On church halls, pseudonyms and remixing for the right reasons
“Someone referred to me yesterday as a machine!” Michael Gray expresses genuine surprise at this observation but whilst maybe made in jest it’s an approximation that bears some scrutiny. His work with Jon Pearn as one half of remix and production duo Full Intention alone constitutes a truly remarkable body of work. He’s also just described a pipeline of releases that includes his own reworks of Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel and Advance’s Take Me To The Top as well as Dr Packer’s forthcoming treatment of his 2004 hit Borderline. “I just love it because I love house music and I love soul music as well.”
The roots of this love affair run deep and begin in childhood. Aged twelve, the young Michael began an international music career in that most British of establishments, the local church hall. His first gigs were regular disco nights. “We did them once a month. When I say we, it was my dad who organised various bits and pieces. We sold all the tickets at the end of one night for the next night.” Starting out playing the very disco records that he would go on to remix later, he progressed into the nascent bar DJ scene before finally making it into nightclubs. It’s typical of his enduring connection with his grounding that he still considers his successful audition for The Park in Kensington his first big break. “[I was] doing the whole Monday night for myself and when you’re eighteen, that’s a bit of a jump – you technically have a bunch of these adults in front of you!”
The next jump would come as a producer for the Disco Mix Club (DMC) subscription service that provided exclusive “megamixes” for DJs. Just such a megamix for the 1990 BRIT Awards peaked at number two in the charts and in the process assured his legacy to the industry by helping to fund the BRIT School in Croydon. It was with America (I Love America) as part of Full Intention however that things really took off. “Everybody from Armand Van Helden to Pete Tong played it, to Tony Humphries.” Curiously they adopted pseudonyms in those early days. “We wanted people to think we were American and not British ‘cos a lot of stuff that was being made in the UK back then was good old piano house bangers and we didn’t want to do that.” So it came to pass that America launched a prolific period as remixers of choice for dance/pop acts of the late noughties. With typical integrity, he can point to times when they stuck to their musical principles when they could have easily made easy money and run. “We had Boys II Men wanted us to remix one of their records and we turned it down because we just felt we couldn’t do a good enough job. We even had their manager say, ‘Look we’re at Gatwick we can come by your studio and re-sing this.’ People we’ve seen in the past remix records just for the money and they don’t really care if the vocals get sped up. It all sounds like Mickey Mouse to us. We do it because we really believe that we could make the record maybe better or cooler.” He discovered becoming a remix producer also had its perks in that it helped others relate more easily to what he was actually doing for work. “It’s quite nice because when you talk to people who are not into the music industry so much and you say you are working with Dannii Minogue or whoever it might be they can relate to what you do.”
It was on a break from Full Intention, though, that Michael Gray became a household name. Whilst exciting (and lucrative) the remix work had become something of a treadmill. “I was exhausted from lots of record companies saying, ‘Can you make the next remix like the last one?’ You’re not being creative. You get paid a lot of money, but you’re not being as creative as you’d like to be so I went off.” Having spent 2003 pursuing his own alternative production avenues, the second of his two house comeback records in 2004 would at one point blew up so big that the BBC used it for prime time continuity. He still sounds surprised at The Weekend’s success now. “I only made it as a good feel good record for the dance floor, and we only had the chorus – there were no verses! But Eye Industries/Universal Music signed it and it just took off.” Now fifteen years old The Weekend is still played regularly, and not just by those DJs of the time who are still active. This is another cause for surprise and delight for its creator. “I’m really surprised that it still gets played just as much now! When I see younger DJs, big-name DJs dropping it in their sets as well as the Claptones of this world, I never realised that would actually happen.” When we spoke, commemorative remixes were in the offing to mark its mid-teens from Mousse T, Lo Steppa and even an orchestral arrangement by conductor and former Soul II Soul strings man Stephen Hussey. He’s typically energised by the further potential this collaboration has unlocked. “What he’s just done is unbelievable. Completely taken the chorus to another place – I can’t stop playing it!” The horn section is due to be recorded the following week. I make a note to keep checking for its release.
When we’d arranged to talk I’d reflected on how the rebirth of disco and nu-disco in the previous two to three years really made this Michael Gray’s time, given that distinctive soul-house sound he’d spent his career cultivating. He credits one of his peers with creating a modern legitimacy for the sound. “It’s only when Glitterbox come along, with Simon Dunmore setting up that label and that started [people] saying, ‘This is acceptable, this is fine, this is ok.’ And then realising how many people out there want something that’s slightly in the past but also another foot in the future as well.” As our time draws to a close, I ask what he thinks it is that keeps him going. “I think it’s just in your bones. I have always been mad about music even at primary school right the way through. It’s just something that’s there. I don’t think it really goes away. It’s just a massive buzz — no one has to make me push me into the studio. No-one has to make me go and DJ.”
With a discography like his as a legacy he’s ensured that no-one has to make many of us go and DJ either.