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It’s Time For Matthew Ryan – A Newswhistle Music Interview

I’m not a journalist.  I’m not a writer.  I work a steady job that is far, far removed from music…  but dammit if I am not enjoying this new thing in life.  If it allows me to talk to, photograph, and write about artists I love and respect, advantage: me.

Being an amateur, I am finding the act of removing oneself from the process more difficult than I imagined.  One must not gush in a “review” or an “interview”.  Writing classes in college taught me that many years ago.

Still, I really love Matthew Ryan.  There, I said it.  Much like the theme of brotherhood runs through his latest album, Boxers (reviewed here), I have felt an echo, a resonance over the years with Ryan through his words and music.

This isn’t creepy, I don’t think, because I’d be willing to bet a week’s wages that there are no casual Matthew Ryan fans.  I am 100% sure that I am not alone in the connection I feel to the artist.  Perhaps that makes it more creepy.  I don’t know.  Either way, it’s too late to turn back, here we go.

I was fortunate enough to have Ryan agree to an interview over email recently in which we talked about Boxers, his gangs, Wes Anderson, and whether or not he is a mod.

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CW: In other interviews you talk about a dissatisfaction with your recent, pre-Boxers, work. I get the impression that you feel, upon reflection, that it was too cold, insular, detached.  What lead you to writing & recording in that fashion?

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MR: I wouldn’t say it was a dissatisfaction with the songs or even the work, but a lack of romance with the process. It was lonely. Probably a little self-indulgent. I had a notion years ago that I wanted to release music that threaded directly from the source. That led to a quiet miscalculation. In some ways in retrospect, I feel like I released many great songs that weren’t quite fully explored, almost demos.  It was time to find a gang I trusted and a producer that shared a lot of the same histories and ethos as important. That’s why I reached out to Kevin Salem. It was time to jump out of some airplanes. To fall and land in pieces or gracefully, both I believed would be beautiful. Those records, particularly the trilogy have some beautiful songs on them. I’d put “The World Is”, “Your Museum”, “I Still Believe In You”, “She’s A Sparrow” or “Stupid World” next to any. I did what I did for a reason and I found something, I just don’t feel my work flourished in isolation. At the root or absolute center of most of my songs is a collective experience. They require a certain generosity of others. I’m not a painter. I like quiet. But I love brotherhood. Brotherhood, sisterhood, humanhood. It’s in our experiences together where all the lightning possible in our hearts is enunciated.


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CW: Do we have Brian Fallon (singer/guitarist for Gaslight Anthem) to thank for your return to thank for your return to band recording?

MR: Well actually, yes. I was pretty sure In the Dusk of Everything was my quiet wave and disappear, my last record. There wasn’t much romance in my career at that point. I felt like I had an aquarium on my head and it wasn’t healthy. Brian’s friendship reignited something in me. He invited me out to tour with Gaslight Anthem just as I was thinking it was time to close up shop. Then he offered to play guitar on my next record. When I agreed I had had no plans to make another for a while, if ever. He didn’t and doesn’t know that. Brian’s got his bruises, and yet somehow still has this gruff but innocent matter-of-fact about him. It’s something I had before being confronted by all the doubts that the maps that make us can provoke. It caused me to reflect upon the things I had lost in the trenches of my career and my emotional life. We can forget sometimes in our car chases that happiness, now, love and a lean for harmony are all that matter. If we’re lucky and open, events and people come to help us right our ships. Brian did that for me. There are things people don’t know, and I’m not sure if detailing those things are particularly useful here. I will say that my experience in the business of this has been difficult; some self-inflicted, some the result of idealism vs bottom lines and dissonance. There’s only so long an idealist can breathe underwater. Brian’s friendship offered a line, reignited my belief in brotherhood. Made me want to explore that and get out of the rut I was in. Our humanity is where we find our art. It should be protected. Somehow Brian reconnected me to that notion, that defiance. It wasn’t his intention I don’t think, but that’s what I found in our friendship. Kevin Salem deserves a lot of credit too. For all the same reasons and more. That guy’s a direct line to the furnace.

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CW: Your tour page only has one show listed in 2015.  More to come?  Full band, solo?

MR: There’s more coming. We plan on touring Boxers as a band. I can’t see any time in the near future where I’ll learn to work alone. I’m enjoying the sense of brotherhood and gang too much. I love it. We’re gonna willfully take our time. We’re DIY, so this requires a patience from both us and those that are listening. But ya know, nowadays the most important thing we can do to honor our efforts is to commit time to allow it to breath out there. Over time we can allow a conversation to develop for Boxers and the band rather than falling to the mercy of instant judgement. These are tough times for the nuanced. They can get discouraged if they place too much value on the initial moments in a campaign rather than focusing on the long haul.

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CW: Could you talk about the Northern Wires?  Who is it?

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MR: I love the guys who made Boxers with me. There’s no explaining what a resonate and intense experience the making of this record was. There was the music and that communication, but also the commune of several very strong and complex personalities at different points of trajectory in their own stories. It created a lot of drama, tension and warmth. All of that is present in the recordings. And as luck would have it all of those plots and dialogues are present in the thematic cause of Boxers. It makes for a particularly perfect circle. But obviously that band in that room was never going to tour the record for dozens of reasons. So I had to gather another gang that could enunciate the cinema of these songs in a room and on a stage. Right now The Northern Wires are Brian Bequette (My best friend who played bass on Boxers and is playing guitar live. He and I have been playing together for about 15 years. Been through every battle and beauty possible together); Steve Latanation (Playing drums and yelling in the background beautifully. Steve’s been a constant over the years. Played on Regret Over The Wires and The Silver State record. He’s toured quite a bit with me over the years. Was also in the short lived side project I was in, Strays Don’t Sleep); Bones Hillman (Playing bass. Met him through Steve) and Dave Coleman’s been coming along and adding more electric guitar and backing vocals so we can fully learn to realize a sound that lands somewhere between the roar of Weld-era Crazy Horse and the ragged glory of The Replacements and Clash. Ambitious stuff, and to lean for it doesn’t necessarily mean we achieve it. We’ve all just grown tired of polite and needy music.

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CW: Weather seems important to you.  I think it is on Concussion that you talk about there being a “humidity” about the songs, and Boxers was ready to go, but you wanted to wait until the fall to release it.  Can you talk about that?

MR: Weather informs everything. The way light hits, the way car-wheels sound on a road. Seasons are like mile-markers. And our events and memories are tied to them. When there’s a war between the weather and a song there can be a dissonance, a betrayal. Which can be beautiful and useful. But when they’re in-tune there’s something beyond cinema about it. It’s all the senses collaborating in an emotional and tactile symphony. Suddenly we’re all leading men and women.

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CW: Who is Frankie (a character in “This One’s For You Frankie” off of Boxers)?

MR: Frankie is a lot of people, including myself. But one in particular is an old friend of mine named Frank Sass. Frank is a well-known sound guy in Nashville. He used to do sound at The Exit/In in Nashville back in the gritty subversiveness that existed there in the 90s. Frank is classic punk rock. Terse, brutal, generous, warm and smart as a nail. Greased back hair back in the day. Built like a retired boxer. Part Barney Rubble, part James Dean. Impatient with posturing or self-indulgence. Quick to call you on your shit. An excellent sound guy. I remember him turning me onto Cheetah Chrome and The Dead Boys. He turned me onto a lot of music. He was one of those community centers. He probably still is, I don’t live in Nashville anymore. I love the guy. I’d read something he wrote before writing “This One’s For You Frankie”. It moved me. I wanted to offer him something in return. Each of us if we’re lucky get these moments of lightning in our lives where we feel a part of a community bigger than ourselves. Then there are moments of decay and isolation. A changing of ethos and the whole No Country For Old Men routine. None of these things are permanent. All the more reason that we should always lean for and savor the intimacies of brotherhood. Now let me be clear, Frank only stirred all these thoughts in me by what he’d written. My own existential crisis was between the lines. But I did sense a sorrow in what he wrote. And it was just like him to be so vulnerable while simultaneously saying, “fuck you”. He’s kind of a bad ass.

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CW: John Anderson (Boxers’ “Anthem For The Broken” was originally released in his honor).  I was very sad to learn of his passing.  Is there anything you would like to say about him?

MR: All I would want to say is that I’ve lost a beautiful friend. I did what I could to show him I loved him while he was here. A lot of people did. He will be missed. We need more humans like John. When we lose one like him, it’s devastating. That’s not hyperbole. It’s heartbreaking. But his grace and humor even in the face of that cruelty ALS exacts inspires and challenges us all to realize we all operate under a sentence, we should exude beauty and kindness and smarts. Those attributes defuse ugliness and despair and birth even more beauty.

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CW: When I first heard “Suffer No More” [off Boxers]I heard “Things” by Paul Westerberg.  This is not to say that I feel it is a copy (because it isn’t).  It feels in the spirit of…  Obviously, you have your influences, and I imagine it is difficult to stop your influences from showing up occasionally in your own songs.  Do you even want to stop it, though? Is there anything wrong with having a musical root system?  An oak tree doesn’t sprout pine needles.  It seems like a cottage industry these days (see the recent Sam Smith/Tom Petty thing) to find a musical antecedents as “gotcha!” moments, but I remember reading an interview with Dave Smalley (Dag Nasty, All, Down By Law) in which he said something about how someone accused him of writing a Clash song, and he basically said (paraphrasing from memory), “Damn straight, I wrote a Clash song. Thank you for noticing.”  Thoughts?

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MR: We never asked ourselves “What would Paul do here?” We tracked everything live with little discussion of what we were gonna do, we followed the spirit and trusted in that thing that comes into a room when you’re being creative. When we finished recording “Suffer No More” we were all aware it had that Westerbergian air. But what were we gonna do? Didn’t even think about it. To try and obscure his influence would’ve been dishonest. I love what that guy’s work has brought to my life. Who are we without heroes? We all love Paul’s work so much that it’s an automatic part of our musical vocabulary. I would hope that if he heard it he recognized that it was an act of love. If I had it my way Westerberg would be the King of Pop and a lot of the needy car salesmen out there singing songs they didn’t write would be waiting tables wondering what went wrong.

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CW: Are you a fan of vinyl?  Is “Boxers” on vinyl available in stores, or just on your site?

MR: I like vinyl because it insists people not be passive listeners. I think in some instances it does actually sound better. I’m thrilled with how Boxers took to vinyl. Our German partners (Blue Rose Records) did a great job, it sounds amazing. It’s available in stores in Europe and The UK. But only available at my website here in the states and Canada.

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CW: A lot of folks are comparing Boxers to May Day, but I compare it to MRVSS (Matthew Ryan Vs. the Silver State).  Who’s right? Ha!  Just kidding, we both know I am.  It’s just that MRVSS has a similar warmth & hum to it, and occasionally rocks harder than “Guilty” (off of May Day).

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MR: Each record is informed by who I am at the time I write those songs, the world I’m seeing and feeling, and the people that are (or are not) in the room. As a music lover myself, I understand those discussions. Some friends and I have gone miles in circles regarding [Tom Waits’] Bone Machine vs Mule Variations. But as artists we have to remain open to what the moment we’re living in is pulling from us. And as listeners we have to remain open as well. You gotta be careful, don’t get stuck. Artists and listeners have an amazing relationship. There’s an intimacy there. We’re moving through life together. It’s my job to offer you something that surprises you, a need you didn’t know you had. Hopefully lightning. If we fall prey to nostalgia or past victories, we’re fucked. We have to keep leaning for that new pure lightning and understand that even a misstep leads somewhere. As long as our intent is in-tune, we’ll keep finding each other.

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CW: Future recording plans?  More rockarolla or back to back to “ambient folk”?

MR: I have no idea right now. But I don’t see things getting quieter again for a while. There’s too much that requires loud subversion.

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CW: Your social media posts are riddled with pictures you take of landscapes, neighborhoods, etc.  I like them a lot.  How do your observations through the camera lens affect your songs?

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MR: I believe when you look at a picture you’re seeing as closely as you can the way someone else sees the world. Taking pictures is an act of reconciling what we feel we see and what is.  I’ve never thought about what you’re asking, but I would assume that pictures are just songs without words and visa versa.

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CW: I am familiar with some of your covers (Leonard Cohen, The National, the Clash, etc.).  What a song or songs you would like to cover, but have never attempted?

MR: I keep wanting to cover “Straight Into Darkness” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers with The Northern Wires. Those opening lines are so great. The whole damn song is an amazing piece of writing. Everything points at each other, compliments the metaphor. Always gets me. I’ve been thinking about a lot of songs I’d like to cover lately. “She Sells Sanctuary” [the Cult]. “Bastards of Young” [the Replacements]. “Mr. November” by The National. “Little Rock Star” by Lucinda Williams. Also been wanting to cover one of [Brian] Fallon’s songs. He’s a hell of a writer too, love “Behold The Hurricane” off of his Horrible Crowes album.

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CW: What was it like to play shows with Paul Weller?  Are you a mod at heart?

MR: My shoulders are too broad to be a mod. You gotta deal with the hand you’re dealt. I feel a little more comfortable on the Peaky Blinders meets dark and monotone military Amish guy side of things. It was a thrill to do those shows with Paul Weller and his band. Amazing to hear those songs live. When you have “it” like Weller does, it never leaves. Weller was a gentleman and the shows were on fire.

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CW: Which Wes Anderson movie are you (I am making an assumption here)?

MR: Probably the one the least amount of people have seen. Joke, joke, joke… So I’ll go with The Squid and The Whale [a cheat, technically Wes Anderson is only a producer 🙂 CW].

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NewsWhistle music contributor Chad Werner is “ahead of the curve, behind the times.” You can contact this rock n’ roll sphinx at chad@newswhistle.com.

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PHOTO CREDITS
Lead-In Clock/Face Image Courtesy of Scott Simontacchi
Matthew Ryan Portrait by Sarah Kay
“Boxers” Cover Designed by Keith Brogdon
Screenshot of The World Is… Video (Dir. Jack Spencer)
Matthew Ryan with Jon Dee Graham, http://matthewryanonline.com/photos
Airplane Image Courtesy of Matthew Ryan