Interview: Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms
Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms have a new album called ‘Heart String Soul’ coming out later this month. Over the weekend, we brought you guys an exclusive stream of the record. If you missed that, you can check it out here. This interview was conducted by Joel Funk.
Good Afternoon Ryan, for the introduction’s sake could you please introduce yourself and talk about your career leading up to this point?
Ryan: How much time do you have? Ha. Also, calling it a “career” might be an overstatement, since I’m pretty sure you have to make money at something to call it a career. But I digress. Anyway, I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 12 or 13, and started writing my own Pearl Jam rip-off songs shortly thereafter. After playing in the requisite high school bands (from nerdy, Weezer-inspired indie rock bands to more progressive Braid-tyope emo stuff by my senior year) I finally started taking the idea of playing music more seriously in college. I started a band with some like-minded pals my freshman year at school called Red Shirt Brigade. I played drums in the band, but contributed to the overall songwriting, and at one point we even went out to Seattle to record an album with Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie. After that band naturally fizzled – too much homework, I guess – I joined an already in progress aggressive guitar band that eventually became Thunderbirds Are Now!. I sang, played guitar, and wrote a lot of the riffs and lyrics for the band. When we started we were essentially a joke (and how could not be with songs called “Top Secret Upskirt Camera”?), but things changed as we started to get more attention in Detroit as well as a few spots outside of the city (namely Toledo and Bowling Green, OH, as well as Chicago). We opened up a gig for Les Savy Fav – our idols, for sure – and the rest was history. We ended up recording our second album – “Justamustache” – for Frenchkiss, and from there toured the world, playing with amazing bands like Minus the Bear, the Hold Steady, the Constantines, Enon, Pretty Girls Make Graves, the Plastic Constellations, and of course Les Savy Fav. Getting a good review on Pitchfork really helped us, for sure. We went to Europe, Australia, and toured Canada and the US extensively. We released our third album – “Make History” – in 2006, which was named one of the best records of that year by Rolling Stone Magazine, but kind of couldn’t keep it together like we once were able to. Lineups changed, people wanted to do new things, and it basically just got too expensive to keep doing what we were doing. Sleeping in vans kind of got old after awhile. But it was a ton of fucking fun.
After TAN! died down, I started a band called Friendly Foes; a co-ed power pop band that was kind of a Pixies meets Sloan combo. It was really fun for a few years but that petered out after awhile, too. In the midst of that, I played guitar in other bands here and there, and quietly worked on my first solo LP – a decidedly power-pop affair, taking cues from Teenage Fanclub and Elvis Costello – which came out on Bellyache Records in 2012. I played all the basic instruments on it and had a bunch of pals come play on it as well.
Around the same time as the solo LP was coming together, I started a band with the drummer from Friendly Foes – Sean Sommer – and my friends John Nelson and Monday Busque. We call ourselves Destroy This Place, and I still play with that band. It’s best described as grungy pop; we’re heavy, but melodic, and REALLY LOUD.
Since starting DTP, though, I was still working on more singer/songwriter stuff. Somewhere in there – 2012, 2013 – my wife and I had our first kid. That event has inspired a bunch of songs, so over the last few years I’ve worked on whittling down my collection into what is coming out now, my second solo album called “Heart String Soul.”
Your debut album as Ryan Allen and His Extra Arms is coming out later this month. How would you describe the sound of this record?
Ryan: “Heart String Soul” is undoubtedly a “rock and roll” record. There’s guitar, bass, drums, singing… all the requisite stuff that makes for good rock music. But even more, I’d like to think that it’s a really heartfelt album; it’s emotional without being stereotypically “emo.” It’s just a bunch of songs about my life, set to catchy melodies and – I’d like to think – smart, compact arrangements. There’s a lot of harmony, chiming guitar parts, well-placed keyboards/piano/organ, some underlying acoustic guitar; some people might call this kind of sound “power pop”…and I’m totally ok with that. I’m for sure taking cues from a bunch of my heroes, including Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Nick Lowe, Ted Leo, Lennon/McCartney/Harrison, all the guys in Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet…I’m a sucker for all that kind of stuff.
You’ve decided to release this album through a label of your own, Two Brains Recording Co. Was this always the goal or did you have any plans to shop the record around?
Ryan: I thought about “shopping” it, so to speak, for a minute, but ultimately I wanted to release this album on my own terms. My last one came out on Bellyache, and Scotty (Bellyache head honcho) was super helpful getting it out and I will be forever in his debt (literally, I think). But this time around I just wanted to be able to, like, take the fall if it ended up not selling or whatever. I wanted it to be me who was responsible for finding the motivation to push it. Also, whatever I sell, it goes right back to me. All I want to do is break even on the album sales, and I’ll be really happy. I’m happy regardless, because I put it out there in a physical format and I’m really proud of the album in general. But yeah, I wanted to be the one to take the fall, so to speak. Not like I think the album is going to “fail”… I guess I just wanted to be in control of every aspect of it, since the album is so personal to me. Plus, my friend Nick Piunti – who is a great songwriter – offered to help me release it and get it out there to people that he knows that will dig it, so that was another reason. He’s the other “brain” in Two Brains, and has been immensely supportive and helpful with this project.
What was the songwriting process like for this record? I’m always interested in hearing how the writing process varies from artist to artist.
Ryan: So my songwriting process probably doesn’t differ very much from most writers. I usually come up with some chords that I feel an emotional connection to, play around with melody, and kind of wait for lyrics to come to me. For my solo project, one of the criteria is that the subject matter needs to be somehow personal and very specific to my life. That’s how I can start to compartmentalize where my songs end up going and for what project. It’s also how I tend to weed out stuff that doesn’t fit. So for this project, a theme started to develop over time where the songs were sort of revolving around the idea of getting older, but being ok with that; of letting go of some of your rock and roll dreams, but embracing new ones in the process; of being honest about my mistakes and trying my best to change some of my ways; about the fear but overall joy of becoming a father; of paying tribute to my wife, who has been with me through some gnarly shit over the years… all of these things factored in when putting this album together. At some point I felt like it told some sort of story or narrative about who I am; who I was, who I am, and who I can be, and that all jumbled together and became “Heart String Soul.”
This is going to sound kind of silly, but this record makes me feel very nostalgic for 90’s pop/rock. I only got to experience 6 years of that decade, but I hear “Angela ‘97” and immediately pine for Sean Hunter’s one true romance. Was this a sound something you were working toward or did it just kind of happen?
Ryan: First, nice “Boy Meets World” reference. Second, yes, the 90s were a very important time in my life. It’s when I went to highschool, and when some of my favorite music and memories derive from. So that sound is basically ingrained in my psyche and will probably never go away. I love bands like Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield 3, the Lemonheads, Superdrag, and have always been a sucker for some of the big “Alternative Nation” / “Buzz Bin” hits of that decade (Gin Blossoms, Better Than Ezra, etc.). But I also loved Nirvana, Pavement, Hum, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine, Brainiac, Chavez, Fugazi… I mean, there’s so much awesome music from that era.
So for this record I did take a lot of influence from some of those 90s bands, but I also tried to inject a more “classic” feel into the songs as well. Tom Petty and Big Star are probably my two biggest influences, and while it doesn’t shine through on every song, I feel like it’s always kind of there.
Specifically for “Angela ‘97” since the song is sort of a coming of age thing, about meeting my wife in the 90s and all that, I wanted it to sort of have a 90s sound to it. It’s got those buzzing, Rentals/Weezer style synths in there, and a punk-y feel to it. So yeah, that was for sure in my mind when I was crafting that particular song.
Is there anything you’re hoping that people really take away from this record beyond those incredibly earworm-y hooks?
Ryan: What I really hope is that people feel some kind of connection to the music. Even though it’s all really personal and applicable specifically to me, I feel like the lyrics have the potential to touch a lot of people in the feels. I feel like a lot of people don’t give a shit about lyrics anymore, and my hope is people really take time with the album and LISTEN to what I’m saying instead of just hear it. I hope that there’s something in there for people to latch on to and that pulls at their heartstrings a bit. I think people have lost a sense of sentimentality in music – everything is about getting fucked up, and big butts, and shit like that (which is fine), but I’m trying to make music that people can sing along to, but also think about as well. Who knows if I’ll succeed, but at least I’m making the attempt.
Do you have any immediate plans to tour in support of the record?
Ryan: Probably not. Touring is/was a blast, but I’m super busy with work, family and all that. But you never know. I’d certainly entertain options if they were put out there.
Is there anything else that you’d like to touch on?
Ryan: Just that I really appreciate anybody who takes the time to listen to my music, read a review, write a review, an interview, come to a show… I mean, any support people have thrown my way over the years is so truly appreciated. There’s so much music out there, so for anybody to give me the time of day at all is truly an honor. So thanks.