Words by Tommy Johnson
Wray had a thought: People visualize a world where their wildest dreams could be fulfilled and hope would never be a feeling that would be missed. And what if we as humans had the distinct ability to start over? Would there be a difference in the way are? It’s with the connection between these two ideas, Birmingham, Alabama’s band‘s dual record Stream of Youth / Blank World that was created.
Self-produced at the home studio of Woodlawn, located in a neighboring area around Birmingham, these two albums showcase some of the most experimental and strongest songwriting from Wray to date. Post-punk, dreamy pop, surf, and lo-fi garage rock influences are laid down as the foundation for the uniquely distinct sound of Wray.
Off Shelf: Reading about what each member brought to the group from previous projects, did the initial days of Wray quickly take off or did it take some grooming?
David Brown: I recall that we started working out some ideas in the spring of 2012. We played with a couple of different bass guitarists and came away with a few songs that weren’t going anywhere. I think we were all busy and in other bands so we stopped playing for a couple of months. I’m not sure why, but we got back together in September and that’s really when it became something. I switched to bass and it clicked.
OS: Do you feel that this band would be where it is without the move?
DB: I don’t think we would have been a band at all. I suppose we needed the three-piece dynamic to flesh out the concepts that we had in mind. I know I wanted the bass to sit back with the drums and work together to build up a song. We wanted to do some krauty stuff.
OS: What would you say are the common misconceptions about Birmingham?
DB: You probably wouldn’t know this unless you have lived here, but there is always rad music coming out of this city and Alabama. People act shocked that a band that sounds like us is from Birmingham. There are all sorts of different types of music being created here.
OS: During these days of political unrest throughout the country, do you find the environment around you to be any way influential?
DB: We tend to live in a bubble; most of the people we know or associate with are pushing for the same types of political progress and social change that we are stand by. In a sense, it’s encouraging and that we can be influential. On the other hand, five miles outside of Birmingham in any direction is suburban or rural, conservative, and bible beaten. It’s eye-opening and can be fodder for musical conversation.
OS: The plan was to write a few songs, but you ended up recording a full album. At what point did the band see Stream of Youth / Blank World going deeper than it was intended?
DB: When the first two songs were pretty much mixed and ready, we secured an image from Boris Vallejo. It was so visually striking we all agreed that the art was worthy of a full album. We knew we had enough rough sketches that could be crafted. We were able to book time at our label’s studio and go at our own pace.
OS: The band wanted to explore repetition in Stream of Youth / Blank World. What was it about this idea that appealed to all of you?
Blake Wimberly: That’s one of the main things I set out to do when we first talked about playing together. I was on a krautrock kick at the time and finding something inherently freeing in the locked-in, no-frills churning of a motorik beat. It creates space for subtle changes to mean a lot more in the grand scheme. “Blank World” is a good example of how those ideas have spread out over our entire songwriting process. It’s basically the three of us playing the “same thing” over and over again with no end in sight, gaining intensity as we go. No big changes. It’s those subtle shifts in the dynamics that steadily float the song to a plateau where we eventually give out. Actually, it was the tape reel that gave out. [laughs]
OS: Allowing yourselves to expand the efforts to tap into a deeper mindset, was there any worry about possibly overthinking the work?
BW: We had the problem of overthinking the last album, Hypatia. To the point where we were just done with it, ready for it to be over. When we started to dive into Stream of Youth / Blank World, we pretty much said aloud that we wanted to have a more laid back approach. We wrote in-studio some days, started from scratch, and would then come back to do some editing and layering. We put the idea of playing everything live on the back burner, which allowed us to just go for it sonically. Layers and layers, ideas and ideas, but no real constraints. All three of us were mostly in agreement throughout so that took away a lot of the back and forth, overthinking, banging our heads against the wall stuff.
DB: Each song has its process. I think those processes reveal concepts through production and writing. The lyrics, for instance, are written secondary to the instruments, allowing that initial idea to inform the themes and sonic direction of a song. The time spent working on this album felt organic. We just had to connect the dots.
OS: Already having two albums released before Stream of Youth / Blank World, do you feel that you have honed in on the perfect blend of sound that you want to achieve?
DB: I am happy with the overall sound, but could never say perfect. There are moments and ideas that I love about the first two records, but in some ways they felt “throw and go.” We had less time constraint this go around and we also halted touring. I think the whole experience was lighter and a refreshing change of pace. That surely is reflected in the sound.
BW: We’ve definitely come to a place of trying new things and not holding ourselves back with ideas of what we should sound like. We all have varying tastes and those have started to meld nicely. Want to write a laid back, synth-heavy, all programmed drums track? Sure. A 5-minute song of us playing the same thing? Go for it. Turn into an ambient trio for a day? Why not?
OS: Fantasy and science seem to be driving forces behind the band’s influence in terms of writing. What is it about these genres that inspire you so much?
BW: Science fiction has a way of throwing the reader into a new world without any handholding. Languages, planets, races, technologies, all thrown at you from the beginning. You just have to jump in, live in their world for a bit. It’s similar to writing an album. You want it to be cohesive; you want it to reside in its own space. So you have to world build. And hope it translates.
DB: Hope is a big theme in science fiction and in my lyrics. Even dystopian works often have that glimmer. I am a fan of abstract expression, vagueness, and distortion, yet painting a clear picture.
OS: Boris Vallejo helped craft the album’s cover. Being such a fan, can you put into words how excited you were to get him to send you over some work?
DB: We talked about his work and looked at some images. We liked “Virgo,” so I sent him an email asking if we could license the image. He was easier to get in touch with than I thought he would be. Even though he didn’t create the image for us, I think it’s perfect and I still can’t believe we made it happen.
OS: Was it mentioned to Vallejo that you collected his work via trading cards, David?
DB: He was very polite. I don’t think I mentioned the trading cards, which I still have and blew my little 12-year-old mind. Maybe I did tell him.
OS: Now that Stream of Youth / Blank World is out, has work begun on some new material?
DB: Currently we are in our worlds, creating and living. We have talked about releasing some remixes and reworking some tracks that didn’t make the record. I’m hopeful.