Pandemics, civil unrest and even a tornado can’t keep Nashville’s Mikei Gray from pursuing his Rock & Roll dreams
As if the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made life hard enough, singer/guitarist Mikei Gray also had to contend with the tornado that tore through Nashville last year.
It made his home unlivable, and he and his wife were forced to live like nomads, moving from place to place until they could settle back into a permanent home. Feeling this disconnected from normal life, he says, inspired the anthemic modern rock track “Small Talk,” which his band The Frst released on May 28.
Although the song came out of such upheaval, Gray was determined to make “Small Talk” seem uplifting – a choice that makes sense, given the exuberance he displays as he calls from Nashville, his words spilling out in an excited rush. “There’s a lot of pandemic songs out there, and a lot of them are kind of heavy,” he says, “so I didn’t want it to be a ‘cry in your beer’ pandemic song, but [instead] something we could all relate to and bring us all together in a time of division.”
To create the track, Gray played on more than 130 instrumental and vocal tracks. He took the finished product to the rest of the band, intending to have the other members add their parts – but that’s not how it worked this time. “This is one of those songs that everybody signed off on,” he says. In the end, they left it mostly “as is.”
Gray seems like a natural leader, though he started as a sideman when he moved to Nashville from his native Florida eight years ago. “I was really lucky when I got here – I was washing dishes downtown and six months later I was playing Ryman [Auditorium],” he says, referring to one of the city’s most famed music venues. He played guitar for a diverse string of well-known acts, including Portugal. The Man, The Steve Miller Band and even The Village People.
“At the time, every country band had to have a rock guitar player, and I just fit the bill,” Gray says. “And when that wave kind of crashed, then the next wave was, every writing session had to have the hip hop producer. Because I’d lived in Miami, I was really into all that kind of stuff, so then I was able to ride that wave and write with some awesome people. I’ve been very blessed.”
But playing with noteworthy musicians at legendary venues or writing and producing other artists’ songs, fun as it was, still didn’t entirely satisfy Gray. “There was always something missing,” he says. “I would play stuff for people and then [they’d say], ‘I can’t get that song out of my head.’ So a lot of the feedback I was getting was, ‘Why don’t you do your own thing?’ I’m just very grateful that people were interested at all.”
Encouraged by people’s enthusiasm for his songs, Gray founded The Frst in 2017. After being a hired gun for so long, Gray is finally firmly the band leader, overseeing an ever-shifting lineup (and a string of guest musicians, including Andrew Leahey, Nathan Cogan of Taking Back Sunday, Jeffrey Cashmere of Insane Clown Posse and Justin Smith).
Taking on a leadership role isn’t the only thing that Gray changed when he founded The Frst – he also radically altered his approach to songwriting, as well. “I tried to get out of the Nashville mindset of, ‘Okay, we’re going to sit down and write a song!’ Which is how I did it for years. Now it’s more like, when I feel any kind of emotion – happy, sad, upset, frustrated – that’s when I try to take advantage of that and get something out of it musically that is honest and speaks to some kind of emotion, rather than trying to tap into it later,” he says.
The Frst started releasing a series of singles in 2018, and were soon being compared to Linkin Park and Machine Gun Kelly (though their work tends to be more stylistically wide-ranging than either of those acts). Prelude, the band’s debut full length album, came out in 2020, with the single “Tarantino” reaching #78 on the iTunes Top 100 Rock Chart.
Leading The Frst, Gray says, is the kind of all-consuming career he’s always wanted. “To be honest with you, I don’t know any other way,” he says. “I don’t have any other hobbies. I’m truly obsessed with music, in every sense of the word.”
Gray was only ten years old when he got his first guitar and decided he was going to become a rock musician. “It just felt right. I knew deep down that it was just something I had to do,” he says. “I grew up in a really small town outside of Gainesville, Florida, where country was the predominant form of music, but rock has always been my preferred genre. Even when I was playing country, it was because I was the rock guitar player. That’s what they wanted. My favorite bands have always been rock bands.”
Despite this affinity for rock music, Gray says he is also enjoys listening to a wide range of other genres, including hip hop, pop, R&B, and funk – all of which are known to show up in The Frst songs, to some degree. That diversity, he says, will also be on display on the band’s next album, This Never Happened, which is set for release this upcoming fall.
Even with all this new material being released, Gray says he’s still writing new songs constantly. “I think life itself is inspiring,” he says. “Listening to people talk. Reading the news. Listening to other music. I think inspiration really comes from everywhere, if you are looking for it.”
VIDEO: The Frst “Small Talk”