Michael Gray

Grammy nominated Michael Gray has been producing dance music since the early 90’s under a range of different guises. Ahead of the launch of his brand new album, Optimism, DMC World caught up with him to discuss all things house.

Words: Curtis Zack


Hi Michael, and welcome to DMC World. Your new album ‘Optimism’ has just been released in the last week, so let’s start there. Tell us about it…

Well, the new album has been about a year and a half in the making, maybe a little bit longer. Obviously, that’s not working on it every single day, but at long last I managed to get it released, with vinyl coming next in about a month and a half time. I just wanted to have an album which showed all the different sides of me, very much the soulful side as well as the house side.

And to showcase the soulful side, you’ve got a lot of live instrumentation on the tracks. Is that right?

Yeah there is live instrumentation is on pretty much most of them and I wanted to have a hybrid between the fundamental elements of house music; on house records obviously with programmed drums and stuff which were all used to, but at the same time, I brought in Derek Mackenzie from Jamiroquai on drums, so he’s then drummed over the top of mine. I put very simple patterns in and then I’ve merged the two together, getting it totally synched into time. Then the same with live percussion from Russ Tarley, who’s known for his work with Incognito, then obviously live singers Tatiana Owens, Kelli Sae Lex Cameron, Leela D, Dyanna Fearon, there’s quite a few actually.

And presumably live instrumentation presents different challenges for production over, say, standard house tracks?

The thing is with a lot of the remixes I’ve done over the over the last three or four years, I’ve been getting very used to using the live drums, which are in the remix, say if it’s an old disco track. There’s an original drummer on there and I’m trying to keep all those elements and just make it a lot tougher, so you get that live feel. So, I was kind of used to syncing up live drums with programmed drums and the same goes with bass line, having to warp all these tracks and get them all perfectly in time, where   in the old days would have gone out, and the same applies to this. So, it kind of felt like a natural progression, obviously with guitar, stuff like that and the big thing about the album is live strings.

I know that everybody can’t just do live strings, it does cost a bit of money, so I’ve invested a lot in the album to be quite honest because I wanted the real deal. The guy who I used to score the strings is a guy called Stephen Hussey. He arranged them, some we did together, some he did on his own, and it’s just the best feeling watching all four players go through each one of your tracks in a studio and hear the whole thing come to life. That’s something you can’t really programme quite as good sometimes on plugins.

And the first track ‘Ivy’ starts the album with those strings, you can really hear the fruits of your labour.

Well, that’s why we decided on that TRACK for the start. A few people who are close to me, I played them the track, and everybody said ‘Ivy’ has got to come first, hence those strings they’re very emotional, I think.

Changing tack now and taking it way back. How did you get into producing in the first place?

Right. Well, that’s really interesting.  I would say probably when I started working for DMC, funny enough and I would have been in my mid-20s, I started mixing tracks together then went from that to remixing then actually to producing tracks and back then working for DMC, you were very much it’s a case of you doing everything yourself.

It’s not like an old school producer where you sit back, and someone presses all the buttons and makes it happen. All the ideas you’ve got in your head, you literally have to do everything you are taught, and we all learnt off each other in the DMC studios how to produce. I learnt on 24 track tape and went from there. The early stuff I started off as a pseudonym called Greed, where I brought in Jon Pearn, from Greed we went to Hustlers Convention, which we did a lot more of cut up disco. And then from that went to Full Intention and I think where things started to really take off for us.

And then how would you say it’s different now, do you think your sounds evolved. You’ve talked about the Hustlers Convention and that’s probably more sampling than you’re doing now, but still have that disco feel. How’s it changed over the years, Has the process changed?

Yeah, the process has definitely changed to make a record or just to or to remix record for remixing. It used to take you know a good day to put all the parts in using samplers and everything like that and now. Now it’s, it’s just so much quicker.

And the quality is better as well. Yes, it’s less equipment, but the plugins and the software and everything, it’s just so, so good now.

And what’s great about now is I’ll work on between 2 and 4 tracks per day, but obviously I can’t finish it in that time, but I can literally save one if I think right, I can’t go any further with that. I’ll go on to another one and then over the period of the next two or three weeks, all those 4 tracks will be done.

Whereas before we had to wait for the A&R guys to go ‘Yeah, I Like that track, we’ll buy it’ and then we can scrub the desk. Back then it was a huge desk full of loads of faders here and there and EQ. And now it’s so much easier.

In terms of style and the music, what we were doing with Full Intention was kind of this very chunky American house sound. We didn’t have a name for it as such, but then suddenly we seemed to get pulled in with the term funky house, which believe it or not, irritated the hell out of me.

Even to this day, I don’t like being known as funky house because I think it got taken to extremes. That’s not what we really set out to do. Ours was not quite that sort of sound, maybe some tracks went there, but now it’s very much a case of just disco and we try and keep more of the elements in of the original record if it’s a remix that is.

With regards to new tracks, it’s trying to make sure it doesn’t sound like a funky house record basically! Simply good house / disco fused together, the tempo’s not as fast and there’s not some crazy loop jangling away all the time. Yeah, it’s kind of just a little bit groovier.

Definitely. And for me, it’s just house. All these genres are pretty much an invention of the media to categorise things, but it’s always just been house. You touched on remixes there, is it a different approach to how you approach remixes versus a new track?

Yes, it’s quite funny how a lot of this album has been done. I would start off with making a backing track, sending it to the writer or singer or both. They would come back with the song over the top, we’d make a few adjustments, or if I felt like this one’s a goer and then I would normally strip all the music that I’ve made in the 1st place and start putting brand new backing track, changing the chords to work even better with what they have originally written.

And that’s happened with many the tracks, for example ‘Invincible’. That’s not the same chords or anything, once I changed the chords to what was written, I was like ‘Oh, my word. This is it!’ and that’s kind of like a remix. You get the acapella in, and then you put the chords down to that acapella, you’re not necessarily working with the original chords that come with that record, because normally you’re taking them off and it’s kind of the same thing in a way.

Interesting. So, for your remixes are their elements that you look for on a track, before agreeing to remix them?

Yeah, there is. I immediately listen to the chorus, and if I hear the chorus has got a good melody line or good lyrics, then I’m interested. It only has to be an acapella, I don’t have to hear the rest of the music. I can just hear the vocal on its own and hear it’s melodically strong. There are sometimes, you can make that sound if the chorus is a bit average, you could make it better, by putting an incredible music hook line which then drives it, which I have done a few times, but that takes a lot more work.

With remixes, I don’t take everything that I’m offered, and sometimes if I’m not sure whether I can turn it around if I’m 50/50. I will just ask for the parts, and I will try out a few things first of all. I will just try it out just to see because I don’t want to take anybody’s money and if I don’t think I can make it rock.

I’ve got to ask you about possibly one of the biggest tracks in on the album Fly Away, which was in the works for a long time. How did that eventually come about.

Originally a friend of mine gave me the acapella, to George Michael’s version with Mary J Blige of As (originally by Stevie Wonder) and I asked for it because I just wanted to have that vocal hook. I then time stretched the vocals from, I think about 100 beats per minute up to about 122 and I thought this is good and then I added the music. I added the chords, the drums, and played it out, I think it was Downtown Disco [my residency in Leeds]. I played it then just watched the reaction and I was like ohh I think I’ve got something bigger than I thought I had.

I decided to re-vocal it completely and used Kimberly Brown, originally from Sounds of blackness and her crew. There was six of them in in all, I sent over the backing track, and said can you resync this and or and then they delivered these amazing vocals. In fact, what they delivered I think is stronger than maybe what I had before, particularly because they’re not time stretched.

The next process was clearing it with Stevie Wonder and Sony Music Publishing, which took pretty much nearly a year and a half. I was told it’s going to take some time, so bear with us. I thought you’re right, it took ages, but I was so excited when they okayed it, then I realised this is the record to set up the album. Out of the whole album, this is the only one that is not original because obviously the vocal line that I’ve utilised, but the rest of the album is totally original.

And clearly a huge track. And then you’ve mentioned downtown Disco, where obviously I’ve seen you playing recently a few times playing. What can people expect from a Michael Gray DJ set?

Well, Downtown or anywhere, it’s normally disco to house, and I try and play classic disco, which has been remixed or re-edited and also new disco. To me, it’s all about pushing things forward. It always has been. I could just play all the classics, but to me, it’s actually moving things forward, hence the album. Certain places, sometimes people will want to hear some Full Intention classics and I will throw those in as well, and I enjoy doing that too. But generally good house and disco.

You’ve got obviously lots of original disco, you play on your Thursday night Twitch sets. Any inklings of playing, any original disco sets anytime?

If someone said to me, a promoter said to me, I want you just can you just play original disco sets? Yeah, I’d love to do that.

If there’s one thing, I’d also like to do is get the opportunity to play an early set. A warmup where I can play a much slower tempo and build the night up and that is something that I’m hoping to do. We’re trying to arrange in London where I’ll play all night, so will start the night.

This is kind of how my Sultra nights work, where Ian Perry, he will warm up from a slow disco tempo and then ready for me to go on, because I think that just works so well in the club.

Onto the final couple of questions now. What do the next 6-12 months hold for yourself?

Well, the next 6-12 months, a lot of playing the album, I think and there’s a lot of singles that have been going to be released from the album. Some of the ones that are on the album which are not extended, there is a reason for that, because a lot of those are going to become singles.

One of them is ‘Virtual Cool.’ That will be a single and an extended version, also another track called ‘Good Times.’ I’ve already actually done it, there is originally a house mix and that’s how I originally put it together. But then I went to work with Matt from Jamiroquai and he was doing these funky keyboards that I was asking him to do these sounds, then I went back to my studio, changed the drums, thought wow, this works really well, this has got to be on the album. ‘Save Me’ is going to be released as well.

The next three singles are being sorted for the next, I don’t know, five months, something like that. And then I’ve got a lot of remixes.

I’ve been asked to remix 2 new Change records. They’ve made a whole new album and that is on my list; I just got to choose one of the Change tracks. I’ve also just finished remixing a classic house record, not disco though it’s got a disco vibe to it, Sueno Latino, the Balearic classic. It won’t necessarily get a release, but somehow maybe I’ll release it, maybe via DMC. Who knows?

I’ve remixed Kathy Brown’s track with Soul Central, Stronger on my Own, which is getting released in June, and all the profits are going to Kathy with her cancer care. I really enjoyed remixing that one actually. I’ve got the type of bassline I’ve always wanted to put down and it works, I think it works pretty well on that.

So yeah, there there’s a there’s a lot coming out, a lot of gigs to be working for, playing for Glitterbox in Ibiza and also really excited by my Downtown Disco album launch party. We’re flying Kelli Sae over from New York and she is amazing. I’m excited to see her rock it!

And vinyl for the album is coming soon?

The vinyl is being pressed as we speak. I think we’re probably looking over just over a month now, and it’ll be a double album. The vinyl always takes a lot longer, I wanted to coincide it, but now I think about it I think it’s actually better as we got another launch! I’m really pleased with the artwork for that.

Final question, then is there one remix or one track that somebody else has done, that you thought I wish that would have been mine?

Do you know? I’ve got to be really honest with you I don’t think there is one. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I think I’ve been lucky to remix everything that I wanted to remix, whether I’ve been asked or whether I’ve just decided to do it, just to DJ out, and then they’ve ended up being released. I like having the original multi track of records, but with stem extraction now, being able to strip out tracks its given so much more options. I’m about to start, BB&Q Band – Ricochet I’m doing that as a joint remix with Doctor Packer, but again the original multi track is nowhere to be found.


Michael Gray – Optimism is out now, and you can hear Michael every other Thursday on Twitch and on Mi-Soul Radio the last Saturday of every month.