Gigslutz Interview: Lee Drage meets – CL GRIS

Counting the costs after various drunken escapades- we’ve all been there. Went home with someone you shouldn’t have and instantly regretted it? Yep. Lost all your dignity after that final tequila shot sent you over the edge? Uh-huh. Signed to a record label owned by international dance legends Basement Jaxx and released an EP? Er, what? As odd as it may sound, that’s how the path into the music industry began for electronic duo CL Gris, who have just released their debut EP ‘Words Collide’ on Atlantic Jaxx. Not a bad way to spend a hangover, I’m sure you’ll agree.

We meet in the graffiti adorned courtyard of Cargo in Shoreditch on a cool, bright evening as sunglasses wearing punters in a post-Glastonbury malaise nurse their drinks, gradually retrieving their minds. CL Gris – producer Ben Smithers and vocalist Simon Tanner (AKA Area Grey and LostBoy) – take time out from sound-check for their EP launch show to discuss serendipity, their influences and working with Basement Jaxx.

As they chat excitedly about the fortuitous turn of events that have brought them here today, the pair give off the air of incredulous competition winners who can’t quite believe their luck. Unsurprising, really, since their ascent started little over two years ago. “I was at a party” explains Tanner, sweeping back his slick black hair, “bumped into Felix (he of the Jaxx), who I know through a mutual friend. I was quite hammered at the time and ended up doing some singing for him- at his request!” he hastens to add, aware that it could sound like he accosted the man against his will. “The whole thing is mental” offers Smithers, a bewildered smile spreading across his bespectacled face, “it’s a bit of a whirlwind to be honest and I still can’t believe I’m here right now.” Taking up the baton, Tanner adds, “We’d literally just started doing our first song together, which is the title song ‘Words Collide’, and I sent that to Felix and he really liked it. He gave us a few pointers, and it’s kinda all developed from there.”

So from an inebriated chance encounter in 2011, it’s ‘kinda all developed’ into the duo being signed in 2012, developing their talent with the Jaxx lads in the studio and releasing their debut EP in 2013. “It’s brilliant,” a grinning Smithers interjects, “I can’t really ask for much more.” Despite this sudden career surge, Smithers and Tanner still hold down workaday jobs, with Smithers working in an accounts department on films and Tanner in a café whilst studying for a BSc in Theoretical Science. This contrast in working environments perhaps goes someway to account for their dumbfoundment in the whole situation. “It’s been pretty crazy- the juxtaposition of different lives,” Tanner explains. It must be a humbling contrast to be in the studio with Basement Jaxx one moment and then waiting tables the next. When it’s suggested that it’s surely only a matter of time before they can quit the day job, they politely dismiss the idea with a self-effacing laugh. One suspects the duo isn’t fully at ease with the immense talent they possess just yet.

The Glastonbury zombies begin to stir from their languor as the time comes for CL Gris to take the stage. For ears tired of the generic house and over-produced pop being played in the courtyard this is an enticing motion. As we head under the arches and into the club with its odd subterranean tiki bar vibe, the gathered crowd mill about expectantly under a palpable aura of good will that pervades the atmosphere. Friends and family have come out in support of the pair, who perhaps until recently have known them better as either an accountant or a waiter and not the electronica proponents they have become. Smithers and Tanner, like good hosts of a party, move from group to group, welcoming people- a peck on the cheek here, a hearty hug there- and then, with not much ado, they amble on to stage and launch into the show. What follows is an eye-opening and exciting look at a duo still finding their feet as artists yet growing with confidence with every step they take.

The simple held piano chords of set opener ‘Translucent’, with its shimmering electronic reverb, creates a sombre and introspective mood that is reflected in the black and white forest visuals that cast skewed shapes over the faces of Area Grey and LostBoy, the onstage personas of Smithers and Tanner. ‘Breakdown’ follows next; its rumbling 2-step influenced bass eroding away the Glastonbury inertia as heads begin to nod amid vocal manipulation and clicking hi-hats. Despite Smithers in full concentration behind the laptop and Tanner lost in music, it’s impossible for them to hide their delight. ‘Is this really happening?’ one can imagine them thinking telepathically with one another. It’s happening all right and the crowd are getting into the groove, a groove that will only get deeper with the second half of the set.

“The second half will be a bit more upbeat and it’s stuff that’s not on the EP,” Tanner explains during our chat earlier. What can we expect from them? “It’s stuff that’s very new, actually. It’s maybe a bit of an inkling as to what to expect in the future.” And what a future it promises to be! After Felix Jaxx, like a proud father, brings the boys back on stage, stating how they have put their hearts and souls into creating the EP, they surprise everyone by breaking into a deep and funky cover of Wookie’s seminal ‘Battle’ that swirls with reverb. The Glastonbury lassitude has been banished and the crowd are jumping! Smithers nods his head, deep in the groove as Tanner’s soulful voice sits perfectly within these garage realms. What follow are a couple of blistering original tracks indebted to classic 2step and garage that sound like they could have come straight from back in the day. The bass is heavy, the lights are flashing, the guy in front is compelled to MC, heck, this could well be ‘back in the day’!

The show finishes under a hail of confetti, leaving the ethereal beauty of the title track ‘Words Collide’ ringing in our ears. CL Gris take a bow, beaming broadly. ‘This IS really happening’ they converse telepathically as they leave the stage before Felix Jaxx takes to decks and keeps the party going with his own remix of the track. Smithers reflected on having the Jaxx in the CL Gris corner earlier on; “It’s always spontaneous and you’ll be there all night just making tunes but the amount you learn in that time is incredible. It’d take me ten years to learn what I learn in one night!” Tanner agrees, “They seem to be up for just trying anything. They’re just like ‘have fun and enjoy what you’re doing’”. CL Gris are certainly doing that. Ciel gris may mean grey sky in French, but for CL Gris, there’s nothing but clear skies ahead

Lee Drage