San Francisco’s Dead Country Gentlemen have toured more than 40,000 miles over the past year. Tahoe Onstage caught up with guitarist/singer/frontman Cameron Ray before he heads to Reno for a performance at Pignic Pub & Patio this Saturday.
Ray crashed on floors and couches throughout the United States and Canada for the opportunity to be a full-time musician. The biggest struggle of living as a homeless vagabond is not being able to have a steady romantic relationship, but in the end it’s all worth it, he said.
“I quit my job and gave up my apartment to tour for 12-months straight,” Ray said during a phone interview before a show in Kansas City, Missouri. “As much as it sucks being single and lonely, a romantic partner is never going to validate my existence. But writing songs and playing shows does.”
His love for being onstage and in audiences came from his father, who took him to performances by rock legends including Crosby, Stills and Nash, Eric Clapton and Arlo Guthrie.
Ray was influenced by the sounds of bottles breaking, the F train, tourists and cabs slamming on their brakes. He simplified Dead Country Gentlemen to a two-piece band. He dubs them the ‘Blacker’ Keys.”
“I love the synergy,” Ray said. “Performers can dictate the emotion and the audience can harmoniously feel it. They can simultaneously feel an emotion from a show.”
After high school in Las Vegas, Ray didn’t know exactly what he wanted out of life and a career. He was pressured by his father to earn money and “do something impressive.” At the end of his sophomore year in college, his hobby of writing songs turned into an obsession.
“It dawned on me that’s what I want to do for a living,” Ray said. “Music became my purpose in life.”
He spent five years in Reno earning his degree in economics and becoming a musician. He acquired skills he uses daily in his traveling musical business. His economics education made him more comfortable with record labels and booking agents, while his time onstage honed his craft.
After college, he became the small fish again in San Francisco. He credits the bustling town for helping his mental health.
“In Reno, I was a blackjack dealer to put myself through college,” Ray said. “Working at The Sands until 6 a.m. challenged my cognitive skills, but it was also depressing. Moving to beautiful San Francisco and being around progressive people inspired me. It gave me a lot to think and write about.”
Ray lived in a small apartment on Market Street. He noticed the bustling city-life changing his music.
“I heard a shift in my sound,” he said. “From a mellow sound when I was on Evans Street by the train tracks to an intense, heavily distorted sound.”
He needed to alter his product in order to hear himself create. He was influenced by the sounds of bottles breaking, the F train, tourists and cabs slamming on their brakes. He also simplified Dead Country Gentlemen to a two-piece band. He dubs them the “Blacker” Keys.
“The songs just kept getting heavier and heavier,” Ray said. “My keyboardist was having trouble writing parts because the songs were so riff-driven with pauses and sustaining notes. I remember him saying, ‘I think you just want more guitar.’ ”
And more guitar is what he got. Their newest track on Bandcamp, “Help,” is brimming with them. It starts with heavy chords over thrashing cymbal hits. It develops to a main riff that would make Wolfmother jealous. Ray combines dark elements from chanting punk and late ’80s industrial in a confessional about his faults and shortcomings.
During the recording of “Help” and another single, “Wicked Ways,” Ray was listening to a lot of Black Sabbath. Lately, he’s been listening to Gary Clark Jr. and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He is also inspired by fellow two-piece groups such as The White Stripes, Black Pistol Fire and ’68. He noticed once he switched to a duo, meaningful onstage connections between he and drummer Josh Barry were made more frequently.
“With just one other person, it’s so much easier for the chemistry to walk in,” Ray said. ” I have to know more about tone and write more interesting songs. I love how being a duo challenges me — I can’t rely on others. I can cover all the frequencies. Jack White said every show should be a struggle and playing as a duo does that for me.”
Ray and Barry are making their way to Reno on Saturday to perform at Pignic, a stage (rather, lack of stage) he is very familiar with.
“I love the absence of a stage,” Ray said. “Talk about the synergy between a band and audience. You take away the stage and we’re all on eye-level. Being in a small place brings everyone closer.”
Did I mention Greg Gilmore from Reno’s premier rock outfit Silver will be opening? Well, I did now. Gilmore wields an arsenal of innovative covers and compelling originals. He can be tranquil or wail like a banshee. We will see what mood he’s in.
The first time Ray played live was at Java Jungle in college. Since, he has played more than 500 shows across the country.
“The same friends that came out to my very first show are now coming to see me in Reno,” Ray said. “It’s a huge homecoming for me. Reno is the city where I discovered I wanted to be a musician so it holds a special place in my heart.”
Reno is an incubator of talents and a platform for potential.
— Tony Contini
Editor’s note: Catch Dead Country Gentlemen this Saturday at Pignic Pub & Patio, 235 Flint St., Reno, or catch up with them at Off Beat Music Festival in November.