On November 16, 2016, drummer Ryan Moutinho unexpectedly stepped down from the beloved psychedelic garage rockers Thee Oh Sees, after a triumphant year and a half of spellbindingly visceral live shows, a relentless touring schedule, and the recording and release of not one, but two, acclaimed studio albums, 2016's A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances.
Announcing his departure on Instagram, just two days prior to the release of An Odd Entrances, Moutinho's decision to walk away came as a shock to those lucky enough to have experienced Thee Oh Sees' explosive and seemingly unstoppable dual-drumming line-up in action. The four-piece configuration of Moutinho, alongside band leader John Dwyer, bass guitarist Tim Hellman, and fellow drummer Dan Rincon, turned Thee Oh Sees from a mostly cult concern into one of the world's 'must see' live acts, and with A Weird Exits starting to place highly on several 'End of Year' lists, Moutinho's departure begged the question: why now?
Three months on, a content and enthusiastic Moutinho talked to The Reprise about his current musical projects, his time within both Thee Oh Sees and fellow garage rockers Meatbodies, the idea of 'dangerous art' in today's political climate, and his enduring love for At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta's Omar Rodríguez-López.
It's been roughly three months since you departed from Thee Oh Sees. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what you've been up to since leaving? Are you working on new music?
RM: Yeah, it's been three months. Well, it feels like it's been a year; a lot of time has gone by. I've been working a lot; writing every day. I'm not really playing with anybody right now. I'm still drumming, playing guitar and doing everything that I always do, but I'm taking a small break from committing to anything too intense. I just want to sit and hash out all of the ideas I've had in my head over the last four to five years of being in touring bands.
Before Thee Oh Sees, [I was in] Meatbodies, and I just took the role of 'drummer', you know? And that's cool, I love playing the drums, but I felt that beyond the drumming aspect, I wasn't really able to get out what I needed to creatively, because everybody's project was already formed. It was their project, and who am I to come in and start trying to change something that works perfectly well? So I've decided to take the time to just sit and write, and work on that. I want to hone in on that craft, be able to have my own songs, and do my own project. I'm kind of holding up right now, trying to come up with a solid body of material to start a project.
How would you describe the music you've been working on? Is it in a similar garage rock vein to your previous work?
I wouldn't categorise it at all - it's kind of all over the place; I'm all over the place. I listen to a lot of different stuff. I listen to a lot of jazz and jazz-inspired music, a lot of instrumental music that doesn't really have any drumming in it, and I listen to reggae, and a lot of hip-hop - so there are all these different styles coming about. I wouldn't say I'm working on this big proggy extravaganza,or anything, but I'm pulling from a lot of places that I didn't get to explore much in garage rock music, even though I love it.
Well, I love a lot of bands that are quote-unquote 'garage rock', [but] they're rock n' roll bands to me with a fuzz pedal. Honestly, I kind of got burned out on that, man. I've got to be honest for a second and just say [that]. There's something to writing a good song, and, right now, I feel like it's more about what's aesthetically pleasing: 'These are how the guitars are supposed to sound, because it's a garage rock band,' or 'This is how the drumbeat is, because it's very garagey.' I think that that all happened because the first people who were writing garage music just wrote good songs. Their technology wasn't up to pace, and maybe it was a little blown out, so you got this really cool vibe. I really think that it's turned around into, 'Let's make the gear dictate what our style is,' instead of, 'Let's just write a good song,' and [then] manipulate it, you know? So I'm trying to just step back from the whole genre-based, 'What is this? Are you playing garage music?' [situation].
Given your close association with the current garage rock scene, I think that's fair. Are you working with any others on this new material, or is it just yourself?
To go back quickly, [I'm not] knocking the whole garage rock movement. They're all really good friends of mine, and I love what they've done, and it's inspired me to take a path and try and do my own thing too. I just want to make sure that isn't misconstrued at all.
Not at all! After being so heavily involved in that specific movement for so long, it's only natural to have your own unique take on it. Fear not. Have you thought of a title for your current project, or will it be recorded and released under your own name?
Right now, it's pretty much just me, but I do want it to be a band, for sure! I play guitar, I play drums, I play bass, I play synthesizers on it, but it's not real; it's not four or five people breathing in the same room, sweating and really going for it. In my mind, right now, it's definitely going to be a band. I think the music will reflect me, but I don't want to put my name at the forefront of it, especially when I know I'm looking for it to be a group effort, and that I [would] want everybody to feel at home.
I have really good help. I live in a building where there's another recording studio two doors down, and some of my best friends live there now. They're all classically trained guitarists, so if I want to dissect something, they can always come over and hash it out with me. I'm really enjoying that; just sporadically meeting up with somebody to get their take on something. Charlotte, who lives with me, she's a phenomenal guitarist and a great pianist. It's really nice living with somebody that I'm so close to, and who is extremely talented. I can just go into the next room, and maybe get her to play guitar on something and help me out.
Right now, I'm keeping it kind of slow, without any rush or expectation. I'm enjoying being at home in my studio, and just sitting in the room with these sounds. I think it's no different to anybody else that's been seeking [to do] something more than what they were; maybe having a little more freedom to have an input [that's] more than just their instrument.
How did you first fall into the role of 'The Drummer'? You're originally from Connecticut and moved to Los Angeles, am I right?
Yeah, it all stems back to Connecticut. I was playing in a lot of punk bands. Punk and hardcore bands; that's what's really big over there. You either do that, or you love hip-hop, or you're a pot-head, and you love Phish or Dave Matthews Band, which I didn't understand at that point. I was into really aggressive music, and I was playing a lot of hardcore. I think a year or two before I moved, I started playing in a noise band. It was pretty genre-less and all over the place. I remember just wanting to play bass in that band really badly, and I didn't have any inclination of wanting to sit at a drum set, but it would just continually happen that nobody would let me play any [other] instrument but the drums! And that's cool, because everybody I've worked with has liked my drumming - and I couldn't be more lucky to have that - but at the same time, I knew I really wanted to explore something else. Not that I'm sick of drums, but I just feel the same way behind every instrument I pick up; it doesn't stop [there] for me.
I moved Los Angeles, because the band was getting run ragged. Nothing was happening, and it was that weird age where, if you were still partying too much, it was becoming problematic, and, if not, you're working a shitty job and you're a bummer to hang out with. Just the stuff that happens when people are a year or two out of high school and still don't know what they're doing. So I moved to LA, but I didn't even want to move here; I wanted to go out to the Bay, I wanted to be in San Francisco. I moved here with someone who, at the time, wanted to be here really badly. I remember moving to Hollywood and sitting in my apartment for twelve hours a day, just playing guitar and making noise, and then I finally decided to go out and meet people, and what I did - and, honestly, it's pretty shameless - is I would play with everybody and anybody, even if I hated their music.
Do you remember what bands you were playing in at the time?
I was playing with like five bands a week. At the time, I couldn't even tell you who I was playing with. I did it as a test; let's see how fast I can learn somebody's music. I was pretty much just taking these gigs and making it rehearsal. In Los Angeles, you don't have basements where you can play drums all night and not disturb anybody; you really have to play as much as you possibly you can. So I was taking these gigs and I remember learning sets on sidewalks an hour before [shows] on my headphones. There would always be another gig the next night, and I would do open mics [too].
I eventually fell into a group of guys who were really into jamming, jazz and psych music and just really going for it. We started doing an open mic at a hostel in Hollywood. There were all types of people there, from all different counties. Nobody spoke any English, but everybody drank the terrible free vodka and grapefruit juice they would put out. We would go up there and jam for an hour and a half straight. It would be horrible some nights, and then some nights it would be pretty cool. We were just having fun, and by playing with [these] like-minded people, I finally reestablished a connection with [others].
We joined a bunch of whatever bands together, quit those bands, and just kept playing with anybody and everybody. I then realised that I still need to go out and be social, which is hard for me, because I don't go out at all. It's really not appealing to me at this point, and it wasn't appealing [to me] at that point, but I went out and started meeting people and eventually met [Meatbodies founder, vocalist and guitarist] Chad [Ubovich], honestly just through partying and getting drunk.
Was meeting Chad your introduction to Los Angeles' tight musical community?
In LA, there's a big social scene; you don't have to drink, and you don't have to do drugs or anything, but it is very social, and, if you don't go out, I feel like you kind of get forgotten about. I'm just putting that out of my head at this point, because I don't care one way or the other. I'm just looking to do the music thing right now... but, yeah, I was going out all the time, and eventually an old friend of mine had asked this well-known person in Los Angeles, Chris, who knows and parties with every band, 'Hey do you know anybody looking for a drummer? Ryan plays drums, and he really wants to play in a band, and he's not playing with anybody right now.' Which wasn't true! I was playing in three bands, but I didn't like any of them. I was just exercising my craft. At the time, I felt like I should never stop playing, because when that 'moment' came, I didn't want to suck; I wanted to be good. I could have met up with Chad and sucked, but I was playing a lot. Long story short, we met-up, played, jammed, and a week later I played a show with Meatbodies, then I played another show, and then we played in San Francisco the night that Ty Segall recorded his live album.
[Thee Oh Sees founder, band leader, vocalist and guitarist] John Dwyer was recording that show for [his label] Castle Face Records, so I met John that night. You have to understand, I didn't know any of these people, and, to be honest, I wasn't a fan of any of this. I liked Ty, and I knew... I don't know if it was Melted or Twins, but he was kind of popular, and he had a couple of songs on there that I was like, 'This is really cool! It's like a psychy Nirvana.' So I went up there and was like, 'I get to play at the same show as Ty Segall. Two weeks ago, I payed fifteen bucks to watch his band, and now I get to see him for free.' So I was just excited about the little things here and there, like my sister coming to the show because she lived in the Bay. I didn't even know who John Dwyer or Thee Oh Sees were. I'm from Connecticut; I was listening to hip hop, smoking weed and skateboarding. I didn't know garage rock or surfy music. So, I met John, and I thought, 'This guy is a kind of kooky dude and he's pretty nice. He's really cool, because he's recording this live, and his set-up backstage is bad ass.' I'm like a nerd with gear, so I just gravitated towards that. John liked how I played drums [that night], and he gave me a kiss after I played. I was like, 'I don't know you at all, but thanks!'
Chad was happy, because [Meatbodies] was sounding pretty cool, and I ended up doing a two-week tour with the band, with Ty, at South-by-South West. Coachwhips [John Dwyer's band prior to Thee Oh Sees] were doing their thing, they just did that reunion. So, I was seeing John quite a lot, I was with Chad and Ty all the time, and Cory [Hanson] from Wand was playing in Meatbodies at the time. I was like, 'This is like amazing!' Cory's still my favourite local guitar player. I think Cory is just phenomenal; if I could play guitar really well, I would want to play like Cory. I was surrounded by these really awesome musicians, who were really nice people, in a really relaxed environment; so I felt pretty good. One thing leads to another, and Meatbodies keeps working and grinding, and then we lose the [rest of the] band, so we add another member, and another member, and then lose a member. So, for a while, in my mind, it was just me and Chad fighting to keep [Meatbodies] above ground, and keep the band kicking; and it worked! They're still a band, they're still playing, and they just released a record the other day. We did all of that, and then more opportunity came knocking with John.
How did you eventually end up joining John in the Thee Oh Sees?
We had jammed a couple of times, just in a lockout, and he had mentioned maybe doing a side project. I was like, 'Yeah! Let's do a side project. That sounds bad ass. Let's get a synth,' and he was like, 'Yeah. I want synths and double drummers,' and then a month later I get a text while I'm getting groceries: 'Hey, do you want to play with Thee Oh Sees?' and I just responded, 'Yes.' I didn't know that the band were well known [then]. I mean, they've paid their dues; John has worked so extremely hard at keeping that band very relevant and progressive. So, I was doing the two bands at that time.
Did you know [fellow Thee Oh Sees drummer] Dan Rincon before joining the band, and had you played in a two-drummer band before?
I had never played in a two-drummer band; I had never thought of playing in a two-drummer band. The most I had done is play some Latin music with a percussionist, and I didn't know Dan at all.
My first Thee Oh Sees practice was a pretty weird scenario, because I'm walking in, and [I realise that] I hardly know John. I know him from being at the same shows and just, like, chatting, and I had never met [bass guitarist] Tim [Hellman], and I had never met Dan, but we're practising together now. They had all lived in San Francisco together, prior to living in LA, so they knew each other, had toured together, and been to each others' shows. There was kind of a more solid connection [between the three of them], so I'm walking blindsided into this room with pretty much three strangers and another drummer. I had never seen Dan play, so I was like, 'Alright. Let's see how it goes!' We played [together] and it just worked. It wasn't really talked or spoken about, but it sounded cool. John wanted to do it, and, I think, less than a month later we played our first show.
That's quite a quick turnaround. Was there much time to get to know each other before launching into the mammoth tour in support of [the band's then-recently released album] Mutilator Defeated at Last?
We practised for less than a month, played a local LA show, then just dived right into it. I'm still playing in Meatbodies at this point, and I really remember my schedule immediately filling to the brim between both bands, which I loved. I didn't mind that at all. I was really, super excited about that. I would still be super excited if I had two or three bands going. The amount of work was never the issue for me, and when you're working with somebody like John, you can't be a lazy person. Which, to me, is the most I bonded with who John is as a person. I have the utmost respect for his work ethic; he does not stop. In some ways, I believe that it's not work to him, just like it's not work to me. This is what I do so I don't have to get a job. I don't want to do anything in the entire world besides make music with cool people and make people happy. I'm willing to do this all day, every day, so that's what was really great about working with John. He is the epitome of 'doing it yourself', and that the work pays off, because it really does. It was really reassuring to see that if you do care about something, and put enough care and passion into it, you can make it your whole life and not be missing anything.
People get really bogged down on the finances of bands: 'How are you able to live? How are you able to do this?' But if you just keep doing it, man, it'll work, and you'll live. You'll find a way to live, and even if you're not living off your band, you'll find a way to still play music. I've been super broke before, like, 'OK, I can pay my rent, eat rice and beans this month,' and I still played music four nights week. It's not the work that is ever the problem, it's usually the lack of communication or chemistry - and I'm not talking about Thee Oh Sees or Meatbodies - I'm talking about what I've seen with [other] bands. Yeah, you can get overworked, not communicate and get in arguments, but usually if you're worked and all still talk, like, 'Hey man, I'm in a shit mood, I'm tired, I feel awful, and I'm off to bed,' you go, 'Alright, love you, buddy. See you tomorrow!' There's no animosity there. When people are worked, it can be fine, as long as they have the time needed to recuperate when they're at home with their families or loved ones. So that was a big thing that I definitely took in my back pocket; work is not work if you love what you're doing, and you keep at it.
Thee Oh Sees toured relentlessly in support of Mutilator. How did you find the time to work on the songs that would eventually become A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances? Did you write those songs on the road?
That's the thing, I think Thee Oh Sees are viewed as this really prolific, hard-working band, and yeah, we toured a ton, like, we toured non-stop. I had never left the country before I did the Meatbodies European tour, and then a month later it was Thee Oh Sees' European tour, and then we went to Japan and Israel. I've been to a ton of places now, but I really don't think we did a ton of work. I'm not downplaying the amount of touring we did; I mean, we played for an hour and a half every night, we toured relentlessly, but we only practised, like, two days a week when we were at home. Honestly, we would go in, and it would either be a brush up practice, like, 'Hey, we're getting ready to go on tour. Let's go through the set,' or, 'Hey, let's go jam'. We would go jam for two hours, record all of it onto a handheld cassette, and then John would go home, listen to it, find the bits and pieces he liked, and eventually they became songs.
I really don't think we worked extremely hard. I think we did good work, but I think it gets viewed as this extensive, prolific work when you say, 'Thee Oh Sees - two or three records in one year!' Well, I just think that other people don't really do much. If Ty had released everything he's done under the name Ty Segall it would look a lot bigger: he had GØGGS going on, and he had Ty Segall & the Muggers, and then he was in other bands, Fuzz, and he was playing drums in Meatbodies, for a minute...
I don't think we did that much work; I just think that bands don't do a lot of work. I think the touring is why we were able to do that live record [2016's Live in San Francisco] and just knock it out. I mean, that was just the best takes from three shows, three nights in a row. We had been playing non-stop together, and it was a case of, 'We'll go play the show, there's some mics set up, and now there's a live record!'
How long did it take to record A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances?
That's all from one session. We didn't go to the studio twice to do that. We recorded all of that in three days. Actually... I'm going to say four, but I really think it was three. I was really sick. I had a one-hundred-and-twenty degree fever and was vomiting. I recorded the whole record in a hoody, with the hood up. We went in there, did that, and then me, Tim and Dan all went home, and John stayed and finished it.
Did you record the initial tracks as a live band together?
Guitar, bass, two drums; live. Then John just sat with it and recorded all the overdubs, sang, and did his magic.
As a self-confessed gearhead, How was it working with [Thee Oh Sees' regular collaborator and engineer] Chris Woodhouse?
Yeah, Chris is awesome, man. I really like him because he's a total nerd, and I mean that in the most respectful way. Everything I was nerdy about, he was nerdy about. He really liked drum rudiments and techniques, like marching stuff. I had studied with a marching drummer, so I really, really love that stuff, and I do that every day; that's my warm-up stuff. We talked about that immediately, and then just through me being constantly over his shoulder, and bugging him about the gear, he kind of realised, 'Oh, this guy's just super nerdy, and wants to be upfront and looking at the board and touching the faders.' Chris is meticulous. He knows what he wants and how to get it, and if you let him get it, he'll get it.
Did the band record a lot of takes for each song?
It wasn't about having to do a lot of takes, because John doesn't like doing a lot of takes, and I don't like doing a lot of takes. Your energy goes down, not because you're tired, or out of shape, but you start thinking about what you're doing [too much]. You're like, 'OK, I'll get this fill on the next take!' So, for the whole take you're like, 'I've gotta' get that fill! I've gotta' get that fill!' and then you get that fill, and it's awesome, and you go back and listen, and the whole part before [your fill] sucks! You've been thinking about that fill the whole time.
Chris made sure what was being recorded up front sounded how he and John wanted it to sound immediately, so you don't have to fix it in the mix later. He has mic'ing techniques on the drums, which he is very, very adamant about. He just does his thing. At some point you've got to leave the engineer alone, and go, 'Alright, I'm gonna' go sit at the drums, where I belong; you do your thing, I'll do my thing. It's work time.' He let me flip the tape with him a couple of times, so that was cool. He has Studers, and I wish I had Studer two-inch tape machines. I had fun with Chris, and I like Chris. Hopefully I get to work with him again one day.
When was it decided that the songs you were working on would become two separate albums?
I don't really know. To me, it was a case of having a shit ton of songs, or a shit ton of parts, and we were just going to record them all. That's the thing about Thee Oh Sees; it's very much a live interacting band [in one context], and then there's an aspect that you kind of have to let go. When we left the studio, that was it - it's John's now. That's cool, it's his baby, and I wouldn't expect anything else. He would definitely tell us ideas: 'Maybe this will become two records,' or 'There's too much here for one record.' Eventually, he would just tell us [his final decision], and we'd go, 'OK. Cool!'
There really isn't too much sitting down and deliberating; it kind of just dictates itself, and that's another thing I like about John's work ethic. I work like that too. I haven't talked to him about it, but I believe that at some point in the creative process, for anybody, the way to get the most heightened piece of art is to let go, and surrender to what it's become; it's its own entity now, let it be that, and stop trying to strangle it. I mean, it's like that with anything right? A friendship or relationship; just let [people] be themselves and appreciate why you gravitate towards them in the first place.
Prior to both Dan and yourself joining the band, Thee Oh Sees was in a somewhat transitional phase, with John starting afresh with the band's line-up in 2014. As someone who has seen the band perform several times, it really did feel that your specific line-up - yourself, John, Tim and Dan - solidified into something quite special and definitive.
I would also argue that the band's profile started to rise significantly during this time, in part, due to the strength and reputation of the band's live shows. Were you aware of this from your end, and do you also agree that the four of you created something unique together?
Honestly, man, I had no idea of the band's popularity, or of any increase in awareness. We had been working really hard touring, so sometimes I would go, 'Oh, this show is bigger than the other show,' or 'Wow! London really loves us,' or, 'We're playing a big festival today, and maybe tomorrow we'll play a small one.' I really didn't pay attention to that, and I really couldn't say if it was conscious or subconscious to not pay attention.
I do feel like there was definitely magic with that line-up. Absolutely. I think if anyone were to deny that in the band, that would be a lump of bullshit. There was some fire going on, and I think it was because we were just four completely different people. You couldn't have four more different people in the same band, and that's not, like, a bad thing; it was cool. I think everybody had a connection, on some level, but I feel like we're all very different people, with similar but different influences and lifestyles. It would just catch fire some nights.
The band's set at last year's End of the Road festival was possibly one of the best live shows I've ever seen.
I remember that one really, really well. Thurston Moore played that show right before us, and he sounded really good. Yeah, that festival was cool. I remember I had a broken cymbal, and the stage guys had [some spare ones] ready to go. [BBC Radio 6 DJ and former The Fall guitarist and keyboardist] Marc Riley was there, so I got to say hi to him.
Marc Riley really pushes Thee Oh Sees on his BBC 6 Music show over here [in the UK]. He's a great supporter of the band and garage rock.
Man, I know! I'm endlessly thankful to Marc and everything he's done. I don't think he knows what a big influence he is on me. I always tell him [this], but he's like, 'Oh, you're just sugarcoating it. You're building me up to be something...' and it's like, 'No, man! I love The Fall, like, are you kidding me?!' So that's always a really cool thing.
I remember John had to pay a Fender [guitar] that night. John's guitar had been breaking a lot towards the end of me being in the band. We had borrowed Leana, from the band Feels', Fender Mustang, which is such a dinky guitar, and is not the sound John usually makes on his monstrous SG. He was not happy at all. I was not really having it [either], because I like loud, loud monitors and when you have a Fender guitar going through a loud monitor, there's a lot of noise, as opposed to John's usual guitar, which has a lot of low end... it feels more like a bass going through the monitors. But, I remember playing that show and it being awesome and having a lot of fun. I remember being happy because it was raining, and it ended up being really cool. I remember it being a weird, strange, overcast, grey, good day. I don't know... it was a good festival. Oh, and the Kevin Morby Band were there too, who are good friends of ours, so we got to hang out with them.
The Kevin Morby Band is another group that is really coming to their own as a live act right now. It feels like the four of them have really clicked as a unit.
When we were doing shows in Europe we would always run into the Kevin Morby Band. Justin [Sullivan] the drummer and Cyrus [Gengras] the bassist are a couple of pretty close acquaintances of ours. Well, the whole band is, but, for me, I get along with Justin and Cyrus really well.
What were your favourite Thee Oh Sees songs to perform live?
I really liked when we used to play "Carrion Crawler". We didn't play it for, probably, the last eight months to a year of my time in the band. It's "Interstellar Overdrive" to me, you know? You ever listened to [Pink Floyd's] Piper at the Gates of Dawn? It's got that vibe of being really super psych. I also really liked playing "Web" a lot. John let me change the drumbeat from what Nick [Murray] did on the record. I thought that was an undeniably intense, dark and heavy song; it gets real heavy.
"Web" has definitely been a set highlight, for sure. At Primavera 2015, my friend Sean [who also writes for The Reprise] and I were down in the pit and ended up helping a wild Mac DeMarco get up and crowd surf to that song.
Honestly, I would take the time out of any conversation I have with anybody to outwardly say that I really, really think that Mac DeMarco is the quintessential 'Tour God' to me. Not in the way that his music, band, or tour ethics are better, but I remember going on tour with Mac, with Meatbodies, and having such a nice time with him. I really think he's a great, great, great person, and he deserves everything he's getting right now with his music. He's worked super hard, and he's a genuine, down-to-earth, great human being. I've never seen anybody help touring bands the way that Mac did, and I'm sure he still does. He's an outstanding person, man. He wouldn't go a night without making sure that everybody had somewhere to sleep, and he would [make sure that he stayed in the same place as] all the touring bands. He really is just an outstanding human. I love Mac DeMarco, and I remember him crowd surfing to "Web". I remember laughing and trying not to mess up the song.
From an outsider's perspective, he has this great balance between this silly, sort of goofy persona, and these more serious songs that are well-produced and very well-written. He's a brilliant presence in today's musical climate.
I think that's the reason why he resonates with so many people. That's Mac; what you see is what you get. He's happy, and he makes you feel good. When he's off-stage and you're standing next to him, he makes you feel like a person, you know? I can't think of any specific instances or people, but there are times when you'll be walking down a street in Los Angeles, and you'll bump into, or be in line with, somebody and they won't even acknowledge that it happened. Not that you expect them to apologise, but people don't even make you feel like a person anymore, you know what I mean? People are really good at talking on their phones, but don't know how to communicate anymore. They can say things on Twitter or through text messages, but they don't know how to interact face-to-face and make you feel like they're paying attention to you.
I think that's where I'm gravitating towards now, in answer to your very first question, in terms of what I'm doing now. I'm totally exercising towards working with people that, not just musically, but... you know, how do I feel sitting in the same room as this person? Can I go eat a meal with this person? Do we have the same outlook on life? I'm really getting to the point where the friendships and the downtime parts to playing are becoming more important to me than the actual playing. I'm in it for the long haul; I don't want to stop doing this, like I said earlier. I want to accumulate a coalition of people, that, if we want to do a band, and we want to tour for the next ten years, then we can - no problem. We can not tour together - no problem. We can exist in each other's space, and totally understand how to be with one another. Also, I've started to do a lot of recording, engineering, and mixing again.
For other artists and musicians?
Yeah! That's a whole thing to me too. How can I get better and learn more about myself? How can I work with others, and get better at working with others? Maybe not necessary being in a band, but [working with a band] from an outsider's perspective, so that when I am in a band, I can guide myself around a little easier. I've been really willing to open up and work with more bands on the engineering and production-side. It's been really rewarding and fun. I've having a good time with that, and that's been taking up a lot of my time too.
Who have you been working with in the studio? Any particular acts you'd like to mention?
For the last couple of months, we've been making the Surf Bort record. They're a four-piece punk band based out of Brooklyn. They're four of my closest friends, and that friendship kind of just grew in the last year. I was a fan of their live show, and I gravitated towards them because of the whole friendship thing. I sit down and eat dinner with these people, we make art together, we go swimming together; it's much deeper than just 'I produce their record.' They're my friends, and I know how to work gear. Nobody was recording their shit the way it should be recorded, and they didn't like how it was sounding, so they flew out here, we recorded fourteen songs in two days, and then they flew home.
Afterwards, me and Charlotte, she plays guitar in Surf Bort, and was still living in Brooklyn at the time, she would come out and we would work endlessly on the record. She had a really specific vision about guitar sounds, and the feel of the record that she wanted to explore. We took the time and we did that. We would go out for breakfast, get coffee, and then record guitars for like six hours; however long it took to get the sound we were looking for. So, we finished that up, and for the last month and a half we've been mixing it. We finish mixing tomorrow, and then it goes off to mastering. That's in the bag, and I'm looking for more friends that just want to have their music recorded and hang out with me.
It sounds like you're in a healthy place right now, satisfying your own creative needs while helping others express their own.
It's been really nice. I'm definitely a ritual-based person; I need a routine. Get up, have your breakfast, drink coffee, listen to music, and start working on music. To me, I've gotten to the point where I have an adult playroom; these are all my toys [*motions to room*]. So I go in here and play all day, and I forget about how crazy and unwelcoming the world is right now. So maybe I'll make some really dangerous music in here that relates back to how things are right now. This is my meditation, you know? This is how I'm a calm person and stay level-headed. It's one big meditation of figuring out who you are through expressing yourself and making sound. I don't see it as any different to a painter going to their space and painting for ten hours a day.
In the end, you get cool music that you can perform for people, and it can be this big thing, but in the end it's really about sitting in a room by yourself and really exercising that creativity and learning about who you are through your subconscious and creative side. That's been really rewarding for me; to step back from the physical, more sports-like aspects of touring.
Is that one of the main reasons why you stepped down from Thee Oh Sees? To remove yourself from the intensity of touring life?
Not to stop touring, but I guess a small percentage was to... yeah, step away and just do my own thing. I don't doubt that that's a good reason to leave. There was just a lot piling up on the plate, and I found more reasons to leave than to stay at that time, even though it was going well. As I mentioned to you, I didn't even know it was going that well. I had no reference. I didn't know how the record [released] two records before I was in the band did, because I wasn't listening to the band; I have no timeline, and nor would that have mattered. That whole side of music, the success, that's all really nice; it's uplifting, and it gives you a lot of confidence, but it's also very, very far removed from why I make music.
Ultimately, I feel like I've gotten to an age now where I've spent from the ages of 11 to 28 being 'the drummer guy', playing somebody else's songs the way they wanted them played, and I could never speak of a guitar tone, or ever say, 'Well, maybe play this guitar part here.' It's almost twenty years of being 'drummer guy', and when you've been that person for almost twenty years , and you have something else to say, then you just remove yourself from 'drummer guy' availability. I will play drums again in other bands, for sure, when I find the people, when I find the music, and whether it comes to me... or whatever. Whatever happens, happens; I'm not pushing anything, or limiting myself with anything. In anybody's life where [they] are viewed as one thing for so long, I just started getting really bummed out that I wasn't ever going to exercise other aspects of music. I was like, 'Wow. I'm turning 29. I have one more year left of my twenties. Am I just going to go through my thirties just playing drums too; not being able to express myself in another way?'
That certainly makes sense in relation to how all-encompassing Thee Oh Sees must have been as a project, how much the band was touring?
Yeah, and also, I do a lot of other projects too. I started having this outburst of creative energy where I was working on a ton of different stuff all the time, and I just wanted to do that. I wanted to get the things in my head out, instead of working towards getting the things out of someone else's head. I like helping people achieve their goal, and making their art, but at some point, I've got to get my stuff out too, otherwise I'll go a little bit coo-coo. It's just like an evolution. To me, there was nothing abnormal about leaving the band. It would have been really, really abnormal and unhealthy for me to stay for reasons of playing in front of thousands of people, making money, and being in a popular band. That's not a reason to stay in a band.
How's your relationship with John, Tim and Dan now? Are you all still friends, and is there a possibility of you recording or touring with Thee Oh Sees again one day?
I'm always open to talking and being friendly with anybody. I don't think that we're not friends because I'm not in the band, that's crazy. In terms of doing music or shows, I don't want to say never, because never is... I mean you see these bands that are like, 'I hate that person! I'll never play with them again,' and then fifteen years later they're playing again, because there was a reason they played music together in the first place. I don't really know. To be honest with you, I haven't really thought about it enough to give you a proper answer. I mean, I talk to Tim. We went to get green tea the other day. Tim is one of the greatest people I've ever met. He's a good person, and probably my favourite bass player I've ever played with.
He's definitely incredibly underrated. That bass tone on [A Weird Exits'] "Jammed Entrance"...
Alright, let's take a minute here! Let's take a minute to specifically talk about Tim. First of all, he's the perfect person to have in a band; no questions asked, that's it. Now, let's move away from how great of a human he is, and let's talk about his bass playing for a second, which gets overlooked all the time. That live band would have fallen apart on its face, every night, if Tim wasn't playing with us. Listen to that live record; he's the best part about it! His tone; consistent every night, his timing; impeccable, his feel is incredible. He's groovy. He's the grooviest bassist.
A lot of the time, people would come up and talk about the two drummer thing, or they would talk about John's guitar and how it's so loud: 'How does he make it sound like that?' All of that stuff is really cool, and it's visually mesmerising to see two drummers. It's kind of like analogue visuals, you know? You don't have anything playing on a screen behind you, but you [do] have two drummers that are kind of making you trip out, because it's kind of psychedelic to watch, but Tim... Tim is the only reason that everybody stuck together musically. There are times when the drums are just ripping apart, and we're not in time together, and then we do come right back, but Tim never moves: 'Here I am. I'm going to be right here for you when you come back. Express yourself, because I'm going to be right here.' He's the reason that everybody can paint over that monstrous bass sound. He never, never goes away. I feel like that's how he is a human too. He is that solid as a friend, and if you listen to his bass playing, it reflects who he is completely; he's there for you. He's just everything you want in a person and a bass player, and I really feel like Tim really gets overlooked, so if someone wants to talk to me and have a conversation, then I'm going to take the time to talk about how much of a pleasure it was working and being friends with Tim. He's a friend that I'll have for the rest of my life, no questions asked. I can call him up anytime, and I know we can spark conversation and go get lunch. He's a great dude, and a prize piece as a bass player, for sure.
I was listening to his new band Flat Worms [with Kevin Morby Band's Justin Sullivan and Dream Boys' Will Ivy]. Their track "Red Hot Sand" is trending right now on Spotify's UK Viral 50. Which is pretty wild!
Oh, yeah! I congratulated him the other day: 'Hey buddy, I see that your project is gaining some ground there.' They have some stuff coming out again soon; they're working. Their next thing is going to be better than what they've put out now, which is already great. I promise you, whatever you hear from Flat Worms in the future is going to be just as good, if not better, and it's going to be a nice progression. They have some good stuff in the works. We're all working, man!
Just one last question, Ryan. Despite the wild and, at times, terrifying political climate across the US and the UK right now, I was wondering what your hopes are for 2017 on a personal level?
Oh, jeez! I haven't thought about this. I've just been living day to day. I live in a warehouse, so I can literally do anything here. 2017... yeah everything's really fucked up. I live in a really weird part of downtown Los Angeles; I live on skid row basically. Two blocks away is Little Tokyo, and then you have an apartment that's three or four thousand dollars a month, and then two blocks down the road are hundreds of tents, with people living outside, and then the woman's shelter... I'm constantly reminded of how real things are on a day-to-day basis, and how fucked up everything is politically in our country and on a world scale.
What I'm looking forward to is the amount of art that's going to be made due to people being pissed off and uncomfortable. I can't wait. I really think that art, music, and entertainment needs an uplifting of reality... not in a 'reality show' sense. I worked as a PA on a reality show, and that stuff is like pure evil to me. I'm looking forward to people being real again. I think it's great that everybody has this voice to speak on the internet and do all this political ranting, but the fact that people are going out and protesting, going to benefit shows, and that people are having to communicate and be in each others faces again; it's real now. If you look throughout history, the most fucked up times created some really cool art... you've got all the punks in the 80s. That in itself has given me hope for having some good art happen.
In many ways, you're right. These times are guaranteed to become a major catalyst for a lot of different artists.
I've noticed this trend in the last couple of years in art... and I'm not knocking anybody's anything. If you're expressing yourself by taking a picture, I don't care what it is, as long as you're not expressing yourself by going out and punching someone in the face, you know? I don't have to like it, but I like that you're getting it out there... I've noticed this trend of 'shock art', like, 'Let's have bondage in our photos!' It got old. This isn't taboo anymore. It's 2017; sex is sex is sex; it's everywhere. I think people have gotten lazy in the past couple of years, and now people get pissed off. I hope people realise how dangerous the world is and make some dangerous art, in the way that it speaks up and it speaks volume.
To me, the most punk rock thing you can do now is be educated. Our country is at an all time low in terms of IQ, and I'm not saying that all Americans are uneducated, I'm just stating a fact. I think it all kind of went crazy, man. That whole punk thing, like 'We're all punks,' but you work at Starbucks or something, and you go get wasted every night, and there's no education. I think that the most punk thing to do is to go and be healthy, go read a book and be really, really savy about what is going on out there, so you can make some dangerous art. Let's make some music that takes people off guard, [where] they don't know what the hell they're listening to, and capture the essence of what's happening in the world right now. If you can capture what's out there and put it on tape? That's what I'm looking for this year.
Something real, and something with meaning.
I've said that art has been kind of lacking [that], but there are people that continuously have done it, and are doing it. It would be pretty rude for me not to talk about the things I love. I really love Run the Jewels, I love El-P. Not only because they're politically dangerous, in the sense of standing up for what they believe in, but listen to that stuff, man, some of those songs have no song structure. That shit is just punk; that's punk. El-P is one of the greatest producers of our time, all the way back to Company Flow in the 90s. He captures a vibe like no one else, man. Those beats and that production, the melodies... everything about it is wonderful. There are artists that just continuously do it. Omar [Rodríguez-López] from At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta, that guy...
Oh, absolutely! I'm a huge fan.
Me too, man! His solo career has pretty much influenced everything I've done. All the way back to At the Drive-In, you know? He's putting out 24 records in the space of a year.
This goes back to what we were talking about with how prolific Thee Oh Sees were. I'm a fan of that guy, and I'm not going to hold myself up to his level of [being able to get] that much done. People work, man, and his music is evolving, and it's stuff that I don't think anybody's ever heard before. I really recommend listening to a record called Sworn Virgins, I believe it's 90% recorded live between him and a drummer [Deantoni Parks]. All that stuff is happening live that you hear on that record. That's dangerous music to me. It's dangerous in a way that people will hear that and have no idea what they're hearing. You know what, I guarantee most people would not be comfortable listening to it right away, because it's something brand new. I personally have not heard anything like that, and I listen to a lot of different music. That's what I mean; I'm hoping for more honest art to get put down on tape, canvass and film and be put in people's faces. I think it's a really good time to take a chance.
There was an interesting article on Consequence of Sound recently about guitar music's place in today's culture. It focused on Japandroids, Cloud Nothings and Real Estate, and the idea that rock music doesn't necessarily carry the same cultural weight that it once did. I guess this goes back to what you were saying earlier about punk rock values no longer existing within traditional 'punk rock' communities, and how, in many ways, the most politically and culturally relevant music today can be found in hip hop and R&B.
I use the word dangerous in the way that, like, a Alejandro Jodorowsky film was dangerous. Like [his film] Holy Mountain: that's not dangerous in the terms of the subject matter, but that can spark something in someone's brain. Watching one of those movies is like taking half a tab of acid; it can unlock a door that can't be closed again. I think a lot of art is lacking that. The whole thing about guitar music not having the forefront that it used to, well that's just the times and technology. Playing guitar is a craft; playing drums is a craft; playing bass is a craft, and programming is also a craft. You're more likely to have somebody gravitate towards programming, sequencing and [using] a computer these days, rather than pick up a physical instrument. That's just because of where we are in our evolution of technology.
I would be really sad if guitars went away. I remember being really young and wanting to play guitar; that was all I wanted to do, and they told me that I couldn't, so I ended up playing drums instead. I remember going to the guitar shop to take lessons when I was six years old, and they were like, 'We won't teach you, you're too young.' It's good that [culturally or politically relevant music] is out there, whether it's hip hop or R&B doing it, but I would really love to see a cool guitar band come out, not necessarily with rocking guitar solos, or the whole eighties hair metal thing, [but] I feel like getting four or five people in a room; people that have really honed in on their craft, and can express themselves through their instruments, looking at each other as they're doing that... the way the air moves in the room, just because the speaker is pushing air. I think that creates the music, just as much as the guitar coming out the amplifier. It's the aura, or whatever you want to call it; the energy of the people in the room.
Whenever Omar Rodríguez-López works with [regular musical foil] Cedric Bixler Zavala, there's definitely that kind of magic there, like that aura or energy that you're talking about. When I saw The Mars Volta perform live in 2005, they blew my mind; that wild chemistry and genuinely uncontrollable atmosphere. As a live act, they were something else.
That's the most punk rock thing I've ever seen in my life. Hands down. When I first saw them, they had eight people in the band, and everybody was playing their asses off, and they were all really good at their instruments. That really speaks to me, and is probably why I gravitate towards those type of people. Of course I grew up with At the Drive-In and skateboarding, but those people progress, and you grow with them. I remember hearing the first Mars Volta record [De-Loused in the Comatorium], and being like, 'Holy shit! The first Mars Volta album compared to At the Drive-In!' I was big into drums at that time, so Jon Theodore was like a god to me. He's still one of my top three drummers ever. That album was released at the same time I liked jazz, and it's a good thing I picked it up because they were playing rock music but there's total jazz all over it.
You listen, and you just realise that they don't give a shit about what anybody thinks about them. They're going to make whatever they want, and they're going to put their hearts and soul into it. If it's going to fail, then they're going down with the ship. I think that's so cool, going in one hundred percent, and not letting up: 'Don't look back, go with your gut instinct.' You either make it, or you fail; either way, you're doing what you've got to [do] to be a person. I like new bands and a lot of music, but I always end up going back home to these places and those records, and I'm like, 'Yeah. These guys rip!' They really care about what they're doing.
Alright, in 2017, I would love to play drums with Omar. That would be a lifetime goal of mine. I'm just saying, I don't have many expectations, but I would love to play with somebody like that. If I never play with that person, then I don't care, but that would be the icing on the cake on my life.
Given everything that Omar and Cedric have worked on and achieved since At the Drive-In's initial break-up in 2001. How do you think the new At the Drive-In album will sound when it's released later this year?
It's got to be different, because they're different people. I know a lot of older fans that have known that band for a long time are probably going to say some really stupid stuff about it, but at the same time don't forget that that band changed your life in your developmental years. That shit changed my life. I remember the internet first coming out, and you could see videos of bands if you went on the right downloading thing. I remember seeing At the Drive-In on Letterman, then I remember seeing them at the Big Day Out Fest, when they broke up. That to me, to this day... the energy when that starts; I have never seen anything like that in person and on video. I think that would be a goal of mine, maybe to assemble a crew that can... that. I strive for that. That realness, that excitement: 'I want to do nothing in the entire world but be on a stage and play music with you,' and that's what I got from seeing a band like that, even in those videos that were super pixelated and it took like six hours to download... you see Omar flipping over his amp and going crazy. You can kind of tell that those people opened up a door to letting energy out, and they couldn't really contain it after some point. That's really cool to me; I was always trying to harness that when playing drums, so I've always dug that kind of stuff
I think those guys are really super cool, and the most punk rock you can get. They do the opposite of what people want them to do, and they're going to do whatever they feel like doing at that time, and that's art. You either lose fans, keep the die-hards, or gain new ones, but it's art. It's supposed to make people feel something, so, [even] if people hate it... right on, man. If you feel nothing, then we have a problem; then I didn't do my job. If you hate it, that still has as much energy as loving something. You're getting an outlet in making fun of me, or hating Thee Oh Sees, or whatever record I'm on. You're still putting just as much energy into something I did as [you are] loving it.
[Going back], I don't have a specific goal for 2017. I'm really excited for the Surf Bort record to come out. We don't know who's putting it out, but that'll be fun. I'm excited for them to get that out. I feel like they worked really hard last year, and they deserve a cool sounding record. It's an interesting sounding record, and anyone who likes recording, the way gear sounds, and crazy titles, should listen to that record. Also, for anyone who likes the first wave of punk, it's very reminiscent of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Dead Kennedys, even, like, Crass. It's a female-fronted band, so people are going to automatically relate it to some other female-fronted punk band, but it does have the weirdness and the dark, drippy cavernness of Crass. I'm excited for that to come out, and I'm excited to get these songs that I've been working on out of the computer and the tape machine and into a room with some bodies. I really want to play guitar in this project.
Have you thought about anyone you'd like to work with when you finally get the project off the ground?
I don't know, man. It's probably going to be about who's in my life at that point. All of my closest friends now play instruments, and, honestly, I'll have to really search for a bitchin' drummer. I need a really, really good drummer, but other than that, I have enough musicians to choose from that I'm friends with. Of course, I have my ideal people, but I can't employ anyone, and I can't take them away from their projects, so I'm going to work with what I've got, and what I've got is pretty awesome. I've got some great people around me, and, if they're willing to do it, then I'd love to have them on board. If not, I'm sure I'll find some people willing to go for it. I promise you, as soon as it forms, I will put it on the internet. Everyone will know as soon as it happens, I'm just not one to rush anything. Opposed to how you've seen me play in Thee Oh Sees, when I'm sitting in a room working on music I'm painfully slow. I will try every single possibility there is, because I don't think anything is actually right.
I'm just excited to be back at that point where I don't know what the hell is going to happen with my life, or my "career", or whatever you want to call it. If anybody cool really wants a drummer, and wants to jam, I'm always open to jamming and playing music with people too. Like, It seems really serious that I'm in this cave, and [that] I'm working and I'm grinding, but I'm really open to playing music [too]. I don't know what's going to happen, and I'm really excited about that.