Interview with The Black Ryder

When Australia’s The Black Ryder caught my unsuspecting ear just a couple of weeks ago, I was immediately drawn to the band’s sound like a doomed, but dazzled moth to the flickering flame.  Pretty much everything I love about music can be found throughout The Black Ryder’s debut album Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride. Densely layered textures of distorted and droning guitars and other instruments mesh with duo Aimee and Scott’s emotionally enigmatic, but alluring vocals to create an enveloping, hypnotic, mood-changing vibe that’s fresh and not soporific.  There are even a few vintage-sounding alt-country tracks that change up the dreamy, but distanced atmosphere, so buy that ticket and take the ride that’s offered.  You won’t regret it.

Photo Credit: Stefan Duscio and Michael Spiccia

Hi Aimee and Scott! It’s such a pleasure to be doing this interview with you.  I feel like a newbie since I only found out about The Black Ryder a few weeks ago.  I listened to your album stream on AOL Spinner and I am now totally smitten.  You’re currently in between a U.S. tour with long-running rock legends The Cult and a near-future run of U.S. gigs.  What has The Cult tour been like for you so far?  Have you been doing publicity while on tour, like radio shows or podcasts, or is there just enough time to get to the next show and play?

Aimee:  So far it’s been wonderful. We’ve always been fans of The Cult’s music. We were asked to support them in Australia back in May, then very kindly asked us to join them on their US dates.

The audiences have been very responsive (in a positive way). We weren’t sure what to expect from The Cult’s audience. I’d say that the majority of people we’ve played to have never heard of us before.  We’re from Australia and this is our first time in America. We’ve been quite thrilled with the reactions we’ve had. People have been supportive, engaged… We’re grateful for that.

Not really doing so much press on the road as there’s very little time. We bought a van when we arrived here so we’ve been doing the long-haul driving city to city… So not much room for anything else.

You have a break at the moment between The Cult tour and the start of the next leg of gigging.  What are you doing in this in-between time?  Are you staying in the U.S. or will you travel back to Australia?

Aimee:  We’ve actually been in the process of relocating these last few months. In between tours we packed up what we had in Australia and started settling into Los Angeles.

As far as plans for the in between time, it’s given us a little breathing space that we didn’t feel like we had when we first moved here. We had to settle ourselves somewhere and then start to get the band together for the shows. Our bass player (Archi Read) came over from Australia and the other players in the first run were Kimi Recor (who is in a band called Black Flamingo here in LA) and Hayden Scott, an amazing (and funnily enough, Australian) drummer who we met the week before the first show. Kimi was a friend we’d met through other mutual friends based in LA. (We’d spent quite a bit of time here when we were touring with our previous band The Morning After Girls, so we already knew a few people over here.)

Photo Credit: Stefan Duscio Artistic Direction: Michael Spiccia

You released Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride in November 2009 in your native Australia and have since signed to U.S. record label Mexican Summer in Brooklyn, New York which released your album on September 21st.  I read that a double vinyl set is available, but is the CD format available as well?  Are you doing any digital distribution of the album?

Aimee:  Yes, Mexican Summer is our US label for Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride. They have recently released the double vinyl, CD, digital formats. I just played our record for the first time the other day. It sounds great on vinyl and it was exciting to be able to hear our album that way, such a wonderfully warm sonic experience.

What’s the plan for the release of Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride in Japan?  Are you recording or have you already recorded some new songs to include as bonus material on the Japanese version of your album?

Aimee:  The album is currently available in Japan. I’m trying to remember when we released it there, but it’s hard to keep track of dates at this point. It’s available in Japan through Vinyl Junkie Records. There was an additional bonus track recorded for the release and we just posted it on our MySpace profile.  It’s called “Some Other Time”.

Robert Been (from B.R.M.C) sent me a photo when he was in Tower Records over there. They had our album next to theirs in the store. It was nice to know we were ‘there’ in Japan (and keeping good company too).

Going back to your alignment with the Mexican Summer record label in the U.S., how did decide to sign with them?  I’ve heard that they have their own studio and I was wondering if you plan on taking an extended break in the near future to record new material there or if you will use your own studio in Australia?

Aimee:  It really took some time to find the right people / labels to put our music out in the USA. There was plenty of interest, but also a lot of talk. Too much talk. There seemed to be a lot of people who liked our music, but everything took so long to get to the part where you get a contract in your hands.  We didn’t want to just keep talking with people when it didn’t seem like anything was going to happen. We want to keep moving forward, not staying in the same place, waiting for someone else to make a decision.

Mexican Summer heard about us through a senior chap at a major label here in Los Angeles who, although we weren’t suited to that label as they were more about mainstream / commercial artists, he really loved our album and wanted to help us get a deal. He put the feelers out with his various contacts, Mexican Summer contacted us, and after some very positive discussions we felt like this was the right home for us. Our contacts with the label in the beginning were very straight-up, apparent music lovers, and they have a roster of really wonderful artists (particularly Tamaryn – please check her material… I hope we do some shows together, and Wooden Shjips, who we also dig)… So it felt like the right fit.

In Australia you released Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride on your own record label, the very Catch-22-named The Anti-Machine Machine, but from what I’ve read, you also have the backing of the major EMI Music Australia.  What does this mean in terms of freedom and ease to create your music?  Is EMI Music flinging great gobs of cash at you or maybe helping to promote the band?

Aimee:  When you say backing, we had a very modest advance, which didn’t even cover a third of what we spent on the actual album production, film clip, and other various aspects of getting the album released in our country. We had a management team who we worked very closely with who also managed the marketing and PR side of the release in Australia, so although we had the resources of EMI’s sales / distribution team and the prestige of saying we released our album through EMI Music, there really hasn’t been much involvement from them. We delivered a finished product, which was the album, then the film (for “Sweet Come Down”)… We’ve been at the helm of everything since the beginning. Not to pat our backs too much, but Scott and I have put so much of ourselves into this in so many ways.  We have a clear vision of how we want our music to sound, as well the visual elements to accompany the music.

Sadly, no one has thrown big ‘gobs of cash’ at us just yet, but the upside is that we’re living in America now and so far the audiences have been amazing. We’ve sold out of our album twice on this tour, so I’m hoping that we can bring in our own ‘gobs of cash’ as it were… And that way we can continue to do what we love.

Photo Credit: Stefan Duscio and Michael Spiccia

Several notable artists collaborated with you on Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride, the partial rundown being Ricky Maymi of Brian Jonestown Massacre on various guitars, Leah Shapiro of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on drums, and Peter Hayes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on lead vocals on the slow-burning “Burn and Fade”.  Graham Bonnar, previously in Swervedriver, and Tim Powles of The Church also took part.  How did such a stellar line-up take shape?  How did you lure them in?

Aimee:  I don’t know that there was any luring. It all happened naturally. We were writing and recording our album while Ricky was staying with us for quite a while in Australia… We were speaking with Leah and Pete along the way, and the collaborations just happened that way… It was definitely the most enjoyable / fun way of recording that I’ve ever been exposed to.

From what I’ve read in other interviews you’ve done, you never expected The Black Ryder to become a full-time venture.  How does it feel now to be gaining a higher profile internationally and spending your time traveling and playing gigs?  Was it an easy transition to go from the studio creation to being a live band?

Aimee:  It’s definitely a good start. It helps knowing that we said we were going to do something and we’re doing it.  As far as the transition from the studio to being a live band, we’ve had numerous players with us since the beginning and it’s helped to keep things fresh… To work with a variety of people is great because you get some insight into their creative vision.

Photo Credit: Synaesthesia

Speaking of playing live, since you are essentially a duo that collaborates with other artists, how do you flesh out your band live for the line-up and your sound?

Aimee:  We’re very conscious of tones and where things need to be. Thankfully, we know some talented creative beings who can join us to reinterpret the music in a live capacity. Everyone we’ve played with has been friends, or people who have become friends. I think it’s important to have a good energy between the people you play music with. When you don’t, it really isn’t as much fun.

I read about the origins of your band name a few weeks ago, but my memory isn’t what it used to be (and maybe it never was – LOL), and all I recall is that the name is taken from a play called The Black Rider, I think… Is that the basis, or is it a reference to Winona Ryder or Mitch Ryder?

Aimee:  The day that we received an email from The Morning After Girls to say that we weren’t in the band anymore, we immediately started talking about what we were going to do next. We posted 3 songs that we’d worked on intermittently (when we had time at home to do so in between tours or traveling with The Morning After Girls, although there wasn’t a lot of time for us to dedicate to our own songwriting / recording). They were by no means finished, but we got a really encouraging (and continuing) response from people, so it’s nice to know that there are people out there who dig what we do.

We didn’t have a name for it because it all happened so quickly, it just felt like the most positive way to react to the situation, to become something else, to create a new musical / creative entity. Scott and I were solid and have collaborated on music together for quite some time now. We work so well together and we knew we wanted to keep going.

Scott and I had been to see The Black Rider in Australia, and Marianne Faithful was scheduled to appear in the production, but sadly she was unwell and didn’t make it in the end, but the whole performance was stunning. There were many aspects that resonated with me and perhaps there was also a period of ‘blackness’ about where we were, where we were emerging from, and the lone dark imagery that is conjured up when I think of a ‘black ryder’.  It just felt like the right name for us. Tom Waits also scored the William S. Burroughs-themed play… So, that’s pretty cool too.

Your album was streaming on AOL Spinner and was also available in the same way on SoundCloud.  What is your take on releasing the whole shebang online like that (albeit, not in a downloadable format) as opposed to having limited access to your album’s songs (like loading a few songs to MySpace)?  Do you think that one of those promo methods is better than the other at enticing listeners to buy the album?

Aimee:  To be honest I couldn’t tell you. It’s the early days for us, so there are many benefits to making your music accessible to people, to reach new audiences.  You discovered our music through these channels, so something is working if it triggers an interest in the listener.

MySpace can be great for artists to showcase their music / videos / etc…, but it’s limited to whether you’ve heard of that band / have an interest in what they’re doing.  There’s definitely a challenge in having your music heard or discovered outside of who’s already interested.

I’d hope that if a person listens to something and loves what they hear, then they’d go and buy the album, or go see that band when they’re touring, so they’re at least putting something back so the artists that you love can continue to make music.

Photo Credit: Niina Amnissia

You list your hometown as “Nowhere, Australia” on MySpace, but you aren’t strangers to the music scene, having been members of the band The Morning After Girls, as you mentioned previously in this interview.  I’m not exactly sure of the date bracket for when you were were in that band, but The Morning After Girls released an album and 2 EPs between 2003 and 2005 and Mark Gardener of Ride sang on “Fall Before Waking”.  Were you part of the band when all that was happening?

Aimee: We joined the band after the release of their 2nd EP, we were a part of the band for 3 years.

The Morning After Girls toured a lot and in 2006 the band played a few U.K. music festivals like the Reading Festival, Leeds, and T in the Park.  Did you play at those music fests and other gigs?  If so, what was it like?

Aimee:  Sure, we played at T in the Park, Oxygen, Leeds, and Reading. To be honest, the majority of shows weren’t that great for us. There was a growing feeling of discontent and misery in that camp, so getting up at a festival with people you don’t feel like talking to, let alone standing on a stage and playing music with, becomes a very difficult and sour experience.

Festivals can be a lot of fun though.  We played at a 3-day outdoor camping music festival earlier this year and Brian Jonestown Massacre played the night before. That was a lot of fun.

Is there any other connection between The Morning After Girls and The Black Ryder, maybe in a continuation of sound, or is The Black Ryder a total departure from your musical past?

Aimee:  I would say that The Black Ryder is a different energy all together. I really loved the first 2 EPs The Morning After Girls released, but I’m not a fan of their last album, but they knew I wasn’t a fan of their newer material when we were playing it. I didn’t share their vision of their new direction, but it is what is. I look back at the time I was with them as a learning experience. Having spent 3 years with them, it was a time where I evolved as a musician and also learnt a lot about what was important to me, both creatively and personally. Huge learning curve.

There is so much sonic depth on Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride that it’s difficult to tease out specific instruments and/or sounds.  Besides the guitars, what other instruments are featured on the album?  I think Ricky Maymi played the raagini, but I’m not sure what that is!

Aimee:  Raagini yes, which is an Indian drone machine (to put it simply). Other than that, keys, synth, guitars, and an assortment of pedals.

Okay, I really should get into the sweet, sweet (and distorted and droning and looped and reverbed and delayed) guitars, because they’re the basis for the rich intricacy of the overall sound.  What type of guitars and effects surface on the album?

Scott:  There’s a bunch of guitars and pedals in our collection now, but it’s important to state that we didn’t have a lot of guitars or pedals when we started the album. We had a very basic recording set-up, one guitar, and a lot of determination to work out how to get the most out of it. You do not need a lot of expensive gear to make great music.

Going into the songs on your album, “What is Forsaken” is downright psychedelic with its constantly morphing, aeronautic, and squelchy guitar freak-out.  How do you achieve that sound?  Am I dreaming, or is there some didgeridoo in that song too?

Scott:  I think what you’re hearing is combination of guitar pedals. There’s definitely no didgeridoo on the album.

You strip away (or didn’t add) several sonic layers on “Outside”.  Was that intentional?

Aimee: Yes, intentional.  It felt appropriate to leave that song a little more stripped back. There were times during the writing and recording of the album where Scott and I locked ourselves up in our house that was devoid of light… For days, weeks on end… Not really having so much to do with the outside world… Feeling so disconnected from everyone and everything else, but at the same time completely connected to writing and playing music.

I suppose that’s what I was writing about.  There’s a mood about that song that made me want to not muddy it up too much with too many different sounds… It needed some space, to breathe a little on its own. The vocal is quite delicate and there’s a sadness to it, so I suppose I wanted to keep a feeling of vulnerability to it, because that’s the place it was coming from.

Scott:  That was also a song that nearly didn’t make the album. It was completely remixed and stripped back in the early morning hours on the same day that the album had to be finished.

“To Never Know You” and the spell-binding “Gone Without Feeling” are both warped and woozy, sinuous and dreamy, but still propulsive, like the best My Bloody Valentine tracks.  Did you purposefully try to out-Kevin Shields on those tracks?  How on earth do you create those sounds?

Aimee:  We never approach a song or idea trying to emulate someone else’s sound or style. Each song is very much mood-driven, so that will influence the sound and texture of the finished track overall.

Photo Credit: Stefan Duscio

The old-fashioned alt-country tune “Sweet Come down” is a change of pace with its vintage record sound and Scott whistling the melody line in it.  How did you get that antique-sounding vibe?  Who thought of adding that whistling part?

Aimee:  That would be Scott’s magic tweaking on that one. And magic whistling.

Scott:  Sometimes songs ‘require’ a certain sound treatment to realize their potential. Without it, the recording never lives up to what you hear in your head. If it takes days or weeks to achieve that sound by repeated trial and error, then you just have to do that. You HAVE to work out how to get it, no matter if you have no idea about how to do that at the time. A lack of knowledge in engineering or little money or gear is no excuse.  The whistling was always there from the start of that song being written. It’s a lonely song, and whistling is something that is quite often done when alone.

Scott, is that you singing on “Grass”?  You sound British, almost like Liam Gallagher of Oasis with a sharp, pushy insistence to your exclamations.  It’s just different from your other vocal parts on the album…

Scott:  That’s definitely my voice, and I’m surprised to read your comment that you believe that it sounds different to other tracks. There was no intention of that, but I’m certainly not against going for certain sounds vocally as well. It’s just another instrument as far as I’m concerned, so it should be treated and messed with just as much as any other instrument on a track to achieve the overall mood.

Like the greats My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride, your vocals are half-buried in the mix to the point that it’s difficult to hear what you are singing about.  I’ve asked other bands and singers this before, about the importance of the music and/or the message, the sound and/or the lyrics, and I’m wondering what your take on it is.

Aimee:  I guess for how we wanted our songs to sound, it made sense to not have the vocals riding high and driving the mix. We’re pro-reverb and texture.

Scott: As I mentioned before, the vocals are just another instrument. The level of the vocals in a track is quite often the most discussed element in a mix by all interested parties, and quite often the easiest way to ruin it. If you don’t get it just right, then the track can suffer badly. There is no right position of vocals overall, but it needs to very carefully positioned for each song, individually, depending on the mood of each song. There are some tracks where the vocals are used more as a texture, and others where they take charge.

Can you list your website for us so we can find out more about The Black Ryder?  Thanks so much Aimee and enjoy the rest of your U.S. tour!