Gunpowder Gray Pulls the Trigger
It’s hard to pin down Gunpowder Gray’s sound. Calling them punk might lead some to expect a level of sloppiness or youthful rebellion that just isn’t there. Metal has become a catch-all term for specific subgenres, and the band has never been one to settle on a specific extreme approach. The third option, hard rock, has been a descriptor for some pretty shitty stuff since the ’70s, so let’s not go there.
The remaining original members of the band – singer and guitarist Chris Heffernan and bassist Sam Vaughan – know exactly what sound defines the name Gunpowder Gray. From the early days with powerhouse vocalist Nate Godbee, Biters drummer Joey O’Brien, and lead guitarist Adam Besserer in the fold and through a litany of lineup changes since, the two core members always chased the sounds captured on the new EP Lethal Rock and Roll (out now on Boris Records subsidiary Midnight Cruiser Records).
When chatting with Heffernan and Vaughan at band practice, it was clear from the start that their new four-song record is the payoff for six and a half years of fractured relationships, tours in a raggedy van and all the other “lethal” stuff that goes on when the band isn’t on stage. Every setback or less than ideal scenario galvanized the band’s core members, preparing them for a current run of creative highs with Chicago-based lead guitarist Brad Robers and Chris’ younger brother Jon Heffernan on drums.
For starters, you guys were both in the band when it first started, right?
Chris: Technically, I started the band, and Sam and Joey O’Brien were the first people I asked to play with. Charlie Southern from Sadistic Ritual was actually in the band at one time, but he’s never played a first show with us.
Sam: It’s kind of funny how that worked out. At the time, I’d been jamming with a with a bunch of people throughout the years since my last band, which was way back in the day. Everything kept falling through. I saw Chris at a show. In between bands, I had my iPod and controlled the music. Chis was like, “Dude, who’s playing this?” I’m like, “I am.” He’s like, “Dude, I’m starting a new rock ‘n’ roll thing, and I think you’d be perfect for it.” I’d just about given up on music because for like five or six years in Atlanta, I was trying to start shit and something would happen. Like, this guy’s in this band that suddenly became successful, this guy’s going to rehab now, or whatever.
Chris: Did you ever go to 2 High Studios? It was on Permalume off Chattahoochee Avenue.
I’ve heard of it, but I don’t think I ever went there.
Chris: It’s the studio we practiced in, and we formed the band there.
Sam: Almost everyone practiced there.
Chris: I lived there for almost two years. It sucked, looking back on that. I would probably still be there if it was still open. I thank God it isn’t because this house is a lot easier than living at a studio.
Sam: We did a lot of shit there, truthfully. Mangled, Vimur, Hellgoat and all the up-and-coming bands (practiced there). It’s pretty funny that all the Boris alumni practiced there. It was this weird haven because some people lived there. It wasn’t like Thunderbox. You couldn’t live there…
Chris: (Thunderbox) was too centralized. Some people tried to, but it wasn’t like 2 High. It was tucked away, and you could get away with being a shady character and living there.
Sam: There were plenty of those!
Jon Heffernan: That’s the two original members right there.
Sam: If you think about it, Nate’s in San Antonio with a new band that’s good. We played a show with them. Adam’s in fucking Profanatica now, and he’s touring all over the place.
Chris: He’s living in Chicago, which is where our current lead guitar player lives.
Sam: Joey’s in Biters, obviously. It’s kind of cool that even though we don’t play with the same dudes, everyone still pushed forward.
With all the lineup changes, was any thought given to changing the band name or going in a different direction?
Sam: Why bother?
Chris: I feel like it’s almost like a persona, in a way. Gunpowder Gray is all the shit we went through – living in a rehearsal space and all of that shit. I don’t care if we change direction to where we’re playing synth-pop or some shit. It’ll be called that. It’s not about a certain sound. It’s about the lifestyle of being dedicated to music as expression.
Sam: We went through so many lifestyle changes. Changing relationships, changing jobs…
And the sacrifices that go along with touring.
Chris: On this this last tour, we were in this 1990, black, smoking van. People would come outside and say, “Oh, that’s definitely Gunpowder Gray’s van!” You laugh at it and it’s funny, but when you’re going through West Virginia in the middle of winter, it’s like, “We’re going to fucking die, dude!” We’re on tires that should’ve popped a couple of months ago.
Sam: Actually, I did blow two tires in about a six-hour span.
Chris: You’re out there, and if this van goes off the cliff, we’re all dead. There’s no seat belts. Those benches in my living room are strapped into the van. They don’t fit. It’s makeshift. Everything is on a shoestring budget. Like, the bare minimum of what it takes to get there.
Sam: Well, that sounds depressing as fuck…
Chris: It is. That’s the reality of it. Mostly, you and I have smiles on our faces going about it.
Sam: Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine life without Gunpowder now. It’s part of my identity. Over one-fifth of my life has been dedicated to this band.
How did Brad end up joining the band despite living in Chicago? Did you meet him on the road?
Chris: Yeah, we met him at the Cobra Lounge. It was a weak turnout because we almost didn’t do the show. One of the guys from Bible of the Devil, a band that’s been in contact with us for a while, put Brad’s band in touch and they opened up. We all thought that their lead guitarist, which was Brad, was perfect.
Sam: He took over vocals, too. They did a Motorhead cover, and he took over vocals. I thought, “Holy fuck. This guy’s got style. He’s got skills, man. He’s cool.” Alex (Parra) told us on that tour that he was going to quit and focus on Paladin and Sadistic Ritual. So now we have some big shows lined up that he couldn’t do, and then, was it you that talked to Brad first?
Chris: I messaged him. I was really straight up with him. I wanted to know if he could pull off playing with Gunpowder Gray in Atlanta. Even Alex told us, “This guy would be a good replacement for me.” He said yeah right away, and he’s been with us since. He’s put up with more bullshit, and the thing is, he got to meet us on the road.
Sam: Yeah, we didn’t know him.
Chris: When we practice like this (as a three-piece), we’re a punk band. When Brad steps in, that’s when it becomes a rock band, with the caliber of musician that he is. He’s not just a metal guitar player. He plays with blues, and he plays with feeling. He can go there. And he jumps off stage and shit.
Sam: His stage presence is rad.
Coming up soon, you’ll all be in Atlanta for the Summer Stunner.
Chris: We’re stoked on that festival because that’ll be our record release on Friday.
Plus, the people that Chase busts his ass to get to Atlanta will really get you.
Chris: Chase has really done a lot for us with the Down South Showdown. I feel like a lot of what Sam and I do is going to be punk, but a lot of people don’t get it until they see us live. That fest put us on the map.
Skipping ahead to the record, how’d you end up working with Tuk (Smith of the Biters) and Dan (Dixon)?
Chris: I’d wanted to work with Tuk for a while. I mean, we’ve been buds for a while, and I’ve seen the way he did pre-production for Biters records. I wanted that for us. It’s hard to explain what he does. If you’ve got a song that’s 10 percent, he’ll take it the other 90 percent for you. It depends on what you give him and what you want out of it. The main thing he gets that I’ve never seen in a producer or engineer for the money that him and Dan do it, which is literally just about the same price as going anywhere and having someone hit record, is they get the most they can get out of you and they get the groove of the song. They show you what it is about your song that’s going to work. They unlock that for you.
Sam: They bust your balls, but they also amp you up to make you want to do it at 110 percent.
Chris: And they’re both great musicians. Dan is an incredible guitar player and he’s a great singer. He can do pretty much everything he’s asking you to do.
Sam: It’s nice to have an engineer and producer that want you to succeed and give a shit about your music.
Chris: Those songs are really the first time we’ve captured what it is… I think it’s our first record, in a lot of ways. It really feels like that to me.
Sam: Six and a half years down the road, we have what we set out to accomplish.
Chris: Each EP has had less songs on it. We’ve gotten better at trimming the fat. Everything is leaner. It’s meaner.
Sam: The song crafting is becoming more apparent.
Chris: We have a sound, and we didn’t just fall into it. It took six and a half years of labor. It is a labor of lust, you know.
Photo by Tim Song.