by: Thomas D. Mooney
Last week, we caught up with American songwriter Ryan Bingham. He had just arrived in San Francisco that afternoon, the fourth date on his current string of acoustic tour dates across the Western Coast and Southwest.
For the vast majority of 2015, Bingham has been nonstop traveling and playing in support of his fifth official album, the excellent Fear and Saturday Night, both in acoustic settings and with full band in tow. The album lends itself to both sides and aspects of Bingham and very well could be the most accurate and quintessential album of his decade-plus long music career.
Where Mescalito captured Bingham as a lonesome drifter and filled to the brim with dusty cowboy songs, Roadhouse Sun was a gritty rocking honk-tonk experience. Junky Star was a depression-era Woody Guthrie blues-tinged songwriter’s dream and Tomorrowland was Bingham’s spacey garage rocker from the future that helped shake the
Texas Country assertions.
It’s here on Fear and Saturday Night where Bingham has been able to truly throw every bit of his songwriting personalities on one piece of work. It’s every bit of those various masks Bingham has acquired over the years. It’s the beauty of Saturday Night.
Still, when a songwriter tries to blend various sounds, styles, and musings, it often is filled with compromises on those sounds and styles. It’s often comes with compact, bland concepts and approaches. Bingham was able sidestep all those problematic areas with Saturday Night.
That partly comes due to Bingham’s continuing exploration and evolution as a growing, improving songwriter and artist. He isn’t dead set on repeating the past and being a caricature of previous works. It’s still a push with Bingham’s song subjects. There’s still a drive with Bingham’s metaphors and diction. He’s still intrigued. It’s still the pursuit of finding the good, the bad, and ugly in the American dream and story.
The linchpin is Bingham still seeking for the truth. People often think that the purity of truth in songwriting (and creative writing in general) is the most important aspect of the craft. Rather, the hunt and pursuit of the truth is just, if not more, paramount.
Bingham, he’s a is slice of that truth.
Ryan Bingham will be performing tonight (Saturday, Nov 28) at The Cactus Theater in Lubbock. Watch Bingham perform “Nobody Knows My Trouble” on Jam In The Van below.
New Slang: This new album, you wrote the majority out in an isolated airstream trailer. Did you go in with a notebook full of ideas and sketches or was it primarily a blank slate and letting the organic process once you got there?
Ryan Bingham: I pretty much started from scratch up there. I had a few melodies and musical ideas, but that was about it. I really did go up there with a clean slate and a blank notebook. It was letting stuff happen there.
NS: Have you been that way in the past–do you need a clean slate when starting a new song or do you have that notebook full of one-liners and half-baked ideas that you like to look through to get it all started?
RB: It really doesn’t matter. I take it as they come. Sometimes I’ll have ideas developed, but I really just wait for them to happen. I’ve never really been one to put pen to paper and formulate a process. A lot of times, I’ll come up with little melodies and musical ideas on the guitar. I’ll maybe have a line or two, but I won’t necessarily write it down. I’ll save it in my upstairs [laughs].
NS: Yeah. I remember speaking with someone who didn’t really write down any of their ideas as they were coming up with them because he figured if it was a good idea, he’d remember them. In a way, it’s a filter.
RB: Yeah. The good stuff will stick with you. I definitely have some stuff I regret not writing down though [laughs]. There’s a few things that probably could have turned into songs. You have to get out and live a bit before you have stuff to write about. I’m not going live every day going around with a pencil and paper writing down every little memory. You have to be present in the moment and hopefully remember it when you need it.
NS: “Snow Falls in June” from the new album is probably my favorite moment on the album. Do you remember what line or moment that really kicked the song off? Do you remember how long it took to get that final version?
RB: Man, I really don’t. I kind of get into the middle of those songs without remembering what line really came first. A lot of times, it’ll start with a chorus line. I can imagine that was started with the snow falling in June and working around it from there.
Some songs, I write in a matter of hours. Some take a day. Some of them, I’ll have parts written and have to come back to them later. It really depends on what kind of mood I’m in. What kind of head space. Some songs can definitely be heavier than others and you really have to be in a certain mood to write it down. When it happens faster, you have an emotion that’s overwhelming every other sense that you have. Those songs tend to pour out rather fast. You write it down as you’re saying it out loud.
NS: One of my favorite aspects of Fear and Saturday Night is the various guitar tones used. At times, they’re very dirty and garage rockish. Other times, they’re sharp and have slickness to them. There’s a great variety. When you guys were recording the album and really filling out the songs, how involved are you in finding those tones and sounds? Are you really hands on or do you kind of let the players explore?
RB: I have ideas going into it as far as a direction goes, but it really goes to the players. You really have to give credit to Daniel Sproul and Jedd Hughes. They both played guitar on the record. We all approached the record with wanting to have sort of a classic feel. We didn’t want a whole lot of effects and pedals. It was finding those guitar and amp combinations that have their own thing–and lot of it is in the fingers of those guys playing guitar.
I really like getting in there and letting people play what they feel. Play what the song calls for and not really have things so constructed. You get in there and play along to the song and wait for some beautiful mistakes that turn into licks. You build on that. It was really fun getting in there and cutting those guys loose. When you get guys who can play like that, it’s really best to turn them loose and let them have at it.
NS: Was there any song that really took a surprising turn in sound? Was there anything you ended up scrapping once you got into the studio and ended up turning into something else?
RB: I don’t know. That’s kind of a tough one. I really tried developing them as much as I could before we went into the studio. I recorded demos at home and overdubbed little guitar parts of some ideas I had and sent those to the guys before going to record. We spent a couple of weeks in my living room just rehearsing the songs on acoustic guitars. They really were developed before going in and remained on track.
NS: With this album, you’ve been going off and doing more acoustic tours. You’re currently on an acoustic run right now. Do you think this is something you couldn’t have done earlier in your career? Maybe you’re more comfortable with it being just yourself on stage and being able to hold everyone’s attention?
RB: It’s really how I started. I was running around for three or four years acoustic before I got a band together. It’s kind of like going back. I really enjoy having the freedom to move around on the songs acoustically. You’re able to play different variations of the songs night to night. You’re able to mix it up and play older songs that the band maybe doesn’t know. I enjoy that interaction with the crowd as well. You’re able to tell some stories that go along with a song.
I’ve been trying to work that more into our full band set now as well. We’ve been stripping it down to just acoustic and doing four or five songs full band–then maybe a handful of just myself as well. With this new record, I really wanted the songs to be able to stand on their own. If a song isn’t able to stand up on its’ own on just the acoustic, then there’s really no point going any further with it [laughs].
NS: Richard Bowden has been playing fiddle in the band for a few years now. Obviously that guys a legend around here with all the bands and songwriters he’s played with here in Lubbock. How’d you end up meeting Richard?
RB: I met Richard through Terry Allen. I was down in Marfa hanging out with Terry. I kind of met all those guys around the time through Terry. He introduced me to Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore–all the Flatlanders guys. I kind of got to know him over the years. He’s a mentor out here on the road [laughs]. We all look up to Richard quite a bit. He’s just a beautiful soul and been so inspiring. You really begin to enjoy being out and playing shows more–just doing what we’re able to do.
NS: Speaking of Terry, he sang on “Ghost of Travelin’ Jones” off Mescalito with you. How’d that come about?
RB: I just called him up and asked him. I had originally written that song about Greg Gorman, a friend I used to write songs with. I originally intended on getting him to come sing on the record. He ended up passing away before I got into the studio. I had gotten close to Terry and was talking with him one day and told him about the song and asked him if he wanted to sing on it.
NS: You have a few old albums that are before Mescalito. I know there’s a version of that song on one of them just by yourself. Do you think you’ll ever end up throwing some of that stuff on a compilation or a box set or something?
RB: I don’t know. A lot of those songs ended up being on Mescalito. Some of them are just old rodeo tunes I used to sing around the campfire or in parking lots for buddies. I’ve thought about going in and redoing some of them. Unfortunately I’ve lost a lot of those recordings. Some of them just got lost along the way.
NS: Yeah. Every once in a while, some of them pop up on Ebay or Amazon and they’ll be a hundred bucks or so. It’s kind of crazy [laughs].
RB: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. We used to not be able to sell those motherfuckers for five dollars [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Do you even remember how many pressings you even made of some of those? Like do you remember how many copies of Wishbone Saloon ended up being made?
RB: You know, they were all just home recordings really. I’d record shit all the time at home. I had this little recorder. I bet I had 50 or 60 songs back then. I know one of them was Lost Bound Rails. Wishbone Saloon was one. Songs like “Southside of Heaven” was in the mix of those tunes. My uncle, he still has a lot of that. I need to call him up about it [laughs].