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!”
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 Electrocuted: This 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.
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:
- Lees of Memory – Moon Shot
- The Lemon Twigs – Songs for the General Public
- Coriky – S/T
- Guided By Voices – Surrender Your Poppy Field / Mirrored Aztec / Styles We Paid For
- The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers
- Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna
- Hum – Inlet
- Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor
- Supercrush – SODO Pop
- Fleet Foxes – Shore
What A Rip by Ryan Allen is officially released on February 5: you can stream, download or purchase it here.