Active musicians, film score composers and jingle writers, Brendan and Billy Ryan have been years in the music industry trenches. From their earliest success with The Bogmen moving into the world of scoring picture, to their latest musical endeavor with Gordon Gano of The Violent Femmes, the Ryans know the highs and lows of the music business if they know anything.
We caught up with the brothers in the West Village, and talked about the new Gordon Gano and The Ryans record, Under The Sun, in the context of 15 years of musical ups and downs, starting back in the early 90s when the music industry was a much different place.
The Bogmen’s Life Begins at 40 Million played on repeat throughout my college years, and I loved seeing you guys play live. I started listening to that record again a couple years ago, wondering what went wrong? You guys should have gone farther!
Billy: What went wrong…well, we started out doing it all right, doing everything on our own. I’d seen Nirvana play in ’91 when I was at Boston College, and I was so blown away, I convinced my band back home we needed to get back together. So, that winter break, my brother and I and Billy Campion [Bogmen singer] started writing the music that became Life Begins at 40 Million.
We had our bus and went from town to town and college to college. And we were making money. Then, we got involved with this management company, who talked us into signing with Arista, who’d started a rock division to cash in on the grunge/rock trend. Our management company clearly wanted the advance. And at the time, we were pooling money for bagels, so it was definitely appealing to us as well.
However, there was this perception of Arista in the industry, of Milli Vanilli and Whitney Houston, and though this may sound over-simplified, it was as if nobody would play us because we were on Arista.
We did this national tour with Shane McGowan and The Pogues. We were kids, and we’re big Pogues fans so being on tour with them was a big deal to us. By the end of the tour, we weren’t kids anymore. We got jaded. Our second record was darker because of our predicament. And then we were dropped.
So now, with the Gordon Gano project, you’re doing everything on your own, I’m sure.
Billy: Yeah, well, it’s funny how now we’re back to that. We have a really cool label, Yep Roc who reps a mix of veteran artists as well as up and coming artists. Brendan and I are managing the whole Gordon Gano and the Ryan’s project. We’re trying to figure out how to make that work. At this point, we’re not selling a ton of records, but we’re getting great reviews.
Brendan: It’s interesting, as a musician, to have to know Photoshop and how to create a Digipak, for example. It’s amazing how much time you have to spend on administrative work, when you’re just trying to make music!
The business model has changed in the recording industry though — we now live in an environment where people pretty much expect music for free. So it’s as hard on the label to turn a profit as it is on the artist. The days of big record advances, and a label that absorbs touring and recording advances in return for a super high percentage or rare, especially on our level. So the artist has more responsibility outside of just writing and recording, while the label focuses on marketing, promotion and media, the artists have to learn how to manage themselves.
So, how did you guys hook up with Gordon Gano?
Billy: We met here in the West Village. We used to hang out at The Blind Tiger and I used to do an acoustic gig on Sunday nights with some friends. And Gordon would come in. We were all fans of the Femmes. We even did a cover of “American Music.” We had a mutual friend in Jerry Harrison, who had produced the first Bogmen record and the Violent Femmes’ Blind Leading the Naked.
For years, we talked about music and bonded over artists we all liked, from Talking Heads to Sly & The Family Stone to Jimmy McGriff to Nina Simone. Brendan started giving Gordon CDs of music that we were working on for a jingle or a film score. He’d sing to it on his cassette recorder.
He did such an amazing job writing lyrics to this music, and before we knew it, we had like 40 songs written — 20 of which are more alt-country, old rock and roll, and the other 20 more worldly and experimental.
How and where did you guys actually make Under the Sun?
Billy: We wrote the songs over time and in Brendan’s studio. But we did most of the recording at The Carriage House in Stamford, CT which was a great experience because you really get to “woodshed” and get to know one another. Gordon had worked there before and the studio owner’s a really great guy.
Brendan: We’d try to go away for at least a few days at a time. The longest was almost two weeks, and we basically recorded two records.
Gordon Gano and The Ryans’ “Man In The Sand” Video:
So you had 40 songs and then had to pick a record out of that?
Billy: Well, we actually recorded two albums. And for Under The Sun, we went with the more rock, alt-country music. But it was hard. We faced the question of how best to mix art and commerce. How can we get the music out there, and make a bit of a living doing it?
We wanted to make it accessible, and then of course, it also had to flow like an album.
And now it’s just about getting people to hear it. How do you do that?
Billy: We’re trying to come up with creative ways to find our crowd. We’re doing a couple days at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, since we’ve had success down there. We’re playing with this band called The Lost Bayou Ramblers. We just played with Dick Cavett the other night at UCB Theater, as part of the Dave Hill Explosion.
Brendan: Also, so much is Internet based. We hooked up with BoingBoing and Chris Cassidy cut some videos of us in the studio. And that got a ton of hits in just a few days. It’s so weird how important videos are today! We’ve done about four or five videos. We just did one with Matt Mahurin that in addition to being featured on BoingBoing, will also be on all Virgin Atlantic televisions for all their flights.