Welcome to Intriguing People 2018, our annual celebration of Las Vegas’ cultural trailblazers and social trendsetters. See more from this year’s series here.
Gregory Michael Davis reads like a work of fiction.
A 29-year-old mathematician and musician who plays the piano and ukulele, raps, sings, gives lectures on science, hosts a weekly trivia night based on his own questions, tutors children and is currently writing a short novel and an “astronomy opera”—while still finding time to play recreational hockey and work at a pizza shop on the weekends—seems like the creation of a wildly imaginative person. In a way, he is.
The dapper version of Davis that you see today—often dressed in a blazer, bow tie, vest and wingtip boots, culled from his closet of about 100 coats, 100 ties and 25 hats—is very much by design.
Splitting his childhood between Philadelphia and Las Vegas, Davis grew up as a hip-hop head, rapping in his high school cafeteria and battling anyone who thought they were better than him. He went by the moniker Devastate and made what he dubbed “space rap.”
“It was like listening to a rhythmically accentuated English or physics book,” he says. “I was making rap for college nerds and people who thought they were college nerds and people who wanted to be smart, and I wanted to be smart.”
As such, he looked the part of the “backpacker”—a brainy class of hip-hop fan that cared more for multisyllabic rhymes than expensive kicks—often sporting a Roots or Talib Kweli T-shirt and jeans. “I almost felt like I betrayed the artists that I listened to and looked up to if I wasn’t a walking billboard for them,” he says. “I would just cycle my four pairs of jeans and these 45 band T-shirts, and that was what I looked like.”
He also started growing his hair out when he was 18 and didn’t cut it for seven years. A lanky 6-foot-4, his hair reached the lower part of his back by the time he finally cut it in 2014. It proved to be more than a symbolic gesture, one spurred by a rancid comment from a former fan.
During a gig at the now-defunct The Box Office, Davis busted out his ukulele for the first time on stage. The very next day he went on Facebook. He was mentioned in a comment: “Devastate plays ukulele now. What a f–.”
“For some reason, something just clicked in me. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to be who I want to be,’” Davis says.
He stopped performing as Devastate and took a two-year hiatus from music, not sure if he’d ever return to it. One thing that was certain: Devastate was dead and Davis was reborn, more comfortable and more confident in himself than he’d ever been. He cut the hair and traded his band shirts for an extravagant wardrobe that looks like it was plucked from the Victorian era.
“I took this newfound confidence and slowly started cultivating the life that I wanted moving forward,” he says.
The personal transformation went hand-in-hand with his musical evolution.
“It’s like when people tell you, ‘You find love when you’re ready for it.’ I think that’s what this new [music] project with me was. I spent all this time correcting [other aspects] of my life, and then I was ready to make music when everything else fell into place … and [do it] the way I wanted. I wanted to play piano. I wanted to play ukulele. I wanted to sing a little bit. I wanted to rap a little bit. I wanted to perform with violinists and cellists. … I realized that that one little statement hurt me so deeply because of how deeply insecure I was, so I figured it out.”
Once a consultant for various space agencies (the scope of which he says he can’t divulge due to non-disclosure agreements), Davis has since dropped the 9-to-5 to become a full-time musician, though he still tutors children and hosts the weekly Aleuminati Trivia Night at Commonwealth. He’s spent the last two years fine-tuning his debut album, One Damn Song, which is slated to drop later this year.
The album is full of bold indie-pop, featuring catchy hooks, melodic strings and introspective musings. Musically, it’s informed more by his rock influences than his hip-hop fandom, though Davis can be heard rapping on a majority of the songs. Songs such as “The Mayor” showcase Davis’ breathless delivery while Rusty Maples singer Blair Dewane takes command of the chorus in a perfect summation of Davis’ musical upbringing. Science, of course, is there too.
One of the standouts of One Damn Song is “Orbit,” which he wrote after falling in love with someone for the first time, with its simple yet emotive refrain: This space is pulling me in.
“The only comparable experience in my life was when I looked through a telescope the first time. I’m looking at this girl the same way that I looked at the stars,” he says. “It’s like when I was 9 years old. I can’t tell you why I loved looking through a telescope, but I did. That love has continued to resonate throughout my whole, entire life. [The song] in a lot of ways was comparing falling in love with the universe to falling in love with an actual human being.”
Davis is in the process of making a seven-minute short film to accompany the song. It’s one of several creative pursuits related to his music, along with writing a short novel to go with One Damn Song, told through the perspective of the album as if it were a living being. Then there’s the “astronomy opera,” which tells the stories of failed physicists, weaved together by Davis’ songs. “It’s less of a play and more of a musical lecture,” he says.
All of Davis’ endeavors aren’t necessarily a means to an end. He does all of these things—music, tutoring, lecturing, performing—simply because he can.
“If I know the end-goal now, I’m clearly not that ambitious. Two years ago, I wanted to be a famous pop song writer. Maybe I still want that, but, also, two years from now, if I’m teaching, I’m probably just as happy as I was as a pop writer,” he says. “I think the end game is to not find an end game.”