to find where the hurt is stemming from. I’m not going to say that anyone with a conservative viewpoint thinks that way because of hurt but people that attack the Capitol, that’s a different story altogether. People in that mindset, who are just always angry, it’s coming from somewhere because they can’t get in touch with what’s really upsetting them and why they’re really angry because otherwise they would be coming up with positive ways to affect change.

To take a step back, when I say “my responsibility,” I mean people that present like me. I do not expect people who are literally attacked by these people to take this stand. People in LGBTQIA+ community, black people, anyone who is being oppressed by these actions, just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you get to hurt other people and they have to be nice to you. But, me, I can take the insults. I can take it a little bit. It’s on me, someone who is trying to be an ally, that I need to step in the way and not only defend people who need to be defended but also reach out to the people who are lashing out and be like, “I see it because I was there. I’ve been there. I get it. I was hurt and that made me lash out in so many horrible ways. It made me so angry. It made me hurt other people. It made me do things that now I couldn’t even imagine doing.” That’s how we’re going to change the world. It’s not just defending our friends or defending the people we feel need to be defended but it’s also reaching out to the people who are lashing out and see if we can reach them. I think, mostly, it’s the people pulling the strings that are the bad guys and they are the minority. We’re fighting each other while they’re pulling the strings. Punk’s been saying that for a long time and it’s time we listen.

A little lighter topic, let’s talk about the “Fired Up” video. It would have been hard, if not impossible, to shoot a video of people getting together and having a good time in 2020 but with vaccines becoming available and people doing their part to stay safe, I have to imagine it was safe to make the video in 2021.

Everybody was vaccinated. We wouldn’t have been able to make that in 2020. We had just done a tour where we were getting tested every 3 days. The funny part about this is we did that tour, we did that video, and then it was just like a month ago that I got COVID. I was wearing a mask. I can only assume I got it in IKEA. I went through all that just to get it at some store. It was probably 5 days of feeling a mild bronchitis and then it was probably a week after that of not feeling quite up to snuff but then I was fine.

To close things out, you’ve talked about reggae and hip-hop influencing this album. What artists would you suggest readers check out that maybe isn’t that well known or topping the charts?

Toots and the Maytals is a huge one for me, In the Dark is the album. Everything they do has been incredible. Black Uhuru is another one I really like, a lot of the music is very electronic dub, and they were an inspiration. Delroy Wilson is another one.

Hip-hop or rap, someone I’ve been listening to a lot and has been a huge inspiration in what I’ve done is a guy named Tobe Nwigwe, a Nigerian guy. Go to his Instagram, he’s like an on-line sensation now. He and his family have done everything DIY and they’re playing these clubs to thousands of people. They did this all themselves. The music is infectious. There’s something about what he does and the raps he does and the lyrics he puts out and the energy that comes off him that gets me every time. I remember listening to that and saying, “I want that energy coming off my music.” It’s so positive and it’s so real.

One of my guilty pleasures is there is some trap music out there, drill music, which is trap in a certain section of Chicago. Polo G has got this album called The Goat that is insanely good. It’s all about drugs and killing people. It’s not positive in the least bit but, my god, those songs and the hooks in there are unstoppable. I love the shit he does. There’s almost this emotional vibe to it. You almost feel what he’s saying. I like putting myself in that situation where I’m not just listening to certain hip-hop and saying, “Oh, that’s negative” and, instead, going, “It’s a lived experience.” Whether they’re being boastful about it, it’s a lived experience and it’s something I need to understand, I need to understand where it’s coming from and not just look at the messenger and saying, “You’re being negative.” He, as an artist, has really helped me in that regard, to listen to a lot of hip-hop that was maybe very negative and hear it in a different way now. But, also, his hooks are ridiculous.

There is also an up-and-coming hip-hop artist `named Zhalarina. She just put out an album and it kills. I wanted to put that out there because I know she’s up-and-coming, it’s not like she’s blown up.