Matthew Ryan

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Interview by Adam Foster

Interview with Matthew Ryan at the Borderline – June 3 2003.

It takes a little persuading to get Matthew Ryan to agree to an interview. The record company booked it, but no one told him. He seems disconcerted by the idea. And to be fair, it’s only an hour before he is due to open for his one night in London.

After much persuasion, we enter what I think is a deserted dressing room, only to find Jeff Klein inside propping a guitar against a wall. When asked how the two of them met (Ryan produced Klein’s album “Everybody Loves A Winner” and is playing a supporting slot on a brief UK tour), Klein replies “In a gay bar.”

Matthew Ryan nods, says “Yeah”

“A gay disco” ventures Klein.

Again Ryan chuckles and murmurs assent.

“We met on a hayride at a gay festival,” says Klein, and leaves.

When Klein has gone, I ask again where they met. Ryan says “The hayride thing. That’s a pretty good answer,” and chuckles. “Tell them that.” And, at last, the reluctant interview begins.

“I’m not a real good talker,” he explains – never the best opening for an interview. It’s one of the reasons, he thinks, that he started writing songs. When younger, he felt pretty isolated: “But songs build communication. They hint at a community that doesn’t really exist.”

The real community is one of shared experience, he thinks. Ryan, you soon realise, does nothing without first thinking it inside-out. “No-one’s experience is uncommon – we’re all connected by a handful of experiences. That’s not to belittle them. But we all have to go through similar things. Wisdom and experience aren’t genetic.”

It is at this point that we suffer our first interruption. One of Klein’s guitarists is looking for a place to prop up his guitar. He leans it precariously against the wall – next to some graffiti that reads, simply, FUCKER. “Be careful,” says Ryan. “It’ll be fine,” says the guitarist. Ryan says: “Better safe than sorry.”

When he has gone, we return to the subjects of wisdom and experience. If at all, they are gained through the various rites of passage that people go through. And, of course, these rites of passage are the subject of a great many songs. When asked about AUTOPILOT, a track on his album CONCUSSION, in which the narrator mourns the loss of his autopilot, Ryan says “It’s about that time when you realise that everything you thought is on some level false, that you can’t rely on any of your preconceptions anymore. You wake up…” he says, and tails off. “I don’t much like talking about my songs.” He clams up.

So, I ask, taking a different tack, what had he learned in making this record? It has a totally different feel from his previous efforts. Is this the result of wisdom and experience, or simply a change of approach?

“It’s very different,” he says – with a sigh. “The first time I went into a recording studio, all I wanted to do was record a record. And, with all due respect to [the producer], it just wasn’t my record. It takes a long time to give music more layers, to allow it to become to a rich listen. I’ve reached a point in life where you find yourself following other people’s dreams. You gotta be your own man…”

The door opens again. A man, painfully thin, walks in. He looks barely able to carry himself. Later, when Ryan appears on stage, I realise that this is his ‘other’ guitarist. (Ryan’s act on this tour consists of himself and Kevin Tills, both on guitar. In support of my first impression of Tills’ physical condition, he sits throughout the set.)

“What time do we go on?” asks the thin man.

“8.15” Ryan replies. “That’s the plan.”

The man shows me the time displayed on his mobile phone. It says 18.59. “That means about seven o’clock, right?” he asks. I agree. “I’ll be back around eight,” he says to Ryan. Clearly, these guys are not planning to be U2.

The man leaves. Ryan sighs, lights a cigarette, and says “This album is all about claiming myself and embracing the opportunity to be…” he tails off. “We just wanted to do it, get on with it. The album was mixed and recorded in eight days.”

We had talked about a rich sound – music needing time to become multi-layered. I wondered how much time he had in that brief period to really develop the depth of the sound. After all, he wrote, sang, played and produced this album. Some would call that control freakery.

“Not at all,” he says. “I try to be relaxed, because – the more I tried to control, the less I got -” Another pause, another sigh. Matthew Ryan spends a lot of time avoiding eye contact, looking at the floor. It’s impossible to say whether it is diffidence, shyness, or contempt. Possibly a combination of all three. Certainly he is diffident: during his set; he apologises several times for things beyond his control, and once restarts a song when he isn’t happy. In fact, this interview nearly didn’t start due to a protracted bout of “after you”, “no, after you” which kept us stymied at the backstage entrance for some time. And he is shy. But he is also – like many clever, shy outsiders – contemptuous of many aspects of society.

He finds untrammelled happiness embarrassing. Indeed, he says, the next album to be released in the UK will be called HAPPINESS. There is no doubt that this is ironic in a way, as the popular notion in the UK has it, that few Americans will understand.

“I thought it would be good to say – and now for a little HAPPINESS. Or, let’s try some HAPPINESS now.” The album is due out in the UK on July 8th, barely three months after the release of his debut here. How come, I ask. – and the dressing room door opens again.

Three men walk in. One is blond, confident. One is hairy – hill-billy beard and Toploader hair. The other is quiet. The blond man introduces the other two (“This is Steve, this is John.” “Hi, I’m Matthew), and then announces that he is looking for beer. As it happens, there is a crate of Becks in the dressing room, and Ryan – without demur – opens the box and hands each man his own bottle (“Sorry,” he apologises, as if catering was his remit, “they’re kind of room temperature.”). The men leave. Again, only later do I realise that the two non-blonds are Steve Turner and Johnny Sangster, who play a few songs before Ryan’s appearance. I don’t think Matthew Ryan knew who they were, either; and this only makes his diffidence more admirable. While he may be reluctant to talk, he is no primadonna.

When the beer boys leave, we return to talking about CONCUSSION. It is, I contend, a pretty bleak record. On the contrary, says Ryan, it is “a very hopeful record.”

“There comes a time when you dismantle religion and alcohol, dismantle facades, and this record reflects that. You know, a time when – when -” He stops, looks at the floor again, drawing on a cigarette. “I just wanted it to be as raw and as beautiful as possible.”

And from nowhere comes a sudden political diatribe. “And, you know, we’re living in a period no different to how the coal miners were living in the 1920’s. It’s a different kind of exploitation, but it’s exploitation just the same.”

In what way? “Now, it’s to do with bank accounts and vacations and property – but it’s the same thing.”

And if this is your attitude, how is it that CONCUSSION can be, in your words, a “hopeful” record? “It is hopeful”, Ryan insists. “You have a couple of choices – either drift with the current, or go under.” And hope comes from drifting with the current? “Staying afloat.”

I wonder aloud how this man – a sensitive and intelligent songwriter – coped with making records. To be honest, if you met him at a party – which seems unlikely – you would be inclined to dismiss him as the socially maladjusted friend of a Professor of English Literature.

“It’s so disappointing,” Ryan says. “You come in with a record thinking that what you have to say is important. That this time you can whisper in their ear rather than grab them by the collar.” He pauses, again, and smokes a little. “Paul Westerberg said that when in his 20’s, he wanted to grab the world by the ass. Now, he said, I want to invent my own language.”

The door opens again. It is Someone from the Venue. “Oh,” says Someone, searching our 6’ by 3’ room for possible clues. “She’s not here.” He leaves.

If I ever had him, I have lost Matthew Ryan. “This is getting tiresome,” he says. I think he means the interruptions; but it could be the interview. He is too polite to walk out, so we kill a couple of minutes talking about his other records (they were never released in the UK, simply because his then label A&M, in his words, “didn’t like them”), and about his experience of producing Jeff Klein’s album (“I just wanted to help him make the record I knew he could make”). Both Klein and Ryan are on One Little Indian. It must be good, I suggest, to work with a label that likes your record.

“Either that, or they are moonstruck by my handsomeness.” He smiles quietly, as if his handsomeness – or lack of it – is some kind of universal joke.

It’s a good line to end on, and sums up a lot about Matthew Ryan – that shyness again, that modesty, but also that self-confidence, and a sly humour. It would be hard not to like him but, you sense, it would also be extremely difficult to get to know him. There is a self-containment here that goes beyond mere professional guardedness. And explains the reluctance to talk.

We shake hands, and play another game of polite “no, after you” on trying to leave the dressing room. When we enter the bar again, and part, he does not turn to acknowledge me. The gruesome job of interviewing complete, he walks back to the more comfortable companionship of his guitar.