Interview with Ryan Bingham



Ryan Bingham released his latest album on his own Axster Bingham Records , a label he formed with his wife Anna Axster, after three albums on Lost Highway. His most notable success so far has been with the song The Weary Kind that he wrote with producer T-Bone Burnett and which was featured in the Oscar winning film Crazy Heart. The Weary Kind is not indicative of the songs he is currently writing or playing. He has played in Dublin three times and his most recent Whelan's visit was without his band The Dead Horses, but with a new set of musicians and a shift in the sound which featured a mix of acoustic, roots and outright rock songs. We caught up with Ryan for a brief chat before the show.

Was it a good time to start your own label?

Well, it seems right. I have a good team around and we hired a publicist. We're working with Thirty Tigers in the US and we do separate deals for the album in other territories.

The songs on Tomorrowland seem to have  some anger and an amount of tenderness in them.

You know,  I never really thought about it while I was recording the record,  but after going back and listening to it I can hear a bit of that myself. After The Weary Kind and the film Crazy Heart it was the first time I'd taken any time off from the road, I took about a year off. There was a lot of stuff happening at the time. Right about when I made Mescalito my mother passed away and then right after The Weary Kind came out my father passed away. I was going through a rough time through all of that stuff. That and the way society is today for a young person growing up trying to deal with the world and trying to make sense of it both economically and with social issues is tough and that stuff just came out in my music. It comes from travel and the places I go to and the people I meet when I'm on the road and talk to. 

Playing the electric guitar had a lot to do with it as well. It was the first time where I had a place and could set up an amp and some pedals and experiment. The first time I played electric was when I did the first record and Marc Ford, who produced it, just handed me an electric guitar and said "I think this will fit your personality". But after that,  I never really had a chance to practice as we were straight out on the road and I was just playing rhythm guitar. I had to learn as I went along, so when I got home, as I say I set up and tried some different amps and began to experiment with the sound. I listen to a lot of stuff like The Clash, Zeppelin and Hendrix. I was learning about tone and just listening.

Did the perception after Crazy Heart that you were a county singer distract you from your natural course?

Oh yeah, totally. When I first started writing and recording I was still very much trying to figure it out, what direction I was going in and I still feel that I am. The more I learn and go on the road and tour,  the more I'm influenced by different styles, different music and different cultures. So when I get home I always feel that I'm experimenting and having some fun. For some record labels that's hard to market, especially when they need to put you in a genre, they need to find a place to put you so people can find a way to buy it. I had that country stamp of this is what it is. Any time I tried to veer in and out of that it was always something I had to deal with as I went along. I try not to worry about it too much.  

So where do you think your music will take you?

A lot of times it depends on what kind of mood I'm in. I still love playing acoustic guitar with that feeling of just a guitar and a song. That's where I started when I played in those little dives in Texas, in the roadhouses and stuff. You can always turn it into anything you want after that. You could bring in fiddles and banjos and make it folk or country or you can have the electrics. For me, I don't like to be restricted as I'm kind a free spirit and like to roam around and be adventurous.

Your roots and stories still have their basis in that Texas tradition though.

Totally. My foundation is that. That's how I still write. Even though this time I wrote on an electric guitar, it was still just me and the guitar. The tones and tempos came from that and whatever mood or feeling you’re in. But it definitely starts with a guitar and a song. 

Does you process start with the words or music first?

I've always got to start with the music first it seems. It's always sitting and playing around with the key or the melody that brings out whatever emotion it is. Sometimes I don't know what that emotion is at the beginning. It turns into whatever it is and I have to go back and then try to figure what it's really about. 

Following the success of Crazy Heart and The Weary Kind,  did a lot of offers come in for soundtrack work?

I did get some offers to do some fairly straight pop-country stuff. Put the cowboy hat on and polish the boots up,  but I really didn't think that was a good direction for me if I want to be creative and experiment in the future with my music, so I just tried to stick to what I was doing. 

The fact you now have your own label gives you that freedom.

Yes it does.

How has this tour been going?

It's been great. I'd been off for about a year and a half so I just did some dates back home and with all the new music and new sound it was interesting. It's always an adventure and you never know what it's going to be like till you get out there. We're having a blast. 

Who's the band? 

Matt Sherrod, who plays on the record and (also) plays with Crowded House, and his wife Kelly is playing bass. Evan Weatherford is on guitar. I met Matt through Justin Stanley the album's co-producer. They played with Beck years back. So I met Kelly through Matt and Evan was living in Nashville too. We just started jamming and playing.

Did you find the songs changing as you began to jam and rehearse?  

When we did they always seemed to take on a life of their own.

Would you have liked to go back and record them again after playing them live?

Very much so. Next year I'd love to do some live recording. We have a bunch of songs out there, and to find the right venue and have the energy of the crowd, who take it back and forth and to record that and the new ways of doing the songs is something I'm interested in trying. We keep it loose. I mean, we rehearse the songs to an extent but we leave space in there for them to take on a life of their own.

With your own label and channels of selling your music, is that an effectives means of survival for an independent band?

I think so, if you're willing to get out on the road and tour. Because I remember when I first started and was doing home recordings and demos and playing small gigs in roadhouses and places that, the internet was around and websites were beginning and you could at least put your tour dates there if you had an savvy. Now with social media (you) can instantaneously let people know that you’re coming into town. You can sell your music off your own website so It's like worldwide distribution. So if you’re out there, it's easier than ever to build a fan base. 

How important is a physical CD for you?

I don't know. We still have a lot of people who like to buy them. A lot of people are buying vinyl, especially at shows. I can see there being more vinyl with a download card included or both together. But a lot of younger kids are buying vinyl. It's pretty cool to see. But in some cases labels will wait to see what the demand is before they go and print up thousands of copies. I think people still like to have something to hold onto. Some friends of ours - a band call The Americans -  a folk/jug band, who can play a set of music from the 20s or the 40s, all old-timey influences -  they did their own album and they bought decks of playing cards and put a download code on that . The cards had their logo on and they sold that at gigs.

How far do you think ahead as regards what you might do? 

It's such an adventure and it changes from one day to the next, so it's hard to have any expectations as to where you're going to be (laughs). I'm enjoy the journey and writing songs and I'm enjoying playing with this new band. They're a lot of fun and inspiring to play with and so has (been) setting up the new label and the creative freedom to know that I can get into it and see what I can come up with. There's the idea of the live album and also, maybe, a double album with one half acoustic and one half  electric.  Ten songs on each half.  It's nice to be able to play both ways as I still love to do acoustic shows too.

Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photography by Ronnie Norton