Monday, October 27, 2014

INTERVIEW: Matthew Ryan

(Photo by Sarah Kay)

Passion is a commodity in short supply in our modern musical world, but rock lifer Matthew Ryan's new album, "Boxers" is chock full of the stuff!  He is a true believer in music as a communal and transformative experience, a believer that (as Frank Turner so eloquently put it), "We're not just saving lives / We're saving souls / And we're having fun".  A chronicler of the real and a searcher for truth in the human experience, Ryan was kind enough to reach out via email and offer up his reflections on his songwriting and the power of community in an increasingly fragmented and teched-out world.

Your new album “Boxers” is flat-out stunning and has a vitality to it that is, to be honest, both surprising and thrilling.  It’s a very “electric” album, for lack of a better term.  How did this set of songs and sonics coalesce?

Thank you. That’s nice to hear. It really is. There’s a hundred things, events and gut feelings that lead us to the things we do. I could go on and on because it wasn't just one thing that led me to Boxers. The short of it is that I've grown tired of songs that sound like defeat. There’s a great Cohen quote, “What makes a soldier sad, makes a killer smile.” Melancholy is understandable in the human condition. If you’re paying a lot of attention it can swallow you. Because I've always followed my gut, I have no regrets regarding the roads I traveled before this. The work, the songs have always reflected an honest dissertation on mile-markers. But I found myself alone a few years ago, really alone in a dream that felt lost. It was never my intent to become a solo singer-songwriter. I’ve always felt more alive and hopeful in a community, gang, or group effort. Melancholy is almost like drifting along with the tide, letting waves carry you where they will. It can be beautiful. But Rock ’N Roll or Punk Rock or even Folk, they build boats when a gang is involved. It was time to build a boat with guts, an engine and a roar. A machine to welcome anyone who agreed and collectively resist the ocean so to speak. As lost as I felt a few years ago, this was always where I was headed. I just feel so fortunate the right people arrived. Boxers wouldn’t be what it is without the people that offered so much of themselves to it. It amazes me, when you get the right people in a room there’s the song, there’s the playing and then there’s this third thing. And that third thing is seductive, it’s like a ladder or a fistful full of gasoline coming out of the speakers. Boxers is all about that third thing.

It’s obvious that you put a lot of craft into your work, and the songs on “Boxers” deal with some really weighty issues that are made personal and “actionable” in a way.  You get the sense that, despite the darkness in life, there is a solution if we are willing to embrace the best parts of ourselves.  The fact that there are several songs with chanted “group vocals” reinforces that idea of community.  Is that a fair assessment?

There’s a loneliness in the modern engagement. You see it on trains. People’s heads down and in the glow of some community or diversion streaming through their phones rather than sharing the hum of tracks and the end of a work day with the strangers present and available. We have to understand that technology is a tool like any other, it is not intimacy itself. It is a sidewalk to intimacy, a phone line, an airplane. We don’t live our lives on airplanes, we live our lives in the rooms and with the people airplanes take us to and from. Does that make sense? So yes, the “group vocals” are an expression of the power and intimacy of community. Vocal chords blending for a shared conviction or experience or idea. That happened in a room, 6 of us yelling into a mic. It’s funny how an act we used to take for granted somehow came to feel revolutionary: “Look at us, yelling and screaming and somehow instinctually forming these warm octaves and accidental tonal harmonies that feel beautiful with these flawed voices!” I’d done so many records essentially alone. That process was initially invigorating, but after a while it seemed to intensify a loneliness. So experiences like I just described are like lightening, and it really fired me up. There was no self-consciousness. Music should offer a pure freedom. Life is beautiful, but it challenges us. Our shared struggles are an opportunity to see the humanity in each other, and in that any other useless divisions should just fall away. From there, things get more hopeful. In many ways, that’s the center of Boxers.

You utilized Kevin Salem as your foil in the studio for the album - his guitar shrapnel is all over these songs in the most glorious ways – and he’s long been someone who I have admired as both a songwriter and guitarist. What did he bring to the plate as a producer and collaborator?

Kevin’s record, Soma City, was a big one for me. I admired Kevin from afar for a long time. Part of what’s been good about the disintegration of the music business is that the true believers are still standing in the embers. There will always be pop stars of one form or another. But the working class of the music business, just like in the rest of society, we are the spine, the backbone of what is and what happens. I love Kevin. The connected fury of his playing is second to none. His instincts are rooted in a great understanding of what transcends trends in the history of Rock ’N Roll. We both lean for the unadorned. Skin and heart is always in fashion. Kevin gets that, and he inspires me. What more can you ask for from a friend and compatriot? 

You funded the recording and distribution of the album yourself, and I have to imagine that it’s got to be both liberating and frightening to put that much of yourself into the process…it lives or dies on the vine on your “dime”, as it were.  Did having to attend to the business aspects of the album affect your creative process?  And, more globally, what is your process like as a songwriter?

Only now during these early stages of the campaign do I feel the burden of what was spent. The reality is that it is hard (and is still very expensive) to create, prepare and communicate that your work exists in the modern deluge. But it was always hard, even years ago for different reasons. I am in debt right now. But we have a plan to go forward. I love the gang I’m working with. I hope people and listeners that discover Boxers understand that their purchasing of music and advocating for it is one of our greatest hopes. We live in a time where information and peoples’ efforts pile like a heavy snow, you’re almost immediately buried the moment you share something. But that’s why you make a record like Boxers. It’s the kind of record that will find you if this is the kind of “work” you need or are looking for. It’s a record for true believers by true believers.

As far as the creative process of writing, I simply don’t think about economics when I’m writing. Occupational success or failure just isn’t part of what motivates me. Every time I sit down to write I’m looking for that thing that pulls me forward. And that has little to do with money. But I have a great gang of smart people around me that do think about those things as related to the work that exists. We’re gonna do all we can to tour the band and find opportunities for these songs. We just have to be patient and keep carving our path over time. I have this gut feeling everything’s gonna be alright.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  What influences your writing? 

Man this is one of those questions I could go on and on about. I love music. It’s a part of every single day for me. But for Boxers in particular it was about the electric guitar. After a tour I did with The Gaslight Anthem a couple of years ago I bought a Gretsch. I plugged it into my AC 15 and started writing these songs. Brian Fallon’s friendship has reconnected me to something. Sometimes people come into your life and they light a fire. I love that guy. I also felt like my relationship with Nashville left me confused, and a little numb.  There’re people I love there, but I had to leave. So in 2011, I did. It was as if my ethos and the things that motivate me were (and are) out of sync with Nashville. That was my “community” for a long time and I felt like I was living in a haunted house, or even worse Inception. There have been a handful of things that reignited and reconnected my sense of what is possible and what a 4 minute song should be. Like I said, I grew tired of songs that sound like defeat. Where I’m living now is so the opposite of Nashville. Steel and the working class, beautiful and ambitious; old and new colliding. People living and working through cold winters and amazing architecture outside the trappings of ambition alone. 

Musically I listened to Weld by Crazy Horse and Let It Be by The Replacements a lot. Both are touchstones for me, along with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, The Clash, The Blue Nile… that list goes on forever. But Punk and Rock and Songs. I leaned for those things. Particularly the sound of the guitars on Weld. They sound like what it feels like to jump out of an airplane trusting a distorted cloud will catch you. As far as the themes, they’re a mystery to me. They’re the things I care about, the people I pull for. There’s a lot of myself in there and a lot of observation, and the things you hear and talk about sitting at a table or in a bar. I feel like the gritty hopes of real people are being underserved, maybe even betrayed by the “heroics” of so much pop music. People are complex and visceral. Their music should be as well.

Your songs are imbued with a wealth of life experience.  Having been at this the better part of 20 years now, what inspires you to continue to create art? And if you could communicate with your younger self, what advice if any would you give him?

Creativity is necessary in my life. It keeps my head clear and my heart lighter. If I could give my 22 year old self advice I would probably say: “You’re probably right. Keep going. Don’t be an asshole.” Hell, I’d tell myself that right now as well.

What’s on tap for you next?

Touring with a gang I love and seeking out listeners that see and feel things the way we do. You know, community… it’s beautiful stuff.

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