Interview, Interview, Music

An interview w/ Grayskull Booking’s Aaron Gray

Metal man looks pandemic square in its plagued eyeball.

by

We started this conversation a few months into covid times and we finally finished it!


Dan Shea:

So, who are you and where are you & how have covid times affected your work/music life and life in general??

Aaron Gray:
My name is Aaron Gray and I run Grayskull Booking, a show promotion company out of Boston MA as well as co own Heavy Talent, a North American booking agency. Sure they sound like the same thing, but they aren’t. Grayskull Booking is a local show promotion company working with bands from the local to international level that I started on my own sometime back in 2013 after years of just booking shows for my own band(s). Heavy Talent is a booking agency that routes tours and handles booking for bands from all over the world in North America. I started it with a friend of mine around 2017 and we have grown since then to involve another friend of ours and we have a roster of about 150 bands.

All work on the local and national level is frozen right now. It comes in waves and we have no idea when it will fully return. The phase program put out by the state is cute and all, helpful to some…not to us really. Venues are closing across the country because they are getting no help from their government, tours keep postponing with no real idea when we can fully engage, deals are being made that could potentially make no sense at all due to having no idea if the venue will be there or if the capacity will allow the numbers you have to hit. It’s all a big mess. There are some organizations out there like NIVA that are trying to push legislation to our government officials to get some much needed financial help to independent venues across the country but there is no guarantee that it will pass. It’s a scary thing watching everything you worked for teeter on the edge of a cliff but also sad that we got here and people are dying.

On a personal level, I have worked from home since this became my full time job last Feb so really not much of a change there. My wife, Sarah, is working from home for now and that has actually been quite nice to spend more time with her…I am bummed about when that will return back to normal. I just formed a new band with some friends and we had about 10 songs written before that all got stopped in its tracks. I know some bands are still meeting up and practicing and to each their own (just stay away from me, please haha) but Sarah is immunocompromised so I’m not taking any chances with it…plus maybe it won’t kill me but it certainly doesn’t sound like a great illness so I’d like to avoid it. If that means washing my groceries, getting more delivery, trying to stay in as much as possible…well, I guess that’s what I’m doing. I’m not particularly bothered by that. Sure it sucks not to have shows but we will have them again and it will be great…for now, I will welcome a much deserved rest from the chaos that is my life, haha. Stay safe and be well!

DS:
Hey Aaron!
I’m not practicing with my band either. My son has asthma, so yeah. We were about to have a release show then BAM. What is your new band all about??

I’m sorry that the covid has shut down your operations completely. What’s your outlook for shows happening again, here or anywhere? What do you think is going to happen if you’re willing to get into it.

I also want to ask generally about your feelings on the state of metal and venues that serve metal in Boston. You, I think deal in larger shows and thus larger venues than I do most of the time, so I’m wondering how your feelings on this subject compare to mine.

AG:
I started a new band with a few friends of mine around Nov 2019. To be honest, it’s been like 7 years in the making, haha…I had been grinding down my buddy Ryan for about that long ever since his band Finisher broke up and he took a break from playing music (which saddened me to my soul since Finisher was easily one of the best bands to come out of Boston in awhile in my opinion). It started as just “dude you have to play music, you’re so fucking good!” to “if you start a band and don’t tell me, I’m going to be pissed” once Nate (my dude and the drummer for Hepatagua) moved out to Arizona and I had some free time. It’s powerviolence and sludge, quick songs, to the point, hardcore type feel but definitely metal…we all grew up idolizing the usual bands from around here Cave In, Converge, etc but also have a love for grind, punk, death metal, and bands like Eyehategod and Crowbar. I wouldn’t say we’re reinventing the wheel or anything but we are definitely trying to shove it down everyone’s throats, ha! Meat and potatoes! We don’t have an official singer yet but we were just about to dive into that when Covid locked us all down..there is at least a frontrunner and we are in the middle of trying to figure out how to get our demo together while sitting at home. We all have the know-how to do it…it’s really more of an equipment barrier if you get my drift.

As far as shows…yeah that’s a tough one as it’s a moving target. Some say end of the summer (highly highly doubt that and you definitely won’t catch me out at shows or playing them…no way), some say end of the year but that’s hard to see too. There are just so many logistical and ethical problems with trying to put together a show. Basically, it can only be done if you just look the other way past the health ramifications of everyone involved and I’m just not that kind of person. It’s such a tough spot to be in because although I think we have learned alot about how to potentially live with this virus and navigate being safe while maintaining some semblance of “normalcy”…we still don’t know shit about fuck. Ozarks, gotta love it, haha. The way I see it, here are your problems…how do you get people in a room for a long period of time where they need access to their mouths? Are people taking their masks on and off cause that seems like a no-no….there is time and viral load to be considered. So maybe everyone is masked up? Ok…how does the bar make money? Do we make ticket prices higher to compensate? You know…cause folks are definitely flowing with cash right now, ha! There are just so many factors that it’s hard to give any definitive answer. I know this bums everyone out but it’s just the cold hard truth in my opinion. Tough to see it happening with any regularity before better treatments, better PPE, better testing and tracing, or a vaccine.

We don’t have enough venues that allow metal in Boston in my opinion…we have just enough. Here is what we are looking at on the independent level: O’Brien’s, Great Scott (maybe and I hope!), Once, The Middle East rooms, The Midway, and that’s about it…there are others that will host them but I haven’t worked with them.The majority of my shows are for national and international bands but I still do quite a few local bangers here and there. I can host shows with the corporate rooms too but it’s just not something that happens often and as far as I see it, those places are backed by big big money so unless the people at the top feel the need to slit their throats, they’ll be there in a year or more, no problem. Those are multi-billion dollar corporations, why do you think their rooms are so nice? hahaha. Please anyone reading this, don’t take those as disparaging comments…I love a lot of the people who work in those places and believe they are all in it for the right reasons, I’m just stating my opinion based on a decent grasp of information at hand. So yes, we are in a bad place for independent venues, if the government doesn’t step up with some specific financial help (which is currently being put together and lobbied by awesome companies like NIVA)…we’re going to be in a really bad spot. None of these places can just hold out for a year or more. They can’t. I’ve heard through the grapevine that some of these spots are going to just try to open up as bars first but the state has put some very weird guidelines on them like needing to serve food and needing to have outside seating. Maybe people will be eating an Allston Happy Meal on the sidewalk? HA! The Middle East could open back up as a restaurant and bar with outside seating without too much trouble but I have no idea what that looks like for them financially…probably not great. I don’t know how the state expects a bar or restaurants to open at 25 – 50% capacity but still pay 100% of the bills? Capitalism! Yay! Do it or die! I also route tours and we’ve seen a number of great clubs already close and we’re only 4 months in so I’m not feeling super awesome about it. Hopefully the fed steps up. Some folks say “back to the basements” or “diy til I die” and that’s fine…I totally support and understand that idea BUT that really only works on the local and smaller level. Get a band that needs 300 capacity and production value to do their show properly? Good luck…when the cops come shut it down and that band has just traveled from Finland and has big big bills to pay…that’s just really not going to work in the long term. The whole thing is a mess!

DS:
Can’t wait to hear the band. Sounds up my alley.

Shows. Yeah I’m with you 100%. Masks are coming on and off to drink beer or water or whatever. Even if we’re talking a straight edge situation, which is not going to be in a club most likely, masks are coming on and off to drink water at least. Us people who do the whole getting people together thing are really fucked for a while. Not this year. I don’t know when man. I’m thinking I’ll be wearing a mask no matter when it is shows start up.

Venues, looks like we’re on the same page. I hope these venues you’ve mentioned can survive, but I’m not sure how they can. Perhaps the climate around real estate in the area will be affected in such a way that there will be opportunities for new venues to open. Perhaps not.

Can you tell me more about what NIVA is doing as you mentioned? Also, you’re down in Quincy. How do you think shows would fare down there, sure metal, but also punk, and other kinds of underground music like I deal in mostly?

1000% I feel the same way. How do we unlock ourselves from this bogus political and social catch-22 we’ve been locked into??!!

Thanks for the in for on NIVA. I will definitely look further into that. And definitely do take your word for it! I love warehouses and basement shows but they are wholly impermanent. I’ve learned the hard way multiple times over the years that the cops are plenty ready to explode the best laid illegal show plans.

Do you have any thoughts on new live music venue models or approaches (either ingenious ideas of your own or stuff you’ve seen work elsewhere) that could be attempted in this godforsaken burg coming out of the pandemic (whenever that might be)?

AG:
In regards to that last question. There are a few things being done in the form of livestreams. Some venues are setting themselves up (or already have) to work as soundstages for artists…some are just setting up geo-targeted links where folks from around the area can see a certain show, while getting a venue looped in to “host.” That’s really the only way anything is happening outside of outside venues and drive-ins. Those are potentially safer due to the way the virus seems to transmit, ventilation, ability to space way out…but it has it’s flaws too. Most venues are just going to have to figure out a way to survive but hopefully NIVA and some other organizations are successful in lobbying to get some legislation passed to help them. Otherwise, we are looking at a Livenation/AEG landscape and that will not work long term either. I have lots of friends who work for those companies and they are good people but at the end of the day, it’s a true profit business model, they will cut what they don’t financially need and will not take on anything that does not financially help them. They do alot of great work but it’s a double edged sword. To date, those companies don’t really own anything below a 500 cap room as it’s not in their model so either bands are not going to be able to organically grow anymore or they will be playing in huge places and making no money. I suppose that doesn’t really answer your question, hahaha but it’s just on my mind of how fucked we are right now. It’s just not a good picture in my mind.

DS:
A live nation/aeg complete venue monopoly is a hellscape, but I mean, we’re practically there. Here in Boston, as you obviously know, we were almost there BEFORE the pandemic hit. The possibility of opening any new venue in this fucking town is slight to nil. And if/when new clubs do manage to get over the real estate, beer license, finding a space w/o nearby neighbors triple whammy of hurdles they either must be a corporate enterprise (City Winery/Big Night Live) or a spit for the yuppies to frolic (Thunder Road).

You’ve probably been out to more and various US cities than I have in recent years. Is Boston uniquely fucked in the way we’re talking about? Or is it more of a widespread everyone’s pretty much fucked everywhere situation?

AG:
So I would say that Boston is NOT unique in this issue…in fact, Denver is shortly having AEG and Livenation takeover all of their venues there. There are only a handful that still operate independently…it’s a weird thing, AEG and LN are not the same entity everywhere, some pockets operate differently than others. Some spots still work with independent promoters and really just provide a stability of being backed by a corporate entity. It’s not always all bad to be honest, it depends on the people running that branch and what their values are in my opinion. AEG/Bowery have always welcomed me to throw shows at Great Scott, Sinclair, and once I proved myself..Royale. The Livenation arm here in Boston, Crossroads, will occasionally team up and I have had the pleasure of working with some awesome people there but mostly they keep to their own. I personally think that’s a mistake but it’s just my opinion and I get why they do it. That’s not a knock on them at all, there are fantastically awesome people just like you and me in that organization, it’s just set up differently. Who knows…with all that is going on now, maybe they will be more open to it down the road but my fear is it will actually go the opposite way.

I think everything is cyclical though, as I mentioned (I think…I’m losing track, haha), I am a booking agent as well as being a local promoter so I route tours for bands from all over the world and have done so for a few years now…places fall down and come back or replaced by new spots all of the time. This is a totally different monster that we are dealing with now, never seen anything to this scale and unless the government steps in to help much like cutting huge checks to airlines, corporations, etc…we are going to be looking at a VASTLY different landscape but I think we will find ways through it. If a corporate entity were to come in here and buy a place like Once or The Middle East properties we would be fine to keep operating as we do and most people wouldn’t notice a change as long as they keep the indie spirit alive in terms of the shows and talent that goes to those places. We are a small but strong market here so we all need each other…everything flows up if it’s good enough. Very few bands start at selling out 200 cap rooms, usually they start at a place like O’Brien’s and if it starts differently…well I don’t know, there is a whole dynamic that goes into placing a show at the right place that alot of folks don’t even think about. Usually when you see a great band in a room they are too small for, it’s a bummer no matter what…not always but usually…it’s just a distraction that can take you out of the moment. We’ve all been at or performed those kinds of shows…the artist feeds into it and may not be as excited to be there which affects their performance which affects the crowd and so on and so forth. So we are at a strange place and a bit of a crossroads right now…who knows what will happen? I guess the best we can do is try to keep donating to these places and stepping in to petition with NIVA to get the government to pay attention and do something. We’re doing okay on that front I’ve heard but we’re a long way from seeing a return and who knows how long our homes can hold up? It sucks.

DS:
Yeah, sometimes I get that tunnel vision of “Boston is so horrible UGH”, but it’s really “EVERYWHERE is so horrible”, so, “LESS UGH”?

Your case is an interesting one to me because you straddle the underground and actual industry in a really unique way. Because of the genres you work in, because you’re a local promoter and musician, because you’re also a booking agent; you are able to exist in both worlds simultaneously in a way that I would venture to say is extremely rare. It also allows you to have a real, actual empathy for giant corporate venues on down.

That’s not where I’m at, but I respect your position. I’m sub-industry. I’m left hoping the small venues survive: Obriens, Midway, Lilypad and wishing there were more, and being pissed that more are not able to exist in this damn town due to reasons already gone over. I do hope Once makes it too as it’s pretty cool and difficult trying to pull off being an independent venue of that size in this town. Small and mid-size venues are a gaping void, a massive hole in this town. In other cities where real estate and licensing laws are different you see this kind of scene, community, alternative industry; whatever you want to call it.

AG:
I’d say I don’t have much love for the corporate entities themselves but there are some decent people stuck working in the machine and I feel bad for them as they are losing their jobs too. A whole slew of livenation people just got canned this week. Right before the holidays cause you know, 4th quarter! Ugh.

It’s interesting, I never ever pictured myself being where I am and all of it has been done by just listening, learning, trying to be fair, and treat everyone with respect. Definitely a right place, right time for me in the beginning but the rest has been all me and folks along the way helping me to not fall too hard, haha.

Right now, I am a professional tour canceller lol.

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