In Conversation with Gary Thomas of The Ernie Ball String Collective


We catch up with organiser Eland Gray (aka Gary Thomas) about the semi-annual string concert, featuring Hezron Chetty, Lucy Kruger, Joshua Grierson, Francesca Biancoli and Manny Walters


My first introduction to your music was Cabins in the Forest. It was back in the scene when cafe bar gigs were prominent, bands like Five Men Two Missing, Greenisforturbo and Us Kids Know were fluctuating through us new student types. Tell us about your beginnings into the music landscape in South Africa. What do you remember? Who was on your radar? Where were the places you’d visit to watch live gigs?

I started out in 2006 with Cabins in the Forest and we did pretty well in the two years that we were gigging together. Our ‘band’ was born around the same time of Myspace which I guess was the beginning of social media and online marketing for musicians. So it was an interesting time to get into the business. I remember all those bands, they were great. The old Armchair Theatre was in its heyday in Obs and that was quite a landmark for any kind of live music.

The Indie and emo culture back then was rife with folk/songwriting projects catering to more niche audiences. How did you slot yourself into this territory and find venues, collaborators and promoters to assist you in building a community around your music?

I think it’s a pretty simple method, you just play loads of shows. And then play more shows. And make great content. And work really hard. South Africa’s relatively easy to find venues everywhere. It’s good to see how diverse music has become here. This country has had decades of generic sound-alike music and I love how these days, musicians seem to be mashing up genres and embracing their own voice a bit more. That’s just how I see it.

Tell us about the birth of Eland Gray. People knew the name Gary Thomas, looking for your theatre and intimate gigs in their city. So what made you change the name?

I spent a year and a half in Spain recently and toured around Europe promoting my last album. The name change has been on my to-do list for years. It’s simply motivated by how common a name Gary Thomas is and how hard it became to stand out on the internet as a brand of sorts while being swallowed up by so many other Gary Thomas’s out there, especially the two prominent ones in America. The story of how I got Eland Gray is long and weird but at the end of the day, it kind of represents a feeling in my head that sort of resonated with me. And it doesn’t really exist in the world.

You’ve collaborated with many musicians on your albums. Guy Buttery has made an appearance of quite a bit of your material. Tell us about the musical relationship you share with him.

Guy’s one of my greatest friends and is someone I really look up to musically. Whenever we are in the same place for a short time, we always try make something together on some level. We have very different styles but I guess we share a sense of what sounds good. It’s sort of a musical telepathy thing you get with people who are great players and great people.

You often have unusual and strong elements that complement playing a string instrument, using certain picking techniques and a bow to create sounds. How essential has it been to experiment with new ways of sound on your journey?

I think at times it can be essential to try push boundaries with art and see how things can expand and evolve. It’s part of what makes you grow as an artist. On the flip side it can just be about making something you think is beautiful. That’s the fun thing with music, as an art form, the combinations are endless.

You spent a chunk of time last year touring Europe and the UK. Tell us how that shaped your career, what you learned during this time and the response you received.

I did about 30 concerts around Europe and England. In a simplistic way, touring Europe is good because there are just so many venues in so many cities in so many countries. So just the sheer volume of exposure to people in a month can be great. There were some countries that seemed to embrace a weirder side of music more than others. I always say that a show to 100 people is a show to 100 people. Meaning that music is universal and you can get a very similar response all over the world as long as the conditions are right. It’s just that the amount of opportunities and festivals overseas are plentiful. You really just have to play everywhere you can. As far and wide as possible.

I imagine that being on tour for that long can be mentally and physically exhausting. How do you ensure you keep yourself present, aware and creative during this time?

I just make sure I have a chilled out day on the night of a show, if possible. I don’t work out or exhaust myself if I’m playing that night. You just have to take one day at a time and try stay healthy, eat well and be clean. That’s better for the music. Then it’s a lot of fun.

Tell us about the Ernie Ball String Collective Show and your role in this event.

I have an endorsement with Ernie Ball through Paul Bothner music in Cape Town. I created this concert series a few years ago in reciprocation for all the great things Paul Bothner music does for me. But also just to create a really cool, eclectic semi- annual evening where people can watch six different acts playing three songs each. Ernie Ball is a guitar strings and accessories company, so we’re always give out loads of gear to the crowd and it’s just a really fun time. I organise everything from the line-up to ticket sales. It’s hard work, but it’s always such a great night.

What goes into the selection process for the line-up?

As an Ernie Ball event, it’s primarily a guitar based line up. But there are loads of guests and other instruments. To be honest I just choose a combination of who I think is good at what they do and what’s going to be a super eclectic and varied show.

We’re seeing a development of musicians reappropriate church spaces for live music. What made you choose this space for the Ernie Ball and what atmosphere are you hoping it creates with the crowd and the people you will share the stage with?

This is my third concert there at the Slave Church Museum. Cathedrals and any large space like that often have great acoustics and atmosphere. This is a sit down show. It’s about being attentive to some great music and in a venue like that it just adds to the warmth of the sound.

Could you please ask each of the artists playing for one adjective to encapsulate their anticipation for this event.

Hezron Chetty: Multifaceted

Lucy Kruger: Orphic

Eland Gray: Huge

Joshua Grierson: Red

Francesca Biancoli: Wild

Manny Walters: Enthusiastic

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