“A blend that’s also the magic”: An Interview with Scott Von Ryper of The Black Ryder

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The Black Ryder’s second album, The Door Behind the Door, came out on February 24, 2015. The highly-anticipated follow-up to the band’s 2009 critically-acclaimed debut, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride, The Door Behind the Door finds the Australian duo exploring new moods, new textures, and new emotions.

Multi-intrumentalists and vocalists Scott Von Ryper and Aimée Nash have challenged themselves to grow as musicians – and their sonic adventurousness has resulted in a a multilayered and expansive LP that’s simultaneously cinematic in scope and introspective in nature.

In fact, when you spin The Door Behind the Door, you’re drawn into a timeless realm – a realm also occupied by such albums as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. This isn’t hyperbole. The album is an absolute triumph that grabs you and doesn’t let go.

The Door Behind the Door is definitely an early contender for the top album of 2015, and SEM was honored to talk about it with Von Ryper.

SEM: Thanks, Scott, for taking time to chat with me today. When did you start playing music?

SVR: I started playing I guess around eight or nine. My parents had bought an organ.

The plan was for everybody to learn, but I was the only person who ended up staying with the music thing.

It was also very valuable as a first instrument because of the way that the organ is structured. You have to play a melody with your right hand, chords with your left hand, and bass line with your feet. So it was invaluable for understanding bass, the structure of chords, and what was in certain chords. The bass guitar was actually the next instrument I ended up going to funny enough.

SEM: What role does the organ play in The Door Behind the Door?

SVR: I went back to that instrument quite a lot on this album. A lot of the earlier ideas were written on the organ, as opposed to the first album, which was definitely more guitar-driven in the writing process.

SEM: Which songs on the album did start out as organ pieces?

SVR: “Seventh Moon” definitely was one of them. It started off as a very slow organ piece. “Until the Calm of Dawn” was another.

SEM: Let’s talk about “Seventh Moon.”

SVR: It was hanging around for quite a while as an organ piece and it was originally a lot slower, which is hard to believe because it still quite slow now.

For a long time it was just hanging around like that and Aimée wasn’t getting any inspiration from it. I felt like I knew what it was going to be, but it just wasn’t presenting itself to Aimée in a way that inspired her to do something with it.

I remember that I didn’t want to let it go, so I worked on it and sped it up, putting in some drums and maybe a few atmospherics including the slide guitar. I then gave it back to Aimée and she then came up with the melody and the lyrics quite quickly. We then recorded that very early on. That first recording of the vocals is the take that is on the finished track.

After the basis of the song was now together, the next stage of the track slowly developed. Over time, the choir, background singers, strings, and further texture was added. So even though I believe it’s kind of a sparse track mix wise, there is a lot of other stuff going on to create the atmosphere of that track. It was a tricky one to mix for that reason.

 

SEM: How did you create the choir?

SVR: The background choir sound is actually a blend of multiple keyboard sounds.

SEM: The album sounds so layered, beautiful, and moving. I was imagining that you spent as much time as Kevin Shields did making Loveless. How long did you and Aimee take?

SVR: There’s a hell of a lot of time spent on it in many different places, although I think we spent no more than two or three days at most in a commercial studio.

We recorded the drums in one day at Ocean Way in L.A. Ocean Way has a serious history going back to the 50’s I think. While I’m not a ‘big studio’ guy generally, a lot of amazing records were recorded in that studio, and it was lovely to be able to do something there and get that big room drum sound.

The rest of the album was recorded and mixed in our own studio spaces and houses that we rented. We rented two different houses; one in Joshua Tree, (which we rented for about a month) and another in Idyllwild which we spent a few days at. We just took in our own studio gear, and worked and lived there.

It was a very long-term project and very personal in the way that we recorded it. There’s just something very easy going and relaxed about recording in that type of environment rather than a commercial studio. It’s nice to be able to live and work in the same environment.

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SEM: I would say that translates to the intimate experience of listening to the album. For me, it’s an emotional experience akin to listening to “Nightswimming” by R.E.M., “Sometimes” by MBV, and “God Only Knows.” It has that same kind of feeling of emotional elevation.

SVR: The emotional experience of music is something that influences and inspires me very much. On this album especially that’s what we were aiming toward, which is definitely a little different from the first album. We cut back on the wall of guitars. This album tends to be more atmospheric. There’s still plenty of tracks and layering, but in a very different way using different instruments and sounds. There’s not a lot of big chord-driven guitar sounds.

SEM: So the secret sauce on The Door Behind the Door is really the blend that you create out of all of the instruments. How many instruments do you play, and what are they?

SVR: Well the organ was my first, then bass guitar, then guitar much later in life. I really only started to play a lot of guitar when we started The Black Ryder. I played the drums a little bit when I was younger, but I don’t play them now on recordings, although I will play them in a demo recording to provide some insight to Graham (Roby – our drummer) into how I’m hearing the drum parts on a track.

I guess I think of myself as more of a jack-of-all-trades and not really a master of any one instrument in particular. I feel that I can play the instruments well enough to be able to convey what I am thinking, but sometimes I will need to work specifically on one part for a time to be able to do what I’m thinking. It’s good to stretch yourself like that once in a while. I also see the studio itself is also another instrument that I spend a lot of time on trying to learn.

SEM: Let’s talk about “All That We Are.” Did that one start out as an acoustic track?

SVR: It did. That song has actually been around even before The Black Ryder existed. It was one of the first songs that Aimée and I ever collaborated on. This was in fact, when Aimée and I were in different bands.

There was a time back then, although we acknowledged and appreciated what we both did in our own bands and were a couple as well, that we never really thought that we would write together.

I had written the instrumental on acoustic guitar and then Aimée came up with the melody. It had been sitting around in the background for a long time. Sometimes that happens to a song. Even though I’ve loved and believed in that song ever since we wrote it, sometimes it just doesn’t work with what you’re doing at the time.

Putting together an album is not just putting your 10-12 best songs together; it’s more about working out which songs work best with each other, and what songs work toward the overall mood that you’re trying to create on the album. The flow of the tracks and the mood that they create all have to blend correctly so it feels like a cohesive album.

Like “Seventh Moon,” it was originally much slower, much dreamier. I remember bringing it back to the table and talking to Aimee about it. We then worked through it and sped it up, changed the rhythm of the guitar, and it just worked.

 

SEM: It also has an incredible vocal melody – very catchy. Please talk about the vocal blend.

SVR: Aimée has the lead on that and it’s her melody and lyrics, but the whole vocal sound is a three-part vocal going all the way through. Aimée sings the main part, and then I sing an octave lower and in unison with Aimée. That’s how that vocal sound was created.

SEM: Ok, that’s why I need the vinyl. Tell me about “Going Up Was Worth the Coming Down.”

SVR: The earlier parts of my side of the songwriting for this album came in two sections. One was the organ-driven stuff, and the other part were actually the acoustic guitar-driven stuff. “The Going Up” was one of the latter.

“The Going Up” is very traditional in that way that it’s one of those songs you can just pick up and play solo on guitar without a band. It’s a track that I had done in my studio and recorded the basics very quickly. Again, the first vocal take and guitar take was what ended up on the track.

Whether I’m recording with Aimée or recording myself playing or singing something, the first couple of takes are usually what makes it. Even if at the time I think that I’m just recording the idea, I tend to listen to the ongoing work in progress so much, that I get very attached to the delivery and performance of the original take, so am not that inclined to want to rerecord it, even if it’s not the best recording from a technical aspect.

For instance, I can think of times when I recorded Aimée at her place and you can hear wind chimes outside of her house or dogs moving around, so we would occasionally try to re-record them later. While the new recording might have less background noise or be better technically, the performance rarely matches the special quality of that first session’s take, so we let it go and go back to the original…

“The Going Up” is one of those times when a lot of the recording – the acoustics, the bass, etc. are the first or second take of stuff that I’d done when I really just thought I was recording a demo of the song.

 

SEM: Is this recording process a pattern for the whole album?

SVR: To date, we haven’t been a band that goes into the studio with an allocated timeframe to record an album in. We just don’t work like that. I like to work on the mix at the same time that we’re recording. It’s all going on at the same time.

I think about the album making process almost like we have a huge empty room full of blank canvases. Sometimes we’ll walk up and paint a few strokes on one canvas, and then we might look around the room at the other one and put a few brush strokes there. We work for a while like that and come back to that room another day or another week or another month. We’ll look at the room at different times of day, in different light, and with different emotions. It’s helpful to sit with our work over a long period like that and in different work spaces. It also confirms for me what’s worth holding onto when you live with something for that long and still love listening to and working on a track.

Allowing that time for ourselves means that we can be very conscious and precise about what we do.

SEM: That painter metaphor is really intriguing. One time, when I was talking to Christian Bland, he made the exact same metaphor about what he does as a guitarist in The Black Angels. And he said that that goes back to the way Syd Barrett played the guitar.

SVR: That’s interesting. With Aimée and I, there is no particular attachment to the idea that “this is the instrument that I play, and I should play on every song.”

If there’s a song that doesn’t need bass, then we don’t use one. For instance, “Let Me Be Your Light,” is a song that actually had no guitar on it for a long time. It had two bass lines, some drums, a vocal, and some atmospherics.

One advantage to not having four or five people in the band is that we don’t feel the pressure to make sure that everyone gets to play their instrument on every song. We just don’t have that pressure.

If a song doesn’t need guitar, you don’t put guitar on it. If it doesn’t need bass, you don’t put bass on it. There’s even two instrumentals on this album which shows that we don’t even feel the pressure to put a vocal on a track that doesn’t need it.

 

SEM: I remember Thom Yorke saying something about that, around the time of Kid A when it came out. He said that the other members of Radiohead didn’t have to be on all the tracks.

SVR: I completely agree with him. It becomes very limiting otherwise.

SEM: A lot of what you are saying is really Buddhist in nature: you know not to grow attached to certain instruments and certain ways of doing things. But also the notion of first thought, best thought in a way. I really like that.

SVR: I’ve never thought about it like that, but I think we also have that philosophy about the ‘sound’ of the band. I don’t want us to be too attached to any one thing, either within an album or between albums.

SEM: Yeah, it’s like not clinging to a certain way of doing things or doing things over and over again but just going with that initial impulse and living in the moment.

SVR: Yeah, I completely get that.

SEM: I’d like to ask you about “Santaria.” That was the first song that you guys put out from this record, right?

SVR: Yes, but I had mixed feelings about that being the first track from the album that was put out into the public domain.

SEM: Why?

SVR: Because it was the only track from the album that I feel had a connection to the last album musically. It took us a long time between albums and I initially felt like I wanted to go out with something very different as the first release from the new album. The more it was discussed, the more it made sense to go out with Santaria.

SEM: I’ve heard two versions of “Santaria.” There’s one that has heavy guitar right at the beginning. And then there’s the one on the album. That’s a different version, right?

SVR: That’s right. Here’s what happened: part two was released first before the album. That is what I consider to be “part two” of the song, but at that time in the early stages of that track, that was the track. It wasn’t until during the mixing process when I heard the track stripped back to just the drums, bass, and the very simple tremolo guitar line, that I got the idea for an alternate version because it just sounded so good stripped back like that. The problem was that I loved both mixes so got the idea to put them together as one extended edit.

 

SEM: I get it. The heavy version ended up being part two of a two-part, eight-minute song, in which the lighter, “tremolo-guitar” version comes first.

SVR: Another interesting element that I know we don’t talk about a lot in interviews for this album is that we ended up having somebody else come on board to help with the technical side. When we spent the day at Ocean Way recording the drums, the primary engineer who works for the studio (Wes Seidman), who’s worked for the best of the best, really liked what we were doing. He basically said, “I’d like to be involved. I’d love to come and help you make this record.”

So Wes would come up to the house and sit down and look at what we were doing and look at how I recorded things and then add his immense experience to it by re-recording some things we needed to, or clearing up the mix. It was also really nice for me to just concentrate on playing sometimes and get my head out of the recording side.

Aimee and I talked about what we wanted to do differently on this album. One thing we both wanted was to make it sound bigger. Wes’s involvement was a major contributor to us being able to do that.

SEM: Thanks for sharing that story. I want to end by saying that when I heard this album for the first time, I truly did get the same kind of vibes that I got when I heard Pet Sounds, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Loveless. I know this one is going to stay with me in the way that those have…

SVR: Thank you Paul. Those bands have made timeless works so it’s very generous of you to mention that association. We really were trying to create something that stands the test of time. I think we’ll still be proud of it in years to come.

Transcription by Zoë Loos.

Editorial assistance from Katie Gleason.

Feature image by Kristen Cofer.