Only Trying to Help (Better Looking)
An interview with Ryan Ferguson
By Tim Den
Yup, is this Tim?
Yes it is.
You are calling exactly at 2 pm. Very punctual! I like that. Are you a Virgo?
(Surprised) Yeah! Uh… is it that obvious?
(laughs) I’m a Virgo, too. I’m all about punctuality.
My sister says that I’m the most stereotypical Virgo ever: organized, punctual, anal, etc…
Same here, I totally relate. Hey, I really appreciate the write-up. (My publicist) Caroline sent it over to me, and it was a relief to read it. Not only cuz you liked the record, but because I also feel that it was about time that someone delivered a diatribe!
I’m really glad you read it! Yeah, I loved Only Trying to Help more and more with each listen, and I started seeing write-ups from ridiculously under-qualified writers who were obviously not paying attention. I just had to vent.
I enjoyed it. Since the record has been out – which has only been five, six weeks – the reviews have been mostly good. But recently I got a bunch that were very much pop-bashing…
Which is fucking silly. If you don’t like pop, that’s fine. But if you know you don’t like pop – and have absolutely no idea what to look for in a pop song – then don’t review a pop album with “pop sucks” as your basis. It’s like asking someone who hates Chinese food to rate Chinese restaurants: He/she is going to miss the point.
I try not to take it personally, because (my old band) No Knife certainly got our share of bad reviews as well. Eventually, you just say to yourself “eh, what do they know?” and move on.
I just think it’s crazy that someone can listen to Only Trying to Help and COMPLETELY MISS the point of the album: The melodies. Who gives a flying fuck if it’s acoustic when it’s obviously about the songwriting?
Yeah, ever since I got into music as a kid, melodies were what I’ve been the most interested in. I’m not saying that the lyrics come second, but I’ve always been the most drawn to the composition of the actual music. Even in No Knife, I was always the “pop guy.”
I saw that you listed Jellyfish as an influence: I knew immediately that you understood pop.
I’m actually going to a good pop show tonight. Have you heard of Rogue Wave? I just got their new record. I’m a bit new to them, but I had their last one and am really digging the new one. I think they’ve really “matured,” if that’s the right word. They’re doing a lot of cool stuff where they say “fuck it” and just play in a melodic yet semi-unstructured way for a while…
And this is coming from a fellow Virgo who obviously writes very structured pop songs.
(laughs) Yeah, I think some of that also has to do with me being a “solo artist.” I’m a bit of a slow writer – “Suddenly” from (my first EP) Three, Four was the only one that came fast. I write bits and pieces, let them simmer, and then record them on my computer. In the process, you lose the kind of improv and sensibilities that playing with a live band brings where you work on something, then someone else contributes an idea that changes everything, and you end up lingering on a part a few measures longer to let it breathe, etc. It’s harder when you’re by yourself to envision and anticipate those kinds of organic growth. For example, the ending of “Must Be Friday Night” could’ve been tweaked a little more. It goes along ’til the drums come in, and then it just ends…
Is structure something you hold dear? Are you afraid of letting it go, or do you look forward to perhaps one day writing less structured songs?
I would definitely like to experiment with less structure in the future. But again, it’s harder when you’re not with a band.
Would you like to be in a band again?
Sure! I would love the stability of playing with the same group of guys. But at this point, most of the guys I play with all have mortgages to pay or wives to come home to, so touring and commitment are big issues. Basically, it’s getting used to growing older and the responsibilities that come with it. When you’re 19 like I was in No Knife, it’s okay to not have a job, sleep on floors, and not have a care in the world. But when you’re in your early to mid-30s…
I’ve already asked (ex-No Knife drummer) Chris (Prescott) about this, but another insight couldn’t hurt: What happened toward the end of No Knife?
At the end of our last tour, which was with Cursive, around ’03, it was particularly rough. I don’t want to go into specifics, but certain members weren’t getting along, and we kinda knew that we had taken it as far as it could go. I remember clearly, walking off the stage at our last show, and thinking “this is it.” We didn’t talk to each other for a while after that. Phones didn’t ring for months. And we just kind of left it. At no time did the four of us get into a room, sit down, and talk about “ending the band” or doing one more show or anything concrete. I’m not leaving any doors closed or open, but as of now, I think everyone’s busy doing their own thing.
So why did you, unlike the other guys, choose to go solo?
During the entire time that I was with No Knife, I was still writing stuff on the side, stuff that I knew was too “pop” for the band. It’s what I’ve done since I got into music: Just write songs. At some point, a guy named Al Guerra, who manages me now, contacted me and said, “I love what I’m hearing. Do you have any more stuff? Would you consider putting it out as a solo project?” So I said yeah, cuz I definitely had a batch stored away. (laughs) Then (the comp) My Favorite Songwriters came along and got me started.
Was that your debut as a solo artist?
Kind of. Before that, there was a compilation called Sound Relief that I believe is still available on iTunes. It was done as a benefit for 9/11. Sense Field are on it, and so is Jonah Matranga. They originally wanted a No Knife outtake, but I told them that we didn’t have any extra material. I had a song called “Parachute” lying around that I wrote for my girlfriend at the time – this airy little number – that I offered instead, and they took it. That was my first foray into being a solo artist.
I ask this question a lot, because it seems like no one can live off their music anymore unless they’re mega huge, but what do you do for a living?
I freelance in video and film production. I’ve been doing it for about five, six years now. A while back, after No Knife came back from a tour, I didn’t have any jobs lined up, so my dad (who’s a network guy in San Diego) told me to call this guy he knew. I ended up working for that guy as a personal assistant five days a week, but the schedule was ultra-flexible. I could take time off whenever I wanted to for the band. Through him, I got into doing freelancing: I’d do sound, grip, PA on set, whatever’s needed. But its unstable nature – sometimes you work like crazy for three months and then sit around for four – can be a bit stressful for an organized Virgo like myself. (laughs)
Have you tried to bring your music into the film world?
Yeah, I’m not sure how some people feel about licensing, but I don’t have a problem with it. No Knife were at one point given the opportunity to sell our publishing, but Mitch (Wilson, guitarist/vocalist) wasn’t into the idea. The song “In the Sea” was actually written for a surf film directed by Dana Brown, whose father Bruce directed The Endless Summer. It’s supposed to come out later this year. But yeah, I’d love to do more work with film. I’ve actually had one song licensed already, the aforementioned “Suddenly.” It was on that game The Sims 2. I’m not a video game guy, maybe cuz I’ve always sucked at them, but I still get plenty of emails from people who heard me through the game.
So what does the immediate future hold? You mentioned that it’s hard to keep a touring band together, which must mean that you’re thinking of touring?
I’d love to tour. I think it’s absolutely essential to every band. But at this point, it’s gotta make sense. I hope I don’t come off as pretentious, but I’ve done it enough now that it’s not beneficial for me to put something together and play to 10 people every night. We’re currently looking for a U.S. agent, but we just got someone in Europe. I’m really excited about it, cuz in all those years, No Knife never made it over. I actually feel kinda bad that I’ve got a full-length out, and what am I doing? Sitting in a parking lot outside Costco instead of on the road. (laughs) Hopefully, next year I’ll be in a situation to be able to tour my ass off.