Helping The Brain Stay Balanced: An Interview With Ryan Parrish

Posted by: Necci – Oct 27, 2010


It seems likely that many music fans are only familiar with Ryan Parrish's work as drummer for metal band Darkest Hour. However, while the precision and intensity with which he plays provide a solid backbone for that band’s brand of melodic metal, Parrish involves himself with a substantially wider variety of musical endeavors than might be expected of a heavy metal drummer. His solo ambient project, Years, trades equally in pastoral Brian Eno-style ambience and darker, more unsettling material. His work with avant-garde collective Rope Cosmetology blends the propulsive rhythmic qualities of krautrock with the careening dissonance of free jazz. As drummer for Suppression, he has helped that band shift focus from their early incarnation as a noise-influenced power violence band to something more akin to Ruins or early Butthole Surfers. I thought I had my work cut out for me asking about these bands, but it turns out that he had even more up his sleeve, leaving me wondering how the guy finds time to eat or sleep. We began by discussing Years, whose new double CD collection, Semblance, comes out on Magic Bullet Records next month.

RVA: So what was the initial inspiration for Years? Was it a reaction to the louder, harsher music for which you’re better known?

RP: I don’t know. I guess I’ve been doing shit like that for so long under the radar. I finally found a collection of songs I was pretty into and someone else liked, which was weird. Most of the Years stuff is more atmospheric and experimental. This stuff just came off as more soundtrack-ish. I don’t know how that happened, it just kinda did. Some of those songs on there are six years old, just things I’d been working on and tinkering around with for so long. I guess it’s always been there, I just never really had a chance to express it publicly.

RVA: What’s the process you go through for creating the Years material? Do you have any training on instruments other than drums, or is it just an intuitive process?

RP: I have absolutely no idea if it’s working musically or not. I just hear it all in my head and I try to transpose what’s in my head onto actual music. So no, I have absolutely no training in music whatsoever. Which is probably why I shouldn’t be releasing music like this.

RVA: Well, some of the best music has been made by the least-trained musicians. Are these songs something that you could pull off live or is Years going to remain a studio entity?

RP: Some of it I could pull off live, some of it there’s absolutely no way. It all just depends. There’s a couple tracks I could do live but even then it would be weird. A lot of the stuff on there is improvised, so if I were to do it live it would never be the same as what you hear on the record. I guess the basic theme of the song would be there, but whatever layers on top would be whatever I came up with right there.

RVA: What sort of instrumentation do you use?

RP: Keyboards, some drum tracks. Most of it’s synth and computer sounds, because I don’t have access to very much else. I run shit through a lot of different pedals and tweak it so you can’t really tell what it is anyways. Most of it, I’d say like eighty percent of it, was written on my computer.

RVA: The name Years itself seems fairly broad and open-ended, characteristics shared by the music itself. Was the name intended to reflect the sonic openness of everything?

RP: I think I called it that... That’s a good way to put it actually. A lot of times music gets condensed into a category. And then, when you say “remember back in the 80s?” or “remember back in the 90s” or remembering the years of all these bands and subgenres and shit. You get to the point where you realize that music is still just music no matter what year it comes out in, there were just forms of music that caught your eye at particular moments. I feel like with Years, why I call it that, is because I don’t really want people to look back and say “hey, remember that Years record from the 90s?” I want every release to sound like a collective balance of what I can do. Does that make any sense?

RVA: Yeah, it makes sense.

RP: I don’t want to date anything.

RVA: Right, when you don’t have it tied to a specific time and place, it reduces the emphasis on things like nostalgia. Cheap emotional ploys like that.

RP: Makes sense.

RVA: And it seems like the best way to do that is by consciously trying to resist creating something that’s going to be looked back on nostalgically or wistfully as belonging to a specific time and place.

RP: I guess I’m a product of the 70s because that’s when I was born, but at the same time I don’t feel myself being a thirty-three year old man, so I don’t want to date myself because I don’t feel that way. I’ve been here for thirty-three years, but I don’t feel thirty-three years old. I don’t know if that makes any sense either. I just kind of want the music to envelope time itself and not a time frame-–not a certain time, just time.

RVA: There are a lot of people who would claim to make so-called “timeless music” or whatever and miss the mark. It can work well when it’s done right, but that’s a high bar to hurdle.

RP: Yeah, I just want people to hear it in ten years and say “yeah that sounds great” not “that reminds me of 2010.”

RVA: One of the terms you used to describe the music was “soundtrack-ish.” Were there any inspirations from which you drew that are non-musical-–cinematic or otherwise?

RP: Yeah, for every song I had almost a scene in my head when creating it. If I want either a somber experience or more of a joyful appeal-–every time I was writing a song I had a certain emotion as far as what I could see two characters, or even one character, having to tackle, or to confront, or to overcome. Which is kind of strange when you write music. That’s why, for everything I do, I take a basic idea and build on it and layer it so you can feel the progression of a character’s strife or what they have to overcome.

RVA: Do any of the scenes you come up with in your head prior to composing the music work independently or is there more of a cohesive narrative between sections?

RP: My initial idea is to have them work together but they tend to stray. I don’t know if you noticed, but the first track of the first disc is actually embedded in the last track of the second disc. I don’t know, I feel like it is all one soundtrack, if you want to put it that way. It’s all one thought, but I tend to stray a little bit as I go. There are some tracks on there that don’t really fit the mold of what I’m doing. Overall, yes, I do have the thought of having them all connect. If it actually comes out that way, I don’t know. I feel like the first disc is different from the second disc but they have so many of the same elements. Disc one is more joyous. Or not really joyous, that’s not really the right word, but more of an uplifting disc.

RVA: The other half of the Years material, the stuff you characterized as being more experimental than “soundtrack-ish,” do you approach that with the same conceptual approach?

RP: I start off everything trying to take a basic idea and build on it, and either it’ll go in a more musical direction or it’ll go into a more experimental direction. It just depends on how I hear it. Usually what will happen is that I’ll start an idea, build on it, and if I start to feel like it’s getting too hokey or even if it feels like it’s not talking back to me, then I’ll just start to fuck with it and really tweak it and change it and that’s when it becomes more experimental.

RVA: Is that sort of approach a little more familiar, considering much of your musical background consists of harsher, more dissonant music?

RP: Absolutely. I won’t sit here and tell you that I sit here and focus on not being experimental. But a lot of times I have to step off what I’m doing to make sure I don’t get too out there. Especially when I have an idea that I want to come through. Otherwise, I’ll just end up burying it altogether. But yeah, I would say a lot of my experimental ideas come out of that.

RVA: Especially if you’ve worked with heavier music for a while, it can seem weird to do gentler material. You can almost feel naked without the big amps to hide behind.

RP: Like they say, you have the left and right side of your brain. For me, the heavier and more musical side is straightforward to the left of my brain, but the right side still needs to be used. It’s really nice to have that outlet, it’s a really great escape and I’m enjoying myself. That’s why I’m doing so much other stuff.

RVA: And speaking of your more dissonant side, the work you’ve done with Rope Cosmetology seems pretty--even by the standards of a lot of the bands you’ve been in-–abrasive.

RP: Yeah, I’m really into this ensemble.

RVA: How did it come about?

RP: This is the best part. I know a guy named Balazs Pandi, he’s from Hungary. He does a lot of stuff on his own-–very experimental. He does stuff with Venetian Snares, Merzbow, stuff like that. Very busy man. Anyways, he and I had been in contact for years and he was starting a project with Tom Smith, the singer of To Live And Shave In L.A., and contacted me to see if I wanted to be in this ensemble they were doing. It was us three, then there was a saxophonist and trumpeter by the name of Feri Kovacs, and a bass player by the name of Tim Lane Seaton from California. So how it started was through e-mail, of course. We’re an internet band. So we started e-mailing each other ideas and we put out a full release that was all done through the internet. Then I flew to Europe, because Tom lives in Germany, and met with everyone. We all got together and composed for ten straight days. Then we played two shows, one in Paris and one in Hanover. We had so much material at that point that we released on Karl Schmidt Verlag Records, Tom’s label. It’s hard to describe the stuff. It’s like free jazz, experimental, improv. Everything has a focus and a meaning, but we all go with it.

RVA: That’s one thing I noticed when listening to it. A lot of it had a really strong contrast between the dissonant, free-flowing improvised approach and the stronger, steadier rhythmic drive less characteristic of free-improvised music. How much was composed versus improvised?

RP: I would play a drum beat and then everyone would go in with me. Then when we found something we were into, we would just repeat that idea and stick with a certain rhythm. We had little cues to change, but it was all whenever any of us felt like giving the cue. That’s why I’d say improv, because nobody know when we would get the cue to change. Either vocally, drum-wise, bass guitar-wise-–whenever we felt the need to move in the song, we would. So it is constantly turning. It’s weird to say it, because we were writing songs but we weren’t writing songs. I mean, Tom did write vocals, he wrote lyrics that he sings the same every time. But when he sings them depends on when the band decides to change the mood. That’s why I like it so much: you’re just going for it.

RVA: It seems like a very organic approach to it.

RP: It is.

RVA: Is there any degree of difficulty to working intercontinentally?

RP: Yes. People tend to disappear sometimes, because life goes on and they’re six hours ahead of us in Europe and Tim the bass player is four hours behind. So the time changes are crazy and it’s hard to get things together. But once we actually all are focused and start sending material back and forth, stuff tends to get done pretty quickly.

RVA: How active a project would you consider Rope Cosmetology?

RP: After we played together for two weeks and did the two shows, we corresponded through the mail. But we’ve got three releases on the brink of release. We’ve got one coming out on 905 Tapes.

RVA: Oh, Mike Haley’s label. That’s cool.

RP: One of our first releases was more experimental, more electronic. There were drums, saxophone, and vocals on it, but it was more electronic. And we’ve got another one of those that we’ve all been doing for the past month or so, that should be released this year at some point. So no, it’s not active compared with a real band. We don’t ever really get together and it takes eight to nine months to really get anything done, but I enjoy it quite a bit.

RVA: Have you gotten any negative or ambivalent reactions from people who are better acquainted with your work in Darkest Hour?

RP: Absolutely. A lot of people don’t understand. And I don’t expect everybody to. The split that we did, I would take that on tour for a while and people would pick it up and ask about it and I would tell them as best I could what it was. And they would take it home and I would get e-mails complaining that there weren’t any drums on it. And I told them that there were no drums, that it was experimental and ambient or whatever, but it’s hard to explain to a lot of metalheads what that means.

RVA: Yeah, a lot of metalheads’ exposure to “experimental music” extends about as far as Isis or something that might be weird by normal metal standards but doesn’t exactly break a lot of ground.

RP: Yeah, exactly. Like Earth or Burzum or something. I mean, I don’t get hate mail or anything but a lot of people don’t really understand why there’s no drums in it. That’s the complaint I hear the most. Honestly, I can’t play anything but drums really well but I do have a knack for trying. Can’t repress that. Sorry. Can’t play drums all the time.

RVA: Do you have any other musical curveballs people might not expect?

RP: I actually just played on the new Smoke Or Fire album that’s coming out in October. I think it’s called The Speakeasy but I’m not sure [EDITOR'S NOTE: That is the correct title]. I went to Chicago and recorded that this summer. And I’m also working with this band out of New York called Ghastly City Sleep.

RVA: I just interviewed them a few months ago. Interesting band.

RP: Oh cool, I just joined that band. We just did a tour, and we’re touring the whole country in October. Also very different, because it’s way left-field. Still playing drums, but for that band there’s a lot of backing tracks and things that I have to be more aware of. As far as my surroundings, I have to focus more on what’s happening all around me. With Darkest Hour, I’m back there and I’m just gonna pummel-–I’m gonna play fast, hit hard. I’m not saying Darkest Hour is boring in that sense, it’s just with Ghastly City Sleep there’s more I need to be aware of.

RVA: Is your involvement with that going to be more long-term or temporary?

RP: I think it’s going to be more long term. I think we’re going to start writing in the winter, maybe early spring. I’m excited about it. Those guys have been old friends for a long time, so it’s nice to be back in the saddle, so to speak.

RVA: What about your work with Suppression?

RP: We just put out an album called Alliance of Concerned Men on Magic Bullet Records. Jason Hodges, very brilliant bassist. That band’s a lot of fun. Very rhythmic, very strange.

RVA: And let me just interject that I’m personally really glad that band is still around. When I was 14 years old growing up in Roanoke, punk rock seemed like this alien entity that happened everywhere else. But when I found a Suppression record, it was mind-blowing to realize that there were people making music as intense and as unconventional as that in my own back yard.

RP: Yeah, he’s been doing it for a long time. Since the early 90s. He’s a brilliant dude. He’s got a lot going on too, musically. Amoeba Men, Bermuda Triangles, Mutwawa. Very musically creative man. CNP Records, all that stuff. It’s a pleasure playing music with him. Suppression is so much fun to be a part of. Keeps me on my toes.

RVA: Any other thoughts on your projects?

RP: If you play music and you have an intuition that you need to do something besides what you’re currently doing, I say follow it because you never know where it’s going to take you. It’s what I did, it’s exactly where Years came from. I never thought I could compose music on my own. And I’m not saying I do a great job at it, but at least I’m expressing it somehow and getting it out of me. I think it’s important that if you feel there’s a part of you that wants to express something to embrace it, to go for it. Helped me out a lot. Helps the brain stay balanced.

By Graham Scala