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May 22, 2012

Author Steve Almond Interviews Ryan Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Steve Almond is a writer, his most recent book is the short story collection God Bless America.

Ryan Walsh is the frontman for the band Hallelujah the Hills. Their third album, No One Knows What Happens Next, was released today.

The pair team up to produce a podcast, This Has Been a Disaster, Thanks for Having Us.

Author Steve Almond interviews musician Ryan Walsh:

Steve Almond: I first met Ryan Walsh at an event in which a number of degenerates, myself included, read the filthy letters that James Joyce wrote to his wife Nora. I don't remember meeting Ryan, but he claims we did, and I was certainly stoned enough for that event that I won't contradict him.

What matters is that I eventually got hip to his band, Hallelujah the Hills (HTH), which made every other band I was listening to sound kind of pointless.

A year ago or so, Ryan and I teamed up to record a dorky-but-also-kind-of-awesome podcast called This Has Been a Disaster, Thanks for Having Us, which allows musicians to discuss their most horrifying and shameful road stories.

Even more important, a few months back Ryan slipped me an advance of the new HTH record, No One Knows What Happens Next. I've never heard anything like it. The songs are raucous bursts of joy, orchestral anthems with messy hooks and gorgeously weird lyrics. Walsh and his cohorts (Brian Rutledge, Joseph Marrett, Ryan Connelly, David Bentley, and Nicholas Ward) have created a musical document that feels more dangerous and thrilling than anything else you're likely to hear this year.

How does HJH actually work? Like is it a band? A collective? A cult? A bad habit? No cute stuff, Walsh. Just answer the fucking question.

Ryan Walsh: It's definitely a band (although everyone secretly hopes their band becomes a cult). We've had a lot of personnel changes over the years, but there's four of us who've been there since our first show. I couldn't do this without the band. My musical skills are so incredibly niche it's often surprising when people join the band. I'm adept at: coming up with chord progressions, making up melodies, and writing lyrics. Everything else is a crap shoot and/or not possible. I record a demo and then we all arrange it together with everyone coming up with their own parts. In those sessions when we arrange the songs it's a) super fun and b) seriously democratic.

SA: I've been on board since 2007's Collective Psychosis Begone. And I like that you don't put out an album every six months. But I also get impatient. Should I be taking medication, or do you just need to start writing songs faster?

RW: There's a bunch of factors at play here. One is that these things are expensive and time consuming to put together. Whether it's a label or Kickstarter, there are inherent time restraints built in to the process. We've always tried to put out new "singles" when we weren't near a new LP release. I think these singles might get lost in the shuffle, though, just because the press-machine is only going to pay attention to new full length albums. That leads you to nebulous, unproveable concepts like the "album release cycle"—theories that you'll hear PR and labels go on about like there's an exact science to it. I want to put out more music, more frequently. There's sad evidence mounting, however, that most musicians now spend more time promoting than they do playing music. How sad is that? Everyone loved trashing the old major label system but it definitely let musicians be musicians, didn't it?

SA: The new record is a monster. I can't stop listening to it. How did it come together? I ask because the songs have the feel of orchestrated madness—all these different time signatures and horns and strings. It's just awesome how much sonic joy you cram into the canvas.

RW: Thank you! There's a orchestral sound built into the very lineup of the band, so it happens naturally. The difference between this and previous HTH albums is that I wrote the songs as we went along, recording two songs a month, so that they would always be fresh in our hands when we hit record. This was kind of scary for me and the band because the studio is paid for whether this month's songs are great or garbage. The first song on the album is about that process ("title tba just get me in a room") and the album title (No One Knows What Happens Next) is partly a nod to the process as well.

SA: Okay, don't get all pissed, but when I heard the new record all I could think was: Boy, I wish Wilco's records sounded like this. What I mean is that their songs feel deeply grounded in American musical forms, but also complex and subversive. But just level with me: Am I being an asshole here?

RW: Who should be pissed in this scenario? Us? Wilco?

My brothers indoctrinated me with Uncle Tupelo records as a youngster, so I've always been a Jeff Tweedy fan. Here's a terrible story that I should've told on our podcast, Steve. There was a documentary about Wilco that came out in 2002. I had a friend who worked for the company that put it out so I went to the premiere with him and we ended up sitting in front of the band during the screening. It was surreal to hear them laugh and grimace at their own onscreen presence.

But, anyway, I had the first finished Stairs CD in my hands and I had one goal for the evening: give this CD to Jeff Tweedy. If you haven't seen it the documentary it's got a lot of info about how bad Jeff is in awkward one-on-one fan situations. Also that he gets these horrible migraine headaches. So, I walk outside after the movie's over and Jeff's crouched in some grass over by a wall clearly trying to be by himself after the super weird movie experience. (Was he clutching his head or did I make that up?) I don't know. Nervous Ryan and my CD-handoff was the very last thing that he wanted to deal with. All in all, he was very gracious about me pushing this thing in his hands but the look he gave me as I approached was unbelievable. I'll never forget it. Jeff, I'm really sorry about that. I shouldn't have pestered you like that.

SA: I've always struck by your lyrics—there's a poetic intensity to them, all this sprung rhythm. I'm thinking of a track like "Nightingale Lightning," where you'll belt out these remarkable lines: "This is somewhat unique for a man of my class/and stance and stature to stand/smoked out of the barn…" And, like, I have this intense emotional reaction, even though I no rational idea what they mean. What's up with that?

RW: It's hard to communicate the things we feel in normal, every day conversation. These songs wouldn't exist if I could tell you about the feelings behind them on a quick walk down to the 7/11. The trick is to express those things but also make sure the songs themselves make the listener want to smash things, slow dance with a loved one, or workout super hard on the treadmill.

SA: Okay, a final question. I'll kick myself if I don't ask: Will you be my boyfriend?

RW: I don't know, man. We're already so many things to each other. What are the benefits?

SA: In addition to long walks in the rain, I'll give your next album to Jeff Tweedy.

Steve Almond links:

Steve Almond's website
Steve Almond's Largehearted Boy interview with Ike Reilly
Steve Almond's Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for God Bless America
Steve Almond's Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life

Ryan Walsh and Hallelujah the Hills links:

Hallelujah the Hills' website
Ryan Walsh's Largehearted Boy interview with Jami Attenberg
Ryan Walsh's Largehearted Boy Note Books essay

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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