Friday, February 25, 2011

Interview with Ryan Bingham


If you haven’t heard him, you’re missing one of the most compelling, honest, and driving bits of American music to emerge this century. Ryan Bingham has recently moved from the smoky haze of roadhouses and bowling alleys into a much anticipated spotlight. With a shiny new Oscar and a bunch of national media attention trailing them, Bingham and his Dead Horses have been spreading their infectious, rollicking, and heart-rending west Texas style across the globe. With a new album, Junky Star, and a schedule packed with tour dates, the man with the unmistakable voice and laid back mien has been gracious and patient enough to take a few minutes from the almighty road to answer some heady questions from a literary critic.
LC:  Where did you find the airplane for the cover of Junky Star
RB:  We found that plane out at the airport in Chino, California.
LC:  All your albums, including Junky Star and especially Roadhouse Sun, have a pretty clear social conscience, reminiscent of songwriters like Woodie Guthrie and Johnny Cash. Was there a moment where you were really awakened to social or political issues or did that attention to inequality develop over time through your experiences crossing the country? 

RB:  It’s definitely developed over time and from traveling around the globe. It’s one thing to go on a week vacation, but it’s definitely another to wake up in different town everyday of the year. We’re exposed to so much so fast out here. To see the condition of the country and to meet all these different people first hand can be very humbling. 

LC:  On Junky Star, during some of the most desperate songs (“Yesterday’s Blues,” “Lay My Head On the Rail”), and even the ones born of murder (like “Junky Star,” “Hallelujah”), each character seems to ask for or tries to keep a memory of a “you.” That longing seems to humanize these otherwise desolate characters. If these “you”s are actually people, lost loves, friends, companions, what do these songs say about the power of human empathy? 

RB:  Writing has always been a form of therapy for me. It’s a sort of release for me that helps me get stuff of my chest that sometimes can be difficult to talk about. The songs I write are not necessarily about anything in specific. They're mostly bits and pieces of a lot of different things I’ve experienced throughout my life – some from the past and some from the present, and sometimes from the future. Sometimes I’ll write a song thinking one thing and the next day I’ll listen back to it and it will take on a whole new meaning for me. 

I’m not sure if some of the songs are so much as born of murder as they are of just life and death and the struggle in between – the struggle that every human being has to deal with in one way or another. I feel the true power of a song is its ability to translate itself into anyone’s life, where eventually it becomes the listener's song, the listener's own story. 

LC:  How does it feel to constantly be labeled “authentic”? Do you see a danger in that – especially now that you’ve set up shop in L.A? 

 RB:  I’m not too worried about labels. I mean I hear people say that I’m authentic one day and the next day they’re calling me a sellout. People like a lot of different kinds of music and I understand that the songs I write are not for everyone. Unfortunately, everything has to have a label or a genre or some bullshit tag stapled to it, mostly so that the powers that be can sell it and manipulate it. If worrying about being labeled is my worst problem today, then I’m in pretty good shape.

LC:  In other interviews you’ve stated that your musical influences are varied: “from Bob Marley to Bob Wills.” Your lyrics are also so poetic and so American in their sense of movement, attention to landscape, occupation with those left behind, I can’t help but hear echoes of Whitman, Kerouac, and even Proulx. Do you have any literary influences? 

RB:  I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I have been a bit delinquent in the literature department. My wife has been steering me in the right direction and turning me on to the good stuff though, so I’m getting there. I just finished The Catcher in the Rye and wished I would have read that when I was about 16, but I guess it’s never too late.

LC:  A rather obscure Mexican-American writer once said that “I believe that a person is made up of a number of emotions and that the people in turn make up the place in which they live, so only through knowing the people who inhabit a place does one get to know the place itself.” Through your experience traveling the southwest, the U.S., and the world, for that matter, do you agree? How do you understand the relationship between people and place?

RB:  Well, I guess in one way or another you are what you eat. I mean, I think where you grow up and where you live definitely has a huge influence on how you think and how you feel about anything. Just ask a local fisherman in Louisiana how he feels about the BP oil spill in the gulf and then go ask the same question to an oil field worker in west Texas who really likes to eat gulf coast shrimp. 

 LC: And movement: travel and wandering are powerful experiences as well as powerful metaphors (for life, the human condition, etc.). Can you write a little about what movement means to you and how it influences your music? Would there even be a Ryan Bingham or any Dead Horses without the wandering? 

RB:  I think the rhythm of life on the move has been the heartbeat of this band from the start. For the most part I think the reason I got into any of this at all was the desire for adventure and it really had little to do with the music. The music was the tool that enabled me to travel and discover the world. It kept me out of the eight-to-five jobs and let me live life on my own terms. Whether we are searching or hiding, it’s the ultimate escape from the human race – that is until the doors open, anyway.

LC:  Finally, with four heavily makeuped, outspoken women flanking you on a designer sofa, what was it like playing your Oscar-winning ballad, “The Weary Kind,” on The View

RB:  It was terrifying.

Ryan Bingham and his guitar will be playing in-store at Twist and Shout Records on Friday, February 25, 2011 at 4 p.m. The Dead Horses will join him for a 9 p.m. show later that evening at the Ogden.

By: Lindsay M. Christopher


Larry Garner said...

Ryan Bingham all you need to do is listen to hardtimes and bread and water if your not a fan of this man by then you prabably dont get it anyway when i bought the first cd i walked by it on the rack several times it kept making me pick it up played it on the way home his songs make me cry and jump around like a someone at a revival tent powerful stuff

mmk8007 said...

good questions! saw the Seattle and Vancouver shows recently and searching for my next one!

tnrduffy said...

Well thought out the way...the show at the Ogden was amazing...Bingham and the Dead Horses brought their "A" game!!

Andrew said...

this interview was fuckin rad. those four women flanking me would also be terrifying.