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Admiral Grey is a New York-based singer, bassist, writer, actor, and dancer extraordinaire who appeared this spring in Normandy Sherwood’s play Permanent Caterpillar. Just last week she released a new album with her no wave/free-jazz unit, Cellular Chaos. The record “Diamond Teeth Clenched,” was recorded by Colin Marston and appears courtesy of Skin Graft Records (home to US Maple, Cheer-Accident, Arab On Radar, and others). It also features the talents of “brutal prog” legend Weasel Walter and Shayna Dulberger.
Pitchfork describes Cellular Chaos’ energy as a fire with a “singular crackle, one that sounds pretty impossible to extinguish.” Grey is largely to blame for this inferno, weaving together her cryptic narratives with blast-beats and skronk, propelling it with a twisted “urgency.”
BTRtoday caught up with the luminous Grey and got the lowdown on her fascinating life so far as a rogue artist in New York, walking the walk and singing with commitment.
BTRtoday (BTR): Where are you from and at what age did you start creating, singing, acting? What kinds of strange early performances were there?
Admiral Grey (AG): I grew up near the ocean outside of New York City. I definitely was always creating—aren’t most kids? I think it was receiving recognition, being told how good I was at my creative endeavors, that made me start to slowly realize that it was who I was: if it came so naturally to me to write, draw, paint, make music, perform—and if enough people thought what I produced was exceptional—then that must be what I do, who I am.
With my sister and friends, play-acting, singing, and creating sets and costumes were a big part of life. Those home productions definitely were hilarious and weird. I started playing trumpet and writing music when I was about eight or nine. My first really big singing or acting role was playing Audrey in Little Shop Of Horrors in my elementary school, Ellen Greene accent and all.
I also fear that somewhere there is a video of myself earnestly singing that Bette Midler save-the-world stinker “From A Distance” at a Junior High concert.
BTR: Can you run down the list of bands you’ve played in? They’re pretty diverse, right?
AG: Why, sure. I will try to put random descriptors here. Omitting solo projects, they are:
Drayton Sawyer Gang (bass, backing vocals): Heavy, perverse, silly, aggressive, noisy, political, skronky.
Glass Lamborghini (keyboards, vocals): Tribal synth noise-pop.
Ecstatics (keyboards, vocals): Avant pop-rock.
Cellular Chaos (vocals): No wave rock and roll?
The Simple Pleasure (bass, backing vocals): Blue-eyed soul synth punk.
To me, the music I participate in and create is all connected, and most people I know don’t listen to one type or genre of music. So it always struck me that musicians are often expected to stick to one style. The music I create is as diverse as the music I like to listen to. With my solo stuff it stretches even further.
BTR: Drayton Sawyer Gang seemed to summon Ren & Stimpy, The Melvins, Beefheart and a million other things, but it was totally original and scathing and nasty and fun. Really, there’s nothing like it. How long did that band last? Why did it stop? Any plans to reunite? How do you view that project in hindsight?
AG: Well, isn’t that a lovely thing, thanks. We were together a long time and it was my first band. We played together for maybe six to eight years. It was my fault we broke up, I just wanted to do different music and I was doing these songwriter-y weird pop songs that I played out with on guitar and a big Casio. Once a year we talk about recording and releasing stuff we never put out, and having a reunion. But I think the idea is just overwhelming as Jason and Ryan are busy with their lives and Bbigpigg [their newer band] and I keep busy myself.
I am very proud of that band. We really were a band’s band, and also I think the clownish ugliness of our style is hard for average people to get into, so we have always seemed to have the same 50 fans. Like most of my projects, we didn’t promote much or know how to get stuff out there aside from obsessively working on the music and playing shows. I think we could have reached a larger audience but that would have been too much energy placed elsewhere.
Nowadays it does seem “acceptable” that artists spend 90 percent of the time on self-promotion. But I’m old school, 99 percent creation, 1 percent promotion. That way I ensure myself dramatic and romantic posthumous fame when they dig up my work and I am ‘discovered’ in the future.
BTR: Songs like “Manhattan Pig Socialite” and “80s Cocaine Party,” aside from being obnoxiously infectious slabs of noise rock, also critique this troubled town. What’s your opinion of New York City these days? Is there even more to make fun of, less, is it even worth talking about it, or should we all just move the fuck out?
AG: Haha, obnoxiously infectious, thank you! Definitely obnoxious, infectious to only the most disturbed. Well, I moved out two years ago and I live in Philadelphia in a little house with a music studio in the basement that costs less per month than most people’s bedroom they rent in a loft in Bushwick. New York City slowly lost me, even though I lived in Brooklyn for essentially all of my adult life up until recently. As each year passed I had to move farther and farther out from where I needed to have a studio or meet people or work and I somehow still had less and less money.
There is power in limitation, but at this point in my life I have plenty of limitations and challenges already—I don’t need them to be whether or not I can even get to my studio to work, or afford a studio AT ALL, or how do I have enough time to work on my art when I have to constantly worry about making money to survive. That last one doesn’t go away, but living somewhere affordable close to NYC takes the brutality level down and brings the functionality level up. This has all been said before, but the expensiveness of New York is a giant middle finger to anyone who isn’t wealthy. That isn’t how a city stays vibrant and culturally rich.
Brooklyn is what mostly breaks my heart now. Brooklyn, much more than a lot of Manhattan, is a place where you can return to a neighborhood you lived in a year or two ago and not only not recognize it, but not see anyone you used to see around. Just be a total stranger, wiped from the history in that short amount of time.
It was deeply my home, but now it is overdeveloped and overcrowded and overpriced and dysfunctional and so much of the special flavor of each neighborhood is gone, they all have their rustic wood-panel and chalkboard coffee shop and their 1800s-y artisanal cocktail bar—there is nothing wrong with these places per se, but there is a grand homogenization on the small level as well as the corporate level.
Tiny neighborhood streets that were never meant to traffic so many people, or neighborhoods that were zoned industrial and are now full of people—it’s a logistical nightmare. It’s also unrecognizable from 10-15 years ago. Manhattan still feels like Manhattan; it’s very bank-y and drugstore-y, but it has always been a center of money and commerce and development so parts of it have seemed to have retained its essential something.
If I moved back it would probably be to the Upper West Side or somewhere average-ish like that, somewhere that isn’t trying too hard to have a hip “personality” or hard-sell quirkiness—just has a natural quirkiness and a wide range of types of people walking around.
Album artwork courtesy of Admiral Grey.
BTR: How did Cellular Chaos start? Is Marc Edwards not playing with you guys anymore? How would you describe your new album, “Diamond Teeth Clenched”? Also, congrats on signing to Skin Graft Records!
AG: Thanks a lot. Our new record has a wider range of style and composition, and lyrically it is a little more intimate. We are grateful to release it on such a strong, smart label.
Weasel started the band with a somewhat-rotating roster until it solidified as a trio with Ceci Moss and Marc Edwards. We hooked up at a time when they wanted to add a vocalist and when I had just started ruminating on the idea of being “just” a vocalist–to let go of my need to prove myself as a vocalist/instrumentalist and just go whole hog with what I could do with my full attention on singing and performing and connecting to the audience. Then of course we had Kelly Moran as our next bassist, and then Shayna Dulberger. What a succession! All three are brilliant, talented people.
Marc needed to step down last year—he had a good run and wanted to just chill the hell out and go back to just doing his free jazz thing. He is also something of a yoga master. He gave us so much as a complex rock drummer when really he is a free jazz drummer at heart. And he kicked ass. We were sad to see him go, but it is good to shake things up and be forced to progress or redevelop every once in a while.
BTR: You have a singular energy onstage. It’s really captivating–beautiful, anguished, angelic, demonic. What exactly happens to you up there? Are you present? Do you disappear?
AG: Thank you. I am very, very present, and in a time-warped fusion of intentional exactitude and instinct.
BTR: Aside from experimental music, you’re involved in experimental theater, most recently Normandy Sherwood’s play Permanent Caterpillar. You’ve said she’s your favorite playwright right now. What is it about her worlds that appeals to you and brings out your magic?
AG: I connect very much to her integration of hilariousness and tragedy. That is something very kin to my writing. Not that you have to be similar to another playwright to like their work, but that is part of the connection. I’m sure many people might say they see nothing similar in our work, so it could be more of an internal feeling that I connect to—irreverence, absurdity, musicality, and heartbreak. Her writing is dreamy material to work with because the hybrid of reality and absurdity allows so many freedoms of interpretation and expression. And just the pure writing itself, the very words, are so beautifully and smartly put together.
BTR: What other upcoming plays are you involved in? Any new musical releases slated for this year? Upcoming shows?
AG: I have several theatrical projects in the works that have not been solidified yet. And I am in discussions to finally produce a big musical-play I have written, Rafael Nadal Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris In 1782. I have done a workshop of it at the Little Theater series at Dixon Place and a reading at the Unseen & Unheard reading series at the Gene Frankel Theater, but it is a complex piece and I will need money from somewhere to make it happen–not because the staging needs a giant budget, but because I will need a great crew of people involved and I will want to pay them all well.
I have sworn to myself that by the end of the year I will finally release a real album of solo work that has lived with me for so many years. I don’t play out with it anymore, but the project is called Enjoyment. I play bass in The Simple Pleasure and we released an excellent new album this year that is still only available in person at our shows on a USB drive that looks like sexy lipstick; we hope to tour again later this year.
And Cellular Chaos hopes to tour behind the record, but the question, sadly, is always ‘where will the money come from?,’ which has always been the giant smelly elephant in the room for art. It just gets gianter and smellier each year as more money goes to big production companies producing mass entertainment. I guess we all need to marry lawyers or something.
“Diamond Teeth Clenched” is out now via Skin Graft Records.
To hear more from Admiral Grey, tune into BTRtoday’s very own In the Den podcast.