The name Cory Gray might not be familiar to you, but crack open the liner notes to recordings by some of Portland's best local bands. There, in the credits, you'll find him. Primarily a hired gun who lends his piano and trumpet skills to various acts, both local and global, Gray is finally striking out on his own under the moniker Carcrashlander. With a debut self-titled LP under his belt, it's high time Gray made the transition from the back of the stage to his rightful position in the front.
Taking refuge from the Portland winter in a toasty Northeast bar, Gray talks about his solo record. "This is definitely the first thing I can take total responsibility for. It's a solo project," he pauses before adding, "Well, sort of." The reluctance to take sole credit lies in the fact that the record's list of collaborators reads like a Hush Records roll call. Laura Gibson and Shelley Short lend their voices alongside Gray's morose piano work. Norfolk & Western's Adam Selzer and Dave Depper swing on by on numerous tracks, as does Greg Olin of the Graves. It makes perfect sense, seeing as how Gray has returned the favor and served his time as a member in almost all of these acts. So his hesitation to call it a solo project seems justified—after all, its very inception hinges on the efforts of so many of his bandmates.
But Gray's loose-knit approach to things is not just limited to his lineup of contributors; he records the same way. The album was set to tape over a period of years in Gray's Portland home, Bear Creek Studios (outside Seattle), and even a silent movie theater in Australia. "It's the oldest operational silent movie theater in the world," says Gray. "You can hear pigeons on the roof, a train roll by, and the clincher was that they have this insane room of hard-wired instruments from the '30s, and a vintage organ whose volume was controlled by slats in the wall. You'd rotate the slats to hear more, or less, of each instrument."
You can credit unorthodox locations such as that theater for establishing Carcrashlander's ethereal sound. Throughout the record Gray's hauntingly soft voice feels ominous and cursed, like the initial warning of something dire—a coalmine canary's final black-lunged gasp, or just the portentous sense that all is not quite right. But the real delight of Carcrashlander is his dooming piano. Primarily centered on the ivory keys, Gray's arrangements feel cold. Not Portland-winter-runny-nose cold. More like snow-blinding-Montana-blizzard cold. That sort of deep chill where your car doors freeze shut, but it's little more than a non-issue, as the roads are closed, and even if they weren't, where would you go? This is music that is meant to be played at a restrained volume. Indoors. Door closed. Blinds drawn. Carcrashlander thrives in this intimacy.
As someone who has spent so much time playing key roles in other's productions, Gray wants to try something new. "I've consistently been in bands for 12 years. This last year has been my 'being in other people's bands and touring constantly' year. I'm hoping 2008 is my 'making my own music, and then touring on it' year."
Here's hoping he makes that happen.