By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
At a table in a Borders in Lewisville, Matthew Gray looks like the kind of guy who would be leading a Dungeons and Dragons workshop instead of one of the most talked-about local bands of the year.
Sporting a scraggly beard, the founder of Matthew and the Arrogant Sea comes across as a friendly type—sort of professorial, too, if the community college offered a course in alchemy.
"We're a weird, indie pop band; that's what we are," Gray says in the forthright manner that will prove to be the order of the afternoon.
"Chameleon pop," chimes in drummer (and Matthew's nephew) Jacob Gray.
For four years, Matthew Gray and a varied assortment of bandmates have been traversing the roads crisscrossing Denton, Fort Worth and Dallas, hoping someone was paying attention to their twisted take on pop. Obviously, more than a few people were. The band's forthcoming effort, Family Family Family Meets the Magic Christian, has received the kind of pre-release publicity usually reserved for groups with a lot less geek factor than Matthew and crew.
Enigmatic to an extreme, Gray is direct and opinionated about many things, but still coy about his own music. The singer dismisses obvious comparisons, but is reserved about naming alternatives. Gray seems perplexed (but appreciative) about the recent attention his band has received.
"It appears like we just came together a month ago, but that's not the case at all," Gray says.
The frontman believes that good old-fashioned hard work was the major contributing factor in the group's recent success.
"We've paid our dues; we really have," Gray says. "We've gone through it all, and we haven't let anything stop us."
By "it all" Matthew is referring to endless hours writing and recording as well as countless shows performed for whoever happened to be on hand. "I've played a lot of shows for nobody for a long time," the singer-songwriter says.
Gray, who, for his day job, works selling time-shares for a real estate company, has musically collaborated with dozens of players from in and around Denton for several years. And, in the process, he's recorded and released a whopping 18 albums and EPs (in pressings as small as 50) for a seemingly countless list of indie labels. Through it all, though, Matthew kept on believing in what he was doing, believing that his music would reach a wider audience. But it wasn't until a chance encounter with guitarist John Gillespie and the decision to work with his own brother Caleb, that Matthew Gray's work ethic has finally paid off.
"This is the tightest band I've ever had," Gray says. "We bust our asses, practicing six hours at a time. We've spent days and nights doing nothing but writing and recording this new record."
That record is the unwieldy-titled Family, an album packed with graceful allusions to the expected (Beach Boys, Beatles) and the surprising (Roy Orbison, Sparklehorse). Lush and intricate one minute, lo-fi and ragged the next, songs such as "Within the Universe" and "Mock Origami" are skillful tapestries, music of intense beauty even at its raw moments. Pop, rock and neo-classical elements intermix, creating an atmosphere described (a few too many times) as dreamy, although seductive would provide a better account. The old-school electronics and well-constructed chorus of "Pretty Purple Top Hat" wouldn't sound out of place on a Wilco or Bob Dylan record. And that's just how Gray would want it.
"We've been at this for so long, fine-tuning our sound," he says. "If you really care about what you are doing, then you fine-tune your own band. And that's what we've done."
Part of this fine-tuning means accepting the standard-issue comparisons dished out by shortsighted critics. Rarely has an article not likened Matthew and crew to such current practitioners of indie rock as Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes. Although a fan of both bands, Gray vigorously disputes either comparison.
"All of a sudden we have a new record out, and it's a pop record," he says. "So we supposedly sound like the trendiest pop band? I think that's bullshit."
As the band's audience has grown, so has its ambition. Incorporating two drummers and a variety of unique instrumentation, Gray and company already have another complete album written and ready to be recorded. But first, Matthew and the Arrogant Sea are about to venture out on its most wide-reaching tour, hitting the west coast and Midwest before getting back to their day jobs in Denton.
"Our entire goal is to play a live set that is completely ass-backwards to what is on the record," says Gray. "I think it's important for a band to be stronger live than what's on the record."
And, after this upcoming tour, Matthew Gray wouldn't want to return anywhere else but to Dallas' hip neighbor to the north. Seems he prefers the more laid-back, family atmosphere of Denton to the hustle-and-bustle competitiveness of Dallas.
"I think Dallas is a really interesting city with an interesting musical history," says Gray. " But I think the reason people like Denton is because nobody gives a fuck and that allows bands to create something special."