Will Gregory: Tears for Fears/ Goldfrapp 

Will Gregory reminisces about his time at the University of York, sharing quirky anecdotes and reflecting on his journey from student life to his career in music. From ‘Tears for Fears’ to his collaboration with Alison Goldfrapp, Will shares his reflections on the unpredictable nature of his musical journey. 

University Memories 

“In your classroom at school, there might be one other person who’s on your wavelength. At university,  there were loads of people who were on pretty much the same page as me and that was a wonderful  surprise, especially for a musician as you’re always a bit of an outsider at school; a bit of a weirdo. York music department was a mix of lovely weirdos from all over the country. I was in Derwent college then a house share in Huntington village.

I had a really good time, probably too good a time if the truth be known. There used to be this thing  called ‘Gumbo’ that happened in Vanbrugh on Friday nights, with a lot of vegetarian food. It was  actually the nicest food you could get on campus at that particular point. It wasn’t just students that  seemed to come to it, it was a mix of people. That was great because the university is a little  bit out of the town and it felt like it was sometimes hard to integrate with York City. But that was one of  the occasions when people would come in and then you’d end up going back with a load of people and  hanging out off campus.  

I’m still very good friends with two or three people that I was at University with, but there are so many  with whom I’ve lost touch. I remember a philosophy undergrad who was inspiring. He volunteered at the overnight drop in centre, which was usually empty, and when it was a few of us we would go and have all night arguments with him. He used to go around saying things like, ‘I think we all need to use 10% less  words every week’. For his final essay, he wrote something like, ‘I don’t think words are useful’  and proceeded to submit a load of hand drawings instead. I think he dropped out before graduating and the last I heard he was living in a Buddhist commune.  

At that point, we were still all subsidized. Everybody who wasn’t wealthy was eligible to get a grant and  that was enough to pay for your board and lodging, especially if you were frugal. I remember there was  a lovely woman who, week one, spent her entire term’s grant on a dress (it was a beautiful dress) but  then she had to spend the rest of the term sustaining herself on homemade yogurt because that was  all she could afford. But she was on the front cover of Vogue sometime after that so she was on the  right mission. 

And then of course, there were all the musicians. It was very easy just to hang out in the music block,  because the thing about the music department was that all the undergrads and post grads were there  simultaneously. Some of the post grads were the most inspiring. I remember this one guy who was very challenging. He’d always respond with questions like,’Why is that? Why do you think that?’ and would systematically destroy all your pre conceptions. He went on to be head of the music department  at Huddersfield. It was nice to mix with those people because they knew why they were there. Whereas so many of us undergrads had come because that’s what we all thought we had to do after school. You’d look at postgrads working hard having made a sacrifice to be there. That real world wisdom challenged my  party lifestyle, which sometimes made a difference…

“If you want to be a  writer, you read; if you want to be a musician, you listen.”

There was a fantastic composer, who was a visiting lecturer, called Trevor Wishart (I believe still lives  in York). He was very radical in all kinds of ways and he was a virtuoso in the electronic studio. He  made me realise that with a razor blade and a piece of tape you could create a whole world. Trevor attracted a lot of radical musicians. He’d made this amazing, and still rather shocking, piece of work called ‘Redbird’. Anyone who’s interested in electronic music, and  particularly tape composition (because it’s all made by splicing tape before the days of samplers)  would find it worth checking out. Virtually the first day we were there he came and played some of it to  us. It was that thing where you’re  meeting your peers for the first time and almost all those people that were excited by what he was doing, that weren’t yawning, were people I then gravitated towards for the next three years. 

York music department had a beautifully designed music studio. If you got in on Monday morning, a  sheet went up with the week’s slots that you could book in for. Usually the only time I got up early was  on Monday. It was basic; before the digital age, it had tape machines, sequencers, ring modulators and  filters and if you did a little studio induction course you were allowed to more or less live in it. I had a lot of time to myself in there and then people would come and visit to help out or I’d get people to come  and record. I loved being in a studio. Also they had a really nice listening room where you could book out a turntable, a pair of headphones and select a disk from their vinyl library – if you want to be a  writer, you read; if you want to be a musician, you listen. 

The music department was known for having these very avant garde type people that had gone  through, attracted by the quality of the faculty. The professor at that time was Wilfred Mellors. His book, “Man and his Music ” was very influential because it was radically inclusive, for example treating Beethoven and The Beatles with equal weight. Neil Sorrell was a charismatic ethnomusicologist who had travelled the  world and had first hand knowledge of numerous non-western traditions. David Blake was an authority on serialism –  this attracted various wonderful people to go and study there like Gillian Moore, who was studying Webern, for a PhD. She went on to have a fantastic career and is  now Dame Gillian – we’re all very proud of her.  

I was an OK oboist, and I enjoyed playing it, but it’s no good for playing along with a drum kit which  limits the kinds of music you can play. So I took up the saxophone quite bravely, I think, because I was  about 20 and absolutely rubbish. There were some great university jazz musicians and they were very  supportive, like my genius Jazz flautist friend, Eddie Parker, but ultimately I sounded like some terrible  dying thing for at least the first three years of learning the saxophone. I think you have to make a choice in education, especially uni, as to whether to:  A. Cruise on with what you’re already good at and achieve academic success  or  B. Try and gain new knowledge and risk failure for being a novice compared to your peers.  Of course your peers can teach you about their own specialist enthusiasms, and ultimately I think I  learned a lot from the other students. 

Leaving York felt like a certain plug had been pulled and I think that I always felt like I wanted to be  back amongst those people. Because that was my first team; the kind of folk that I related to. I think it’s  very tough in your 20s for everybody that leaves full time education, unless you go into some kind of  vocational work, apprenticeship or internship. Particularly in the arts, maybe it’s more difficult, and, for  me, leaving all the fantastic facilities behind was also a tough wake up. 

Life after University 

I did all kinds of silly odd jobs after that. I remember, there was this employment agency that I used to  get work from, and they had this strap line that said, ‘Get a job in video!’ So I went along there and of  course, what it meant was video duplicating. We were all sitting there unwrapping video cassettes and  putting them in machines, pressing play and record. Although character building to be in the real world I guess it gave me an impetus to try and find a way of getting back to living that kind of life where you are being creative and learning with those kinds of people that I was with at York.  

The only thing I had when I left college of any value was a grand piano and I sold that in order to pay  for myself to go to America, because I thought – I want to go to America and hang out, to find out what  jazz is, and drink at the source of that music. It was a fool’s mission really but it was a good experience. I  lived over there for about nine months in 1982-83. Initially, I was in New York and found a car share with  a guy I thought was going to LA – we drove across east to west in four terrifying days. I ended up in Berkeley, which was actually where this guy was driving to. He opened the door and said, ’Right, here  you are, this is where you get out!’ I was like, ‘This isn’t LA!’ In retrospect I think this misunderstanding was a very lucky break. 

I really enjoyed Berkeley. There used to be these magazines that you could get on the street for free and there’d be an advert saying, ‘Saxophone player needed for band.’ After the first month of being  there, I was playing in a band every single night, in some dodgy dives usually, but it was playing music  and it was playing in front of people. It was a great way to learn something about being in a band. I  was really trying to make my way as a professional sax player, which was pretty deluded, but I  persevered. People were very kind and I ended up teaching at a music school in the daytime and  playing saxophone in all these different bands around the Bay Area. 

“The audience and you are in  communication, even if it’s not obvious, because they’re sitting down or you can’t see them, but you can usually feel them.”

I remember doing one gig where the keyboard player and the conga player had this terrible falling out and during this gig the aggro built up, and eventually there was a knife fight at the end of it. It felt a bit  wild west. I remember going to sleep a lot of nights, hearing gunfire because where I was, in Berkeley,  was on the border with Oakland. I don’t know what it’s like now, but it could be a pretty rough  environment. It was very different to the safe corridors of the University of York. 

At another gig in a deserted nightclub someone wandered in off the street as somewhere warm to go,  probably a little bit high. They must have been the only person there and I was doing a little sax solo  and they just started responding and dancing to it. I felt like this person was  really connected to what I was playing in a very direct way. It really made a big impression on me that the audience and you are in  communication, even if it’s not obvious, because they’re sitting down or you can’t see them, but you can usually feel them. I think actors talk about this too, that they change their performance depending on  the vibe they’re getting back from the audience. That turned me on to the idea that you have to have your receiver channel on, as well as your transmitter when you’re playing live. 

Tears for Fears

When I came back from America, I was a bit battle hardened. One of the things with playing the  saxophone is that it’s all in flat keys, which means if you’re trying to play with guitars they’re playing  sharp keys, so you have to know how to improvise in C sharp minor for example, a lot of the time. It’s not territory familiar to novice sax players, but I was up to speed with that because I’d had to play with  all these different US guitar bands. 

I got spotted by Andy Davis, who has become a good friend since. He’s a legendary songwriter and  guitar player who was playing with the ‘Tears for Fears’ and they were looking for a sax player.  At that time, and luckily for me, every cool band wanted a sax. He recommended me so I ended up going and trying out with them. And for some reason, they thought it was a good idea! While they were making their second album we went in and did some Radio One sessions in London playing their new material. I remember the engineer looking at me, and he came over and moved the microphone a little  bit closer and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m accepted, they want to hear what I’m doing.’ That was a nice moment. 

I went off on tour with them in 1984-85. That was very exciting because they were just topping the charts in America. They were on every radio station. On the tour bus wherever you were going,  whichever state you were driving through, whichever station you flicked through they were playing  ‘Tears for Fears’. It was a fly on the wall masterclass in how to be a successful band and gave me  confidence to work on future projects of my own.  

Goldfrapp 

After a while being a session sax player I had a certain realisation that I was very much dependent on  somebody phoning me up. I wasn’t really in control of my destiny. I ended up thinking I could be the  one who picks up the phone to make the call. I wanted to try writing songs. I was learning more about  studios, recording and mixing and sometimes other bands would come in and I’d record them. I’d been writing music for TV and film as well as doing the occasional sax gig with the Nyman band, and my own duo with drummer Tony Orrell, ‘The Gas Giants’. Somebody said you should check this wonderful singer out called Alison because I think you’d get on. I was always into 60s retro/ James  Bond/ Bacharach style. When I heard Alison’s voice I made contact.  

“I think with Alison we always totally agreed about music – and that was the bond – we both always knew when something sounded  good and when it was working.”

We sent each other little mixtapes of music that we liked. I think I put mostly Ennio Morricone on my  tape and she included some music she’d done with Tricky. I phoned her up once, and she’d put one of  these Morricone tracks on her answer phone and I thought, ‘Okay, I think this is the start of something.’ She came to Bath and we wrote and recorded three tracks together. She took the tracks to Daniel Miller, who was Head of Mute Records. These ended up on our first album ‘Felt Mountain’. We weren’t 20 somethings, we were coming into that part of life where you think, ‘If this is going to work, it has to be with somebody that I’m really aligned with.’ We probably both had experiences of trying to collaborate with people when it wasn’t going to be a good mix. I think with Alison we always totally agreed about music – and that was the bond – we both always knew when something sounded  good and when it was working. 

Advice on creating music… or anything

My best advice to aspiring musicians and producers is to be kind to yourself, and not too judgmental.  Making something out of nothing, which is what you’re doing, is a big ask. So much great music has  come out of art schools rather than music colleges. I think that’s because in art schools, you’re dealing  with the blank page as a daily experience and that’s a very challenging and scary place to be. I think that music colleges don’t encourage that enough. Getting used to the blank page is what you need in your armory. You need to get used to living in that grey area, where you just don’t know whether what you’re doing is any good or not, and toughen up to that feeling of not knowing. Tomorrow, or next week or next month you will know. But not today. Today you carry on regardless. 

Will with the ‘Moog Ensemble’

In terms of the business side of music and getting jobs, other people that  make that happen. You can’t do it on your own; you need contacts that can connect you to the world.  So I don’t really criticize nepotism, I think it’s a function of how we live. I think it’s a natural thing that’s been going on since forever. I heard somewhere that a  huge percentage of people still take the same career path as their parents. There’s nothing wrong with  that or using any contacts that you have that might be able to help you get somewhere, even if it’s just  advice. Make the most of your circle.  

“Getting used to the blank page is what you need in your armoury.”

My final piece of advice would be to try not to be bullied into making things that you don’t like – worry  about making things that you like, which is hard enough, and don’t worry about what other people will  think. 

William Gregory’s new album ‘Heat Ray” with the Moog Ensemble is out in June.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article, loaded with well grounded advice. Some catchy phrases that would make good lyrics
    Thank you
    Tony

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