Ryan Smith discusses his incredible maxi single I’m Slipping - Winter 2023
Slippery when wet...
Ryan Smith is perhaps best known as guitarist with alternative rockers Soul Asylum and for his work with both The Melismatics and Ryan And Pony. But what fans also need to discover is his incredible solo work. And with this in mind, step forward the I’m Slipping Maxi Single, a wonderfully eclectic 6-track feast! Ryan presents groundbreaking originals in I’m Slipping and Lost Time, and adds his own version of The Soft Boys’ classic I Wanna Destroy You. With acoustic reinventions of I’m Slipping and Lost Time and even another DRA remix version of the former, this is truly a very special package indeed. We catch up with Ryan at his home is Minneapolis to talk about how it all came together. Having had a very busy year with Soul Asylum, it’s great to see Ryan now relaxing with family ahead of the Holidays. With thick snow outside it’s a very festive picture as we gaze out of the window. With the fire roaring our conversation begins…
2022 appears to have been an incredible year for you, with the tours of the US and the UK and also having just played the Hell And Heaven metal festival in Mexico City. As the end of the year approaches, what are your reflections of 2022 and what are your highlights?
Well it was certainly a whirlwind of a year! There was so much going on tour wise and with recording and releases coming out. I look back on it and I really appreciate all the cool places we got to go to and the people we got to meet. We were just in Mexico City for Hell And Heaven Fest, we’ve been all over England, Belgium, the Netherlands and then of course all the cities we played in the United States. To be honest some of the shows start to blur together (laughs!) because there are a lot of them. It was about finally getting to reconnect with people after the pandemic. We did our first tour, called the Back In Your Face tour at the back end of 2021 and that was a 2 month tour of the States and that was challenging to get through without anyone getting sick. We had to be really careful and we couldn’t really talk to people so we had to basically stay in the bus and the backstage area, but in 2022 we started to be able to feel like things were returning to normal and that’s really the biggest take away from me: connecting with human beings again and not feeling as secluded and isolated. I’m an introvert so I don’t mind being isolated to a point but it’s really good to be able to share music with people.
Let’s talk about the I’m slipping maxi single. With 3 full fantastic electric tracks, 2 acoustic versions and a DRA remix, this is really something quite special, and I would like to start with the title track, I’m Slipping. This is the most wonderful song on so many levels and I can’t tell you how much of a bit of a profound effect this has had on our readers. I’d like to start with the beautifully simple but incredibly infectious intro riff. To me it’s a perfect example of how simple can also mean incredible. To what extent would you agree with that and was this something you were specifically wanting to achieve?
I agree with you 100%. I always find that it’s the hardest thing to say the most with the least amount of either notes or words. If you think about, in my opinion, some of the most memorable songs written in the history of rock ‘n’ roll music or pop music, it’s always about finding those magical 3 notes. It’s not about the complexity of it, it’s about the substance that’s behind the notes you choose to play, and that’s the real challenge in music I think. I could build tracks all day and put a bunch of chord progressions in and all kinds of notes but to find the ones that resonate with me personally, that’s the real challenge. So it’s difficult to make things simple. It’s about whittling away the things that are unnecessary. It’s also a challenge to make sure something is not boring if it’s simple. So making something not boring, for it to be interesting and for it to have substance, that is what I strive for so it makes me very happy that you feel that’s what’s happened! On this track I was specifically looking for that. I definitely wanted to say more with less and in previous albums I’ve made I do get really into layering parts and putting in extra things but I wanted to just keep what was essential in this as kind of a statement of what this record was going to sound like and what the identity of the album would be. A secondary reason I wanted to keep the repetition or the limited chords was because it is a solo record and one of the ways I can perform that is with a loop pedal, and when you play the loop pedal you have to be able to build it from the same chords. Even though I didn’t use a loop pedal writing it I wanted it to be able to translate into that kind of arrangement.
I’m Slipping is a great track to sing along to but pay attention to the lyrics and the song becomes something els entirely in that it has a really important story to share. Lines such as ‘once I held a grip so tight, never let go without a fight, clinging to such high ideals but now I know how descending feels’ have created much discussion amongst fans and even readers of Rock Today. Some of our readers have interpreted these lines in quite a literal sense and made a connection to perhaps substance abuse but I think it’s much more complex than that. I think it’s simply about saying, for whatever reason, ‘life is getting hard and I don’t feel like I can cope’. But what was your inspiration for this song?
Wow! I appreciate your interpretation of it. I like the fact that everybody can interpret it in a way that probably hits home for them. That is what I was striving to do. In its simplest form, what I was saying was I felt like life was on an ascent, and I felt relatively confident I could get through things. It was a time where I felt like life was spiralling out of control, and it was because there was so many things out of everybody’s control and it created all kinds of new stresses, new challenges, but I was also observing other people around me and seeing all the things they were falling into. I don’t know if in the UK you guys experience this but we have a lot of people descending into rabbit holes of conspiracy theories. We had people kind of starting to lose critical thinking skills, and yes there is substance abuse, and other kind of abuses started happening. I’m not speaking from personal experience or that I know people. When I go out running I can hear people in their houses, who are maybe not used to being together that much, fighting. It was just a very strange time and in Minneapolis we had a lot of social issues that were being brought to light and a lot of people were rightfully frustrated. I think the ability for everybody to react was maybe impaired by already having these really powerful stresses in their lives that were not previously there. So part of it was about my own life, part of it was about what I was seeing around me from talking to people and looking at social media and the news, from looking out my window - it was all those things. What I really wanted to do was write something that I thought would be inclusive and make people feel hopefully a little less alone about the things they were maybe feeling. And you can have a slight bit of self-deprecating humour about it. I’m not in any way condemning anybody because we were all going through so many things, so whatever it was I put it all in the first person because even if it wasn’t something I was going through, I didn’t want to make other people feel bad about it. Rational people are susceptible, especially when there’s a pandemic going on. I wanted it to be an anthem for everybody that was going through the pandemic and to unite people.
Also the lines ‘too much time inside my head, I’m one breath better off than dead, more and more my delusions, they bleed into my conclusions’. I think so many people will connect strongly with this. Just picking up on what you said about people losing their critical thinking skills, many people will have witnessed this. What were your words made me reflect upon is quite simply how being on your own with too much time to think can lead to people twisting their realities. Also,‘ if you’ve got peace of mind could you spare some?’ suggests this is simply about just wanting to be happy. Is that really the essence of this song?
Absolutely! It’s wanting to be happy and it’s wanting to connect. Those are the two basic ideas of the lyrics and the song.
Also, the accompanying video is amazing! We see you playing all the instruments. Did you play all the instruments on the track yourself? How easy is it to actually do that?
That’s a great question! Yes, I did play all the instruments and I sang the vocals. That was one of the parameters I set for the solo record, I wasn’t going to get a bunch of guests in on this particular album. I thought about that idea but the idea really formulated out of necessity. The ideas that are on this maxi single and that will be on the full length record which is in the works, all started on the tour bus. From the Dead Letter tour which was the tour we were doing right before the pandemic really hit where we did a month and a half and we were supposed to have 2 weeks left on the tour and we got sent home, I had all these ideas buzzing around in my head and I started to just put them down as quickly as I could. In my home studio I was just trying to document ideas and then we had quarantines. Dave Pirner and I had said that right after we got back from the tour that we were gonna be quarantine buddies so that we could do the quarantine sessions and that we could still work. He was the only guy I could see because everybody was isolated. So doing sessions with other people wasn’t even an option. Now you can do it remotely but I think it would have been hard for some of the people that I work with to do it remotely or even like go to a studio for recording drums for example. You have to have a studio to do that. So it was a necessity to do it the way I did it. Having said that, is it easy? For me it is very easy and the reason is that this is how I normally demo songs. So if I bring a song to a band, it’s usually fully recorded with every instrument on it and then what we will usually do is keep the elements of it that we like. For example, if there is some magic in a guitar part or the sound or keyboard and there’s no point re-recording it, we normally just keep it. Then we take out the drums and the bass and people put their own spin on it and they play it the way that they should to bring their own identity to the song. So this is basically how I made my demos on this record so I’m used to that process. I think it would still be relatively easy for anyone now because I suppose even if you don’t play drums you could use drum loops or use smart drummers. I didn’t do any of that, I played all the instruments. When I write a song I usually know how I want to hear the part so it’s easy for me to play it and it is to fumble around with programming it in. Fortunately, I play all those instruments so it’s not a stretch. It’s also a part of the concept of the record to leave it the way that I would hear the song in my head and not change it like I normally would in a band or with an outside producer.
Check out the video to I’m Slipping below and then read on for part 2!
There is nothing more precious than time...
Lost Time has a gorgeous ethereal vibe, and I know that this song is something highly personal to you. Where did the inspiration for this song come from?
It came from a number of sources and a number of different times. The chorus which has the lyrics ‘are we ever gonna wake up, are we ever gonna make up for last time’, that melody and those lyrics popped into my head actually before the pandemic. I don’t know why some things end up in my brain (laughs!), but the chorus, the lyrics and the melody were kind of together for that part. I’ve got a daughter who’s now 8 and before the pandemic I was and I’m still really, really busy but the pandemic was kind of revelatory for me. I’ve changed how I do things for I think the better. Early in my daughter’s life I was on tour, rehearsing, teaching a lesson or in the studio. I was so like not present and I think that this song was my subconscious telling me that I needed to be more available because that time never comes back. You hear people say it all the time but it is so true. I would come back from a tour and my daughter would look like she’d doubled in size! (Laughs!) At that age they grow so fast and I think it was maybe me singing to myself like ‘wake up, this is it - there won’t be another chance to do this’. The pandemic helped me create a reset where I could reevaluate what I was doing, why was doing it and how I was doing it. I learned that I could do so many more things remotely. I do so much recording now remotely and I do lessons remotely and I would never have thought to have done some of that before. There was a need for it. It’s made me more available. So the rest of the song, that was written after the pandemic and it was written with a little bit of a different light. And there’s a lot of desperation. Honestly, I think it’s kind of a depressing song but also I’d like to think that there is some string of hope in the music
I think it’s an absolutely wonderful song for the very reasons you have shared and an opinion that we’ve shared before in a Rock Today is that there is nothing more rock ‘n’ roll than being a great dad. I Wanna Destroy You has, for me, a Bowie-meets-U2 dancey quality to it, and it’s a very different version of the The Soft Boy’s protest song. Why did you choose to cover this song, and was it a conscious decision to bring the production up as opposed to doing a straight cover?
Yes, you are very correct again! Sometimes when I cover a song I want to do it totally different but with that song I didn’t want to take away from what was already just amazing about it. Something about that song has always resonated with me from the first time I heard it. It’s just one of those songs that is so internalised in my psyche, and when I think about why I chose to cover that now, it started to feel so relevant. As you say it is a protest song and I think that maybe it was my reaction to what was going on. I’m hearing the lyrics in a slightly different way now. I don’t think Robyn Hitchcock ever intended to say that he wanted to destroy anybody. He is singing about nuclear war or government, he was singing from a different perspective. What I was seeing around me, in the United States at least, was so much vitriol and so much ‘us versus them’. I guess it would be like tribalism happening here and it was disturbing and it’s still happening here. It’s maybe mellowed out a little bit but the days where people that thought a little differently or who didn’t vote the same, they could go out and have a drink and laugh and talk about their differences and why they think what they think, that was completely gone. There was just so much blocking of people. Communication, civility, listening to other people – it was out the window. So that’s how I felt. I guess I just wanted people to hear the song again, listen to it and think about how that might affect how they see things. It made me think about me. Like anybody, I can get sucked into seeing my perspective being the only right one. It’s never that simple. Most people aren’t out to get other people and it’s too easy to get that in your mind erroneously. I just thought it was a relevant song and that maybe there’s a new interpretation for it. As far as the production is concerned, rather than try to reinvent it, just as an example, a record I put it out in 2020, Moshi Moshi under Ryan and Pony, there was one cover on the album which was Prince’s I Would Die For You. Prince had recently died and it was interesting song to me and I always loved that song. The idea was to try and make it sound like ‘What if Joy Division or New Order had covered a Prince song? What would it sound like?’. And that was the idea, but on this one I didn’t want to do something like that. I didn’t want to try and reinvent it. When I hear the song I like the rawness, I like the guitars I like the tone. There are just some things that are here where I go if I recorded that song now I would do that. Like I always wanted to hear a break on that last chorus where the band stops and you hear the harmonies and they come back on the next bar. So I put that in in the version I did. I tried to be respectful of the original and make it with my own stamp on it of how I would like to hear it myself.
There are acoustic versions of I’m slipping and Lost Time within the maxi single release and they sound incredible in their stripped back form, and it made me wonder, did they actually start out as acoustic tracks, and is this where your songs and songwriting begins: always on an acoustic guitar? And picking up and what you said earlier about hearing the whole song in your head, can you actually be writing a song in your heard before you even go anywhere near a guitar?
That’s an excellent question! Those songs specifically I did not write on an acoustic guitar. In fact, with I’m slipping, the first thing I heard was that riff. I heard it in my head and I grabbed a guitar. I usually use Voice Memos on my iPhone to quickly put down ideas so I had made a Voice Memo with that riff and then I just kind of pieced things together from there. And then other ideas that I have for the sound like a lyric, I usually have a memo on my iPhone that I use for that. Other melodic ideas like other instrumental parts that I put in there, I’ll use Voice Memos. If I have time I will start building a track on my iPhone GarageBand. I use that for very quick documentations of ideas. Lost Time I actually wrote on a keyboard so I had the melody in my head and then I went to a keyboard first and then started building the track. In fact there were no guitars on it for a long time. I had to add the guitars because I felt like ‘this needs a guitar’. It was all keyboard! I put on an electric bass because there was some synth bass on there. I think there are four basses on that song. The guitars weren’t an afterthought but I came up with guitar parts after the track was fully built with keyboards only. The reason I do that I guess is because I’ve always believed that if a song can translate to chords, melody and lyrics, if that is going to be captivating - at least in my own opinion like when I’m writing a song - then I know that it’s a song that I can feel proud of putting out there. If the song is relying on other things then the substance of the song is not as strong as I would like it to be. Sometimes I do that as kind of an experiment but the other reason I do that is because I am doing acoustic shows and I thought it was kind of an appropriate thing to do since I would be playing them acoustically. They are still different because when I do it again I will loop things, like on the acoustic version of I’m Slipping, there is a mandolin and a ukulele and piano – stuff I can’t loop with a guitar live but I think it’s still more in the spirit of what I would do in an acoustic show.
It’s interesting because on more than one occasion you’ve used the term ‘experimenting’. These aren’t just great songs but sonically they are groundbreaking. How important was it for you to explore new sounds on this release? It sounds like this is a key part of who you are as an artist.
Absolutely! I guess I get bored easily! (Laughs!) So I like to find things that are interesting to me so I’m listening to other peoples music and I gravitate towards those things that make me wonder what they are and question how they did that. I never think that those are substitution for a good song, you’ve got to have the song in place, but once you’re into the production end of it and the arrangement it’s like that stuff is really interesting to me. So you’re totally right, that is a huge part of it for me and I always like to evolve it, I just don’t like staying in the same place for too long. But there is a spirit of experimentation that is always there that just manifests itself in a different way from time to time. I’m working on some stuff now… Brian Eno created this app (Bloom – Ed) which creates chord tones. You can say ‘G Lydian’ or whatever it might be and it will create soundscapes. So I’m working on trying to incorporate that into a song, taking the Brian Eno thing and then looping it, augmenting it with other things and using it as the basis of a track. That stuff is exciting to me! It still needs a song over it but it’s kind of cool way to get inspired to write.
The artwork with the black-and-white vortex is again simple but very powerful, the perfect visual representation of I’m Slipping. I’m just glad it’s stationary, although I can see how it would release all sorts of hypnotic repercussions were it to be on a turntable. Do you have any plans for a vinyl release?
Definitely! 100% there will be a vinyl release of this but it will be the full record. From the maxi single the only songs that will be on there will be I’m Slipping and Lost Time. I probably won’t put I Want To Destroy You on there. That’s kind of an exclusive to the maxi single. At least that’s the plan right now! So it will be other all new songs. I’m going to be doing more singles leading up to that – more singles, more videos and yes, vinyl for the full length release. The maxi single came as an idea because originally I was going to do a 7 inch single but I don’t know if you’re familiar with the amount of time it takes to get records back from press pressing plants, it’s like a year! It’s easing a little but I’m hoping that by the time I have the whole record mastered and ready to go it won’t take that long for the vinyl to come out but I figured I would wait. And then I just remembered seeing maxi singles, and that’s just something that disappeared. I remember that you can could buy a maxi single and it would have the single and then like a dance version remix and the acoustic version and all these other things. So I just thought ‘Oh wait a minute! That’s what I need to do – a maxi single!’ Cassette turnovers are way faster and there was just this fad hipster thing to make cassettes. They definitely seem to go better than CDs.
Check out the video to Lost Time below and then read on for part 3!
Some closing thoughts...
As our conversation draws to a close we reflect on what an incredibly special release the I’m Slipping maxi single really is. Full on electric tracks balanced with gorgeous acoustic versions and even a dance remix. The imagination, creativity and commitment to experimentation that’s gone into creating this package really shines through, and it’s with a highest of recommendations that we invite you to head over to www.ryansmithsolo.com to find out more.
In the meantime, check out the video to I Wanna Destroy You below.