A recent essay Sean Gray penned for Pitchfork about attending concerts with a disability opened with the admission, "When I go out, I hope no one notices."
A recent essay Sean Gray penned for Pitchfork about attending concerts with a disability opened with the admission, “When I go out, I hope no one notices.”
In his role as singer/screamer for Birth (Defects), however, Gray, 32, demands the spotlight, howling his way through cathartic, hardcore and power electronic-steeped tracks like “Crawl,” a cranky, rumbling cut built on corroded guitar and his distorted, reverb-saturated yelps.
“Being the frontperson in this band, I never thought like, ‘Oh, my disability!’ I never get nervous about it or think about it,” said Gray, who was born with cerebral palsy and gets around with the aid of a walker. “Punk, to me, has always been about being whatever you want to be and doing whatever you want to do. I’ve seen people who have never been to our shows before and don’t know who I am watch me get onstage with this look like, ‘What the fuck?’ And that’s always entertaining for me.”
Though Gray has evolved into a vocal advocate for the disabled — he founded and runs the website Is This Venue Accessible?, an online database compiling detailed accessibility information for music venues worldwide, in addition to speaking out on accessibility issues in the media — the role doesn’t carry over into the music he crafts in Birth (Defects).
Reached at home in Washington, D.C. for a recent phone interview, the singer, who joins his bandmates for a show at Café Bourbon St. on Saturday, March 28, noted none of his songs deal with disability — “I live it every day; I don’t need to sing about it,” he said — and resisted the idea his presence onstage somehow demonstrated a larger societal point, saying, “I don’t want to be a poster person for [the disabled].”
Even the band’s name, it turns out, was chosen with little regard for its impact, brainstormed during a drunken night Gray spent listening to Cherubs records with guitarist Rob Savillo.
“I think we were reading an article about someone with a birth defect, and we were like, ‘Oh, that would be a sick name for a band,’” he said. “Does it relate to my cerebral palsy? Sure. You can make that connection. But I don’t think of it.”
Regardless, Gray fully understands the power the name can wield when combined with his onstage presence.
"Right now there’s a trend in some bands that have gotten press, like Viet Cong and Black Pussy, who are these white dudes with beards. I’m glad we have this band name, and I can represent that band name. I hate the term PC, but let’s be real, Viet Cong and Black Pussy, that shit is fucking bogus,” he said. “It’s also nice to not see some white, able-bodied dude onstage. There’s very little representation of disability in art, much less punk or underground music. I’m glad the walker exists. That mobility device really is a signifier for people, like, ‘Yeah, this is no joke.’”
While Birth (Defects) officially launched in late 2013, its roots actually stretch back to early 2007, when Gray and Savillo, who have been friends since 2002, collaborated on a series of demos. Following those sessions, Savillo retired his guitar, leaving it untouched for nearly half a decade, largely due to “a series of poor personal decisions,” as he explained it in a mid-March phone interview from his home in Baltimore.
“I was surprised it even worked when I pulled it out [of storage],” the guitarist said, and laughed.
Fittingly, Savillo’s guitar maintains an almost universally cantankerous tone, as though the instrument were suddenly and violently awoken from a deep slumber, and songs like “Demand” and “Every” are layered with fitful, barbed squeals of feedback.
Gray matches this fury lock-step, filling his songs with tales of sexual frustration and barely contained rage.
“When you’re disabled you’re treated as if you don’t have aggression, and this music is angry, which I think throws a lot of people off,” said Gray, who was born in Columbia, Maryland to a father who worked as a baker in a factory and a homemaker mother who logged part-time hours as a waitress. “They’re like, ‘Why is this disabled person unhappy? Shouldn’t he be happy he has friends that help him?’ It confuses people, and disorients people. But there are a lot of things to be angry about, and we’re allowed to be pissed off.”
From the onset, the band embraced a more confrontational, aggressive tact, and early songs are rooted in everything from punk and power electronic music to obscure Japanese noise-rock. More recently, however, a comparatively melodic side has emerged, informed by Gray’s fondness for the likes of Sade, mid-era Mercury Rev and the Beach Boys.
Growing up, Gray developed a deep attachment to music via his family’s expansive record collection. As a reward for excelling in physical therapy, the singer’s father would gift him original vinyl pressings of Kiss and Ramones records, which the youngster would summarily smash to pieces. “I still think of all the records I destroyed when I was 5,” he said, a twinge of guilt still evident in his tone.
It’s a love that has carried over into adulthood. In addition to his role in the band, Gray runs one record label (Accidental Guest), co-runs a second (Fan Death), and most recently launched a DIY music PR firm.
“I didn’t have a lot growing up, and I don’t have a lot now,” said the musician, who attributes his relentless work ethic to his blue-collar upbringing. “But I don’t believe in sitting still, and I don’t believe things just come to you.”
Photos by Megan Lloyd and Josh Sick