IN DEPTH: Bill Ryder-Jones
24 Feb 2016
Sitting down with the intriguing mind of the beloved underground indie hero
In Depth is a new series on RFB where we sit down with an artist we love and get down to the nitty gritty - behind great music, after all, are great minds. First up is Bill Ryder-Jones... read on...
It takes roughly 40 seconds of meeting Bill Ryder-Jones for him to make a dick joke. It then takes another 20 for him to berate himself because of the former. Such is the contradictory internal world of the ex-Coral man turned critically-acclaimed soloist. In conversation, Bill is funny, sad, frustrating and intriguing, often all within the space of the same sentence. He's someone you want to know, and such is the heart-on-sleeve, often heart-in-pieces appeal of his records too (not least his much-lauded most recent effort, 2015's 'West Kirby County Primary'): more than most musicians currently releasing, Ryder-Jones reflects the tangled web of the human condition in frank and honest form.
Initially, the premise of this interview was a simple treatment of digging into the texts, tracks and tomes that make him tick. As someone who's career has gone from the warped psychedelic freak-pop of The Coral (who Ryder-Jones was a member of for five albums from their formation through to 2008) to writing the imagined soundtrack to conceptual Italo Calvino novel If On A Winter's Night A Traveller to appearing as a touring guitarist on Arctic Monkeys' most recent stadium jaunt, Bill's sphere of influence is clearly varied and wide. But whilst it'd be easy to list a series of bands and books (Gorky's Zygotic Mynki, Charles Bukowski's Ham On Rye etc) that Bill mentions, what makes the singer someone who fans genuinely relate to and hold dear isn't a knack for a credible playlist or an intellectual bookshelf but the thoughts behind the choices within them.
“I think about myself and how I used to have a dice and make these football games up where i'd just list football teams and roll the dice and that would be their score. I'd do it for hours and it used to make me so happy,” he muses, swigging on a beer in the midst of a dressing room full to the brim with guitar pedals, empties and slices of ham – a hummus and carrot sticks affair, it is not. “I look back on that as a quite frankly bitter Northern 32-year-old and I think, 'God you poor fucking sod'.” He's talking about his relationship to Bukowski's potentially most purposefully naïve novel, written about the author's childhood self before drink and despair took their toll. Bill's had his fair share of both of these things too. He speaks openly of his previous battles with drugs (he now doesn't like having his photo taken while smoking because “[his] nan's been through enough [with him] already”) and of the dissociative disorder that's forced him over the years to quit his old band, a university degree and often reality.
Understandably given his own history, Ryder-Jones' affinity for the text is rooted in its purity and this feeling of innocence lost. “I have an issue with romanticising the shit end of life,” he states. “I grew up at 16 thinking that Ian Curtis was the coolest thing because he killed himself and his lyrics were made so much more powerful and affective because he couldn't cope, when the reality is that they exist beautifully on their own without that context”. He's a firm believer in being open and honest about his struggles, “even if it makes you uncomfortable”, and that these taboos should be broken down rather than fetishised in the artistic world. Over Christmas, the singer posted an open call on his Facebook page offering an ear to bend for people having a tough time of it over the season. When dozens of people replied, he went through responding to each individually.
These ideas of musician and music as a mental balm run throughout the answers Bill gives. “It's not a very manly thing to admit, but it can be quite oppressive being around other 'young men' [when you're young] and I found real solace in the way [Gorky's lyricist] Euros Child was writing,” he explains of his love of the Welsh cult band. “I remember being 14 and all the lads in our school would go out drinking on a Friday and I just wanted to stay at home and watch telly with my parents. I felt a real guilt for it, like I was a real pussy for not wanting to go out and get pissed. Then I found [Euros] and everything he said lived in my bedroom and that was my world. It just meant everything and it still does.” Clearly, it's a quality – of a kind of relatable, flawed outsider-ness – that the singer has inherited himself, but nestled within this is a sad awareness of the fuelling aspect within it: that the toughest lives essentially often lead to the best art. “Music is a consolation prize,” he shrugs. “You've already fucking lost if you're involved in it unless it's trance or something. Artists aren't happy. People who love music aren't happy, otherwise they wouldn't be interesting. Footballers are happy. Because they don't need that shit. We're put in a corner and we find music as a way of expressing something that isn't really attainable to us. People with good genetics see their future and they go and attain it and the rest of us just wind up somewhere.”
Critically, Bill clearly doesn't see the tortured artist schtick as a good thing. It's the best or only way he's found of fighting his way out of a corner that life or genes or a combination of the two have backed him into. Sometimes it works – like the times when he'll make wise-crack about getting a Number One album with The Coral or charming girls into the bedroom by baring his soul. Sometimes it doesn't – like when he calls himself selfish, refuses to accept that his music could be doing for others what Gorky's and the like did for him and repeatedly uses the phrase “I know what I am” when you try and tell him he's not that bad. As he agrees, he makes it hard work to be nice to him.
In an ultimately confusing world, Bill's trying to make the best of it to very degrees of success. His own demons might try and sabotage him every now and then, but you hope that in the end he'll realise that, musically at least, he's doing far, far better than most.
Bill Ryder-Jones plays the Scala with support from Beach Baby and Trudy on March 3. Tickets and info here: http://bit.ly/1QwieBL
Photo: Charlotte Patmore