Metal Cellist Jackie Perez Gratz of Grayceon and Giant Squid on Why She Wouldn't Want to Do Music Full-Time
Jackie Perez Gratz has graced the local metal scene with her electric cello since the late '90s, when she was part of the seminal neo-classical/metal chamber ensemble Amber Asylum. Since then she's helped found Grayceon, arguably the best prog metal trio out there, with drummer Zack Farwell and fingerstyle electric guitarist Max Doyle, and joined Giant Squid, the post-metal juggernaut founded by her partner, guitarist AJ Gregory. In 2011, Gratz and Gregory welcomed their daughter Pearl into the world (whom Gratz commemorated with this year's Grayceon release Pearl and the End of Days) and hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. In addition to a handful of tours and recordings with both bands, she is still lending strings to bands like OM and holding down her day job as a production manager at Electronic Arts. In the midst of preparing for three local shows with Seattle epic doom titans Lesbian (including a gig this Thursday, Nov. 7, at the S.F. Eagle), she took the time to tells us why playing the cello is all about hugs.
Jackie Perez Gratz with Giant Squid
Tell me about your day job at Electronic Arts. How did you get into video games and this specific aspect of them (audio production)? Would you rather do music full-time if you could?
I'm a production manager on the SIMS Audio team, currently working on SIMS 4, due out next year. I help make sure all the various parts of audio are in the game and sounding good before we ship it. I work with engineers, animators, sound designers, voice directors, and editors on tools, in-game audio features, production deadlines, etc. I started as a freelance voice editor because I had a little ProTools experience and have been slowly moving into other roles on the audio team for almost eight years now. It's extremely rewarding working with so many talented people on a large project [like] SIMS, but I prefer to not be a part of making the actual sounds or the music; I put a lot of mental energy into my workday but I'd rather spend writing mojo on my own projects. I'm not sure I'd be cut out for writing music full-time. In reality I think it would be too much pressure for me. I like to have lots of different things happening around me to inspire and inform my art-making, but if all I did was create all day I'm not sure it would all be any good.
Besides your full-time day job, you're the cellist in Grayceon, the cellist in Giant Squid, and you're the mom of a toddler! How do you strike a work/family/music balance? Is there tension (either external or internal) to commit more time to any of your bands?
When I have so much going on I tend to put myself in heads-down-get-it-done mode, but then find myself desperately trying to get out of it every chance I get. I want to be able to live and breathe and fully enjoy all of the things I do, but there's never any time for that. Raising my daughter, Pearl, with Aaron (Giant Squid) is the most important job I've ever had, so I often let my family tip the balance of the other areas in my life. Luckily, she sleeps and I have great support from my friends and family so that I can have small slices of time to pursue other things. But the internal pressure to commit more to music is always there. I've learned to be patient with myself and not let my own ambition pull me apart at the seams.
In the past, you've also been an in-demand cellist-for-hire in the metal scene, playing with OM and Today is the Day, among others. Any new clients, recent or upcoming?
Last year I did some tracks with two artists, Mophono and Young Aundee (of Giant Squid), whose project together hasn't been named yet. That was a lot of fun, because I love what they are doing and I haven't heard anything like it before. It's kind of like jazzy blues with electronic and hip-hop elements -- it's hard to describe but it's awesome! Other than that I don't have any guest writing spots on other bands' albums at the moment. Al [Cisneros] mentioned Om was writing again and may want some strings, [but] that probably won't happen for some time. These days I have to be extremely picky when agreeing to guest appear, and usually it's logistics that end up being the deal-breaker. First and foremost, I have to love the music. I'm not in it for the money, and if I'm going to spread myself thin to write for someone else's project I better believe in the music.
What attracts you to cello? Was it metal first and cello second or the other way around? Is it a challenging instrument to integrate into a band? Do you sometimes wish you just had an electric guitar?
I started playing when I was 7 and it's the only instrument I've ever known. I can't remember why I was drawn to it at such an early age, but I love that its range is so similar to that of the human voice and I love that I hug the instrument when I play. Hugging my cello was one of the very first exercises I remember my teacher giving me when I was first learning. It helps you become centered with the instrument and hold proper positioning. I wish I could say that I was a metalhead before the age of 7, but the metal didn't come until much later, when I put down the instrument for a few years during college. That was right around the time I started playing with Kris Force (Amber Asylum) in 1997. After I was playing regularly again and had performed with Amber Asylum in the metal scene for almost 10 years, I thought 'why not?' If there is room for a melody, there is room for a cello. I've never really put thought to how I integrate my instrument into a band or whether or not I'm doing a good job at it. I just play what I hear in my head and it seems to work for me. Grayceon can be a little challenging because Max's guitar sounds like three guitars and Zack plays the drums like he's doing a solo all the time, but this is what makes it so much fun to write with them!
What is on the horizon for Giant Squid and Grayceon, respectively?
Both bands are writing their fifth albums! Giant Squid is about half way there and Grayceon is very close to finishing. Most likely both will be out in 2014. Grayceon also has some great local shows coming up with our brothers from other mothers, Lesbian, who are absolutely amazing live -- Nov. 7 at SF Eagle in San Francisco, Nov. 8 at First Church of the Buzzard in Oakland, and Nov. 9 at Blue Fin in Monterey. Giant Squid has a show coming up Dec. 1 at Harlows in Sacramento with Church of Misery (Japan) and Saviours.