‘We have such a wide range of influences it can be hard to pin them all down – from Coltrane to Hawkwind’

Triptides – photo by Brad Danner.

Alter Echoes, the great new album from L.A-based trio Triptides (led by multi-instrumentalist Glenn Brigman, with drummer Brendan Peleo-Lazar and bassist/guitarist Stephen Burns) is a mix of sun-soaked, ’60s-sounding, psychedelic pop – think The Byrds and The Beatles – and far-out space rock. 

It was recorded prior to the pandemic, in Hollywood’s Boulevard Recording studio, which was previously the legendary Producer’s Workshop, where Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and, er, Liberace made, or mixed, records. 

“Liberace’s piano is unfortunately no longer there,” says Brigman, speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers from L.A. “But I think some of the energy from those groups still lingers. Whether it rubbed off on us… well, you be the judge!”

Q&A

How is it in L.A?

Glenn Brigman: It’s a very unique place and we love it for a lot of reasons. But one of the coolest parts is the amount of incredible music that has been made here over the years. We dig the history.

How has lockdown affected you as a band?

GB: We’ve all been affected one way or another. At this point we are just trying to make the most of our time off the road – we’re writing, recording and learning more about our craft.

I’ve started learning the Sarod [Indian stringed instrument], Brendan has been working on learning more piano and Stephen has been writing a series of musical suites about his cat, Jeffrey. We had to cancel last year’s SXSW appearances and a European tour planned for last September. Hopefully we will be back in Europe before the end of 2021 to make up for it.

Are you worried about the future of live music, post-Covid? What are your hopes and fears for the rest of the year and beyond?

GB: I’m trying not to think about it too much… we’re just taking it one day at a time right now and hoping for the best. I hope that our ability to be flexible and adapt to new situations will help us pull through any difficulties that await us in the coming year.

‘I’ve started learning the Sarod, Brendan has been working on learning more piano and Stephen has been writing a series of musical suites about his cat, Jeffrey’

How have you been coping with lockdown?

GB: We’ve been coping by working on every aspect of the music, apart from the live show. Taking care of each other and staying connected to our friends and family as best as we can.

Let’s talk about your new album, Alter Echoes. When did you make it?

GB: We recorded it in the fall of 2019; long before the word Covid was part of our lexicon.

It was recorded and mixed at Clay Blair’s Boulevard Recording studio in Hollywood. How was that? What were the set-up and the vibes like? How were the sessions? 

GB: Clay is a great guy. We had a blast working with him at such a legendary studio. The set-up was fantastic – a beautiful live room that looks like it’s straight out of the ‘70s. There’s a comfortable control room and a little lounge area. Everything one could need to rock.

The vibes were very good. Brendan has known Clay for years, but they sort of reconnected when Brendan moved out to L.A, so it was sort of like working with an old friend. Also, the fact that Clay is from North Carolina and Stephen and I are from Georgia made us feel even more at home. The sessions were great – we had rehearsed the material beforehand, but it still had a very spontaneous vibe to it.

‘The studio set-up was fantastic – a beautiful live room that looks like it’s straight out of the ‘70s. There’s a comfortable control room and a little lounge area. Everything one could need to rock’

The studio was formerly Producer’s Workshop, where Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan made, or mixed, records. Did any of that history rub off on you?  Liberace also recorded in the studio. Is his piano still there?

GB: Liberace’s piano is unfortunately no longer there! I think some of the energy from those groups still lingers. Whether it rubbed off on us… well, you be the judge!

The new record definitely has a sun-soaked, psychedelic sound. What influenced it musically, or otherwise?

GB: There’s such a wide range of influences it can be hard to pin them all down – from Coltrane to Hawkwind. So many different groups. But I think being in L.A, working together as a band, touring together – it all influenced how the record came together. We knew each other’s strengths and made sure that we played to them.

Photo by Alex Bulli

The single, It Won’t Hurt You, is one of my favourite songs of the year so far. What can you tell me about it? It’s very Byrdsy. Where did it come from? 

GB: I wrote that one in the summer of 2018. It sat around as a drum machine apartment demo for a year or so. When I presented it to the group it worked perfectly with the three-piece arrangement and we decided to record it.

Hand of Time is another of my favourite songs on the record. I think it has a slight Stonesy feel a swagger, like Street Fighting Man, but crossed with English ’60s psychedelia. Is that a fair description?

GB: I can see that. I think Brendan was thinking about the stripped-down drum patterns from McCartney II. I was probably drawing on Hawkwind or Can. It was just one of those songs that came out of a jam. We were doing a sort of stream of consciousness demo night where we were recording everything to the Tascam 488 tape machine. Suddenly we just started playing it. Listening back afterwards we thought, well that’s going to have to be a song, isn’t it?

Was the spacey track Shining influenced by Pink Floyd? There’s a definite Dark Side of the Moon feel to it. I’m thinking Breathe

GB: Of course! Shining is a bit of our love letter to our favorite Floyd moments. The lyrics are supposed to be from a disoriented perspective – another realm where things aren’t what they seem. There’s a line where I say, “Relax, you weren’t meant to live,” which was sort of a reference to Nightmare of Percussion, the first track on the second Strawberry Alarm Clock album, where the narrator says: “Don’t worry about dying – you were meant not to live.” I always thought that was really weird and I wanted to include some of that weirdness in the song.

Having A Laugh is one of the lighter songs on the album. It’s poppy and has a McCartney / Beatles feel. Would you agree?

GB: It is and it isn’t. I was trying to comment on how much terrible news people see and hear everyday (“If you really believed half the things they said/wouldn’t be any need to get out of bed”). And this was before the pandemic! At the same time, I was thinking how we need to start taking care of the earth, of each other before it’s too late.

‘We were going for a sort of A Hard Day’s Night meets João Gilberto thing. Something you could listen to on the beach while the sun is setting. The first evening wind after a warm, summer day’

Another lighter, poppier song is She Doesn’t Want To Know – it’s a kind of a bossa nova/ lounge/ Easy Listening tune. Laidback and quite ’60s…

GB: We were going for a sort of A Hard Day’s Night meets João Gilberto thing. Something you could listen to on the beach while the sun is setting. The first evening wind after a warm, summer day.

The last song, Now and Then, is very ’60s. It reminds me of The Zombies and also Cream’s I Feel Free. What can you tell me about it?

GB: For that tune we wanted to go all out ‘60s. We were already in the studio with Clay, who is a huge Beatles fan and an authority on their recording techniques [see video below].

Paired with Brendan, who is an authority on Ringo’s gear, in particular, we couldn’t help but do our own Help-inspired UK beat song. We actually meant to use a Hohner Pianet on the track, like The Night Before, but it was giving us issues that day, so we settled on the Wurlitzer 200 [electric piano].

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

GB: We have some tentative tour plans, but I don’t want to jinx anything. We’ve also got more music to release. Like I said, we’ve been recording quite a bit.

‘I still rock an iPod like it’s 2006’

What music – new and old  – have you been enjoying recently? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?

GB: We’ve all been listening to a ton of music over the lockdown – even more than usual perhaps. I’ve been digging a lot of UK folk recently: Fairport Convention, Michael Chapman, Bridget St John. And digging into some jazzier stuff: Horace Silver, Miles Davis and Gábor Szabó. I also went on a big Bee Gees kick after seeing that new documentary [The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart].

Finally, what’s your preferred way of listening to music and why?

Photo by Alex Bulli

GB: Records. But driving around and listening to music is a close second. I still rock an iPod like it’s 2006.

Triptides’ Alter Echoes will be released on limited vinyl, and digital / streaming platforms on March 19, via Alive Naturalsound Records.

https://triptides.bandcamp.com/

 

‘We’ve already written the soundtracks – now we just need to find the films to accompany them. Anyone out there interested?’

XIXA – photo by Puspal Ohmeyer

Like all the best bands, guitar-slinging six-piece XIXA, from Tucson, Arizona, look like a gang. In some of their press photos, they’re all wearing black and posing against a mountain range, looking like they’ve just drifted out of the badlands and are intent on razing your little town to the ground.

It’s an image that suits their sound perfectly – XIXA cite some of their influences as ‘70s Spaghetti Westerns, Gothic horror / Edgar Allan Poe, ’80s horror films, Narco cumbia – cumbia is a type of Colombian dance music, like salsa – and Peruvian chicha group Los Shapis.

Formed in the deep American Southwest, the band also has Latin roots, which can be heard amidst the dark and cinematic, brooding, desert-rock sound of their latest album, Genesis – one of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year so far.

“We live and breathe this landscape, so with these songs we let loose and went as far into that world as we could,” says XIXA’s Gabriel Sullivan, who shares lead vocals and lead guitar with fellow outlaw, Brian Lopez. Both of them are / were also members of Howe Gelb’s alt-country rockers, Giant Sand. XIXA’s line-up is completed by bandmates Jason Urman (keys), Winston Watson (drums, percussion), Efrén Cruz Chávez (timbales, percussion), and Hikit Corbel (bass). 

Genesis is XIXA’s second album. Produced by Lopez and Sullivan and recorded in Tucson at the band’s Dust & Stone studio, it follows their debut Bloodline and 2019 EP The Code. It’s an extraordinary, exotic and often intense listen –  an intoxicating mix of Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western-style soundtracks, psych, rock, Latin influences, ’80s glossy pop and electronica. 

‘We live and breathe this landscape, so with these songs we let loose and went as far into that world as we could’

Guests on the record include the Uummannaq Children’s Choir from Greenland, Latin singer and guitarist Sergio Mendoza from “indie mambo” act Orkesta Mendoza, and Algerian Tuareg desert-rock quintet Imarhan.

Say It With Garage Flowers took a trip into XIXA’s dark, desert-rock world and spoke to Lopez and Sullivan about the genesis of, er, Genesis.

“We have spent years tweaking the recognisability of our sound. And Genesis is the best representation to date,” they tell us.

Q&A

Hi. Thanks for doing this. How’s it going? Where are you at the moment? In Tucson? What’s it like? Describe your surroundings and current mood.

Gabriel Sullivan: Thanks for having us. I am indeed in Tucson, in my Barrio Viejo home, looking out my window at my neighbour, Howe Gelb, unloading a Lowrey organ from his truck – it was from an outdoor gig we did in Tubac last weekend. That was quite a feeling – to play music for folks again!

Brian Lopez: I’m doing well, thanks. I just went for a hike with my mom at Sabino Canyon. T-shirt and shorts in February – I can’t complain.

How are you both coping with Covid and how has it affected you?

GS: Obviously Covid shoved us into very unfamiliar territory. This is the longest I’ve not toured in 15 years and I’m really starting to feel the bizarre effects of missing that routine. We’ve certainly tried to stay productive in our Dust & Stone studio and have created some great recordings with XIXA and other projects.

BL: For the first six to eight months, I was feeling great. I think my body and mind needed to recuperate from all the years of touring.  I’ve remained super-productive and have had no problem staying busy – mostly with music-related stuff, which is great. I’ve been recording, writing, collaborating with others and getting more efficient with relaying musical ideas online. All the things I hadn’t had time to do efficiently before.

That said, I also miss German winters now…I miss catering and cramped green rooms with my band. I’m ready for the reboot to be over. I wanna get back out on the road.

We’re here to talk about your brilliant new album, Genesis, which is one of my favourite albums of the year so far. It’s a great-sounding record: exotic, cinematic, psychedelic, dark and menacing at times. What was the starting point for it? Did you go in with a definite approach as to how you wanted it to sound and feel? It’s an epic album.

GS: I feel like Genesis evolved and came to fruition in a very organic way. We didn’t go into the sessions with a definitive approach or sound, but we did go into this record with a few years of touring. Our sonic identity was further realised after that much time on the road together.

We wrote and recorded around 25 songs in the Genesis sessions, with many different styles and vibes from song to song. The 10 that made the record were the songs that best complemented each other for a 40-minute LP.

BL: This is definitely not an overnight “we got lucky how it turned out” kinda story. It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work, discipline, restraint…and maybe a .0003% of luck. By this point in our careers we’ve each carved out a space within this band’s organism. Everyone has an important place and job within it…otherwise this organism takes an unrecognisable shape. We need it to be recognisable. We have spent years tweaking the recognisability of our sound. And Genesis is the best representation to date.

Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez – photo by Julius Schlosburg

How do you write and create the songs? What are your songwriting, demoing, arranging and recording processes?

GS: Genesis, like all of our recordings, was recorded in our Dust & Stone studio and was produced by Brian and myself. We’re big advocates of writing and recording all in the same session. We generally crank out one song per day. Some are more fleshed-out and realised than others, but at the very least we end up with solid sketches.

From there it’s Brian and I spending countless hours in the studio composing lyrics, chopping and editing arrangements, reworking songs and generally just further crafting the sonic landscapes that you hear on the record.

BL: The band will block out writing days, and whoever is available comes in and works. From there we really try to keep it moving. We’ve really become efficient at catching the initial flicker of an idea, and recording it well enough, so that when Gabe and I circle back to it, months later, that magic from the initial session is still there.

You cite your influences as including Edgar Allan Poe, Gothic horror, Ennio Morricone, Spaghetti Western soundtracks, ’80s horror films, ’80s pop and Latin sounds – Narco Cumbia and chica. It’s certainly an exotic and eclectic mix of sounds and styles…

GS: The inspirations that go into XIXA are always evolving. We started as a covers band playing Peruvian chicha and that was definitely the foundation for the band. From there each members’ personal influences and identities began to seep into the music. We’re always looking for new things to influence our music, from literature, mysticism, rhythms, guitar tones… We have no boundaries as to what can guide our music.

What were some of your main lyrical influences for this album? I sense that you take a lot of inspiration from the Arizona landscape: the desert, coyotes, wolves, etc. Is that the case? A lot of the lyrics are dark. There’s a nocturnal, shadowy and otherworldly feel to many of the songs…

GS: I see the lyrics on Genesis as Brian and I painting landscapes for the listener to wander through. There are big broad concepts pulling from religion, spirituality, mythology, mysticism…

‘We’re always looking for new things to influence our music, from literature, mysticism, rhythms, guitar tones… We have no boundaries as to what can guide our music’

Would you like to write film soundtracks? If so, what kind of movies would you like to score?

BL: I think we’ve already written the soundtracks – now we just need to find the films to accompany them. Anyone out there interested?

Can you recommend any cool films – new and old – that I should watch? Seen anything good recently?

BL: The best new movie I have seen is Mank, which is about the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his development of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. It’s amazing. I’d recommend watching it with subtitles though, as the audio is true to 1930s film, in that it is terrible.

The best old movie I have seen recently is Boogie Nights. I mean, that movie ages impressively. It’s maybe better now than it was when it came out. The cast is out of this world and the performances are stellar. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s best work, in my opinion.

Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new album. Genesis of Gaea has a definite Spaghetti Western / psychedelic feel…

BL: We wanted to find a darker sort of mood for Spaghetti Western. Something that had the same DNA as a melodic/playful Ennio Morricone, but a darker, more psych feel.  This is what we landed on. Lyrically we kind of get this “danger lies ahead” vibe to accompany the melodic passages. I was re-learning how to play this song recently, and I gotta say, musically-speaking, it is rather complex. More than you’d think from just hearing it.

I think Land Where We Lie sounds like Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill dragged through the Arizona outback. It has an ’80s pop feel, but it mutates into something much darker and also nods to Cry Little Sister from The Lost Boys soundtrack…

GS: I wrote this song the morning before we recorded it – it originally had a very finger picky, southwest songwriter kind of feel. When we got to the studio we started falling into this sort of Rock The Casbah vibe and just kept pushing it further into that. We were all big into ‘80s New and Dark Wave when we were doing the initial tracking and I think it comes across huge in this song. We pulled from an obvious reference here – Cry Little Sister from The Lost Boys soundtrack. The outro is sung by the Uummannaq Children’s Choir, who happened to be visiting Tucson while we were finishing overdubs. They definitely add the final haunting touch to this tune.

‘We wanted to find a darker sort of mood for Spaghetti Western. Something that had the same DNA as a melodic/playful Ennio Morricone, but a darker, more psych feel’

BL: The choir is actually a group of orphans from Uummannaq, Greenland that travel around the world and give performances. They were in Tucson, because our friend, Nive Nielsen, was in town from Greenland, and was sort of organising that portion of their trip. We had already thought to do a Lost Boys homage at the end of the song and had reached out to the local Tucson Boys Chorus to see if they were interested. And literally that same day we ran into Nive, who told us about the orphan choir. She said, “you should just have them do it. They love to sing.”  So we did exactly that. And we loved it so much we put them on a couple of other tracks while we had them in our studio.

Photo by Puspal Ohmeyer

The Uummannaq Children’s Choir also appear on Feast of Ascension. What can you tell me about that song? I think it starts off sounding like Mark Lanegan doing Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd…

BL:The original idea was a demo recorded by our French bass player, Hikit Corbel. He has tons of ideas that he composes at home. Perhaps he was listening to some Dark Side… when he composed this particular one.

Anyhow, we took this particular demo, which I believe was just the intro riff on loop, and totally fleshed it out together, live, in the studio, and tracked the arrangement that you hear now.

There are a lot of lyrical references rooted in religion on this album and I thought a song based around the Feast of Ascension might find a good home on a XIXA album. So we wrote lyrics around that theme. We had the Uummannaq Children’s Choir add the final touch, singing the choruses with us: “We sit at the table, with all we have loved. We sit at the table with all that we have feared and lost.” Hearing their voices sing this passage gives me chills every time.

Eclipse, May They Call Us Home and Eve of Agnes are the most Latin-sounding tracks on the album. Are they influenced by cumbia and chichi? They’re very exotic…

BL: Eclipse is more in the vein of Mexican cumbia. May They Call Us Home is one part Spaghetti Western, one part Peruvian chichi, and Eve of Agnes is “a Turkish street market,” as one of the members of Imarhan described it to us, as we were tracking it. Now, the first two cumbias make sense, given our sonic track record, but I can’t explain the Turkish street market part, but I like it.

Soma has some great, pulsing synths on it. It could be the soundtrack to a sci-fi cowboy film…

BL: It’s a song idea I’ve had in the back of my head for a while. Jason’s synths definitely take it to a new place, along with Hikit’s soulful bassline.

GS: The intro is one of my favourite moments of the record. We had the song nearly mixed but didn’t think the intro was quite there. We ended up bouncing the intro down to a 1/4″ tape machine at the lowest speed and played it back into Pro Tools while I held the reels to get that wobbling and crunching effect. Incorporating programmed drums on the outro was a first on a XIXA record. There’s a lot of fun studio trickery in this tune.

BL: The icing on the cake, for me, is again having the Uummannaq Children’s Choir take the outro of the song. The music fades and these beautiful resilient voices remain, walking the listener to the end of side A of the vinyl.

‘That’s so funny you mention Duran Duran – honestly I was hardcore going for Bananarama’s Cruel Summer when we were getting into the production’

Velveteen shares its name with a song and album by ’80s trash-pop band Transvision Vamp. I think it sounds like Duran Duran-meets-Morricone-meets psych-rock. There’s an ’80s pop thing going on, but with some great psychedelic guitar and a Spaghetti Western feel…

BL: That’s so funny you mention Duran Duran – honestly I was hardcore going for Bananarama’s Cruel Summer when we were getting into the production on this particular one. And I remember being disappointed afterwards because I thought we fell a bit short of the mark. Now, with plenty of time between listening, I absolutely love where the song ended up. It’s definitely one of my personal favorites on the album.

Lyrically, the song’s inception came about when I was reading Richard Price’s book Lush Life. He used the word ‘velveteen’ to describe the curtains inside a dilapidated building in New York City. I just remember thinking about the strong aesthetic grip the word ‘velveteen’ has.  So I wrote all the lyrics around that one word.

Photo by Puspal Ohmeyer

Are you pleased with the album?

BL: I’m definitely pleased with it. On a personal level, I feel the album’s stock will only rise when we are able to play these songs live in front of crowds, and begin making sense of it all. We haven’t even made it to that part yet. Which is both frustrating and exciting.

Was it made pre-pandemic? The record’s dark soundtrack feel suits the global mood, doesn’t it?

BL: It was conceived pre-pandemic, yes. But it certainly takes on more cultural relevance and significance in a Covid world. I’m glad we pushed the release back.

What are your plans for the rest of 2021? You’re obviously hoping to play this record live at some stage, aren’t you?

BL: I have no idea what to expect. Of course we’d love to go out and tour but that just isn’t on the cards, is it? Not any time soon at least. So we’ll just start writing new music and control what we can.

GS: We’ve played a couple of tunes from the record for some live streams and they were a blast to arrange for the stage. I can’t wait to see how songs like Soma, with its thick layers of production, translate to a live setting.

‘The album was conceived pre-pandemic, but it certainly takes on more cultural relevance and significance in a Covid world’

What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What music – new and old – have you been enjoying?

BL: My favourite new album is Mexican Institute of Sound’s Distrito Federal. I’ve also been listening to Lowrider Oldies via a vinyl compilation called East Side Stories. I believe there are 12 volumes.

GS: I’ve been in a deep heavy music vibe lately. I’m loving the new EP from our Arizona brethren Gatecreeper and I’ve also been revisiting my all-time favourite band Pantera.

Finally, do you like the band Genesis?

BL: I prefer Peter Gabriel’s solo career. Sledgehammer was the shit. Also, the music video for Genesis’  Land of Confusion  seriously freaked me out as a child. That video is fucked up.

Genesis by XIXA is out now on Jullian Records/The Orchard. 

http://www.xixamusic.com/

https://xixa.bandcamp.com/

‘It feels pretty good to be 10. It’s similar to being nine, except cooler’

 

Cool Ghouls

San Francisco’s Cool Ghouls (Pat McDonald – guitar/vocals; Pat Thomas – bass/vocals; Ryan Wong – guitar/vocals and Alex Fleshman – drums) turn 10 this year and release their fourth album, At George’s Zoo, in March.

It’s their best and most diverse record yet – a mix of Byrdsy psych, ’60s-style garage rock and gorgeous, Beach Boys/Jimmy Webb-inspired pop, with harmonies, piano, horns and lush strings.

“We didn’t have any expectations going into this record – we just wanted to have full control over the production and the time we spent recording,” they tell Say It With Garage Flowers.

Q&A

How’s it going? What’s it like in San Francisco and how has the city handled the pandemic?

Pat Thomas: It’s going pretty good. San Francisco is a little chilly outside. It’s been raining recently. I guess the city government here has done a decent job handling the pandemic compared with other governments, but they could do more. The vaccine rollout could be more aggressive and the mayor seems too eager to “restart the economy.”

How has lockdown affected you – as people and also as a band? Have you had to radically alter any of your plans?

PT: Plans weren’t altered that much, band-wise. Before 2020 we were already factoring in a lot of downtime, as our guitarist, Ryan, is living all the way in Denver at the moment. We wanted to release At George’s Zoo in June of 2020, but had to postpone it, obviously.

Are you worried about the future of live music, post-Covid? What are your hopes and fears? How have you been coping with lockdown?

PT: I’m not too worried about the future of live music – I don’t really see how it couldn’t bounce back eventually and start to feel pretty normal. Bands will tour, people will go to shows, etc. A lot of small venues have been lost and bands will have to contend with that. Who knows, maybe people will be moved to open more venues in response. Lockdown is lonely – I think everyone feels that to some degree.

Cool Ghouls are 10 years old in 2021 – happy birthday! How are you celebrating? How does it feel to be 10? 

PT: We’re not really celebrating because we’re all in lockdown. I guess releasing a record is kind of like a celebration. It feels pretty good to be 10. It’s pretty similar to being nine, except cooler.

‘I’m not too worried about the future of live music – I don’t really see how it couldn’t bounce back eventually and start to feel pretty normal. A lot of small venues have been lost and bands will have to contend with that’

Let’s talk about the new album. Was it written and recorded pre-Covid? When and where did you make it?

PT: Yep. We recorded it at our friend Robby Joseph’s house in the Outer Sunset neighbourhood in San Francisco, in the fall and winter of 2018.

What were the sessions like?

Ryan Wong: The recording environment was really important this time around. We started every session with a beer run and a family meal and talked about what we were going to do that day. Everything was recorded live and then we overdubbed what we had to. Robby laid it down on an Otari MX5050 [tape machine].

What did you want to achieve with the new record? It’s your most expansive album yet, with bigger, richer arrangements, and horns and strings. What prompted that move?

RW: We didn’t have any expectations going into it. After recording Gord’s Horse [digital-only EP from 2017] by ourselves, we just wanted to have full control over the production and the time we spent recording. Ryan was moving to Denver, so we just laid whatever ideas we had to tape before he left. As far as the arrangements, I think we’ve just grown over time and the music reflects that on this one.

Who writes the songs and how do you arrange them? What’s the process?

RW: We all write our own songs. So once the basic structure/idea is hashed out we bring it to the band to work on. Everyone has a hand in the final product.

I think At George’s Zoo is your best record yet. Where did the title come from? 

RW: Thanks. George’s Zoo is a liquor store in the Outer Sunset that we frequented while recording. Robby’s neighbour was also named George and he left some feedback on his garage door a few times…Ha!

Cool Ghouls in the studio – San Francisco.

‘The recording environment was really important. We started every session with a beer run and a family meal and talked about what we were going to do that day. Everything was recorded live and then we overdubbed what we had to’

The opening track on the album, It’s Over, is wonderful. It has a great horn arrangement, a Beach Boys-style intro and some lovely harmonies. There’s also a bit of The Notorious Byrd Brothers about it – some psych-soul going on…

PT: Thanks. Yeah. The Notorious Byrd Brothers is a great record. I bought the Tibetan handbells you hear at the beginning of the song at one of those hippy gift shops on Haight St, not far from my apartment.

What can you tell me about the first single, Helpless Circumstance? There’s a psychedelic-rock feel to it, as well as more Beach Boys…

PT: It’s a pretty simple tune. One of those songs that sprouts from a dumb riff you play absent-mindedly at practice between actual songs you’re practising. Pat M was feeling lovey-dovey, so gave it some sweet and soft lyrics. He thinks the song sounds lavender in colour.

The new single, The Way I Made You Cry, is a great piece of soulful, Brian Wilsonesque piano pop, with horns and harmonies. It’s beautiful. Any thoughts on it?

PT: Thank you. No thoughts on it really. The song pretty much communicates everything about itself better than I could with words.

Land Song is gorgeous orch-pop. It has a Jimmy Webb / Beach Boys Pet Sounds-era feel. What can you tell me about it?

RW: We’re real proud of this one. The Pats actually wrote this song together. It was definitely pulling from the Jimmy Webb playbook, but we were also listening to a lot of Canterbury bands at the time. Early King Crimson was also in the mix. Dylan Edrich added the strings and Henry Baker laid down the piano. Props to those two.

It’s not even spring yet, but Surfboard is the song of the summer and I Was Wrong has a definite Pet Sounds Surf’s Up feel. You do sound like you’ve been listening to a lot of Beach Boys…

PT: Those songs rule. They’re so good. Surfboard started out as a joke song. I was going to change the lyrics but I just kept coming back to ‘surfboard…’

The song 26th St. Blues sounds more like the Cool Ghouls of old – it’s very ’60s garage rock.

Pat McDonald: It’s ‘60s garage rock for sure. And it was inspired by the dire housing crisis in San Francisco. It’s pretty wild to see a place change so rapidly before your eyes. There’s a lot of frustration and powerlessness in the song, which gives it its rougher edge.

What music new and old have you been enjoying recently? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?

PM: Fun House by The Stooges. Pretty much exclusively that.

What’s your preferred way of listening to music and why?

PM: In my headphones at work, so I don’t have to hear my dumbass co-workers talking about GameStop stocks.

Finally, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

RW: We’re not really sure. This year kind of seems like a wash too. We’re looking forward to playing these songs live at some point.

At George’s Zoo by Cool Ghouls is released on March 12 Empty Cellar / Melodic Records (UK).

https://coolghouls420.bandcamp.com/album/at-georges-zoo

https://music.emptycellarrecords.com/

https://www.melodic.co.uk/

‘This record absolutely saved my life by giving me something to focus on’

Steve Drizos in his home studio, June 2020. Photo by Jason Quigley.

Axiom, by singer-songwriter, engineer and producer, Steve Drizos, who is based in Portland, Oregon, was one of the first new albums I listened to this year, when I was asked to review it for Americana UK.

Drizos is the drummer for Jerry Joseph and The Jackmormons and he has his own studio, The Panther. He’s worked with artists including Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), Chris Funk (The Decemberists), and Scott McCaughey (R.E.M., Minus 5, The Young Fresh Fellows).

Released in late January, Axiom is his debut solo album and it really took me by surprise when I first heard it. Due to his CV, I guess I was expecting an alt-country record, but it’s nothing of the sort. 

The title track and album opener is a spacey and trance-like instrumental, with female vocal samples, electric piano and soaring strings, which builds to an epic climax, while Juggling Fire, which is the first song he wrote after quitting alcohol, is a shimmering, psych-folk ballad with a hint of blues. 

Writing for Americana UK, I said: “Drizos isn’t easy to pin down – You Don’t See That Now is a reflective, keyboard-driven ballad with strings, and Softer, Please brings to mind soulful grungers The Afghan Whigs.

“Similarly, the moody, ‘90s-style alt-rock of Static has crunching guitars, a driving bassline and some seriously powerful drumming, but throws in a proggy synth solo that sounds like it was found nestling under one of Rick Wakeman’s old capes.

“Drizos doesn’t shy away from tackling the issues he’s had to deal with though – on Juggling Fire he sings: “When you’re all alone, begging for night.”

I added: “Axiom is a diverting and often surprising listen – the sound of a man coming to terms with himself and capturing it in an honest and strong collection of songs.”

The album was written, recorded, produced and mixed by Drizos, at The Panther. He set out to play as many instruments as he could on the record, but ended up using some guest musicians, including his wife, Jenny Conlee-Drizos of The Decemberists, and local session player Kyleen King for string and vocal arrangements.

 

Drizos says that making the album took him out of his comfort zone – he’s suffered from depression and anxiety, and also fought a battle with booze and drug addiction, but he started working on the record once he’d got sober. Some of the songs had been kicking around for years, but his new-found sobriety gave him the motivation to finally record them.

Having achieved his biggest goal for the album – to finish it – he says his next ambition is to have people hear it and relate to it: “If someone can find something relatable in the lyrics, especially someone who might be struggling with some of the things I sing about on the record, and not feel so alone and isolated, that’s the biggest goal.”

In an exclusive, honest and very revealing interview, I speak to Drizos to find out how he overcame his personal demons to make his debut album, and also get his thoughts on what lies ahead for live music in a post-Covid world.

“Even as I’m answering these interview questions, there’s a big part of me thinking: “Don’t they know I’m not really a singer-songwriter?” Like I’m going to be found out. That’s my insecurities yelling at me,” he says.

Q&A

How’s your new year going so far?

Steve Drizos: How’s 2021 going? Well, it feels the same as 2020 so far, minus the daily spewing of our former “con-mander”-in-chief. And the constant, varying levels of anger, anxiety, and disbelief that went with it. So that’s a good start.

How has Covid affected you as a musician / producer? Has it messed-up any of your plans?

SD: It’s interesting that you worded the question that way. As a touring/gigging musician, it has obviously brought everything to a screeching halt, with little to no conversation about things moving again, at least in the States. I feel like in the beginning, everyone was trying to predict when things would open back up again and try to plan accordingly, only to be discouraged over and over again.

My bandmates and other colleagues have stopped trying to predict and just sit tight and wait. We were able to do a few live shows this summer when we could play outdoors, so that was a nice reprieve from missing the live show experience. However, I do hear a lot of my fellow musician and crew friends saying how amazing this year has been, not having to pack their suitcases and leave home on a regular basis, and being able to spend time with family and loved ones. Covid has certainly forced that hand.

As a producer/engineer, it has been very fortuitous. I finished a major remodel on my studio, The Panther, in December of 2019. I have been able to keep busy with remote recording and mixing projects, as well as safely running in-person sessions. People still have the need to create and now have the time to work up new material and are looking for a place to record them. So that business has been booming and is the thing I’m most excited and passionate about at this point in my career. So the pandemic has given me the time to really dive into it – time that I wouldn’t have had if I was still steadily on the road. I’m extremely lucky in that respect.

‘I hear a lot of my fellow musician and crew friends saying how amazing this year has been, not having to pack their suitcases and leave home on a regular basis, and being able to spend time with family and loved ones. Covid has certainly forced that hand’

What’s it been like for you in lockdown in Portland? How have you coped?

SD: Lockdown hasn’t been terribly brutal. I have an amazing wife that I love spending time with. As I mentioned, my studio has kept me busy, both with outside clients and working on my own music. And the band I’ve been with for 15-plus years – Jerry Joseph and The Jackmormons – has been doing weekly live stream shows, so I get to perform on a regular basis. We just hit week #44 I believe. It’s called Jerry Joseph’s Happy Book, every Thursday. In general, I don’t mind spending time alone. I’m a natural introvert. I definitely miss going to my favourite restaurants, seeing live shows, and hugging my family and friends. But, overall, it’s been okay.What are your main concerns for the future of live music in the wake of the pandemic?

SD: My biggest concern at this point in time is the survival of the venues themselves, especially the smaller independent rooms that I not only play in the most, but prefer to see shows at. Not just here in Portland but nationwide. And I guess worldwide for that matter.

That said, I’m actually amazed that more venues haven’t shuttered their doors at this stage of the game. Maybe things won’t be so dire as I originally thought. I also wonder how long it will take for audiences to feel comfortable gathering en masse again.

There’s a big psychological barrier that people will have to get past, vaccinated or not, to feel normal being on a sweaty dance floor with a few hundred strangers. Although I just read that an 80-person orgy got busted up outside of Paris, so maybe not everyone holds the same reservations. There’s your glimmer of hope.

‘I’m amazed that more venues haven’t shuttered their doors. I wonder how long it will take for audiences to feel comfortable gathering en masse again? There’s a big psychological barrier that people will have to get past’

Let’s talk about your debut solo album, Axiom. Why did the time feel right to put out a solo record? Some of the songs on the album have been kicking around for a while. How did you get everything together for the record? Did you have a big plan, or did it just kind of happen?

SD: The entire process of this record has been pretty organic. I have wanted to release a record of my own for some time, but I never seemed to be able to focus enough on the task at hand to reach the finish line. I have hard drives filled with half-finished ideas. Once I gained some clarity in my life, I was able to put the necessary attention and intent into getting something finished.

From the actual start to the finish of Axiom, it was about a four-year timeline. I certainly would not consider myself a prolific songwriter, and because I took on most of the performing, recording, and mixing roles, the whole thing took its own sweet time. I never felt rushed or pressured to put it out by a certain date.

Having a studio in your home presents a certain amount of obstacles when it comes to calling a song or a mix “finished.” Plus the record had stretches of being on the backburner, due to touring or other clients in the studio. The pandemic gave me the time to finally wrap things up and get it done.

Steve Drizos in his home studio, June 2020. Photo by Jason Quigley.

You’ve battled drug and alcohol addiction, and you’ve had to deal with anxiety and depression, but you’re on the road to recovery. You’ve got sober and focused. How did you do that? Was it a challenge? 

SD: That’s a big question. Let me see if I can sum it up in a relatively concise answer. To answer the how part, I reached out for help, finally, after years of knowing I had a problem.

In the music business, it’s very difficult to discern where the party stops and the problem begins. It’s an environment where drugs and alcohol are not just condoned, but encouraged. And most anything is easily available.

So after years of trying to change things on my own with no success, I finally reached out to a friend who I saw doing what I wanted to do, be sober and happy in the music industry. That started me on the long road to recovery that I continue to walk today.

My story and experience is certainly not unique, and there are plenty of resources out there to help you if you truly want it. Was it a challenge? Absolutely. It’s one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve been through, next to my wife’s cancer battle. It does get easier over time, but it’s something that I need to be aware of and work on everyday. The pay-off however is unexplainable.

In the music business, it’s very difficult to discern where the party stops and the problem begins. It’s an environment where drugs and alcohol are not just condoned, but encouraged. And most anything is easily available’

Has making a solo record helped you to focus on something? Would you say it has been cathartic? What were the good and bad parts of making the album? Was it a difficult experience?

SD: The record absolutely saved my life by giving me something to focus on, especially in the early days of my sobriety. It’s such a cliché to say music can save your life, but once again, there it was for me during one of the most challenging periods of my life.

It really is an amazing thing to have this constant force with me to help get me through. The hardest part of making the record was finding the balance between believing you are making something important and, at the same time, remembering it’s just another record in a long line of records, so just get on with it. The hours spent obsessing over a snare sound or a single lyrical line is crazy. At some point, all perspective is lost and it’s hard to take a step back and hear anything with objectivity.

The best part was the feeling of accomplishment getting the masters back, and listening to the entire record from beginning to end. I will never forget that evening in May, walking around my neighbourhood with headphones on. I certainly learned a lot from making Axiom and know what I need to do to make a, hopefully, better follow-up.

‘My entire life, for a certain period of time, was nothing but recovery and facing uncomfortable truths in myself – it was pretty all-encompassing’

Lyrically some of the songs deal with personal issues you’ve faced. Was it hard to revisit those experiences when you were writing the record? What effect did it have on you?

SD: Very early on in the making of the record, I made the decision to be really honest about what I was going through. I have always been a private person and so it was really stepping out of my comfort zone to let my guard down. On the other hand, my entire life, for a certain period of time, was nothing but recovery and facing uncomfortable truths in myself – it was pretty all-encompassing. So it wasn’t that difficult to tap into those raw emotions that were right there on the surface.

You’ve said that the album took you out of your comfort zone. Can you elaborate on that?

SD: Besides what I stated earlier, about being open and honest about a very personal topic and experience, the other thing that really pushed me into unfamiliar territory was having a body of work with my name front and centre. I’ve spent my entire musical career in a supporting role – and been very happy in that position. I’ve seen first-hand the kind of pressure and stress that comes with fronting a band and it never looked appealing to me.

Even once I realized that Axiom was becoming a reality and would get released, I never had the desire to put a band together to tour the record. I’m very uncomfortable in the spotlight. Even as I’m answering these interview questions, there’s a big part of me thinking: “Don’t they know I’m not really a singer-songwriter?” Like I’m going to be found out. That’s my insecurities yelling at me.

‘I’ve spent my entire musical career in a supporting role – and been very happy in that position. I’ve seen first-hand the kind of pressure and stress that comes with fronting a band and it never looked appealing to me’

What kind of record did you want to make and do you think you’ve achieved it?

SD: I think I am came pretty close to hitting the mark on making the record that I heard in my head. I unapologetically wanted to tap into my ‘90s influences.

I started touring extensively in 1995 and feel in some ways my musical tastes cryogenically froze at that time. With the introduction of music streaming services, I was able to go back and revisit all that music, and a bunch that I missed. And that was the jumping off point.

I’m also a huge fan of “produced” records, where the studio is used as an instrument to manipulate, distort, and stretch sounds. So the expanding of my studio coincided with the making of Axiom. There’s no way I could have afforded to make the record I wanted to make in a commercial studio, paying by the hour. So I built one that would fit my needs. I’m not so sure if it was any cheaper looking back, but I know it’s a fully functioning studio space that other people seem to enjoy working in.

‘Even as I’m answering these interview questions, there’s a big part of me thinking: “Don’t they know I’m not really a singer-songwriter?” Like I’m going to be found out. That’s my insecurities yelling at me’

What’s your studio, The Panther, and set-up like? What’s the vibe like there and what kind of gear do you use? And where did the name come from?

SD: The Panther is a tricked-out basement studio in the house my wife and I own. A friend recently said: “You don’t have a home studio, you have a studio in your home.”

It’s a hybrid set-up of analogue and digital gear. My wife and I have a decent collection of keyboards, drums, guitars, etc. to cover the needs of most clients. We have a grand piano in the living room and the entire house is wired up to plug in mics anywhere. The Panther certainly has its limitations, but most people seem to be pretty happy with the vibe and, most importantly, the final results.

The name came from a black velvet panther painting that lives in the control room. When I needed a name for album credits on one of the first projects I did there, The Panther was it.

Let’s talk about some of the songs on Axiom. What can you tell me about the title track? It has female vocal samples, electric piano and soaring strings, and it builds to an epic climax…

SD: That track started with the drumbeat. It was an interesting rhythm that I had just started tapping out on my lap one day, so I tracked it on the drums, looped it a few times, and started writing the music around it. It’s in an unconventional time signature and I was having a hard time finding a melody to go over the top of it.

I wanted to call the song Axiom because I thought it was a cool-sounding word and its definition embodied a lot of the concepts and challenges about truth that I was witnessing in the world and also realising in myself. So I did a little research and found a collection of poems written on the topic of truth by Samuel Johnson. So using the text-to-speech feature on my computer, I created the samples in lieu of a melody.

The second half of the song was a complete rip off the Mogwai record Young Team that I was listening to at the time.  It wasn’t until much later that I decided to call the record Axiom as well.

My favourite song on the album is Juggling Fire. What inspired it? It has a psych-folk feel…

SD: Thank you. Watching this one particular homeless woman, who was a regular in our neighbourhood for a little while, inspired the lyrics. I would watch her stroll through the streets and scavenge for the things she needed to survive.

The homeless situation is Portland is quite dire and this was not an uncommon occurrence to witness, but at that particular time I felt acutely aware of the fact that most of us are just a few circumstances away from being in that same position, especially when viewing it through the lens of addiction.

It was the first song I wrote after getting clean – it was more a test to see if I could be creative in my new skin. It came about fairly quickly. When it came time to mix it, I wanted to give it a real ethereal vibe. I’m glad that comes across.

Softer, Please reminds me of the Afghan Whigs and Static has a ’90s alt-rock thing going on….

SD: As I mentioned before, these songs are more than a nod to my rock past, but a full-on embodiment of the music I still want to hear.

With those two songs in particular I was aiming for more of a Gutter Twins-meets-The-Verve-meets-Pearl Jam kind of vibe. So the fact that you picked up on an Afghan Whigs feel is a huge compliment.

When you mentioned that in your Americana UK review, I was so stoked! With Static, I think I was trying to emulate some of the production ideas from Gomez records I love so much.

Softer, Please was just a straight up burner – Troy Stewart’s ripping guitar solo at the end just sent it over the top.

Talking of solos, there’s a great, unexpected synth solo on Static – it’s a bit prog rock. How did that happen?

SD: The synth solo was impeccably executed by Jenny [Drizos’s wife, Jenny Conlee-Drizos of The Decemberists]. I wanted a sound that was granular and well, static-y. And we both share a love for prog rock, so it was not a stretch for her at all to come up with exactly the right part for that solo. It never gets old for me hearing that section.

On the album, you set out to play as many instruments as you could, but ended up using some guest musicians, including your wife, Jenny, and local session player, Kyleen King, for string and vocal arrangements. Why did you decide you needed some help?

SD: Good question. At some point early on I realised I had to let go of my pipe dream of playing everything, and quite frankly my control issues, and bring in players much more qualified than I am on certain instruments.

Kyleen King and I had been working closely together on a few studio projects prior to the recording of Axiom, and so I knew she was going to be a perfect fit for the backing vocals and string ideas I had.

Plus we try to work in trade. I had recorded and mixed a few projects for her, under the name A Cat Named Grandpa, so I was cashing in my favour chips with her. She’s so amazing to work with and has developed quite the résumé over the last few years.

At some point early on I realised I had to let go of my pipe dream of playing everything, and quite frankly my control issues, and bring in players much more qualified than I am on certain instruments’

Adding Jenny to the mix was a no-brainer. Why hack through piano and keyboard parts when you have one of the best keyboard players in the world as your wife? I can’t even begin to get into the amount of support and patience she had through the making of the album. I’m also not a particularly strong bass player, so I brought in Nate Query (The Decemberists) and my long time tour mate, Steven James Wright (Jerry Joseph and The Jackmormons).  I filled in the rest of the sounds as I went along, with players from the rich soil of Portland talent.

What are your plans for the year ahead?

SD: In the immediate future, I have been busy rehearsing these songs with a small acoustic band to do a few live stream shows over the course of the next couple months.

After that, my plans for the year ahead are doing more of the same as I did in 2020. Try to keep The Panther as booked as possible, keep going with the weekly Jerry Joseph live streams, hopefully be able to play a few outdoor shows this summer, and patiently wait until things open up again and see what the landscape looks like as far as venues and touring. I’ve already started demoing out some new ideas for a follow-up to Axiom.

Any musical recommendations – old and new? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What are you currently enjoying listening to?

SD: My musical tastes have been all over the place during the pandemic. The one new to me artist I fell in love with is Samantha Crain from Oklahoma. Her record, A Small Death, just floored me.

I’ve been listening to The Glands from Athens, Georgia a lot lately. Quilt out of Boston is a regular listen of mine. I’m really digging Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate.

I know people complain about the evils of music streaming services, and their arguments are valid, but I can’t imagine what life would be like without it. I can wake up every morning and pick my record for the day, and dive deep into catalogues of artists – both new or long-forgotten’

As far as older stuff, I’m enjoying some ‘90s music that I missed or wasn’t that into at the time. Superchunk for one. I’ve been blasting Hole’s Celebrity Skin as of late. It’s so good!

I know people complain about the evils of music streaming services, and their arguments are valid, but I can’t imagine what life would be like without it at this point. I can wake up every morning and pick my record for the day, and dive deep into catalogues of artists – either new or long forgotten about.

Abso-fucking-lutely directly support the artist when you can, especially the indie artists. Buy all the merch. But as a fan, it’s an amazing time to have access to all of it. And I’m a music fan above everything else.

Oh, I should also note that a close friend of mine here in Portland sent me a message the other day saying his brother’s band Star Collector was on the same Best of 2021 So Far Spotify playlist you put together that I was included on. How random and cool is that?

Axiom by Steve Drizos is out now on Cavity Search Records. You can buy it here.

www.stevedrizos.com

‘I’m probably going to go to jail for these songs, aren’t I?’

Have you kept yourself busy during lockdown? Ryan Allen has. The Detroit power pop/punk rock singer-songwriter, who is also the frontman of band Ryan Allen and His Extra Arms, has written, recorded and released two solo albums.

The first, which came out last year, Song Snacks, Vol.1, was a collection of 20 two-minute and under songs, influenced by The Who, The Beatles, Guided By Voices and Olivia Tremor Control, while this month he puts out What A Rip – a record that’s a homage to ’60s pop, psych and garage rock.

Allen recorded the new album himself, in his home studio, and played all the core instruments, but there are a few special guests, including his dad, Brad Allen, who plays the very George Harrison-sounding lead guitar on Only Son. The whole thing was mastered by Justin Pizzoferrato, who has made records with Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies and Sonic Youth

Talking about the record, Allen says: “What A Rip  is my tribute to rock ‘n’ roll. The influences are probably pretty obvious: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Monkees… All the foundational stuff that you hear as a kid that just kind of sticks to your brain like peanut butter does to the roof of your mouth. Hopefully these songs stick to yours in the same way.”

They certainly do – here at Say It With Garage Flowers we’ve been cranking them up for the past few days. In an exclusive interview, we ask Allen to tell us how he’s managed to be so prolific during the pandemic, get his thoughts on the current political situation in the US and find out how he writes and records his music. 

“I didn’t plan on writing a million songs, recording them at home and releasing a bunch of stuff last year and now this year, but I’m just going with the flow and trying to make the best of a shitty situation,” he tells us. “This whole thing reminds you that life is short. Why wait? “Fuck it! Get the shit out there!”

Q&A

How are things?

Ryan Allen: Things are…weird, ya know?

What kind of mood are you in?

RA: If you’d asked me this around the time of the election, it would be a bit different than it is now. I’m trying to be hopeful and positive as much as I can. Some days are harder than others, but when I get into a slump, I try and remind myself of all the good around me. I have an amazing son. I have a wonderful girlfriend. My parents have been vaccinated. I’m still working. I’m writing music. I have things to look forward to. I’m just counting my blessings I guess.

We’re treading completely new waters as a collective society, and for the majority of it there’s not really been anybody around to throw us a lifejacket. But with the incoming administration in the US, I am feeling hopeful that we will be out of the darkest parts of this soon. Personally, I feel very lucky, as, touch wood, the people I’m closest to are all healthy and doing alright. But I know that isn’t the case for a lot of people, and it’s heartbreaking to think about how much loss folks have experienced since the pandemic hit.

I mean, I definitely miss playing shows and having band practice, but I can live without it when you compare that to losing a loved one. So I kind of have to put everything in perspective – this whole thing sucks, but it could be worse as well. Like I said, I feel lucky right now, all things considered.

How has Covid affected your plans?

RA: I didn’t plan on not being able to play shows to promote the last Extra Arms album, nor did I plan on writing a million songs, recording them at home and releasing a bunch of stuff last year and now this year, but I’m just going with the flow and trying to make the best of a shitty situation.

 ‘I didn’t plan on writing a bunch of songs, but they just kept showing up to the party, so I kept letting them in the door. Needless to say, the house was getting pretty full!’

 You’ve been busy during lockdown – you’ve recorded and released two new solo albums: Song Snacks, Vol.1 and What A Rip. Did you really write all of the songs during the past year?

RA: Yeah – every song on both solo albums was written in 2020, after the pandemic hit. Like I said, I didn’t plan on writing a bunch of songs, but they just kept showing up to the party, so I kept letting them in the door. Needless to say, the house was getting pretty full! But it’s been a lot of fun, playing around with different styles, teaching myself how to make better home recordings, and just keeping my songwriting muscle exercised.

Why do you think lockdown has made you so prolific? What’s been influencing and inspiring you? How have you managed to write and record so many songs?

RA: Well, I’m always working on music. Before the pandemic hit, I probably had another 20 or so songs I was working on for whatever Extra Arms was going to do next.

That’s on top of the two solo albums I’ve done and a few other projects I cranked out – a shoegaze EP with some friends, called Soft Wires, and a pandemic-inspired hardcore album called Quaranteen Idles.

I think the difference is that instead of waiting to get into a studio, I decided to use the tunes I was writing, independent of what I knew was already set aside for Extra Arms, to really try and improve my home recording prowess. I downloaded Logic and bought a few mics. I tried to home in on good guitar tones. I wanted to play drums again. I love playing bass and it gave me an excuse to do that. And, to be honest, all my demos were always rushed.

I wanted to learn more about processing and adding things like compression and other effects to improve the quality of what I could do at home. I was pleasantly surprised that I could make things sound pretty decent, so hence all of the music that may have been kept under wraps and waiting in the wings for a real studio deal has instead been tossed out into the world. Also, I should say, this whole thing reminds you that life is short. Why wait? “Fuck it. Get the shit out there,” was my thought.

‘I’m an amateur, but my crude home studio set-up is similar to what Guided By Voices were working with. They just had a four-track, a couple of SM-57s mics, a Memory Man delay pedal and a fuckton of great songs!’

What’s your writing and recording process? Do you have a tried and tested method of penning songs? What’s your set-up like at home for playing and recording?

RA:I think I just sort of go into a trance, if I’m being honest. I lose track of everything around me, and the ideas just flow.

Sometimes I feel like the songs choose me, instead of me trying to find them. They just show up.  I try not to labour over things too much, and I like to start and finish an idea in one sitting if I can. The songs for Song Snacks were very much written and recorded in the same moment – some three or four at a time.

I’m lucky that I have a space in the house to make some noise. In my previous homes I had that, but not like I do now. I have a ton of space and all my gear set-up – all I really need to do is flip a few switches and I’m ready to roll. I would never be able to record anybody else here, ‘cos I don’t have any nice outboard gear or anything like that, but for what I’m trying to do it works. It still doesn’t compare to a real studio, or somebody who has amassed a bunch of great gear and knows their way around Pro Tools.

I’m very much an amateur, but I think my sort of crude set-up is similar to what a band like Guided By Voices was working with. They just had a four-track, a couple of SM-57 mics, a Memory Man delay pedal, and a fuckton of great songs! It didn’t need to sound perfect, cos the songs were so good. So that’s what I’m aiming for, I guess.

Let’s talk about some of your new songs – from both of your recent albums. I’ll pick a few of my favourites and you can tell me a bit about them…

Song Snacks, Vo1.1 

You can listen to the album via Bandcamp below:

Here Comes The Rain: This is a cool, stripped-down, Beatlesy psych-ballad. It sounds like it has a Mellotron on it…

RA: Yep – it’s very Beatles, right down to the name – instead of Here Comes the Sun… It’s in an alternate tuning, which I stole off Swervedriver’s website. When I played chord structures in the tuning it felt very drony, similar to Love You To, so I tried to channel some of that George Harrison mysticism.

‘Getting your legs tattooed and growing your hair long is something not a lot of 40-plus year-old-guys are probably doing, but as Bon Jovi sang, “It’s my life” ‘

I’m A Wizard Now: Another song that sounds like The Beatles – particularly Across The Universe. Are you actually a wizard now? Please explain yourself.

RA: Yeah – more Beatles and it’s clearly very indebted to Across The Universe, which is one of my favourite songs ever. If I was a wizard, I guess the spell I would cast on myself is to keep writing more tunes.

Leg Tattoo: You have a leg tattoo, don’t you? What inspired this song? I think it sounds like a more fuzzed-up Fountains of Wayne…

RA: I have two leg tattoos, actually. It’s a pretty dumb song, but sometimes I’ll just sing stupid stuff around the house while I’m doing things. This is kind of one of those, but I ended up turning it into a real song. I guess it’s mostly about doing whatever makes you happy, no matter what people think you should be doing.

Getting your legs tattooed and growing your hair long is something not a lot of 40-plus year-old-guys are probably doing, but as Bon Jovi sang, “It’s my life.”

Got any tattoos you regret?

RA: I’m good with all of my tattoos.

‘I was trying to channel some sweaty, coked-out Lennon session vibes à la How Do You Sleep? I think I pulled it off’

You’ve Been ElectrocutedThis one rocks! Any thoughts on it? It’s a heavy stomp, with loud, crunching guitars…

RA: Thank you, man. I was trying to channel some sweaty, coked-out Lennon session vibes à la How Do You Sleep? I think I pulled it off.

What A Rip

You can pre-order the album from Bandcamp here.

Already Gone: a great nugget of noisy ’60s garage rock, but with a nice, unexpected Beatlesy mid-section…

RA: This is one of the first ones I came up with for the record. I wanted to do something with a seventh chord carrying the tune along, similar to Taxman, or something like that. But after playing the riff for a while I felt like it really needed to go in another direction entirely – it was almost like a different song was spliced-in from a different session. I like the juxtaposition and I feel like it kind of catches you off guard. I’m just trying to keep the people on their toes.

Feeling You Feeling Me: This is your new single and, once again, it’s very Beatlesy and psychedelic…

RA: This was the first song I wrote for the record, without actually intending to make another album. A friend let me borrow a Mellotron guitar pedal, and since there are no shows happening, I thought it would be fun to write something and use it on the recording.

This was a rare song that I kind of had to fight with to bring into existence, since I felt like it had to have a certain vibe for the Mellotron pedal to sound good.

I kept messing with things and then getting frustrated and stopping. I probably did that for a few hours. Then I sat down at the drums and started to play the beat that you hear on the song, and I liked the kind of wistful sway that it had going on. So I grabbed my guitar and tried to write something with that beat in mind, and then it all just came together immediately. I’m really proud of this one, for sure.

‘What A Rip is my tribute to rock ‘n’ roll. The influences are pretty obvious: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Monkees… All the foundational stuff that you hear as a kid that just kind of sticks to your brain like peanut butter does to the roof of your mouth’

On My Mind: This reminds me of The Monkees. It’s a cool pop song and it has a Last Train To Clarksville feel, doesn’t it?

RA: Yep – you nailed it. It’s The Monkees meets Tom Petty. I just love riffs like this. There’s something about hearing that Last Train To Clarksville riff or Paperback Writer… It sounds so heavy, but it’s not necessarily intended to be. It just hits a sweet spot.

Shannon Cake: This has some nice harmonies and it’s very like The Beach Boys and The Zombies. Who is Shannon Cake? 

RA: Yes – it’s very Beach Boys and Zombies. I’m probably going to go to jail for these songs, aren’t I? Shannon Cake is a real person. She’s a reporter who was interviewed in a documentary I watched about Jeffrey Epstein. I just loved the name and knew I needed to use it in a song. It was actually written in more of a Guided By Voices indie-rock style, but I re-interpreted it and gave it the Brian Wilson treatment. I also used a basketball for percussion.

‘I felt compelled to document this wild time, and do so through the eyes of my nine-year-old son, who has basically had everything taken away from him this year’

Only Son: That Beatles / Mellotron sound is back again… This song sounds like it’s a comment on the past year – the Trump situation and Covid. Is that the case? I love the feel of this track. There’s a definite Lennon thing going on – and some lovely George Harrisonesque guitar on it.

RA: Man, you’ve really got me figured out. Yes to all of that. I just felt compelled to document this wild time, and do so through the eyes of my nine-year-old son, who has basically had everything taken away from him this year. It’s kind of a sad song, but the chorus is meant to be encouraging, saying, like, “Hey, shit sucks right now, but it’s going to be okay because we have each other.”

It seems like you’ve been on a bit of a ’60s psych trip recently – as we’ve discussed, there are some very Beatlesy songs on both of your new albums….

RA: I’m just a fan of music, you know? I think I’ll always do the aggressive power pop thing for sure, but I just wanted to indulge a different side of my songwriting. Also, it’s really fun to go down the rabbit hole and discover bands that are completely new to you, even if they’re old. So if you like The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and The Stones, you’re bound to also love The Nazz, The Creation, Fire, Les Fleur De Lys, and The Pretty Things…you just have to search a little harder to find them. I guess the plus side to Spotify is that you can pretty much listen to anything ever and discover something daily. So I kind of started doing that and, you know, being a songwriter, inspiration was bound to hit me.

What are your plans for the rest of 2021? Is there another album in the pipeline?

RA: The rest of 2021 will be pretty active. I have an EP that I recorded quickly over the course of a weekend that I’m kind of holding on to right now. It’s a totally different vibe than the last thing – kind of heavier and inspired by the songs I was writing when I was 14 and recording on a four-track.

I also have a project I’ve been working on with my friend Kathleen Bracken, where I wrote the songs but she’s coming up with vocals, lyrics and melodies. So we’re kinda chipping away at that. And Extra Arms is hitting the studio – safely – very soon to work on the follow up to Up From Here. We’re kind of piecing it together remotely and will be in the studio one or two at a time to record it. We’ve never done it this way – we’re usually in the room together, bashing it out, even if we’re working from one of my demos, so it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.

‘It’s sad that Trump and his administration did nothing to help anybody and were happy to just let people and businesses die. It’s sick. He deserves to be thrown in jail for the rest of his pathetic life, and I hope he rots there’

What are your hopes and fears for 2021? Are you worried about the future of live music?

RA: I just hope people get vaccinated and can get the help they need – financially, mental health wise, etc. This whole thing will have such long-lasting effects – some of which we won’t even see until years and years later. It’s sad, to say the least, that Trump and his administration basically did nothing to help anybody and were happy to just let people and businesses die. It’s sick, honestly. He deserves to be thrown in jail for the rest of his pathetic life, and I hope he rots there.

In terms of live music – it’ll come back. It might not be the same, but people persevere, you know? We adapt. We figure shit out. There are a lot of idiots out there, but there are also lots of brilliant people. It will be back. And I hope people don’t take it for granted like they did before the pandemic. Hopefully people will go out and support the arts with fervour, and the musicians who do it as a full-time thing can reap the rewards of that.

Are you more hopeful now that Trump isn’t in power? How does that make you feel? Fittingly, there’s a song on your new album called Election Night, which can’t be a coincidence, and Only Son has some social commentary in the lyrics…

RA: Hell, yeah. He was this close to becoming a full-on dictator. How fucked up is that? And people wanted it! Insanity. I am just glad we are back to a place where we can trust the administration – more or less – know they are operating on facts and science, and try to get us the fuck out of this mess.

Ryan Allen and his Extra Arms

Do you have any music recommendations – new and old? What have you been listening to during lockdown?

RA: Oh man. I could go on forever. Lately I have been listening to a lot of funk – Funkadelic, Betty Davis – some Lenny Kravitz, D’Angelo, and the Little Shop of Horrors soundtrack. So not my usual Bob Mould, Bob Pollard, power-pop, Superchunk rock-type stuff. But I’m always spinning Sloan and stuff like that too.

Finally, what were your favourite records of last year?

RA: Here’s my list:

  1. Lees of Memory – Moon Shot
  2. The Lemon Twigs – Songs for the General Public
  3. Coriky – S/T
  4. Guided By Voices – Surrender Your Poppy Field / Mirrored Aztec / Styles We Paid For
  5. The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers
  6. Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna
  7. Hum – Inlet
  8. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor
  9. Supercrush – SODO Pop
  10. Fleet Foxes – Shore

What A Rip by Ryan Allen is officially released on February 5: you can stream, download or purchase it here. 

https://extraarms.bandcamp.com/