Matthew Ryan Talks Writing, Recording + the Importance of Community
Even the biggest musicians have a hard time cutting through the digital pop culture din these days -- hence U2's much-debated 'Songs of Innocence' giveaway gambit -- so it's got to count as something like a revolutionary act of faith when an independent artist decides to make a record that not only stands as a testament to the human spirit, but hopes to reach out to every listener the old-fashioned way: one to one, with notes and words forging the bond.
You can't stream that kind of connection no matter how fast your broadband happens to be, and in 2014, rolling the dice on recording an honest-to-goodness, goosebumps-inducing rock album might just mean a person is crazy. But on the eve of releasing his 14th studio set, 'Boxers,' Matthew Ryan was at least lucid enough to take part in a sprawling conversation with Diffuser that touched on everything from how he navigates the crowded field of indie musicians to his songwriting craft and the crucial value of community in the 21st century. Read on:
What do you feel your primary struggle is at this point in your position as an independent artist? Because from the outside, it seems like a lot of people who aren't constrained by labels ought to be able to put out music on a regular basis, considering that recording it and distributing it is nowhere near as cost prohibitive as it used to be. Some people routinely go five, 10 years between records, but you seem to do it pretty regularly. You seem to have figured it out.
Honestly, in a lot of ways it's a lot easier creatively. It's just as expensive as it was. As it always was -- particularly when you went at it in a collaborative fashion. Because regardless of what studios look like now, there's still that human element, and the way to honor that involvement is with money.
One of the ways that I can make records fairly regularly is by making them alone, but the truth is, like for a painter, that can be a beautiful expression. Rock and roll needs to be more collaborative.
I've learned that over the course of my last three records, where I did that thing that actors do -- I almost got lost in it, like an actor can get lost in a character. I got lost in an idea. They were all connected, those three records, and I essentially made them alone.
And I'm grateful that I did it. But when I was finally done, I was ready to do something noisier with the gig. You know, we live in an amazing time, where we have a lot of information, and one of the hardest things to communicate nowadays is nuanced ideas. And of course, art depends on nuance. And I would just suggest or hope that people allow for more consideration, so it's not just the sparkly things that dominate.
I'm saying that it's a magic and mythical time. We've seen art and creativity become devalued, but simultaneously people are given a voice and opportunity to share their work. I don't know that I have figured it out, but I know that I'm insisting on doing it because I feel compelled to. The blue-collar part of me does believe that art has value, and that we should all honor and receive its value. That's your postcard-type answer right there. You know?
It makes for a pretty good manifesto. I'm glad you talked about the previous three records, and I'm also glad you talked about those different approaches -- between that claustrophobic environment where you're doing it by yourself and then opening things up with the band. I think I've told you before, I always think about this issue in conjunction with Peter Himmelman, because I talked to him 20 years ago about the same thing; he said, "Sometimes you want to play with people, and sometimes you want to play with machines."
I would worry that actually, I'm probably more stubborn. I follow an idea all the way down to the end. I had an idea that I wanted to pursue and I did, and I think I'm glad that I did, but it was definitely time. I believe that rock and roll is a collaborative thing and that's where I find the most beauty and rock and roll.
I will say, I get what you're saying, I share your frustrations, but I was too stubborn to quit. I don't regret it, but it definitely got hard. You know, we find ourselves more isolated these days, and I think it's all the more important we embrace intimacy and collaboration. To me, it feels almost like a rebellion -- yeah, I can sit in a room and deal with these machines, or I can be in a room with other people and let the mistakes be as important as the perfection. You know? That's what we did on 'Boxers,' and I would encourage everybody to do that, whether it's rock and roll or a conversation.
The fact that you put together those last three albums as a kind of trilogy suggests that you're thinking about your music on a conceptual level that maybe some of us had not suspected. What was the conceptual process for this record? How soon did you know which direction you were going to go?
It was so many different things. I mean, I moved to a different area. I'm around different architecture, different scenery, different environment, and different people. I left where I was for a reason, I felt that like I lived in a community that I loved, but I felt that community was so removed from the real experience of real life, you know? Whether you're in an artistic community or an academic community, you become intellectualized. I don't know how good that is.
I just really feel connected to my work again and I'm so grateful for the guys, for Kevin Salem, and Brian Fallon, Brian Bequette, and Joe Magistro -- even the room where we were working when we did it. I just feel reconnected to something that is rooted in a presence, And I f---ing love it. What particularly feels important to me is telling stories that, I think, in our popular culture are being obscured by opinions and by entertainment. I think it's so important that we lean into the real story.
I could go on and on about why this record is important to me, but I guess at the end of the day, all that really matters is that A, I feel the way that I do, and B, hopefully it means something to people.
You reference that blue-collar part of you, which is a huge part of your music, and yet you speak to the metaphysical aspect of art and songwriting and culture in a really passionate and intelligent way that many artists don't often approach.
Well, I appreciate that, man. That's probably rooted in our conversation around the kitchen table when I was a kid. Fortunately, I was raised by what I think were fairly compassionate, engaged, multiple smart and embattled humans, and I think all that stuff has informed my engagement with the world.
It makes me wonder about the craft that goes into your songs, because you're thinking about and trying to express fairly heady themes on a consistent basis, and yet your songs are very direct and kind of punchy. And so I wonder to what extent you have to work to boil down what you're trying to say into the palette that you use, or if it's just an instinctive thing.
Well, life is punchy. [Laughs]
I don't know. It's a mysterious thing, man. I write differently than I think, and when I'm engaging with a guitar or an instrument, that's how the language comes, and I feel fortunate that it comes the way it does. I would venture to guess that's probably where the subconscious is operating and insists on being heard. I'd also guess that I probably have a really, really rich interior life where that stuff is maybe only simmering a little bit, because the songs always come the way you hear them. And that's serious to me, because I'm not a very good author and I tend to ramble, and the songs don't and I'm grateful for that.
Yeah, they don't -- and you used the word stories a little while ago, and I think this record is, I want to say cinematic to more of an extent than the previous records were. But not just cinematic -- I feel like these songs are like a collection of short stories. It's an evolution. And what I think what is kind of deceptively simple about these short stories is that while you aren't unique in writing about people who struggle, you are unique in giving them dignity without using them as vessels for a message or as proxies for a pose you're trying to strike, which is a trap that a lot of songwriters fall into when they're working in this vein. You write about this component of American life in a way that just feels very honest.
I think that informed a lot of my work. I can remember going back to 'East Autumn Grin' and 'Concussion' and thinking I cared about the people in those songs because I identified with their stories.
We live in a time when, if you watch our news, you don't really hear the intelligence and complexity of the working class. In fact, in certain places, there's a villanization of the working class. I think I felt particularly compelled with 'Boxers' to tell the whole story.
When you talk about the working class, and the working classes, you're talking about the spine, the backbone, of what we are. I would be lying to say I've figured it all out, but I mean it when I say I'm trying to figure it out, and I am trying to communicate something that is that I think is important and honest about what it means to be human. Our story here, this intersection that we find ourselves at, as a country, is not new.
I guess there's a part of me that wants to keep reminding ourselves that there's a lot of heart and a lot of disappointment and a lot of work and a lot of trust that goes along with living. I don't know, man.
You wrapped up the 'Boxers' sessions quite a while ago. As a listener, I feel like this was an evolution for you, but you must feel that like times ten as the guy who wrote the songs and performed them. The fact that you sat on this for a long as you did must not have been an easy decision for you.
It wasn't easy. I had this idea -- I had this hope that I could find a label that would believe in this music as much as I do, so we tried to find a place where we could participate in some expression of community. You know, as much as I love having the ability to be creative and share it with people, I find myself more and more wanting to participate in this sense of brotherhood or community, and that was also part of what took so long with this record.
That's not to say that we couldn't have eventually found a label here in the States. We did find a label in Europe that is as excited about the record as we are, and they're called Blue Rose, but we couldn't find a label here in the States. Not because of the quality of the work, but because of the landscape of the business.
I really don't think people fully understand what the entire ecosystem of creatives and music and films and photography are going through -- I can get angry, because sometimes I think they just don't f---ing care. And that's self-indulgent, but you know the majority of what people are engaging with online are music, writing and photography.
But in a very passive way.
Right. So as creatives, we're put in a position where our work seems to mean everything and nothing simultaneously. Which is fine, until you have to pay the mortgage.
I really love that Gillian Welch song 'Everything Is Free Now.' She really told the story of the true believer. It's true that the true believer will do it whether he gets paid or not. So you're seeing a lot of people saying "F--- it. Here by the grace of God I go."
I really hoped that this could be a more communal effort. I really believed that it would be beautiful for 'Boxers,' it could resonate through the songs and through the campaign for the record. But at this point, there wasn't a place that made sense nor shared the spirit, so here in the states, we're doing it ourselves.
In a way, that's become the ideal -- I don't know if you'd call it a new paradigm yet. That's the entire idea, that you should be able to engage with your fans one to one, and you seem like an artist who's uniquely positioned to be able to do that, because I know you're really active on various social media platforms. You can say, "Buy my CD from me, buy my vinyl from me, buy my photos from me," and make it work that way without even thinking about a label.
That's true, and especially with the help of some talented people over the years, that's what I've done. I'm not complaining, I want to make that clear, but what does get difficult is that I don't always have the income to support what people want from me. People want t-shirts, people want vinyl, people want me to tour far away from home. And I'm caught in this spot of trying to protect my life and my living -- and my creativity, which is never negotiable.
And being the guy who's the point man for all that stuff now, it eats into your ability to be creative.
It does. It does. The one thing I can say about this is that it's all connected. It is. From your first question to what we're talking about now. You know, I feel guilt that I can't pay the players what I feel their talent is worth. Because streaming is rough, man. As an independent artist, and I have been thoroughly independent for years now, I make 0.0002 percent per stream.
I have a song that's really doing well right now called 'Jane I Feel the Same' on Spotify. And I am grateful for it. I'm happy that people are discovering it. But the truth is, on the first 100,000 plays of that song, I made $20. So you can quickly see how the economy of what we do starts to get really thin. And I'm of the personality that if I have it, you can have it, and if I don't have it, then I'm probably more likely to give it to you than keep it for myself.
Now, I'm not destitute, man, and I don't want to give that impression. What scares me is that I cannot tell if this is sustainable. You know? And I've talked to other friends that are artists, and they're all feeling that. We can't tell if this is sustainable.
On top of that, I'm kind of an anti-marketing guy -- I don't necessarily believe in t-shirts and coffee mugs and selling you underwear. I'm a purist, in that I want our relationship to be about music. I also understand that some people, me being one of them, I mean, I'll wear a Clash t-shirt with pride. I guess in some ways my ego won't let me welcome the idea that someone would want to wear my face or my name on a t-shirt.
It all comes down to a matrix of philosophy that makes it very difficult to navigate in the real world, and there's also a little sorrow, because there was a moment on the internet where we were forming relationships with our listeners. I love having relationships with people who are engaged with my music. I love finding out about their minds and their hearts and seeing who they are in conversation. And there was a time on the internet where people were still conditioned -- I hate that word -- but they still bought records.
I think I'm lucky in that I have a lot of listeners who still do purchase music from me directly. But that behavior is changing. What I'm trying to say is that there was a time online where more people were engaging directly with you and it was making for what looked like more of a sustainable living. But now, with the challenges of YouTube and streaming music and more people engaging with music that way, we're getting paid so little, it's making it very hard to understand how we can going forward when people's behaviors are changing, websites are becoming dead-letter offices, and the majority of this engagement happens in a flood.
That's why I'm leaning so much back towards intimacy -- whether it's being in the room with the band, wanting to tour more, wanting to get to know the people listening, and finding ways to reach them in a more intimate fashion. I think it's the only way forward, at least that I can see right now. Because Spotify is not going to solve the issue. We have a multi-faceted challenge going on right now, and we see it in our politics and we see it in our news, we see it in so many different fields of work, where people, like work, are being devalued in a way that is making it questionable whether they can proceed.
For all the beauty that technology brings, we cannot allow it to dehumanize us. We have to remember there are other humans on the other side of us. We have an amazing opportunity here, but we cannot lose part of our humanity through it. And that's not just about some rock and roll, or wanting to buy a song. It isn't. It's a very, very big and wide issue, and rock and roll would only be an example of what we're talking about. When you see what's going on in our politics and you see how people are being isolated within an idea because algorithms are feeding them ideas that they would feel comfortable with -- these are all connected, and I hope that makes sense.
It does, although, like you say, it's a gigantic issue. Music is kind of uniquely easy to point to as a symptom of everything you're talking about, because for a very long time, music was tied to physical things or physical artifacts that made that relationship between the listener and the song a lot more meaningful, and now music is invisible and abstract, and it's easier for people to kind of bathe in it without attaching themselves to it. It destroys that level of intimacy you were talking about.
I think it does, and I think it also seems to block a sense of community. I can remember watching, I guess the evolution of this was 'on demand.' Movies on demand! Films, television, on demand. What happened there was people started experiencing things in a singular fashion.
I think that's part of why so many people are gravitating towards sports, because sports are something that still happens that we all experience simultaneously, and what's interesting is, whether we're aware of it or not -- and I don't mean to stand over here like a wizard -- there is a collective energy that we cannot see by participating in something simultaneously.
I understand what you're saying, and I know rock and roll is a great example of it, but we have to make clear: We are not just complaining about us. It isn't just about you and it's not about me, and it's not about my friend with his Kickstarter campaign.
No, it's about how we relate with and experience the world.
Right! With each other. There's power in a shared experience. We see it going on in the venues, where there's a tension. Because some people are engaged in the moment that's happening and other people are in this weird ... it's like this strange futility in trying to disengage from the moment, by capturing the moment alone someplace else, rather than taking part in that energy.
But what I do see, and I feel as an artist you get the unique opportunity to engage with so many different types of people, and so many different age groups, and so many different occupations, nationalities, and races. What I do see, across the board, is a desire to feel something together as an equal people. These things do matter. And I believe there is a reaction coming, from within ourselves, to strike a balance, and that to me is very exciting. It's not all doom and gloom.
Everything you're saying you hoped the songs to communicate, I think that encapsulates the best of everything you've done, and it's all distilled into 'Boxers.' When your music is really 'on' -- and I think more often than not, it really is on -- that's what it does. Listening to your music makes me want to fight for the right things.
I don't think anyone has said anything so beautiful, for what it's worth. As far as the value system I have and the things that are important to me ... you can't always strike that mark, but sometimes you get lucky. And I feel, with 'Boxers,' we got lucky. And I'm not afraid of what happens next, I'm not afraid of the next group of songs. Whenever you find yourself in tune with your intention, you gotta face it. And I hope that people feel the same way when they hear it.
Because as a music lover, I can say that's how I feel when I hear a song that lifts me up from outside whatever lethargy I'm in. And that's what I feel we've done and I think that's what we all feel. And what you said is exactly -- I've never said it that way, but it's exactly what I hope anyone who's engaged in my work would feel. Because that is the hope. And I think in a time of epidemic cynicism, it's a very pervasive and punk rock thing to lean towards.
I wanted to make one of those films where you have a collection of short films. And each set of characters is reaching for something and not knowing whether they can reach it or not, but reaching nonetheless. It's what we do. I don't know that a postcard statement like that can resonate all I want to resonate from these songs, but I still believe from top to bottom, from seed to tree, that this record communicates that.
It felt particularly important to me right now to do this. And luckily, the right guys rambled in, the right people showed up during the taping. And I'm not regretting the way we're doing this. I love that we're in a position to release this ourselves. I love it. But I grew up where music had big ideas, and I want these songs to reach as many people as possible that are willing to welcome it. That's what I want. That's what I've always wanted.
I often go back to something you said: "I just want everyone to win." I think that you, as a narrator to these stories, as grim as they can sometimes become, I think that's the reason why I feel my heart really lift when I listen to these records. The music is always in your corner. The music is always pushing you forward. There's a value to and a beauty in the struggle.
I remember saying that. I gotta tell you, in life we get these opportunities to have some greater understanding of our own conflicts and our own struggles in the context of some kind of amazing story.
The other day I was walking into a convenience store, and I saw this woman, and she looked like she had come face to face with every sad event possible. It was in her eyes and it was in her skin. It was in the way that her mouth kind of hung there, and I had this thought when I looked at her: "Love does that too."
In our lives, we experience things that become real to us. They shape us and they challenge us and if we're not careful, they can define us. And what I wanted to do with this record, and with the vast majority of my work, is to show people that if you can get some perspective on what you have known, you can resist it defining you, if what you have known is darkening you.
That's the one thing that I would want to say insofar as, I do want everyone to win. Because people can win. The other thing is -- and when I say these things, man, I don't mean it like some evangelical or some kind of mysticism, you know? But I remember reading 'Dulce Et Decorum Est,' by Wilfred Owen, and reading these stories about these soldiers during World War I, where every hope and dream is completely snuffed out, because of madness or some economic goal. And they end up on the back of a wagon, dead. And after reading that, I remembering hearing stories from an uncle who was in Vietnam, and how they were sent there. And they were sent there for reasons that we did and we did not understand.
There's a viciousness in society, and I reject that. It really is a part of my engine that I don't people to be defined by happenstance and by bad blood. I think we have a responsibility to ourselves and for what we do, don't get me wrong. But I think we have a responsibility to each other to have that shot.
And I'd argue that each of your best songs reflects that -- the responsibility to ourselves and our responsibility to each other. It's reflected in what you say about intimacy, it's reflected in this conversation about community, and it's reflected in the stories you tell on 'Boxers.'
Thank you. That's what I'm trying to say.