The New Orleans-based synth pop act took an unlikely route to its new EP.
If Ryan Gray wanted to make money, he picked the counterintuitive route. He was in medical school but realized his heart wasn’t in it, and now he performs under the name Luxley. Luxley isn’t what it started as either, but now he/it has a new EP Spirit, which connects the glossy fun of ’80s electronic pop with contemporary beats.
“Really, I wanted to follow my passion,” Gray says. “I wanted to be a doctor, but Luxley was my passion.”
The Metairie born and raised Gray moved to Nashville to attend Vandebilt, then he moved back to New Orleans in 2010 to attend Tulane Medical School. He completed the first two years—the hardest years, he says, and during that time, he started Luxley as a four-piece rock band. The band scratched an itch that medicine never did. Gray toughed out medical school, but while going through his third year, he played more, wrote more, and began to think that Luxley might be the path he had to pursue.
“It was a really tough time,” he says, made worse by the slow exodus of band members as the band’s sound drifted from rock to synth pop. He and his manager heard the potential in the songs he was writing, and the fun of making music caused Gray to spend more and more time on Luxley, eventually to the detriment of his academic standing. One day, he remembers, “My professor said, We need to talk.”
Faced with the choice between walking away or being kicked out, Gray opted for the former and made Luxley his future. Not surprisingly, his parents didn’t sign off on his decision with much enthusiasm. In their eyes, he traded a secure future for a musical project that not even the other members seemed to believe in. “The family stress levels were so high,” he says. “It was definitely the most difficult part of my life so far.” Gray’s mother and father had separated, and his father was supportive to a degree. He had been a musician as well, and he urged Gray to take a little time off and see how the music thing worked out. His mother, with whom he lived, let him know without reservation how bad an idea she thought it was.
“To her mind, I was walking into nothing,” Gray says. “It didn’t go well with her.”
Spirit doesn’t argue that mom was wrong, but it doesn’t entirely validate Gray’s belief either. Nothing on the EP is cutting edge pop/rock, but everything is on trend. Luxley’s songs are relentlessly, almost compulsively upbeat, and it seems appropriate that Nora Patterson from Royal Teeth joins him on the title track. “Spirit” even features the sort of wordless hook that Royal Teeth has made its signature. Like GIVERS and Sweet Crude, percussion rolls aggressively through the songs, and while the drums might be live, they’re tweaked to match an electronic sonic palate not found in nature.
An instrumental hook in “Tremors” brings Prince to mind, and it’s the most deliberately funky track on the Spirit. The tracks are conscious of the dance floor and the electronic music, but the remixes of the songs that end the EP make it clear that Luxley might know that world but it’s not of it. Mystery Skulls’ remix of “Tremors” throbs with an undeniable physicality that suggests that they have different priorities from Gray.
“When the vision changed to synth pop, the reference points were Prince, Friendly Fires, Foals, Two Doors Cinema Club,” he says. “Then I started getting into Tears For Fears and Duran Duran and the ‘80s synth pop. How did ‘80s synth pop influence these guys?” That search backward really started when he heard echoes of Tears For Fears in a Passion Pit song and decided he needed more than a casual understanding of the first generation of synth pop.
These days Luxley’s circle is more of a closed one. Gray’s not looking for influences, nor is he tracking down the artists who came before him. “I’m influenced by whatever’s around me now,” he says. “I’m more influenced by what I write.”
Synthesizers weren’t Gray’s first instruments. He began as a piano player, then learned to play guitar and made it his main instrument. “I was a screamer in a college rock band,” he remembers, but he began to discover limits to the sounds he could get from a guitar, and that stifled his songwriting. He returned to the piano and keyboards, and the world of possibilities that they opened—in addition to their resonance with the music he was listening to—restarted his creativity.
“I found out really quickly that my style on piano is way more pop-oriented than my style on piano,” Gray says enthusiastically. “That’s cool!” He heard a happier vibe in everything he did on keyboards, whereas he found it hard to escape the gravity exerted by the blues on guitar. “That’s that life I’m looking for in music, that color I want in music.”
The movement from guitar to keyboards wasn’t entirely a rejection, though. In ways, it was a natural step because as a guitarist, Gray was trying to find ways to make the instrument’s sound more personally engaging and more generative. He began to experiment with combinations of pedals and settings to create unusual sounds, and after exploring new sounds that way for a while, exploring them on keyboards seemed like the natural next step.
“You have more control over them” Gray says.
Now he fetishizes keyboards the way guitarists love guitars. Gray gets enthusiastic when he talks about keyboards with lush sounds as well as his first Moog synthesizer, which opened his mind to the world off possible sounds. “It’s so much fun,” he says, laughing. He can even nerdily speak with pride about the origin of his Moog, which he bought from the first keyboard player for Passion Pit. All the Moog melody parts from the Passion Pit’s first album were played live on the Moog he now owns, Gray says. And naturally, “I have the flight case that says, ‘Passion Pit.’”
Gray’s mom still doesn’t endorse his decision to forego med school for music, but things aren’t as bad as they were. Luxley’s first year was depressing because he went through the challenge of trying to change the identity of a project at a time when his mother wasn’t talking to him. Harder than dealing with the challenges was encountering unexpected successes that he couldn’t share. Bombay Bicycle Club invited Luxley to be part of a tour, and Gray’s immersion in his music sparked a creative phase that led to a lot of new songs. Even that was hard to talk about. After a while, the initial chill thawed, but obstacles remained because the events that meant something him didn’t speak to her the same way.
“Until I’m in Rolling Stone or signed to a major label, or all her friends are talking about me because I’ve achieved that level of popularity—those are markers of success for her,” he says. “She couldn’t fathom the extent of what was going on. She just said, I wish you well.”