Bill Ryder-Jones might be one of the great musicians of his generation (sorry Bill, but it’s true). An almighty medal around anyone’s neck that may be, even if it’s brilliant you’re still gonna get neck ache, so let’s say Bill Ryder-Jones is definitely one of its best guitarists instead. Beginning as a sixth of The Coral, still a landmark in British music, his path has been contemplative and honest, as with all captivating artists.
His first solo album If, was written as a musical adaptation of Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, a stirring journey through strings at the other end of the spectrum to playing lead axe with Arctic Monkeys on their AM tour, as he did recently. Having scored short films Leave Taking, It’s Natural to Be Afraid, Bed, Piggy and You Are Me, it was 2013’s A Bad Wind Blows in My Heartthat came as a bolt from Everton blue; a devastating, luminous collection in the singer-songwriter tradition of his heroes, that he recorded on an iMac without any other motive than just because. Still based in Liverpool, Bill is working to give others their voices too, entering the studio as producer for searing bands like The Wytches (who are also in this issue), as well as speaking candidly in the press about mental health. Like we said, all he ever did is be himself – and that’s enough. We sat down in a Soho pub to ponder it all.
Dean Mayo Davies: Let’s start with now. What are you up to at the moment?
Bill Ryder-Jones: I’ve been producing a lot recently, I got to do this album by Saint Saviour, a girl called Becky who was the singer with Groove Armada for a while. It’s these really amazingly written, quiet, bit-of-guitar songs that I’ve helped her arrange and produce. I’m so in love with her songs and it’s a record I’m really excited about. I’ve also produced my best friend’s band’s record, the second By The Sea album, did that the end of last year. I think in a decade or so people will be pretending they liked them more than they do now. I’m producing a record for two lads from Northern Ireland called The Lost Brothers and that’s two guitars and two voices. That’s gonna be a fun one as I’ve said ‘I wanna be able to strip your tunes apart and redo them,’ which I kind of like doing. And they’ve allowed us to do that for some reason.
I’ve been developing and writing with an artist called MiNNETONKA – that’s very dreamy and colourful music. The concept of it was she found images she liked of native Americans and the colours were so vivid yet delicate, so that’s how we’re approaching the music. She’s great to work with because she wants it to sound like a waterfall. [Laughs]. I’ve learned a great way to visualise music and create it before you start playing notes.
I’m doing my next record too. And we’ve been approached by Manchester Literary Festival as my first album [If] was based on a novel. They want me to perform it with an orchestra, which is something I’ve wanted to do for ages.
I’ve done The Wytches’ record as well. They’re just a great band. What I love about them is they’re getting all this attention but for me the best thing about the band is Kris’ lyrics – and you can’t hear ‘em. They’re incredible, he’s such a talented writer. We did the album in Toe Rag [studios], which was… a pain in the arse! [Laughs]. I need to see what’s happening. I get lost in music so easily, it’s all just passing through these big Tardis-looking machines. They’ve just signed to Heavenly, I’m made up for those lads.
DMD: How did you get into production?
BR-J: The same way I… I just lie to people and pretend that I can do it – that’s half of it. [Laughs]. I did bits and bobs before…
DMD: It’s a real talent to be an artist and to be able to do that too.
BR-J: I think most artists are aware of production. In many ways writing a song is production, you produce where it’s going to go. Going into a studio is just the more equipment-end of production. I did it just by working with By The Sea really on their first album.
I don’t think it’s that hard of a thing if you’ve got a love of music, you listen to music a lot, you’re aware of direction and you’re quite musical, you’d probably be quite good at it. It’s picking the right people to work with too. I produced my second album just because, and I got approached by this production management company who now manage me completely. The Saint Saviour record I never would have thought… her demos were so good, I remember thinking ‘there’s nothing I could do here,’ it’s above my level of songwriting for starters. But she’s really happy with me so I dunno if I’m subconsciously overly modest or I do genuinely think it’s really easy. [Laughs]. Probably a bit of both. I enjoy it, it’s a different kind of pressure to writing, it’s someone’s baby and they’re incredibly attached to these songs – you don’t wanna mess it up.
DMD: Have you been travelling with it?
BR-J: Not as much as you might think. There’s a studio up in Liverpool that I use for most of me things, Parr Street. Brilliant team, brilliant studio, we’re kind of all mates.
DMD: What about your next record?
BR-J: I’ve kind of gone around the houses with it a little bit.
DMD: Do you think it’ll be different from the last two?
BR-J: That’s the question really. I’d got it in my mind how I wanted it to be – I didn’t want to make another sad bedroom record like the last one. I was dead into Bowie and [Lou Reed’s] Transformer so I wanted to do something that… I don’t want to say sexy, but kinky, that people wouldn’t necessarily expect.
DMD: A kind of bravado…
BR-J: Brian Eno, glammy. Boxy, 70’s drum sounds. I did some demos that were really good and I got obsessed with Nothing Compares 2 U, the Prince song and the way that works. The label were behind it and everyone I spoke to said, ‘Just do it, get it out of your head,’ but in the last three or four days I’ve kind’ve reverted to type and realised the songs I’ve written that are honest are the ones I’ve written with a guitar at two in the morning and they can’t be funked up. Where I am right now I think probably it won’t be a million miles away from the last one.
DMD: That’s not a bad place to be.
BR-J: It’s cool, I just wanted to step-up, maybe make a dent. But realistically the people I love, like Bill Callahan, just keep making their records, doing their thing. The songs I wanted to do a job for me, to be a certain way lyrically just aren’t interesting, whereas the ones I mean are. If the music isn’t that different the words are a lot better, I’m much more comfortable with being honest about certain things rather than alluding to them like on the last record. I feel good about that. I did a very in-depth interview about mental health with a magazine in Liverpool not so long ago and the response from it…
DMD: I read that. It was great because it’s not something you hear being spoken about every day, nevermind honestly. It’s something that affects a lot of people – the mind needs looking after like anything else, if you had a cold you’d go to the chemist but there’s a silence around mental health. It’s something that affects a lot of artists.
BR-J: I think most people within art are there from boredom or necessity, the latter being my case. But the response to me being so open about it was so heartwarming. I had this amazing message from a woman who’d seen the article by chance and said it inspired her to get the bus to work instead of being driven by her husband and that was huge for her. That means a hell of a lot. I realised that as I’m getting older my whole life was just about fucking around, doing music and being selfish and that. The older I’m getting, I look around the world and just see apathy and even worse just fuckers, horrible people running the place. If you can’t go out of your way go to make a positive impression on the world and people around you then why bother? I don’t expect everyone to do that but for me I feel like that’s where me life’s going. I don’t want to sound like a martyr or anything – I always back up those kind of things by saying I am like, narcissistic and fucking selfish to a fault, and countless other things that everyone is, what they hate about themselves. But what I’m gonna do that’s gonna be good is not be scared to say things in a way that sounds nice to people. It’s a good conductor, music, isn’t it? So much easier to take a message in. I don’t know why – if it’s a vibrational thing. That’s another theory.
DMD: If you’re stuggling to get by working a shit job or you’re having a hard time in any way, records are the thing that get you through.
BR-J: Yeah, it’s a saviour for that. It’s funny when you get a record you love and silently it orbits your life. Everywhere you go looks like it sounds because you’re that into it, it really seeps into you. Headphones are so great, because everyone is just buzzing around and you can have your moment. The quality of music on your phone or iPad isn’t great but ultimately it’s good to colour your life. Being able to switch off is a skill we’re not really allowed. The flipside to phones is that it’s so hard to turn your brain off when you’ve got a phone – you see it, everyone’s always on their fucking phone. I don’t think it’ll be good mentally for future generations. Not being able to actually turn your brain off, properly, sitting down being calm and doing nothing or reading a book or listening to music. That’d be awful.
DMD: What about touring with Arctic Monkeys? Would you like to do that again? With other bands?
DMD: It’s another string to your bow…
BR-J: I mean it’s the first string to my bow really, isn’t it? Being a shit hot guitarist. [Laughs]. Touring with them was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. They supposed us [The Coral] before they became huge, then we supported them in Europe, the last tour I did with The Coral. That when I kind of got to know them. The last tour was so much fun. Everyone thinks about the big shows and that lifestyle, but they’re such cool guys. Just a bunch of down-to-earth, funny northern lads who can drink a shitload. It just so happens that they’re fucking amazing. I told them anytime they want me I’m there.
I never liked big gigs and I was very unhappy in my life when The Coral were quite successful, I really struggled with it. When it’s someone else’s band and you’re along for the ride the pressure’s off a bit and you can just enjoy it more. I’ve been thinking of either forming a band for an album or doing what Johnny Marr did and join a band for a year.
DMD: I could see you doing that.
BR-J: I reckon I could. There’s a band from Liverpool called Bird that I really like. I did a bit of work on their record, they’re getting a bit of radio play with a song called Rain Song. I think I’m gonna mix their record and do a bit of additional instrumentation on it. They’re a four piece; two girls, two lads. Really cool and talented. I’ve had a couple of pissed-up conversations… What I’d really love to do is grow me hair out, put me head down, have shitloads of footpedals and just make whale noises. That’d be good.
DMD: Do you think your records would sound the same if you’d grown up somewhere else?
BR-J: Bands from Britain can sound like they’re from New York if they want to. With me, it’s growing up listen to Gorky’s [Zygotic Mynci] and looking out at the sea. It still is the most powerful emotional link I’ve ever really made. All I sing about is my life. I don’t have any interest in writing songs about things that happen to other people.
DMD: A lot of great art has been fuelled by the sea. We’re islanders. We’re surrounded and that’s quite powerful.
BR-J: It is, it’s this great unknown isn’t it? Yeah, I really struggle when I’m away from it for a couple of days. Most of my mates get a little claustrophobic. Where I live, grew up was Dee Estuary and all you can see when you look out is Wales and the estuary. There is something so hard to put your finger on when you look out to sea. It’s so scary, just a huge calm and like another planet. This mysterious, big, moving, living, breathing void. But some seas I don’t like, I don’t like the Pacific – the ocean. I don’t get on with him.
DMD: Can we talk a bit about The Coral? You’ve been playing music for over half your life…
BR-J: Well, yeah, we formed when I was thirteen, seventeen years ago. I was in college when we got signed and I had to leave, me mum had to sign the contracts for us. It’s weird man, feels like another life.
DMD: Do you see a big change in the music industry from when you were starting out?
BR-J: Yeah. Although I wasn’t very smart when I was younger or very good at looking outside the bubble we were in. Reflecting on it now, one good thing is you don’t seem to have as many bands. Money isn’t easy to get anymore. When we got signed it would’ve been hard to come from Liverpool and not get a record deal. The people who wouldn’t do it for nothing have kind of been weeded out – they’re all estate agents now. So you don’t get as many shit bands. But then there is so much more pressure on the labels to make money that sometimes decent bands end up in a strange, strange place to try and make it.
It’s hard for me to say because I love studios, but I think technology has really helped, a lot of great records have come from people just in their bedrooms. That’s what music should be. Great artists doing their thing.
DMD: There’s a wave of honesty again…
BR-J: Exactly, man. A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart was recorded in me mum’s house on an iMac, flatpack drum kit and two microphones. It’s great. Fucking cut out the middle man and spend no money.
I’ve got to accept that in the world we live in, I create music and people find that interesting – it’s interesting enough for that to be my life. I don’t wanna come across like a really arrogant cunt but that’s all I can do. I’m very good at taking penalties in football [laughs], but other than that I’ve got nothing I’m very good at. You know, it’s not always been a bad thing to be missing a cog and I’m proof of that. I’ve been obsessed with girls, drugs, music in my life but you only get to that point if you’re running from something or missing something, it fills a hole doesn’t it? Now I let all the artists I love to just be people, I don’t dramatise it or overthink it. I’m no more interesting than anyone in the pub, but I’m no less interesting than anyone. What I am good at is going ‘my life is quite interesting,’ mainly because I make it difficult for myself.
But everyone’s lives are interesting – some people just have to step out of it and write about it so people can relate. That’s all life is, just meeting people and realising we’re all the same. Trying to eradicate hate and prejudice and all the fucking things any sane person knows are abhorrent. It’s quite hard because I’ve always been so private. The last three years… it weren’t at all easy to start talking like this.
You say these things and anyone sat here on a bit of a personal mission of honesty, trying to connect to people will always have a voice in the back of their mind going, ‘Fucking shut up. Why are you talking about yourself? Who gives a fuck?’ I certainly do. You’ve just got to plough through it because you know you’ll get that email or tweet saying ‘I really love this song’.
DMD: What else is on the horizon?
BR-J: I’m really hoping Everton win the F.A. Cup. There’s a campaign in Liverpool called C.A.L.M, the Campaign Against Living Miserably and it’s about disproportionately high suicide rates in men between the ages of 19 and 25. I feel like there’s maybe a piece of music I could write or there’s something I could do in that that’d be quite good. And If live in October in Manchester. I’m fucking super excited about that.
TEXT DEAN MAYO DAVIES
PHOTOGRAPHY FABIEN KRUSZELNICKI
HERO 11, SUMMER/FALL 2014