Flying Man is the stage name of Irish-born guitarist and singer-songwriter Alan Ned Gray. Sitting firmly in an intelligent corner of the electro-acoustic realm playing programmed beats, live-looping and layered harmonies, his haunting melodies and infectious rhythms, coupled with evocative lyrics tell stories from snapshots in time. NZM asked Ōtepoti-based Gray to talk us through his new song, Make A Living, with the bonus of a special premiere for his debut music video, starring enigmatic fellow southern musician Boaz Anema.
I wrote Make A Living just after the first lockdown of 2020 in my partner’s mum’s house in Nelson.
We had come back to NZ on a holiday to attend a wedding and to play some shows for a couple of bands I’m in, and with the best bit of bad luck we go stuck here due to Covid. During the lockdown and immediately afterwards the live music industry ground to a halt and I don’t think I was the only one, but it made me question what I was doing for a living if it could just be taken away so quickly. These doubts and questions were hard to shake, especially as some people are always shocked someone can make a living from playing music if you’re not “famous”.
I wanted to turn the questions and doubt around and show that following your passion is always a better option.
At the time I was using a writing exercise that involved me asking for prompts from my partner and trying to form the song within those options. I wanted it to be an uplifting energetic song and I was really getting back into some funky house tunes that I used to have in my DJ sets back in Ireland – Quantic, Felix Da Housecat and especially Martin Solveig who had a great mix of live and programmed instrumentation.
I had left all my recording gear in an apartment in Glasgow where we lived before our “holiday” so I had to use a little Soundcraft 8fx mixer as an audio interface and a SM58 mic, which is what I was using for live gigs during my travels as it all packed into a bag.
I initially just intended to make some demos and re-do them when I had access to some better gear, especially as there was some electricity grounding issues at the house. It’s an old villa and had some wiring quirks. I had to keep my feet off the ground when I recorded guitar as it would create a crazy buzz otherwise!
The bones of the song are built on a classic house four-to-the-floor programmed drum beat and a simple lopped guitar arpeggio, but I wanted the bass line to swing a little so I took inspiration from some cumbia music. I sometimes play with Wellington-based Cumbia Blazera and I always loved how infectious the rhythms are in the percussion and bass parts of cumbia music.
I’m lucky enough to have some amazing musicians as friends, so it was easy to get help adding some awesome percussion to the track which was done by Dunedin-based South American Ed Lobo. I had programmed some percussion onto the track but it lacked that little bit of magic that comes from a live percussionist who actually knows what he’s doing!
I think my favourite element of the percussion is the cowbell at the end of each chorus line. That was inspired by my parter who loves to suggest those little touches, or what we call Lilyism’s, if she had her way there would be a wood block in every song.
Another favourite part is the second breakdown, which is inspired by classic house bangers. I wanted it to build in intensity and have a sense of urgency to it so each time the phrase plays twice it gets chopped in half. I think I originally had it completely descend into a glitchy 16th note breakdown, maybe that can be the album version!
I’m a massive fan of harmonies so I cut out the original intro and kick it all off with a five-part harmony and some analogue delays.
The song was mixed by Sam Healey from Turbine Studios in Dunedin. Myself and Sam (who’s not just an inspired mixing engineer but a brilliant bass player as well) went to Otago uni together. He was really easy to work with because he understands the songs from a musician’s point of view and he knew exactly what I meant when I wanted a live house track.
I’m really happy with how Make A Living turned out. It was a bit different to write a more classic dance track, very liberating to be able to let the beats and the music do the heavy lifting and keep the lyrics more concise and to the point.