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Toronto Noise Punks Greys Want Less Talk, More Complaint Rock

Greys' Shehzaad Jiwani talks his gift about complaining about nothing and the overt and covert racism that follows him on tour.

by Cam Lindsay
Apr 13 2016, 2:00pm


All photos by Ebru Yildiz

This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.

“I just got out of the shower, do you mind giving me a second?” Shehzaad Jiwani tells me when I ring his phone. In all of the directions the conversation can go from this point on, we take the dull, safe one. I help him decide on his outfit for the day, suggesting an all-grey ensemble to coincide nicely with his band’s name. He kind of smirks, like he’s heard it all before. “I always say I dress like the Helvetica font or a cartoon character where I’m essentially wearing the same thing every day, maybe just a different colour,” he adds. “That’s my fashion statement for this interview.”

As the vocalist/guitarist for Toronto noise punks Greys, Jiwani is regularly making explicit types of statements. Whether it’s through interviews or social media, he’s a pretty outspoken character who knows how to add the right amount of wit to have his opinions heard. But where this side of him materializes best is in his music. This shrewdness is front and centre in his lyrics, and for someone who mostly screams for a living, he gets it out loud and clear. However, for their second album, Outer Heaven, Jiwani made some adjustments in his role as the singer and lyricist. Although the shouting and clever barbs are still very prevalent, he also worked hard to sing more of the melodies and address more serious issues. As a result, the album is a stronger balance of everything that makes Greys such a stimulating rock band. Noisey got Jiwani to shoot the shit about some ridiculous things, like his nonexistent role in the Smashing Pumpkins and his gift for complaining about nothing, but also some deep-seated issues, like the developing xenophobia that seems to follow him around on tour.

Noisey: First things first, I know you’re a big Smashing Pumpkins fan, and James Iha joined Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain recently for a performance. Is there a reason to be excited by this?
Shehzaad Jiwani
: I’m actually pissed off, because Billy got in touch with us after seeing our Halloween show, and he pretty much said I was a shoe in for the whole tour. So I’m pretty miffed about it. No disrespect to James Iha, but he hasn’t been there for Billy the way I have. I think this is just classic Billy to give me this verbal contract and then renege on it. Typical William Corgan.

Have you ever met Billy Corgan?
No, but Colin our bass player was in the same record store as him once and snapped a photo, which you can see on our Instagram. He was at LPS on Roncesvalles last fall. I would love to meet him. I’m not sure what I would say though.

You’re back to your natural hair colour. How much fun was it going blonde?
I’ve gotta say that I loved it. It was so much fun. No one made fun of me, which was nice. I don’t know whether people were being polite, because emotionally I’m a delicate flower or because they liked it. I have a lot of body issues, but it was fun. I felt like a cartoon character. I only went back to my natural hair colour because I had to get a passport photo. As a person of colour, I already have a certain amount of negative attention pointed my way when I cross the border. So as a bearded, blonde person of colour I just didn’t want to draw any more attention my way. I miss it though. It was cool! Maybe it wasn’t cool. I looked ridiculous. We did it for Halloween. My friend Jesse from Beliefs asked me to shave her head, and in return I got her to bleach my hair.

Yeah! You shaved Jesse Crowe’s head in the Beliefs video. Was that always the plan, to make that a music video?
So Jesse is one of my best friends and we were just hanging out that day with Ivy Lovell, and she had her camera with her so we just filmed it. I didn’t realize it was going to come out as a video until it was online. But it was awesome. It was a pretty hilarious time. And the bleach probably hurt more than anything in my life. It was brutal.

Speaking of screaming. You’re screaming a lot less on this new album than you did on If Anything. Was that on your doctor’s orders? Does singing all pretty and shit live change anything for you?
I got kind of bored with yelling. I like being more melodic. I guess it was also more of a challenge for me. Yelling rhythmically you’re limited by what you’re doing with your voice. I always felt I yelled melodically already. The parts I enjoyed performing from the previous record were the songs with the more melodic passages, like “Pretty Grim” and “Guy Picciotto.” The music itself went more in a melodic direction this time too. I still think it’s pretty noisy and dissonant. My initial approach was to do something more shouty and sing-speak, but it was a little more interesting to go in a melodic direction. We were listening to Portishead’s Third a lot, and Swell Maps, Sonic Youth and Velvet Underground, so noisy music with melody over it. I wanted to do something like that. I can think of a ton of music that does that. Most noisy post-punk the singer is just talking and then the melodic, aggressive stuff ends up sounding like Foo Fighters. So I wanted to find this middle ground that wasn’t melodramatic, but still noisy. I feel like our band has always been trying to reconcile the noise with the melody, and this was more of a realized version of those things crystalizing.

You also have a song called “Complaint Rock.” I noticed that like most people you also like to complain about things on social media. Is this song about how you love to complain, how other people complain too much or just how there is too much complaining in the world?
It’s kind of all of those things. Number one, I’m making fun of myself. I’m also making fun of people who complain all of the time. I’m making fun of people who complain about people complaining. And then I’m also making fun of the very idea of writing a song about how I’m somehow above it. It’s definitely not me impeaching anyone else. The joke is on me. That is essentially what social media seems to be for, so people can vent. It’s staring into this abyss and expecting some kind of response. But I’m 100 percent guilty of it. I love bitching about things.

It’s a good name for a genre too.
I kind of think it is a genre. I remember reading about Pavement and someone described them as “complaint rock.” That’s where the title came from. And I thought it was funny because isn’t literally all rock music complaint rock? Unless it’s Andrew WK.

Smashing Pumpkins are definitely complaint rock.
Totally! Basically, all of the bands we like are complaining about something. Rarely is a band singing about how great they’re feeling.

The first release from the album was “No Star,” which you’ve admitted was inspired by the Bataclan attack and its aftermath. Why did you feel the need to write a song about that?
For that song specifically, it was written while we were on tour around the time of the shooting. But what it’s really inspired by is the people’s reaction to the incident. I’ve talked about this before, but in Peterborough someone burnt down a Mosque, and it was a Hindu temple, which is just baffling to me. And then there were Islamic women getting assaulted in the subway, and down the street from where my mom lives, a brown woman with her kids at school was assaulted. That to me is fucking terrifying because my mom lives there and I grew up there and I never experienced that as a kid. So I don’t know if it’s a new thing but I never heard about that while I was growing up. Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world and that stuff was never right in my face. My friends never treated me that way and I’m really lucky for that. I am extremely fortunate to have grown up in an environment where I wasn’t treated any different for how I look. But not everybody has that experience. So there is that, but also, people telling me and other brown people how to feel about this by getting on a soapbox on social media.

A lot of the time I read these thinkpieces about indie rock and they’re written by white people, which is fine. There isn’t anything wrong with a white person writing about racism. But it is easy to see how that can be frustrating. Why don’t you just ask a brown person what it’s like because they can tell you first hand? And again, there’s nothing wrong with a white person identifying or sympathizing, but there is a huge difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy is listening to the people whose lives these issues are affecting. And I think that is a major issue to me that is frankly kind of just as racist in a way… not as someone being assaulted, but it’s that same pervasive way of thinking that you are the voice for these people. You need to give other people the voice. There are a few more steps toward the harmony we are all trying to achieve, and a lot of that comes from letting those people speak. That’s where the song comes from.

I’ve noticed that on social media that you’ve been quite open about the discrimination you’ve faced travelling in a band. How bad does it get?
It can get pretty bad, to be honest. A lot of the time when I say something like this, people think I’m kidding. And in a way I am because my coping mechanism is to laugh at something. The world is full of so many awful things that all you can really do is laugh at it. So in a situation when I’m on tour, with three white guys, it might not be that transparent, but there might be a situation like in Oklahoma City when we went for burgers and the guy talked to me differently. I’m not the kind of person who is hypersensitive to that kind of thing, but when someone is talking to you differently from how they’re talking to your friends you pick up on that kind of thing. That is the most innocuous form of racism, but it does happen. You also get things where in Illinois, a couple hours south of Chicago, we were in a gas station bathroom and someone had carved a Swastika into the plastic soap dispenser and then wrote, “Go home n*****s.” I should have taped it up or told someone who worked there, and I’m really ashamed that I never did anything about it. I was extremely uncomfortable and disturbed by it, but more so that the employees and customers who saw it before me were okay with that being there. I’m just as guilty but employees didn’t do anything? That’s fucked up. That’s what made me want to get out of there. This doesn’t just happen in the States either. I can go into a gas station in Canada and get a bit of a sideways glance too. I pick up on that. I’m 28 years old, so when it happens I have a pretty acute sense of that.

Usually, when I travel the security is a lot more intense for me. My ex-girlfriend was white and my band members are white, so when I travel with those people I don’t really get questioned. But when I’m on my own it’s a little bit more overt. There are a lot more questions, more patting down and checking inside my waistband when I’m by myself. It can get pretty rough. As a guy who is kind of a mouthy wiseass, I can’t say anything to these people. On top of that, it’s fucking humiliating. It’s pretty shitty to go somewhere and be treated that way for no real reason. Watching a show like Master of None, for example, it’s kind of weird that I’ve never seen anyone on TV who looks, talks and acts like me. It’s one of the first characters I’ve ever identified with in that way. The fact that I don’t have any real Indian idols–all of my role models are white people in bands–it’s weird. I guess I’ve only become aware of that over the last couple of years.

Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter