David Gray, singer-songwriter
I was a struggling folky singer-songwriter during the 90s Britpop and dance boom. By the time I got to my third album, it was a Spinal Tap-style disaster. At one gig the sign outside read: “Barbecue ribs sold out, David Gray 9pm.”
I jettisoned my manager, label, everything, to work out what I wanted. I’d never captured our live energy in the studio, so I started recording in my bedroom in Stoke Newington, London, with some basic kit: computer, sampler, keyboard. Phil Hartnoll from Orbital gave me a small mixing desk and recommended the Roland Groovebox drum machine.
I’d been going to Orbital gigs since the early 90s and wanted to try on clubbier culture and make music that expressed living at that moment. I secreted myself away with the Groovebox during a dinner party and the chords and lyrics for Please Forgive Me fell out of the sky. The hairs on my neck stood on end. That song was the starting pistol.
Clune [drummer Craig McClune] and I had been gigging as a two-piece and had a joyous musical understanding. He brought rhythmic ideas and [producer] Iestyn Polson was perfect: he was street, naughty, a bit wild, but had this bat-like ear for detail and was super-creative. Iestyn created the drum’n’bass-like effect on Please Forgive Me.
Once we had four or five tracks, we were on a roll. The title track came in a day. Then Babylon landed. The imagery is what my life was like – a young person in London, going out all the time and getting a little bit lost. The album isn’t always autobiographical, but “let go your heart, let go your head” is me speaking to myself. I was in my late 20s, had lost my youthful momentum and was looking at myself. Financially, I was a mess. I’d got married and then lost my parents, which led me to probe everything deeper. I wanted every second of the album to be as good as it could be.
Everything happened fast. We self-funded with donations from my old boss Dave Boyd at Hut Records and another friend, pressed 5,000 copies and initially released it in Ireland, where I had some fans. From the moment we started playing the new music live, the albums sold like hot cakes off the merch stand. Eventually, East West Records licensed it. It took two and a half years to get to No 1, but I’m very proud that an album made in a bedroom is the [UK’s] 26th bestselling of all time. It’s proof that you don’t need much to make something that lasts.
Iestyn Polson, producer
I’d worked in studios but wasn’t known as a producer. Dave’s manager shared an office with the manager of my band. I met him outside a pub and later he said: “Dave’s having trouble working all this gear. Could you go over?” When I arrived, Clune was leaning out of the window.
We were limited by what we had, so I was chopping up beats and making samples, which I was into back then. I got Clune to play some drums in the bathroom – we were lucky with the neighbours. The problem was external sounds. They were constantly digging up the road outside the house and you can hear traffic on the record. On Babylon, there’s a car going right past the house. When I edited it out, the song didn’t sound as good, so I put it back in.
I’d turn up at 10am and we had to finish before Dave’s wife came home from work. The last half hour would be pretty frantic, then Dave would have to rush out to pick her up from the station. It was strict, but gave us time to reflect on the day’s work. Soft Cell’s Say Hello, Wave Goodbye was part of Dave’s live set so we cut that live with Simon Edwards from Fairground Attraction playing bass. I’d seen them on Top of the Pops, so when he came in I was completely starstruck.
There were no great commercial hopes for the album. We were doing fairly full shows in Ireland, then coming back to the UK and playing to 30 people. But then suddenly young girls started coming, then they brought their mums. At Glastonbury, someone [Burt Bacharach] cancelled, so we ended up playing twice, the second time on the Pyramid stage. The reaction was much bigger and you could hear people singing along. I thought: “Wow, this is it.”
• A remastered edition of White Ladder is out now. David Gray’s White Ladder tour starts at Liverpool Arena on 20 March.