A Lighter Shade of Gray - Gnarly Charlie's Exclusive Interview with Chad Gray of Mudvayne & Hellyeah

By Charlie Steffens aka Gnarly Charlie, Writer/Photographer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011 @ 3:46 PM

"It's still anger, but I think it comes from a more frustrated point of view versus a teen angst point of view."

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Up until now, if you've been hiding under a rock or just got out of prison, you might not know Hellyeah yet. It's a somewhat blue-collar, good ol' boy term we use as an exclamation or as an answer. It's also one hell of a rock and roll band, a band that has Pantera's Vinnie Paul sitting high on the drum throne, throwing down thunder. Then you have Chad Gray from Mudvayne on vocals, Greg Tribbett (Mudvayne) on guitar, Tom Maxwell (Nothingface) on guitar, and Bobzilla (Damageplan) on bass.

Hellyeah's mission since its formation in 2007 has been to boldly kick the world's ass with a brand of Texas-tinged heavy metal the people can party to. It couldn't be any simpler than that. That's what I've always liked about them. Big thrills. No frills.

Chad Gray would seem to be an unlikely singer for such a band as Hellyeah. That was my opinion before I saw them play three years ago after I interviewed a most hospitable Vinnie Paul in the tourbus. I thought of Gray to be just that serious, brooding, mean, and manic frontman, otherwise known as "Chud" from Mudvayne.

After several years of ignorance and unfair judgment (though I've always liked Mudvayne) I finally got to speak with Gray in person while I sat, once again, in that air-conditioned, and beautifully accommodated Hellyeah tourbus. I look at the Midwestern Mudvaynian much differently now. I can't see him riding out on a horse in a Star-Spangled rodeo, but I definitely view him as the perfect singer for Hellyeah. And besides, how can I not love a guy who let me use his 30-pack of Coors Light as an armrest during our interview?

Hellyeah will be direct support for Buckcherry on the upcoming 2011 Jägermeister Music Tour, along with All That Remains and The Damned Things. The tour will kickoff in San Diego on January 19th.

KNAC.COM: Your latest release, Stampede, sounds great and it's really good to see Hellyeah back on the road again.

GRAY: Well, sonically it's a lot stronger. We didn't know what the hell we were doing on the first record, so we kind of half-ass set stuff up. But, on the last record, we didn't have isolated cabinets. The cabinets were in the room where Vinnie's drums were. They were literally mic'd, sitting in front of a drum kit. This time we put them in Vinnie's other upstairs bedroom. We just put the cabinets in there, by themselves, and ran lines and mic'd them up. So those cabinets were nowhere near the drums. That's the way you're supposed to record to get audio/instrument separation.

KNAC.COM: It's a great follow-up to the debut, obviously. You can hear this sort of collective signature from the other bands you guys have played in. It really comes out in songs like "Pole Rider," "Better Man," "Stampede," and "Order of the Sun."

GRAY: Within the boundaries of what Hellyeah is, it's very, very diverse. "Order of the Sun," is heady as shit...bluesy, weird. I didn't even know how to write that chorus. It was really hard for me to put that together. I'm not used to writing stuff like that. That kind of blues--almost stoner rock kind of vibe--coming out of that verse. The transition itself is weird. With Hellyeah--that's what's awesome about it. We just work the problem. If we hit a snag, the tape is always running. We don't have one note that was ever written with Hellyeah that isn't somewhere on some disc, somewhere. I think that is probably the single, best thing, about Pro Tools. You're not changing tapes out. You just hit record and let it go. We don't demo and then go back and try to re-create those moments that you get when something's really chugging and everyone's looking around the room, smiling. It's happening right there and it's real. A lot of bands will demo and they'll go back and re-create the demo with better sonic value. We get all the sonic value the first time. It's in Vinnie's house, so everything's caution taped-off for audio continuity. The drums you hear on the record could be the first time Vinnie ever played through it.

KNAC.COM: Is your approach to writing lyrics with Hellyeah any different than how you write with Mudvayne?

GRAY: I sit in my room and write and I'm only hearing it in my head. I'm not sitting in there screaming and yelling and singing. I start writing and then I go in to do vocals around 7:30, 8 o'clock at night. The first time I've heard it out of my mouth is the first time I've heard it. And sometimes that'll make it on the record. Moving in and out of the songs and the actual writing process it's just something I've never been a part of. Like that, on that level. You really feel like you're doing it old school, even though you're using Pro Tools.

KNAC.COM: Is writing songs and touring in Hellyeah like a much-needed outlet from the music you make with Mudvayne.

GRAY: Absolutely. Hellyeah is a breath of fresh air. It's been awesome, like I said. Mudvayne's taken a lot of lumps over 10 years. We knew when we came off the road from Lost and Found that we were going to take a break. I didn't know how long it was going to be. A couple months before we got off the road I started to talk to Greg (Tribbett) about it. "Dude, I'm putting this thing together with Tom (Maxwell). We're really going to do this." We wrote "Waging War" in 2003 or something like that.

So we started talking to some different drummers and nobody came around. And we thought, "We're going to miss the window again, and it will be another however many years." So we just started looking and then here comes Vinnie (Paul). I couldn't believe it, because we had other drummers that were going to do it they just didn't call back (laughs). I got the word, "Hey, man, He wants you to call him," and I'm like, "What? I don't even know him." Ten years of touring and 15 years or more of being a fan of Pantera, I didn't know him.

KNAC.COM: How fast did things start to move after that?

GRAY: We talked on the phone for less than 15 minutes and three weeks later I was on a plane going down to see him. We hung out the first night, went and had some dinner and got drunk and got acquainted. The next day we went in the studio and wrote a song and the next day a song, the next day a song. We wrote seven songs in the first eight days we were down there. We just kept pressing it, man. We worked really well together. It was so honest. We didn't go in with any notion of what we were going to be--no premeditated thoughts or ideas. We went in there with a couple riffs and it ended up being the first record--in less than thirty days, total time, of actually working on the record. It was pretty awesome how it worked out. I think that first night--not necessarily the first night--but the second night, when we wrote the first song, I got "side project" out of my head, like instantly.

KNAC.COM: You mean the "supergroup" label?

GRAY: I don't know about that shit (laughs). I'm not a big fan of that. We didn't dub it, but I think we're going to have to live under it forever (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Were you a big Pantera fan?

GRAY: Yeah. I didn't know anybody who wasn't a Pantera fan. Do you? (laughs) From 1990, I was fortunate enough to be that kid on the block that was telling everybody about them. Cowboys from Hell. I turned that record on to so many people. I saw them at this place called Club 367, in St. Louis--the warm-up shows for Vulgar Display of Power. Basically, Vulgar hadn't come out yet. It was getting ready to come out in a couple weeks or so. We went down there and they were just crushing everything. And that was not what was going on then in the world of music. The 80's stuff was kind of phasing out, the grunge stuff was kind of coming in. Obviously, there was still some thrash going on. When you heard Pantera, in 1990, you kind of lost your footing (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Vinnie built you all a little house on his property to record the first Hellyeah album, right? Apparently he was emotionally invested in the project from the start.

GRAY: Yeah, he built us a house. It's like the shape of a trailer home. It's a long rectangular box and it's got four doors on it and there's four separate rooms inside of it. We call 'em The Bungalows. He didn't know me and he did that. When we first went down there and met him, we walked in the house and we were just kind of looking around. It's a fucking Pantera museum, dude. You know what I mean? It's pictures of his brother and pictures of them. All their gold records and every other band you could think of, gold records. He just comes out of his bedroom and says, "What's goin' on? Come on back. Let me show you what I built ya." Because we didn't know where we were staying or anything. He said, "I thought it was real important that we all stayed together." I'm like, "You don't even know if this is going to fuckin' work!" That's what I was thinking in my head. You can five of the baddest ass dudes from five of the biggest bands on the planet together, and it's just like an ego-fest. In that kind of situation your ego's like a wall. You got to let it go and be vulnerable. And that's a pretty sizeable level of vulnerability when you're looking at somebody you don't know at all, and go, "Okay. I'm going to let all my guard down. You can stab me in the heart or you can embrace me and embrace what we're doing here." We all just walked in there with no egos. It was just amazing. I think we all wanted it really bad. I think Vinnie needed it. He really needed it. It felt like Greg and I needed it. And Tom, I know, needed it. Itr was just important that we let this happen. We just dropped everything and went in and said, "Okay. Let's go,." And it worked. Dude, I'm sure there are people out there who fuckin' hate it, because when I'm doing this I'm not doing Mudvayne and refuse to have any part of it (laughs).

KNAC.COM: I'd like to change gears and talk about Mudvayne. "I Heard It All Before" off the latest self-titled album is like a homage to Dimebag. It is a really good record all the way through.

GRAY: It's gotten a lot of really good feedback, which is surprising. I don't know if it's just Mudvayne is an older name now or something. It's weird. People sometimes say, "Oh my God, you helped me through so much," yet you don't support the records. You don't support Mudvayne anymore. It's like we have three records at 900,000 records and we have two records at 200,000 records. And, I'm sure 900,000 people or more are still listening to Mudvayne.

KNAC.COM: The lyrics in many of your Mudvayne's songs are dark, brooding, and much different than what you write in Hellyeah. You seem to be a troubled man, Chad.

GRAY: I think my anger from L.D. 50 and then this new record is completely different. Where L.D. 50 was an angry, young, pissed off at the world kind of thing, now it's just like frustration. I'm older now, and when you look at all the red tape and you see how many steps it takes to get something done, your like, "Why don't you just fix it?" (laughs)

It's still anger, but I think it comes from a more frustrated point of view versus a teen angst point of view. That's Mudvayne.

KNAC.COM: You hear people say all the time that if it had not been for their art they would be crazy or would have gone on to live a miserable life. Would you say that music saved your ass?

GRAY: Oh, absolutely. It was a great release. It almost killed me. I mean, writing the stuff I did for L.D. 50, you know, when I was writing I wanted to be honest. It's very important to me to be honest and not sugarcoat shit. I've always wanted to be honest with fans and honest within myself and let people know that they're not alone at the same time. When I wrote LD50 and I realized I had to sing it everyday, so I had to revisit that headspace. And it fucked me up, really bad. Especially touring for 22 months. On your first record, ever? And this is the first time you go out on the road and start touring and you tour for 22 months? For a green, fresh, mind it was too much. It really got the best of me. I still wrote the same way, but I learned not to let it penetrate so much. I don't have to relive that moment that I'm writing about. If I'm writing about some bad youth experience or whatever I went through. I can climb into that headspace because I need to do that to write it the right way. So on later records that's what I did. On The End of All Things to Come, that was probably a way to get away from that. The ideas on that were based on tree of life and balance. I think I might have went that direction to repair myself from what I already had done to myself on L.D.50. I wanted to write about something thematic that was going to give me some sort of balance.

KNAC.COM: It's odd and, at the same time, refreshing, to see you up on the Hellyeah stage smiling and interacting with your audience in a way we don't see when you're wearing your Mudvayne hat. I used to watch you and think, "Now, this is one angry motherfucker."

GRAY: I'm negative. I travel in this negative kind of bubble. The song, "Negative One"--it's kind of known. Here's the negative one. Here's comes the negative one (laughs). We've had a rough career and stuff I can't even get into. We've really, really taken some lumps and we've really carried a lot of bricks for a lot of different things. You see how this business is and you see a lot of people who you make a lot of money for and you're at the end of the trough going, "Really? You guys are cool with doing this?," knowing I'm not going to make anything. People are getting paid. And it's weird. It's like a really, really weird business. I came to terms a couple months ago--just kind of riffing in an interview, like we're talking right now--there's a difference between what I am and what people think I am. People want to say "rockstar." No, I'm not a rockstar. A rockstar has a Ferrari in a garage at his mansion. I'm a touring musician. I have a pickup truck, I have a ranch house. I work my ass off. I play in two bands. I'm on the road most of the time. Greg and I produce stuff on the side. People that have millions from doing something don't do as much stuff as we do. I mean, at the end of the day I think we're just hustlers (laughs). How many things can we get our hands in? How much time do I have and what can I do in that amount of time? I love writing music and I love playing music and I love being involved in music. But there's a sense of me that's definitely a hustler. I'm just trying to put my eggs in as many baskets as I can. I'm just of the mind set to say "sleep when you're dead." I'm young enough to do it right now. Nobody wants to see some 65-year old guy jumping around on stage singing "Dig" or "Hellyeah," for that matter (laughs). You can hide out in the studio when you're 60, but I don't want to be onstage when I'm 60. I'm not doing that shit. I might pull the throttle back and, you know, still play or do something. I want to embrace every moment I have now. That's kind of where I'm at in my life, you know?

KNAC.COM: Seeing you in Mudvayne, with or without the makeup, and then to watch you in kind of a party, cowboy mode with Vinnie Paul took a lot of us by surprise.

GRAY: There's a difference, though. With the cowboy hats and all that kind of shit our image isn't to be cowboys. I'm not out mending fences and riding the range and roping cattle. It's more of an outlaw, "fuck everyone" look. I'm from Illinois. I get it. But this band's from Dallas, Texas, and I've always had a kinship with Dallas. I've always had a kinship with Texas for some reason, since I first started going there with Mudvayne. There was something about that state that I loved and there's something about the South I loved. Going down there and writing the revords and spending time down there I realize what it is about that state I love. Everybody is just like the people from whee I come from. Everybody's down home. Everybody's got their feet on the ground. You'd kill for your fuckin' friends, you'd kill for your fuckin' family, and it's just solidarity, one hundred percent. And that's where I come from. Peoria, Illinois is the home office of Caterpillar. That's union, dude. That's United Autoworkers, bro (laughs). There's a level of solidarity you have in the Midwest, man. In Decatur, Illinois it was all industry. The whole town was industrially-driven. It all that union kind of vibe. I know the South doesn't necessarily have that, but the South believes in family and friends and solidarity.

KNAC.COM: What are your plans following this outing with Hellyeah?

GRAY: Music is art. And I have to paint with my brush. I'm not trying to be conceited or anything. It's my music. I have to do it for me first. It's for everybody, but I have to enjoy what I'm doing. I love Mudvayne. I always have. It brought me to where I am and it's been an amazing run. I have no idea of what will happen. I'd like to think we'll do something in the future. I'd like to think we'll tour the new record, the self-titled record, that we didn't tour. I'd like to think we'll write another record. But if I gave any of my soul to Hellyeah when I was in Mudvayne--when I had my Mudvayne hat on-- it wouldn't be fair to Mudvayne. I've got my Hellyeah hat on right now, and if I give any attention to Mudvayne, it's not fair to Hellyeah. They don't coexist. The only thing that they have in common is that there are dudes that play in this band that play in that band. That's it.

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