Since his 1997 debut album “May Day”, Matthew Ryan has been producing one gem after another, while flying just under the radar. Critics and fellow musicians love him, as does the devoted fan base lucky enough to be aware of one of our finest songwriters. From major label releases to self released albums to indie labels, he has seen all sides of the music business and continues to produce stellar full lengths. Just when you think he can’t top himself, he delivers a one-two punch like last year’s “Dear Lover” and his latest, “I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall”. Although the new album touches on many of the troubles that exist in 2011, both here and abroad, it should not be taken as a letter of complaint, or a wallowing in the ills of the world. Ryan is too good to get caught in that trap, just as he is too good to pen an ‘everything will be OK’ fluff piece. Instead, “I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall” is a brilliant, honest look at, as he calls them the ‘dark, fucking times’ we are living in, and our role in how things turn out when all is said and done. If you haven’t heard it yet, familiarize yourself with one of 2011’s best releases.
Touching on the new album, his career, and thoughts on the music industry and where it is heading, many thanks to Matthew Ryan for taking the time for this Blerd Interview.
You started out on a major label. Do you consider that a positive or negative experience? Any insight you can provide on your time while on A&M/Interscope?
Honestly Mike, I don’t even know if that type of discussion is relevant anymore. When I first signed with A&M Records it still resembled the classic label that it was. A fairly small group of people with taste and vision for the music they wanted to project into the world. By the time May Day came out things were changing and Britney Spears and ‘NSYNC were blowing up. Seems labels found a formula that has led us to the glorious American Idol phenomena (and all that’s followed). Major labels started marketing directly to kids, to young kids on a massive scale. Young kids became the measure of art. And as much as I love kids, they shouldn’t be dictating culture. Now Indie labels were still doing great work, but you know, business in general is and has been in a stormy climate for years now. I wouldn’t change my experience at A&M. But many people don’t know (and why would they?) that by 1999 A&M Records didn’t really exist anymore, it was folded into Interscope. By the time my second record came out I was a bit of an orphan. I made the best album I could at the time with East Autumn Grin. And save a few supporters, it was a rather hopeless situation because I still missed the folks at A&M and was incapable of being a snake-oil salesman. I learned a lot in those years, a lot that I would never want to experience again. I signed with a major because I hoped I could inject something beautiful into the bigger collective story, but I missed the bus so to speak. I was a few years too late I guess. But being an independent allows me to be a purist. The label system still works for some people. And that’s completely valid and fair. But I just always felt like it was a lot of wasted energy feeling like I had to work so hard to get people to pay attention at the label to what I was doing. I guess I always just thought the work itself should do that. Success stories like Radiohead or Wilco surfacing so beautifully and believably via major labels are rare, they’re exceptions to the rule. The rest of us have to fight even harder for it. I’m up for it. My best work is ahead of me.
The reason I ask about your time on a major label is the direction the industry continues to evolve fascinates me. It seems an artist such as yourself has been able to build a fan base on your own terms and it is something a major would not be able to do as well for so many of today’s independent artists. I’m interested in hearing the opinion of a musician who has been on both a major and went the indie route, where do you see the industry heading in the next 5-10 years?
That my friend is a great mystery. I can’t even think about where the business is heading next year, let alone 5 years from now. I can only create the best art that I’m capable of at a particular intersection between my talents and time. Once I’ve created something I follow my gut and try to do what I feel is best for it. The means and avenues for reaching people keep changing. I wish it was stable. But I have pretty much concluded that the internet has fundamentally changed people and it will always operate in “what’s next” because it is at the whim of our impulses and imaginations. I could be wrong, I hope I am. But my feeling is that constant change is the new normal. The most stable thing we as artists can offer is our work and a destination. My gut tells me that our websites are gonna become more and more important, and must become more engaging. It’s the only store front we have any control over. The challenge is to get people to slow down enough to digest what you’re offering.
As a lifelong supporter of local record stores, and buying music in general, I read so many doom and gloom stories of record shops closing, artists not making any money off record sales, physical music sales dropping, etc. Do you agree that we’ve lost a generation of music buyers to the ease and availability of downloading, or do you think there will always be a market for physical music?
I hope so Mike. The epic film, the complete album, the novel, the painting, the perfect photograph, the challenging poem. Culturally speaking, there may have to be a Kill Your Computer movement at some point to protect these very important human expressions and experiences. I loathe the idea that one day the laughter from fart compilations will fade and we’ll only be able to experience things that happen in negative time because we’ve conditioned ourselves incapable of committing to an experience for more than 2 1/2 minutes. I know how crotchety this sounds, and I want to be excited by new technologies. But what troubles me is our ability to utilize what we create in truly useful fashions without all the horrible side effects. Right now it appears the internet and all its speed and availability is devaluing virtually everything.
You are someone who has used and embraced social media (Twitter, Facebook) as a way to stay in touch with your fans and promote yourself, and sites such as Bandcamp to sell and promote your music. This seems a necessity for today’s indie artist. Are you happy with the role the Internet plays for a musician as a way to get their music out there or do you view it as a necessary evil?
I don’t view it as a necessary evil. I love that I can engage directly with people from all parts of the globe at virtually anytime. I just wish that snarky, clever and brief would take a fucking break. I want us to go deeper. I want us to really connect beyond the quickness and brevity. Brevity can be a doorway, but nuance and thoughtfulness; learning and true connectivity have to follow for it to be a truly enriching tool.
With the ease of downloading (and often stealing) music, what do you see as the future for artists to sell their music as physical sales continue to decline? Can a site like Bandcamp be profitable for an indie artist? Or is something like Kickstarter the next wave?
I honestly don’t know. I worry for my future and the future of my creative friends every single day. Personally, I don’t believe Kickstarter or anything like it is the answer. Hopefully people themselves will respond to the choices they’re making and place a new value on the arts after they’ve exhausted this new means of engagement with virtually everything. All we as artists can do is continue to create the best work we can. Hopefully great work will elicit a new revolution of sorts, a renaissance. Maybe there will be a rebellion to speed, and one day down the line there will be a movement where people take great pride in savoring something. Things are changing Mike. And they will never be what they were. But I believe beauty will emerge, and it will be unexpected. It always is. In the meantime, we should do what we have to and what works for each of us. Maintain your dignity and create the best work we’re capable of.
How would you say your sound has evolved from your earlier work to your two most recent albums, “Dear Lover” and “I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall”?
The songs dictate the sound. I Recall operates in a certain deluge, a very present fight for optimism where so much pessimism exists; so I guess it has a certain aggressiveness about it. Dear Lover was more romantic, so it’s probably a bit softer. But again, the weather so to speak completely inspires the cinema. That’s being an artist I believe. I feel they both tell different versions of a truth. It connects with those that agree… I hope.
I definitely noticed the integration of a lot more electronic sounds and beats on the newer records. Did anything in particular influence that addition to your music?
I Recall is more like a painting. There’s collaboration there, but it’s telling a very specific story about our relationship with technology, entertainment and speed. It seemed only natural to have the sound of traffic pulsing through it, even in the quieter moments.
I personally feel you’re one of the best lyricists working today, could you shed some insight on your songwriting process and do you have any musical heroes that influence your music and writing?
Leonard Cohen is the monument. Bono is a great writer as well. Bob Dylan of course. Springsteen, Waits and Paul Buchanan. But I try to not let any of these people in when I’m being creative. That’s dangerous. But influence is like DNA so to speak. Apparently or maybe arrogantly, I can at times have Cohen’s eyes, Bono’s ambition and Waits’ throat. I don’t know. I just wanna offer something that connects people to a real moment in their own lives.
I absolutely loved “New Year’s Day”, your collaboration with Hammock that came out at the start of the year, and they contributed to the new album as well. Any thoughts of ever doing an entire album’s worth of this type of material? Your voice works incredibly well within that electronic/ambient backdrop.
We’re currently working on a full-length. Don’t know when it will be released. But I promise you, it is beautiful.
Do you have a personal favorite between the original and the acoustic version of the “Dear Lover” album?
Probably the original version. But between the two there is a GREAT album.
How soon after “Dear Lover” did work on this new album start?
I started working on I Recall in the spring of 2010.
“Dear Lover” was very much an exploration of personal relationships. The new album deals with much more topical issues. Was it almost impossible, given the times we live in, to avoid an album that takes on at least some of the issues we all face today?
Yes. When I sat down to write I Recall, I thought I was sitting down to write a more content folky record. The times we’re living in dictated this album, pulled it directly from my guts. I couldn’t bear the thought of living through such conflicted times and just ignoring them. That felt dishonest to me as the songs were coming. At first I resisted. Then I went in head first for better or for worse.
It’s kind of funny to me when I see you described as an “alt-country” or “folk” musician. Attempts to categorize your music seem futile, especially on “I Recall Standing…” as you touch on everything from electronic to folk to rock to hip hop beats to piano ballads. Would you say this is your most eclectic album to date and what are your thoughts on trying to label musicians in a particular genre? You seem to be making a concerted effort to not allow that to happen.
I sometimes wish I fit neatly into a category. But I can only do what I feel compelled to do. In the long run, the work itself will make its case for what it meant in the times we share. That’s all I really care about.
“Hey Kid” is one of my favorites from the new album. There is an air of optimism, but also almost a pleading with the younger generation to not completely lose hope with the screwed up world they’re inheriting. Hopefully I am not completely misreading your intent with this song, could you shed a little more insight on this song and what inspired it?
It’s hard not to look at the Occupy Wall Street movement and not think that that message was in the air. A fight for the 99% is a beautiful thing. A fight for equality of opportunity is a beautiful thing as well. A fight for the future is absolutely necessary. Capitalism is a beautiful idea, but it’s perverted right now. That has to be remedied for us to go forward in a fashion that isn’t teetering on violence and self-destruction. The song itself wants you to lean for reclamation from whatever your struggle is. And those struggles come from both within and outside of you.
I think I can feel your seething coming through my speakers during “All Hail The Kings Of Trash”. Any particular targets that qualify as the ‘Kings of Trash’ that you refer to?
Yes, there are particular targets. But it isn’t useful to call out the specifics. Let’s just say it’s directed towards anyone who doesn’t have the “greater good” as a fundamental part of what motivates them. I’m sick of cult of personality and bilking and everything at any costs.
You wrote on your blog that you wrote this album “in defense of our humanity amid the modern conflict”. I know what I personally connected with and got from “I Recall Standing” but what do you hope people take from this album? What message is most important to you that the listener get out of it?
I hope people reclaim their own optimism and move forward as their own leading men and women. It’s ambitious, and not very Rock N Roll, but I’ve never lacked idealism.
I know you are starting to play some dates, any plans on a larger scale tour behind the new album?
We’re making more plans right now. Hopefully over time people will help us to lift this album above the din. We can only do what we can do, but ultimately it’s people that decide. As far as what we can offer, The Red Needles (my touring band) and I plan on offering the very best Rock N Roll show that we can. We’ve been rehearsing for weeks on end. It’s beautiful cinematic fighter music that deals in no fluffy bullshit. Hopefully people feel it as we do. It feels like the right time for this music. There’s a tour in November and more coming next year. We’ll keep stepping into the ring.