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May 14, 2014

Author Ben Slotky 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).

Ben Slotky is the author of the story collection Red Hot Dogs, White Gravy.

Ryan Walsh is the frontman for the band Hallelujah the Hills. This week the band released their album Have You Ever Done Something Evil?.

Author Ben Slotky interviews Ryan Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills:

BEN: I want to start with the writing, with your lyrics, and the increasing assuredness of your songs. It's interesting to me to see some of the manic energy of the first albums morph into this assured, subversive feel that's all over HYEDSE. How much of this is a conscious effort and how much is just a natural evolution? I don't want to say "matured", but just did.

RYAN: Ever year since I started writing songs, assessing the most recent batch of songs, I would think that I had landed somewhere close to my goals and potential, a year later I'll look back at those songs and mindset and go, "he was crazy, I can do way better." You get more assured in general, as a human, as you get older, hopefully. I feel I do. There are less and less things on my writer-check list with each passing album. Am trying to whittle it down to a one-box-checklist that reads, "Good song?"

BEN: I don't know if I've seen the word "pride" bandied about it in a lot of record reviews; I don't know if I've seen the word "bandied" bandied about either. And listen, we can sit here and list all of the words I'm not sure I've seen used in record reviews if you want, but I'm not sure that's what we're supposed to be doing, here.

RYAN: Look, when the man in the aqua seersucker suit placed us here in this room, his only guideline was that you interview me about music AND that we gather evidence from local newspapers proving there's a conspiracy to ban him from area Radioshacks.

BEN: Looking back, there was a lot to question about that whole scenario. [Shot of Ryan and Ben staring blankly for a minute.] Ok, name one word you'd like to see used in a record review of yours that you haven't seen. I will see what I can do.

RYAN: I don't particularly care about seeing any one word in particular. Now you have me thinking of funny, useless press quotes to place on a sticker on the front of the CD. ("A Sexual Disaster!" - The New York Times) What I always hope from reviews (more than a thumbs up or down) is to see the writer have an interaction with what we've made. The Artist/Reviewer relationship has sort of a warped pen-pal dynamic. I wrote this, what will you write me back? I'm fascinated by it.

BEN: After listening (and listening) to HYEDSE, I thought "I hope these guys are proud." I'm not sure this is a question.

RYAN: There is a lot of pride and boasting going on in hip-hop music. I love it. I think men and women with guitars or pianos are expected to either be humble or slacker to the point where you come off like you don't care what people think. Are these my only options? Immortal Technique told us, "When God said 'Let there be light', I turned it the fuck off" I need more of that over on this side of the genre rodeo. I want ecstatic declarations and confidence. That's on my wish list. We maybe put a little of this into our new song "Destroy This Poem."

BEN: I am glad you brought up Immortal Technique; people would be upset if he wasn't referenced. As daring and inventive as a lot of what Collective Psychosis/Colonial Drones-era HTH is, this is more subversive, more daring than what you've done before, and here's what I mean. The songs on this album are hard to ignore; it's going to be tough for somebody to listen to this album and not realize this is a great songwriter writing great songs. I'll give you a second, there.

RYAN: It benefits everyone to try and be undeniable.

BEN. Exactly, I think that before, it would be easier for people to dismiss this,[waving hands in air] all of this, to overlook the writing in the middle of all the energy, all the arrangements, of all the whatever. With the earlier stuff, it could get lost, and we'll get to more of that later, about being lost, but the early stuff can be categorized as just "experimental" enough by just enough people for it to be dismissed or overlooked, you know? And let me know if these are stupid questions.

RYAN: On the first two records, the ideas I want to be putting out there are present, but they're wrapped in a very confusing package (and I'm not dissing those albums, still <3 them). I agree, people only need a tiny, small reason to put you on their "can ignore" list. And listen, we all must maintain that ignore list! There's too much shit going on in the world! We ignore most of the data blasting into our brains on a millisecond to millisecond basis on a completely unconscious level. So, I think the trick is to get off that ignore list without resorting to a revolving show of gimmicks and spectacles (that's the easy way to get off the list).

BEN: These songs, it's like you've snuck in under the radar. They're like spies. Song-terfuge. I'd argue that writing this way is harder to do. It's harder to be subtle, at least it can be, but you've transitioned well. Where in the past, you'd shout "meta" three times, here you slide in a "I'm responsible for the edits in the song right here" in "Romantic Courage." You're showing, not telling, and it's great to see. Or hear.

RYAN: I love the term Songterfuge! I think you're right, I do design these things as little undercover agents that we're sending out into the world.

The example you cited is a great indicator of the change. In both cases I'm trying to capture how people actually talk to each other, and I think the later example is much more successful. I think with the former example there is a bit of snotty kid throwing a firework at you vibe to it, which is fine and fun, but not something I'd do today.

BEN: Real quick, let me ask you this; I just thought of this. Did you watch True Detective? If so, what were you thinking when Rust Cohle is talking about his synesthesia? He's hearing colors, tasting shapes, and catching his breath; Ryan, your thoughts? I mean, come on!!!

RYAN: I did watch True Detective. If you made a television show where Nick Cave had to solve crimes with Chris Martin from Coldplay, it'd be a lot like True Detective. Synesthesia is a beautiful concept, and it can be incredible to experience with the help of psychedelics, for instance, but it's no way to live your entire life. All the beautiful back roads we can explore with our brains, you hope, can be controlled. Eventually, you have to go the grocery story and the bank, and it's not fun if that involves a cavalcade of unwanted and uncontrollable stimuli.

I recently learned about ASMR, which is a feeling I've experienced my whole life, that people have just named and started talking about it. Does the description of ASMR sound familiar to you?'

BEN: I just fell down, I think. There's something incredibly optimistic about doing what you're doing, too. To do all of this, cram all of this wonderful inventiveness, to write these wonderful stories and put into a three to five minute song. You've got a very limited time to do everything you want to do; I am going to write this about this moon-cult, a phone survey, this poem. You've got like five minutes. Doing that, pulling that off, in and of itself, would be something, right, if you could do that? It'd be a feat, an accomplishment? Something to cry out; a Eureka, maybe? But take that, all of that, and now sing it. Play it like a song. That's optimism, right there, Ryan, to think you can do that. Tell me it's not.

RYAN: Restrictions foster creativity, so the restraints of a pop song actually aid me way more than hinder me. That said, I'm surprised every single time I write a song.

BEN: That is a wonderful answer to that question. Let's talk about me for a second. This interview seems to be pretty one-sided, here. I mean we get it, you're a great writer, this album is great, whatever. It's enough, already.

RYAN: I 100% agree. You made me laugh on Twitter by making a very funny Andrew Dice Clay reference, and now here we are. Am looking forward to reading your book.

BEN: My new book is called An Evening of Romantic Lovemaking. I would like you to write a blurb for it. You and Andrew Dice Clay. Ok, the first HTH song I ever heard was "Wave Backwards to Massachusetts." I had no idea who you were and more importantly, I had no idea that what I was listening to wasn't a GBV song. I immediately loved it. I also immediately got scared; I thought 'what if they're making fun of them???" That is a horrible feeling, to think you're being made fun of. I thought, "This band either loves GBV or absolutely hates them." I wanted to believe you didn't hate them, that you weren't playing with crossed fingers, singing with tongues in cheeks. I don't think you are, were, whatever. I'm right, aren't I?

RYAN: Haha, who out there is writing hate-homages, Ben? Am trying to think of one example. Wait, I might have thought of one. Do you know the bonus track on Built To Spill's "There's Nothing Wrong With Love?" It's a fake teaser for their next record, and I'd classify those homages as mocking, to say the least. I love GBV. One of those bands that definitely gave me courage to record my own music. I've sent Bob all our records, upon their release, and he's written me the sweetest letters back each time. By the way, I'd like to publicly state, again, I want to talk to the man or woman who wrote this amazing take on Bob Pollard's output. Can't seem to find out who it is or how to contact him or her.

BEN: Thank God. It'd be terrible if I totally misread this whole thing. Talk me down from "You Got Fooled," then, because it's an interesting way to bookend to what I'm calling the most sincere record I've heard in a while.

RYAN: I thought about this! Can we end a sincere album with a track called "You Got Fooled" that sounds like it does and not negate what came before it? It turns out we can! It's not some revelation of intent or "ha ha we gotcha ya!" That song is written from a character's perspective anyway, not your normal "1st person narrative dressed up in abstract poetry" that I've been making a living off since the 80's.

BEN: This leads right in to this notion of sincerity, which is something that strikes me in your lyrics, their sincerity, and it's all over HYEDSE. It's lousy with sincerity. You come out pretty much declaring this with "We Are What We Say We Are." That's I how I take this. I take it as your announcing your intentions; we're going to give you some very literate, very self-aware, very catchy songs. We know what we're doing, we're in control, we're doing this on purpose. We mean this. Am I close, here?

RYAN: Yes, I'm glad it works on multiple levels. Like lyrically, part of the story, and also representing the band's intent. But I'd leave it at that because, it seems to me, to try and box in a lyric like that (one that encourages people to un-box themselves) would be a mistake.

Here's this: I hated football, but I played for a year in high school (the day I quit and joined the drama club remains in my top 10 days ever, seriously, a real turning point). We had this one coach who told us one day, "The Russians have a new theory on running. If you wanna run faster, run faster." Then he just stared at us. It was both the best and dumbest thing I'd ever heard. I told this story to the band at the beginning of the recording session. So through out the whole album process we were saying things like, "The Russians have a theory on guitar solos, if you want a better guitar solo, play a better guitar solo." It's dumb but it's true. We all tell ourselves stories and then we become those stories, eventually. Why not tell ourselves a story where we're the hero?

BEN: You can haunt your own house or make your own movie. I read that somewhere.

RYAN: Ben! That's one of our song lyrics! What the..?!?

BEN: That sincerity is not easy to come by, and it's also probably the easiest thing to lose. You've kept it. How?

RYAN: I've always hated irony as a lifestyle. Life is too strange to approach from yet another level of separation via a detached persona, that's a classic error. The only way to take this all in is to do it as honestly as possible. The Russians have a new theory on sincerity. If you wanna be sincere, be sincere.

BEN: Again, well done. I am stealing everything you've said today and am putting it in my new book, if I already haven't.

RYAN: Thanks for the questions and you'll be hearing from my lawyer.

Hallelujah the Hills and Ryan Walsh links:

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

Ben Slotky links:

Ben Slotky on Twitter

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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