Michigan-based singer-songwriter Ryan Allen is back with this third solo album Basement Punk – an explosive collection of power pop songs about love, life and rock and roll that are influenced by Teenage Fanclub, The Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr, Sugar and early R.E.M.
I lured Ryan out of his basement for a chat about the new record and to find out what’s the most punk thing he’s ever done…
Let’s cut to the chase and talk about your brand new record – Basement Punk. It’s your third solo album. The title was inspired by the large amount of time you’ve spent in your basement. Should we be worried? What do you get up to down there?
Ryan Allen: Ha ha. Yeah, I guess the title does give the impression that I’m some kind of underground-dwelling troll or something.
In reality, I write songs in all sorts of places. My front porch, my living room, my wife’s home office…shit, sometimes melodies or even fully-formed compositions hit me when I’m out running, or in the shower. But once I bring a song down to the basement to start demoing, it’s really then that I get serious about making some commitments to all the elements that end up on the finished version.
I have my little corner in the basement with a little bit of recording gear, a drum kit, a few mics…it’s nothing special, but it gets the job done, and I feel like I’ve come up with some really good stuff down there.
What were you aiming for with this record? Did you approach it differently from its predecessor, 2015’s Heart String Soul? What sound did you want for the new album?
You’ve said you were listening to albums by Buffalo Tom, Slowdive, R.E.M and Sugar while you were making it…
RA: Ultimately I think this record is as much “me” as the last two. The big difference is that I didn’t have as many rules as the last one – like not using effects pedals, or recording the drums in a very “muted” style). This time, I really just cranked it all up and made the kind of album I’d want to hear in 1995 (and now pretty much, too).
The songs are still personal – about my life, my opinions, etc, but I wanted to tweak the sonic elements a little bit to pay homage to a certain sound that I really connected with growing up. That loud, jangly, melody-driven alternative rock sound that the aforementioned bands did really well.
One of the tracks on the record is called Chasing A Song. Did the songs for this album come easily to you?
RA: Yeah. For the most part, they really just started pouring out. I think once I figured out exactly what I wanted to do, a big chunk of the tunes seemed to appear almost out of thin air.
One reason why is that I was so encouraged and inspired after the positive reaction to my last solo record, that I wanted to really continue the streak.
It was so humbling to learn that there were actually people out there that were excited about what I was doing, and it really gave me that extra push to want to keep it going. So much love to all the power pop blogs and radio shows out there for giving a shit about this music that I’m making.
What was the songwriting and recording process like?
RA: Songwriting and demoing-wise, the biggest difference between this new one and Heart String Soul from last year is that I got a drum kit. So a lot of the songs I was writing, I would start working on a little riff and hear a drum part in my head; eventually I’d sit down on the drums and kind of bash out a part.
A lot of the faster, more aggressive songs were a result of thinking more about what the drums were going to be doing, and then sitting down and actually figuring it out.
I also didn’t really stop writing songs for the record once I hit 10 or 11 tunes. I kept going and ended up with 17 or so songs for the record. I demoed all of them, and then settled on 14 or so to go and record. From there I whittled it down to 11 (there are three or so tunes that didn’t make the record, that I might put out before the end of the year).
So that was kind of new for me, as opposed to just going in to record the album with the same amount of songs that end up on it. I wasn’t as precious about things this time around, and it gave me a chance to be more strategic about what I wanted on the album.
I recorded a chunk of the album – all the drums, most of the guitars and most of the vocals – at Big Sky in Ann Arbor with Geoff Michael and then took the rest to my dad’s [Brad Allen] studio and finished there.
Recording in a legit studio gave the songs a chance to be as big as I thought they should be in my head, and working with Geoff was wonderful. Then reconnecting with my dad and laying down bass, percussion and other bells and whistles was great because it’s just so easy and we get in there and get shit done.
Andy Reed mixed and mastered it, and he’s got such a great ear for things and already knows exactly where I was coming from, so, all in all, it was a perfect match each time.
You played all the instruments yourself on this album. How challenging was that?
RA: I guess it would be challenging if I went into the studio and had no idea what I wanted to do. But my demo process is to basically make the entire record in my basement, and then go and make it again in a studio. That way I don’t waste time, money and energy trying to come up with stuff on the spot.
I’m pretty meticulous when I go in, and my plan is always to knock things out as quickly as possible. I don’t like to dick around.
The only thing that is maybe a bit of a challenge is the drums, as I think I’m a pretty good drummer, but nailing things in a full take can be tough sometimes when you don’t play drums as your main instrument. Thank goodness for Pro Tools.
You’ve said the songs on the new record are “deeply personal”. Can you elaborate on that? Can you tell us what inspired some of the songs?
RA: For songs to be considered for a solo album, there has to be some personal connection there.
Usually it’s either about somebody or something specific, or opinionated enough that I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing it into a band, for fear they might not feel the same way, which has never happened, but it’s just what goes through my head.
The songs on this one tend to either revolve around nostalgic things that happened in my past that sort of inform either who I am or who the people around me are (Basement Punks, Mal n’ Ange) or just ruminations on my perspective on certain things (Gimme Sum More, Without A Doubt). Love, life, and rock and roll. Those are the things I tend to write about, and there’s a lot of that going on here.
The track Alex Whiz sounds like it could be about someone you knew when you were growing up. Where did that song come from? Musically, it reminds me of the Manic Street Preachers – it sounds like it could’ve come from one of their late ’90s album. Do you agree?
RA: Yeah, it’s about a real person that I grew up knowing; he lived next-door to my best friend as a kid and was just a really unique person. He was eccentric before I really understood what that was, and I wanted to sort of pay homage to him as a person who was totally 100% himself from an early age.
Musically, it’s definitely indebted to Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine and things like that, maybe with a little bit of early Radiohead and Superdrag thrown in. I never really got into the Manic Street Preachers, but now that you mention it, I’ll go back and check them out.
People Factory is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about that track?
RA: That was one of the first songs I wrote where I felt like, “OK, I’ve got something really good going here for album number three.”
Weirdly, it ended up being a little bit ‘out there’ on the album, as it’s more moody and vibey than some of the ‘bash it out’ punk songs.
At one point I considered maybe not putting it on the record, but I really love how it came out. I definitely wanted to do something in a sort of R.E.M. vein, and I think I achieved it…there’s a bit of a Spoon thing going on there as well.
Overall, I’m glad I put it on the record because I think it adds an extra dynamic to the thing that it really needed. I love albums that have left turns and weird moments; ones that divert from what might be seen as a clear path. Those are the most interesting to me and they continue to be the ones I come back to over and over again.
Lyrically, it’s a song about just being yourself. I feel like people are so afraid of embracing their inner weirdo, and instead would just rather blend in.
The idea that people would just be churned out factory-style is, of course, a bit absurd, but sometimes it really feels like that. Individuality needs to be embraced more in our society, and I feel like the song is kind of a commentary on that.
The final song on the album is called Everything (In Moderation). Is that advice that you agree with?
RA: Yeah, it’s advice I have had to pretty much begrudgingly agree with as I get older. I used to think I was invincible and could eat and drink whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it.
I thought I could just come and go as I pleased without any regard to anybody else’s feelings. I made some mistakes in that regard, and now take great joy in having a bit more regimented thing going on. I need it, as otherwise I’d probably lose my mind.
I run four times a week, I go to bed early and I eat healthier. I have a little bit of fun on the weekends, but don’t over do it during the week. It’s helped me get a clearer head and become a happier person, that’s for sure.
What music are you currently listening to you and enjoying – old and new?
RA: I’m kinda always listening to the same stuff, really. Lots of R.E.M., Lemonheads, Teenage Fanclub, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Sugar, Husker Du, Superchunk, the Replacements, Slowdive, Sloan, Big Star, Buffalo Tom… I just bought an original copy of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation and man does that thing still kill.
Some newer stuff I’ve been digging is the new Beach Slang record, as well as a band called Smile from San Francisco that have a short EP I stumbled upon online that is really great, the new Teenage Fanclub and Bob Mould records…
I like this band from Philly called Hurry that are nice and jangly. The new Nada Surf album is excellent and I’ve recently rediscovered a band from Canada called Doughboys – I’ve been listening to their 1994 album Crush a lot.
I think the new Dinosaur Jr album is really good, as well as the new one from TUNS, which is like a ‘90s Canadian rock supergroup, featuring members of Sloan, Superfriendz and The Inbreds. I like a band from Minneapolis called Fury Things – they are another recent discovery that I’m happy to have found.
The new Lees of Memory album is great and I’ve been jamming that all year long. So yeah, lots of stuff.
What are your plans for the rest of 2016? Will you be playing in the UK anytime soon?
RA: My plans are just to play shows when I can and keep getting the word out about the record. I would love to play the UK again – I have played there three or four times with an old band of mine – but don’t really have a means to make it happen. But if there are any promoters out there who want to pay for some plane tickets and help book some shows, well, I’m all ears!
Finally, what’s the most punk thing you’ve ever done?
RA: The most punk thing I’ve done is never stop making music and releasing albums. Some people just peter out at a certain point; they give up and check out. But that is something I will never do. I’m here to stay, man.
Basement Punk by Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms is released on September 30 on Save Your Generation Records.