Glasperlenspiel Interview 2003

Chris Sampson

Between 1986 and ‘96 James Ray produced a string of eclectic, aggressive singles and albums on Merciful Release.  We haven’t heard much of him in recent years, but after the great man was spotted in the audience at the Sisters’ Bristol gig, the GPS team decided it was time to give him a grilling.  As it happened, JR was a pleasure to interview.

Glasperlenspiel: The rumour mill has been humming for a while with reports that you’re either back in the studio or about to play some gigs, but there’s been no concrete news.  What’s happening?  Are we about to get a Gangwar comeback? 


James Ray: John & Damon have been wanting to resurrect Gangwar for sometime as it was my decision to stop not theirs. I get pangs to return to the stage every now & then but the longer we leave it the more difficult it then becomes to arrange any decent gigs & I certainly don’t want to start playing pubs again. We have enough material to play an entirely new set but we would need a venue that would be geared up in the sound & lighting department to make it worthwhile so unless we were offered something suitable attached to a relevant financial deal then I don’t really see the point of ‘starting again’.

What type of music are you doing?

The music is basically a logical progression of Psychodalek written mainly by John, as he has been very prolific with his own thing – Volatile Headspace.

As for releasing anything, well I can’t be bothered to trail around labels looking for a deal & I don’t have the time or the inclination to release anything myself, I’m too busy eating everything else on my plate.

The first time most of us heard of James Ray was when you sang on The Sisterhood’s Giving Ground single.  How did you get to work with Eldritch?  For contractual reasons Giving Ground had to be released in a rush, what are your memories of the recording?

Eldritch heard the first ever four tracks I created – Mexico, Edie, Johnny Goodbye & Dance (evolved into Bad Gin). He offered me a deal and off we went to the studio. Whilst there Wayne Hussey & Craig Adams started playing gigs under The Sisterhood name which pissed Eldritch off, so in order to claim the name he had to release a record. So during the recording of Mexico / Edie we made & released ‘Giving Ground’. We then spent weeks on what was to be The Sisterhood’s second single – ‘This Corrosion’, but Eldritch decided he was going to use it to kick start The Sisters MKII.

The Sisterhood went on to make the Gift album.  Were you involved with any album tracks other than Giving Ground?  It’s always been very difficult untangling who did what.

I wasn’t involved too much with the album as it was taking ages for Eldritch to formulate any concrete ideas & I wanted to be writing my own stuff. I personally think the album transpired to cash in on the sales of the single. Lucas Fox done (sic) the spoken word stuff.

And then we had a string of singles from James Ray and the Performance on Merciful Release.  I thought Texas in particular had what it takes and should have sold by the truckload, but the Performance didn’t quite seem to make it as big as they should have. Did you get much support from Merciful Release, or were they only there when the Sisters were on a break?

Eldritch was contractually the manager of ‘The Performance’ but he gave his duties to the inept Boyd Steemson who was to all intents & purposes the Merciful Release spokesperson & had no abilities as a manager. He didn’t want us to perform live which really pissed me off and as ‘Texas’ was one of the big hits on the beaches of Goa in 1987 we really should have been kicking doors down. Eldritch kind of liked the idea that we should remain quite enigmatic, which is cool in one respect but if your output of releases is minimised to retain that enigma it becomes a bit of a backward step and therefore reduces your profile sufficiently for no one to really care. If we had been German this may have worked. By the time The Sisters MKII were up and running I became quite disillusioned with everything which caused friction between Carl & myself and as Dustboat had been recorded a year before its release I called it a day with ‘The Performance’.

Was there ever a temptation to move onto a bigger label?

I would have loved to have moved to a bigger label but a contract is a contract and that was that.

Listening again to the Performance’s records it’s clear that the use of electronics was ahead of the field, at a time when a fey, cardigan-wearing acoustic style or outright Goth was the fashion in indie circles.  Which bands influenced you?

No bands influenced me but many inspired me – Chrome, Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire, Die Krupps, Tangerine Dream, John Foxx, Black Sabbath, Hawkwind, to name a few.

You’ve moved between a fairly minimalist electronic style, through guitar alt.rock to trance.  Yet listening to the back catalogue there’s always something distinctive in there if you listen carefully, a James Ray watermark, if you like.  Is there some sort of attitude or emotion that you think characterises your music?

I’m pleased  you hear a ‘watermark’; many people think it’s an eclectic collection of releases. I would say the main attitudes and emotions would boil down to anger & loneliness & love. These are the essential and governing aspects of my make-up. I’ve always said that Trance was Goth without the horror . . . .  the horror.

There was always an aura of violence about the band, especially early Gangwar.  The cover of Without Conscience in particular was extremely aggressive and assassination was a repeated theme.  Do you think it’s an essential component of a decent rock’n’roll band to be overtly aggressive?

Being brought up on punk & heavy rock in the Northeast I was constantly surrounded by violence & aggression that permeates itself into everything, rightly or wrongly. The imagery of Gangwar was based on Black American Gang Culture, which as you know became Gangster Rap. Rock music without aggression is Bon Jovi et al, which is not my bag at all.

It was absolutely impossible to buy a copy of the second MK Ultra album, Beluga Pop - terrible distribution, which was a pity because it was great.  Why?  What was the problem?

Don’t ask me! Ask the fucking train driver!I have recently remixed it and recorded some vocal tracks for it so if someone wants to release it then here I am.

I guess over the years music becomes less of a crusade for artists. You realise you’re not going to change the world and sell ten million copies of your next album.  What acts as the motivation to keep going? 

Art, passion. The knowledge that if Radiohead can sell ten million records then so can anyone given the right release at the right time.

The music industry has changed enormously since the days of Mexico Sundown Blues.  It seems more difficult than ever for an artist like yourself to have hit records, but I’d guess that the upside of that is that you have more freedom to make the music you want, that there’s less pressure to be commercial.  Is that how it feels when you’re making music?

I have never made music for commercial reasons. I couldn’t. I make the music I want to hear and if others do and it sells then fuckin’ A, I get to make another.

You were spotted in the audience for the Sisters’ recent gig at Bristol.  What were your impressions?

Jules Verne didn’t need a time machine. He just had to wait. I enjoyed it.