Jeff Ryan on Pleasant Grove’s The Heart Contortionists
by Adam Budofsky
Jeff Ryan has logged studio and stage time with St. Vincent, the War on Drugs, Daniel Johnston, and Sarah Jaffe, his band the Baptist Generals, and his solo project, Myopic. Recently he completed work on The Heart Contortionists, the brand-new long-player by Pleasant Grove. We checked in with Jeff to learn more about the collection, and he was kind enough to produce—exclusively for Modern Drummer Online—a video in which he demonstrates some of its drum parts.
MD: Congratulations on the new Pleasant Grove album, Jeff. Did the band go into this one with any particular agenda in terms of the sounds or other musical elements? And can you give us a breakdown of who does what in the group at this point?
Jeff: Thanks. Yes, collectively we’re all really happy with the way the album turned out. We were so lucky to have some amazing engineers work on it with us. Two of them, John Congleton and Stuart Sikes, are Grammy winners, and both helped engineer it at different stages, along with John Dufhilo from the Apples in Stereo, among others. We couldn’t have done it without them.
The band consists of Marcus Striplin and Bret Egner on vocals, guitar, and keyboards; Tony Hormillosa on bass; Chris Mayes, who plays everything including lap steel, keys, guitar, trombone—I think I’ve even seen him pull out a kazoo at some point in rehearsals—and me.
To be totally honest, we started working on the record years ago, and the agenda at that time was to, as most bands decide to do, just to make the best possible album we could with the five of us equally contributing all of our talent, respectively. We shelved it for a few years due to us taking a hiatus and some of us working on other projects, and then we decided, since we had put so much work into it, just to concentrate on salvaging what we’d done and finish it once and for all. We then got it to Dufhilo to remix and re-track drums and vocals on a few songs, since we’ve all grown musically and just wanted the best takes on every track—to basically have that feeling that nothing was left on the table.
MD: As a listener, right off the bat you can get a sense that you’ve got an aesthetic, at least as it applies to this album. Is it important to you to have a sort of musical worldview that can be detected over different projects, or are all bets off for each new gig?
Jeff: Thanks, it’s definitely something I’m in constant search for, having an aesthetic behind the kit. To me, that’s a lot more important than shredding and overthinking drum parts and fills. You know, it doesn’t matter what project I’m working on, the patterns have to make sense both melodically and rhythmically—they’re equally important. Paying attention to the melody first has always been rule number one for me. Normally if I stick to that it usually helps me come up with something interesting.
And, yeah, as far as working with different artists, I always make sure to be completely open to what I’m feeling, the first time I hear the music. I really don’t want to go in with any preconceived notions of what any particular artist is “supposed” to sound like when I go in for a session. Usually going the complete opposite way and throwing things out the window, so to speak, trying new and instinctual parts that fit the melody, works out for the best.
MD: Part of what I’m hearing is a willingness to have the drums in a standard kit work within the mix both collectively and separately. You’ll have places where a traditional ride source isn’t used, or is fairly low in the mix, for instance.
Jeff: I love the choices we have now as players, but to me—and this is how it’s been for me for a long time, maybe to a fault!—is that I’m such a big fan of using the essentials, like just a four-piece kit with maybe one cymbal, that my challenge is that if I can get as many different sounds, dynamics, nuances, and textures out of this thing, then I’m doing something right. I purposefully limit myself, to where I’m the one having to be the most creative with not a whole lot around me. The “less is more” approach has been my way of thinking for a long time. You can make this little thing roar or whisper, depending on how you’re controlling it, and I’ve always loved seeing players be in complete control of their kit, and especially if it’s just a bare-bones one, like the four-piece, I find that really interesting.
MD: The drums on “Disintegration,” with the toms, rim click, and hi-hat all going at the same time, and Part 1 of “Les Contortionistes du Coeur,” with that cool cymbal beat with the scraping sound, seem to be great exercises in creative overdubbing. How would you approach sections like that live?
Jeff: Well, funny enough, I’m flattered that you think those are overdubbed, but I did play both of those in the studio with no overdubs, and trust me, recreating those patterns on stage isn’t easy! [laughs]
With “Disentegration” there was a bit of studio wizardry. My good buddy John Dufhilo put a gate and a bit of delay on the tom pattern, so they flowed over into the next bar, but the essential drum track with accented tom notes were played live in the studio, in fact pretty sure that was a “one-take Charlie” for the drums. I just got lucky!
We tracked “Fishing in Spain,” the first section of “Les Contortionistes du Coeur,” with John Congleton, and we were pretty adamant about getting the best take, playing all the pieces of the puzzle, so to speak, together. We’ve only played that one a few times live, and I’m not going to lie, the chorus is a challenge, but it’s one I created for myself.
Each piece of the kit has a distinct voice in the chorus, and I wanted this constant yet airy feel to it, where it was almost falling apart, using the ride cymbal as the main voice, and having the snare, kick, and hi-hat splashes accent the melody that Marcus is playing on guitar.
MD: If I had to guess, I’d say you enjoy getting deep into the details of your music-making. Is that true, and does that extend to your gear choices?
Jeff: You’re right, I love to “puzzle-piece” together my patterns to fit the melodies of whatever I’m playing. Usually I’m coming from the point of view that I want to be able to recreate this stuff live as well, but there are times when you let the studio and the people you’re working with guide you in directions you normally wouldn’t go. For example, with another band I play drums in, the Baptist Generals, on one track on our last release, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart [SubPop], instead of playing any drums or percussion at all, we laid down a guitar case and miked it, and I tapped out a pattern with my fingers, and that was the rhythm of the song. But yes, the possibilities are endless of what you can do to make interesting patterns, and I’m a big fan of using different textures and noisemakers with different limbs to try and one up with different rhythms.
It can be as simple as, instead of playing a train beat, for example, on a track where normally that would be the obvious thing to go to, just flip it around and play a shaker in one hand, brush with the other, and fit in the hi-hat and kick when necessary to accent different parts of the song. I’ve always been into that “puzzle-piecing” thought process, again, when applying it to the kit.
So, yeah, depending on what project I’m working on, I tend to switch between different-size kick drums, either a 20″ or 22″—both are mid-’60s Ludwigs—but I’ve been using the same snare for everything for the past few years. A C&C snare that Jake Cardwell made for me is the best-sounding snare I’ve ever played, and for the most part it does everything I want both in the studio and for live situations. And to be honest, most of the time I just sit down at the kit and think of patterns without any cymbals first, then layer them around the patterns, when and if they make sense. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love cymbals and everything you can do with them, from the dry and beautiful sustaining rides, but man, I’ve tracked a lot of songs where I never even had a cymbal anywhere near me!
MD: Can you talk a bit about the evolution of The Heart Contortionists? You mentioned that you’ve been working on it for a while.
Jeff: Yes, it’s been a long road with this one. We started working on it years ago, as I mentioned earlier, shelved it because we went on hiatus for a number of reasons, then Marcus and I decided, after playing a one-off live show, that we’re having so much fun playing again, we owe it to ourselves to release this thing. We put so much work into it, and some really amazing people helped us along the way, that it would be a shame to just leave it shelved.
So, after tracking with Stuart Sikes and then John Congleton, we had such a great foundation of where the album was going that we decided to get our dear friend and excellent engineer John Dufhilo in to give it fresh ears and have him help us realize these songs. John’s also a great drummer and completely gets the aesthetic of not only the band but where the drums need to be in the mix, and when I needed to re-track stuff he definitely helped steer me in the right direction. It all happened pretty quick once we got going agai,n and now we couldn’t be happier with what we’ve all done together.
MD: The crash-riding on the track “Lava” is sweet. That’s a skill that doesn’t get enough attention. Any tips in terms of controlling the sound and choosing the right cymbal?
Jeff: You know, when I was in college at UNT, I remember seeing other friends’ bands, especially one in particular, Centro-Matic—the drummer, Matt Pence, used one cymbal and got so many different voice-ings from it. It was definitely inspiring, as were a lot of drummers up in Denton—still are, actually.
I just concentrate on getting the cymbal to rumble by using the shoulder of the stick and staying as relaxed as possible to get the most sound out of both the stick and the cymbal. Flowing back and forth from getting a nice attack with the stick, basically riding it, in other words, and then to make it roar with the shoulder, has been a challenge. But again, getting the most dynamics out of this instrument is really satisfying. If I can get everything I want to hear out of my 22″ ride, from a shimmer to a crash and so on, then why use anything else?
Personally, I’ve always found the bigger the cymbals, the more choices and more control I have over them. You can just breathe on it and it sustains, or ping it really lightly to get a nice controlled sound, and then lastly, you can really dig in to get a good wash. Live, I use two 22″ rides, both to my right side of the kit, one slightly heavier than the other, and I’m able to get all the dynamics I want out of them.
MD: I love how you go into double time for just a bar at times in “Atoms.” That’s another mechanism that can get out of control, in terms of tempo and dynamics, if you’re not careful. Thoughts?
Jeff: Oh, gosh, you are so right! That can get definitely get out of control if you’re not really locked in with everyone. Pleasant Grove, as a band, has been playing together for a long time, and we have a pretty organic vibe between us. We know when we’re ebbing and flowing with the music, when we’re locked in and when we’re not. With the track “Atoms,” I’m trying to play behind the beat anyway, and it’s just a matter of laying way back when that part comes up and making sure I’m in control of my volume. If I do that, normally we all come out the other side in one piece!
MD: The Myopic “Playground” track is very cool. Could you talk a little about that, and about how that may or may not represent an organic vibe that you enjoy exploring?
Jeff: Thanks so much! Yes, that whole idea came when I was helping my kids take care of the animals at their school one summer. The playground there has a built-in vibes set and some hanging bells. It’s a very peaceful and creative environment, and I had the idea of tracking this instrument in its natural setting. I wanted to create something completely opposite to what I’d done in the past with Myopic, which leaned more towards the cinematic/electronic vibe. This was all tracked outside with a couple of friends, one playing the violin and another playing another set of vibes to give me some counter melodies that I thought could work well with the bells in the playground. So the idea was to capture a “pure moment,” all in one take. We did multiple takes to get the best one, but whatever happened during the take, we kept. Whether it was wind, planes flying overhead, or chickens squawking in the distance, we kept it in. I was stepping away from post-production studio stuff and just wanted to record something completely fresh and natural.
MD: How does Myopic differ from your other gigs?
Jeff: Well, for one, it’s pretty much all coming out of my head, which can be scary sometimes! I do have some really creative and generous friends who dedicate a bit of time to helping me on instruments that I just can’t play, like guitar and bass. I also have Stuart Sikes help me with the vision, and he’s always in charge of mixing it. He’s mixed every Myopic track I’ve ever done, and I’m on my third release now, so the partnership works well.
I love mixing the organic with the electronic, and ever since I can remember I’ve been interested in instrumental, almost cinematic type music. Maybe because I’m an instrumentalist and lyrics never come to me in any shape or form, I’m driven to just create stuff off the top of my head. I create all the basic melodies either on piano or on a small set of bells that my good friend Michael Jerome gave me a long time ago, and I just build it out from there.
So in the projects I play in or when I’m hired to do something, for the most part I’m just playing drums, occasionally percussion and bell parts if the song calls for that, but with Myopic there’s no formula or script. It’s all just inspired stuff that again I just layer on from a simple melody and try and capture something interesting.
MD: Can you talk a little about some of the artists you’ve worked with in terms of how they communicate what they like? I imagine Daniel Johnston has a different way of working than Annie Clark [St. Vincent], for instance.
Jeff: Oh yes, for sure they’re all over the map as far as how they communicate and how we work together in the studio. One of the strangest and most surreal moments as far as the artist communicating with me in the studio was with Adam from the War on Drugs. I remember him just playing this one chord, and we were just rolling along, not changing at all for like five minutes! I remember looking at John Congleton and thinking, “Is this ever going to change”? He just threw up his arms, like, “I don’t know!” And, funny enough, it didn’t! That was the track “We Were Here,” a great song from the album Slave Ambient. That came out a few years ago, and it was a fun one to record.
I did a show with Daniel Johnston here in Dallas with the Baptist Generals as support as well as his backing band, and that was definitely a challenge. Daniel didn’t really communicate at all. He’s a sweet guy, but he has some physical and mental challenges that prevent him from communicating a lot, so we as a band had to learn about fifteen songs and just follow him instead of having him follow us. Every song was a surprise in terms of how we played it and how he kind of maneuvered through the tunes. Needless to say I was so happy to have done that gig, but I was glad we made it out alive!
Annie from St. Vincent is such a sweetheart and very encouraging, but really that all happened so fast when I tracked a couple of songs for the album Actor. I remember, when tracking it, I had done just a quick fill going back and forth between the floor tom and the snare, and she loved it. We did that and track and “Black Rainbow” in two or three takes. I also played with her in Alaska, of all places, and used a ton of backing tracks with her Alesis Pad, and that was fun. She’s so precise and empathetic in the way she gives out ideas that playing with her in the studio and live was a real joy. I’m so thrilled for her and all she’s accomplished in the past few years.
But with the bands I play in continually, like Pleasant Grove or the Baptist Generals, we’ve all played together for a number of years and are all friends, so the communication doors are always open and we’re constantly throwing out ideas to one another to get the best out of each other.
MD: What does 2016 look like for you in terms of upcoming projects?
Jeff: Thankfully, 2016 looks to be a busy one. We’ve released the new Pleasant Grove record and are doing some live dates here and in Europe. I’ll also be working on the follow-up to Myopic’s Two Pieces as well as starting work on another Baptist Generals album. And I’ve been chatting with Sarah Jaffe, who I’ve recorded and played with for a number of years, about doing more shows next year as well.
So, yes, I’m looking forward to playing more shows and making more music. I honestly just thank the powers that be that I’m physically and mentally still able to create some interesting noise with this instrument and that we all get to share some pretty special moments together. That’s really what it’s all about, right?
Check out Jeff Ryan’s playing here.