Monday, November 28, 2011

Ryan Malloy

I love music.  For me, nothing is quite as exciting as discovering a new band, tracking an album's release, or living through the evolution of a favorite group I've followed since their first song.  I'm also intrigued at how fast modern music moves; much like a stock trader feels behind in the market after going on vacation, I feel lost if I'm ever too lax in sifting through a week's worth of musical activity.  I love how the industry changes, and I love seeing those trends.  For whatever these passions may signify, though, I am still missing out on one critical aspect of music; I cannot play an instrument.  Not one. Blame it on whatever you want, a lack of patience, time, or skill, but I just can't do it as much as I've tried.  This may very well be the reason why I'm so envious of those who can play, and especially those who have the unwavering determination to improve their craft.  Ryan Malloy is a prime example of someone in which I can direct my jealousies. At the beginning of the year Malloy set a lofty goal for himself, one that most people would deem impossible; play 1000 hours of guitar in one year.  Why?  To get better. Remarkably better.  This way he could also gain the confidence to perform his material live and release an album that displays his technique, Ready Or Not.  Influenced by progressive rock and metal, Malloy shows off similar styles solo, using only an electric guitar and his voice to experiment with the various sounds.  Also a brilliant writer, Malloy tracks his progress on a blog for the world to see.  All of this is very impressive to me, so in order to get inside his head I had the pleasure of sitting down with him to talk about music, life, and what drives him to do the insane things that he does.  Feel free to read the interview below, but you can also listen to some tracks at the bottom of the page.  Enjoy.

Tell me a little bit about your background.  What was the moment that first made you pick up a guitar and start playing?
Ahhhh, that was a good moment.  I was in my brother's room and saw his Ibanez sitting under his bed, and on a whim I just said to myself "You know what?  I'm gonna teach myself how to play guitar".  He looked at me and said "No one can do that, you can't just teach yourself how to play guitar".  I may not have taken it that seriously at the time, but once he said that I was like "Well now I gotta prove you wrong" [laughs].  So I've spent the last 8 years doing just that, proving him wrong.  Showing that you can just pick up an instrument and teach yourself.

So you've never had any formal training or instructor to teach you how to play?
Not on guitar.  I mean before I played guitar I took bass in middle school, so I had to take bass lessons for that. Stand up bass, not electric bass.  Other than that, which doesn't in any way effect my playing now, yeah I've never taken any lessons.

So you started off college as a math major with no real intention of pursuing music as a career.  What was the turning point where you said "Hey, maybe this happen!"?
I was at this place called the Worldwide Center of Mathematics, which produces digital calculus textbooks, and I was writing the solution manual for integral calculus, which is thrilling as you can imagine.  There was this one problem that I kept trying to do, and I would just sit down and be like "All right, you know what?  I'm just gonna get it done". Then I would stare at it for like 20 seconds and be like "Ehhh maybe I'll just work on something else and come back to it", and I did this like 10 times.  Eventually I just buckled down and I thought I'd write down everything I know on the board, write down everything I'm trying to prove, write down the names of theorems that might be relevant, and just don't stop writing stuff until you've figured it out.  So I'm staring at the little white board I was writing on, just kinda staring at it, and was like "Know what?  Fuck this".  So I took my sharpie and without thinking about it started writing on the board: "There is no clearer indication that I should not go to grad school than my complete lack of interest and lack of ability to do this problem, I was put on this planet to make music".  It was all a stream of consciousness, I wasn't even thinking about what I was writing.  I kinda took a step back and stared at it, and thought "This feels right. This is normal!".  It also helped that there was some beautiful Porcupine Tree music playing in the background.  It was very inspiring.  Delicious.  But yeah, once I read that I thought "Cool, let's roll with that!"  I just had, like, this wave of energy man and I just rolled with that wave, surfing that energy wave [laughs].

So I've heard from a lot of people that when someone is good at math, or thinks mathematically, that it also translate into being good at music, that music is very mathematical.  As a musician and someone who is also great at math, do you find this to be true?  If so, does it help you?
No, that's bullshit [laughs].  Anyone who says that, that their mathematical abilities translate to their musical abilities, probably doesn't really understand what math is about.

Really?  That's interesting because I've heard that a few times.
Yeah, well the few people you've talked to are probably stupid [laughs].  Maybe lower level math, like the stuff you do in middle school, there might be some kind of a correlation.  At the college level, though, the kind of math we do is so abstract.  I mean there comes a point where you basically stop using numbers, and there are symbols and strings of characters.  How can that possibly correlate to music!?  Maybe deep down there is some kind of magical spark in the brain that controls both mathematical thinking and musical thinking, but when you look at the kind of stuff you study in college, no.  There is no real relation in my humble opinion.

Earlier you mentioned Porcupine Tree, is that a band that inspires you?  What other artists and bands inspire you when it comes to making music?
Ummmm, Porcupine Tree a little bit.  That's one of those bands where I kind of have to be in the right mood for, but yeah I totally respect their music.  The big influences over time have been The Red Hot Chili Peppers, at first when I started playing guitar that was all I was listening to, that flavored a lot of stuff a lot of stuff I do, there's always a little bit of that funk.  But more recently I've been in to Dream Theater, cause John Petrucci, the guitarist for them, he's just a god at guitar.  It's absurd what he can do.

You like those Youtube videos where he destroys the universe with a guitar?
[Laughs] Yeah where he shreds like 60 million notes and then everyone dies.  But yeah, not only do I love the music he creates, but just his philosophy and what he has to say about it inspires me to be the best possible version of myself that I can be.  And it's a similar sort of relationship with Steve Vai's music.  He has somewhat of a different philosophy towards music, like Petrucci is a technique mastermind, but Steve Vai is more of an expressive genius.  He does a lot of interesting stuff with the whammy bar, and he's known for sounding weird but creating these textures that no one else does. But the thing they have in common is that they're both really excellent musicians and really excellent songwriters, so between the two of those I'm like "Wow.  I need to be like these guys".

It seems to me that the stuff you're in to falls under the "progressive" category, like progressive metal or progressive rock.  You're music also sounds progressive, just without the backing band.  I'll be honest, to me it seems "progressive" has died down a little bit, the only bands I know of in the present are groups like Porcupine Tree, Opeth, Mastodon, and perhaps the Mars Volta.  What's your take on the current progressive metal and progressive rock scene?
I don't know if I'd be the best person to ask the about the "scene", but yeah I love progressive stuff, I love pushing things in new directions and experimenting with different time signatures.  I realize that's never going to be THE most popular type of music, people are still going to like their 4/4 signature and their bass beats and stuff like that.  But I do think there is a fairly sizable minority of people out there who really do appreciate this kind of experimental progressive stuff.  People who can take something they've never heard and instead of saying "Huh, that's different", they actually think about it and it challenges their perception of what music is limited to.  So yeah, I'm never going to be the guy that everyone loves, and that's fine, but I do think there are people out there who can appreciate what I'm trying to do with music.

Talking a little more about the lack of a band, do you find it difficult producing as a solo artist without having members to bounce ideas off of or record with?
No, it's basically all I know at this point.  I've never tried recording with a band so I don't have a point of comparison.  The solitary creative process, the reason why I love it so much, is that when you have a particular idea in your head, like a melody and a harmony that you think would sound really good together, when you've got other people to record with or you're willing to lay down multiple tracks to make a recording happen, then it becomes really easy to make these ideas a reality.  You can have the bass player play this melody and then the guitar playing a harmony on top of it, but when it's just you sitting by yourself and you're having these ideas that are easy for multiple people, the same ideas can be very difficult to execute for one person.  So by forcing yourself, or forcing myself, to play by myself it forces me to become a better player in order to achieve the ideas I want.

A lot of your songs are instrumental, but on the songs that you flex your voice the result is pretty fantastic.  Do you plan on being more lyrical in your future songs?
Hmmmm, it kinda depends.  Right now I'm working on a concept album that has a very clear-cut story that needs to be told.  So with that I don't really have a choice, the songs need to convey the ideas, so I'm making a point of writing lyrics for each and every song.  But other than concept stuff, no.  I don't really feel any pressure to make more songs with lyrics.  I am totally comfortable with writing instrumentals, probably more comfortable than writing songs with lyrics, it comes naturally to me.

Let's talk about the blog for a little bit.  Why did you start one?  What made you want to publicize your quest for 1000 hours in a year?
I don't really know.  The idea of adding a blog to it just popped into my head and seemed like a natural fit.  There are two reasons why I think the 1000-hour quest is valuable for me; one is with that many practice hours I'm going to get better.  Like, that's the point.  If I'm not getting better for practicing 1000 hours then I'm doing something seriously wrong.  But I think the other reason why it's valuable is that any time you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you learn things about yourself and what you're doing that are worth reflecting on.  And I think anything worth reflecting on is worth sharing, you know?  I try to extract ideas and lessons from what I'm doing that I think are applicable to a lot of different fields and interests.  So why wouldn't I share it? It seems logical.

You mention going outside of the comfort zone, and for a large majority of people 1000 hours of guitar is way out of the comfort zone.  With that said, what kind of reaction do you normally get from people who hear about this goal of yours?
At first I kind of kept it to myself, at least before I started doing the blog.  Then, I dunno, I don't think people were too surprised.  I mean, I do weird shit [laughs].  I try to, well, I dunno, I'm trying to think of a good way to phrase this without sounding like a pretentious cock, but I usually do things differently.  I'm known within my friends as being the guy who is not gonna do things the same way as everyone else.  I mean, the simplest example is the fact that I don't drink.  I'm not even Mormon man, I just don't want to, shit like that.  Everyone else is gonna be talking about sports, I'll be talking about how I'm gonna be changing the world and fucking arrogant shit like that [laughs]. Plus before I started the quest, I already spent a lot of time sitting on my chair playing guitar, so it wasn't really that surprising for people I don't think.

At the time of this interview, you're 114 hours ahead of schedule.  Your required pace puts you at 423 hours, yet you have completed 536.5 hours!  This goal almost seems easy for you.  It's sort of what you were saying, that you play a lot already, is this just natural for you?  Was this a normal pace you were keeping up already?
Well, I started the quest during the summer when I was sort of employed, but not really [laughs].  I had a lot of spare time.  During the summer, I said to myself "You know it's going to get really hectic during the school year, so try and get as far ahead of schedule now as you can".  So by the time school started, I was already 30 or 40 hours ahead of schedule, which was good.  As my interest in schoolwork waned, and my interest in guitar got stronger, I found it really easy to keep up with the pace I did over the summer just by not doing homework [laughs].  I can always make hours up over the weekend, too, like I feel totally comfortable just spending literally an entire Saturday just playing guitar.  There's one day I literally sat and played guitar for 10 hours!  That's not normal behavior!

That's a lot.
Yeah [laughs].  By the end of it my brain and fingers were totally fucking fried, but it felt good!  I do it cause I love it, man.  Once you get moving it's just not a chore anymore. Of course there are some days you just don't wanna fucking do it, you wanna watch Youtube videos and pull your wiener, but there other days you just don't wanna stop.  So why should I?  Am I really going to stop and do homework?

Is that the shift that has happened, where guitar has become more important to you than schoolwork?  Has it become the situation where it's like "Shit, I have homework, so now I can't play guitar"?
Yeah pretty much.  I wish I could say schoolwork interests me as much as it did before, which is not to say I was ever a straight-A student or anything like that, but I was interested in what I was learning.  I didn't want to be one of those college kids that was there because they want a degree; I was genuinely interested in learning more about math, computer science, physics, and all of those shenanigans.  But now, yeah, it's sad to admit it but I am becoming that person who is there because they need a degree.

Well, we all are!
Yeah [laughs].  There are plenty of people in that position, so might as well join the club.

Which modern music website, like Myspace or Bandcamp for example, has helped you the most in getting your name recognized?
Well, I put all of my music on Bandcamp because people can download and listen to it for free.

Yeah, as someone looking from the outside, it seems to be absolutely fantastic. Sometimes I browse that site for hours on end.
Oh yeah, it's a very simple, clean, interface.  Before Bandcamp I tried using ReverbNation and it's so cluttered and noisy, you can't even find on the screen where the play button is!  But with Bandcamp, it's very simple.  There's just one purpose; the song, with a little description, the lyrics and maybe another link.  That's it.  I like that, simple is good.  With that I try and do grassroots promotion, I post on a couple forums and engage with that community.  I try not to shove it people's faces though, I am just like "Hey, here is a piece I am working on.  Feedback?"  Just see what people have to say and start a conversation.

You've found that helpful?
Yeah!  A perfect example is when I was trying to decide what cover art to use for "Ready Or Not", my friend Hannah came up with three different ideas that we could've used for the artwork, and rather than just deciding between me and her, I said "Why not let the internet decide?  Whichever one people are most drawn to we'll just use that one".  So I posted on a couple of different threads and forms saying "Just vote!  Tell me what you think!"  I also posted it with a link to the music so they could have a better idea of what the artwork will be for, and it was a real legitimate way of interacting with the community.  Their feedback was useful, and it wasn't a way of tricking them of thinking about the music or listening to it, I was genuinely curious about what they had to say. So I tallied up the votes, picked the one people like the most, and that's why you got the cover that you got.

Your album title is "Ready Or Not", you're album cover is you standing majestically against a backlight, it seems like you're trying to make a statement.  Is that what this album is to you?  A statement?
I didn't have a particular statement in mind when I was putting it together, it's just like hey I've got music!  Might as well record it!  I guess the overall message is what we were talking about before; the idea of one man, one guitar, and then exploring what is possible with just that configuration.  That explains why a lot of genres are represented on the album.  I am mainly a progressive rock or metal kind of guy, but I try and push myself out of my comfort zone with stuff like "Beantown Jamboree", which is a very jazzy number. Then there's "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond", which is a Scottish folk tune.  So while they may sound very different musically, they still go along with that message of one guy, one guitar, what can we do?  So I think it does form a cohesive message overall.

If you could play any place in the world, where it would be?
I want it be somewhere big [laughs].  I imagine myself just sitting on a stage with bright stage lights of all different colors and thousands of people staring at me.  I know that if that ever does happen it's going to take a while, I'm not delusional or anything. But in terms of city, I'm going to school is Boston, and I know that a lot of the Dream Theater guys studied in Boston.  So yea, maybe Boston.  I mean that's where a lot of my music was written and it's where I spend a lot of time practicing.  So if I could ever play a huge show, I think it would be awesome to be in Boston, maybe at the Orpheum Theater where I recently saw Dream Theater.  Just knowing I had gotten to the point where I was on the same stage they had been on, like oh my god, that would be so great [laughs].

And how was Dream Theater live?
It was tasty.  It was sooooo fucking good!  I can't even describe it.  Before that moment, the band members had been an idea, you couldn't even see them as real people.  But then there they are on stage, 20 feet from me, like oh my god!  These are real dudes making sounds right in front of me!

John Petrucci didn't kill you with his guitar?
No, not THAT many people died that night [laughs].

So to finish things off, what can fans expect from you in the future?  Where does Ryan Malloy go from here?
Ummm, I guess more of the same in sense of one man, one guitar.  But I'm always trying to incorporate more musical ideas and new techniques, I never wanna be someone who makes the same old junk over and over again.  Pretty much every song I write I try to find something that I can't do, something I physically can't play at the time that I'm writing it so that I have to get better in order to play the songs that I'm writing.  In that sense, my music will always be getting better, at least in my eyes.  Whether it's going to be better musically for the audience, well, time will tell [laughs].  I can still hope for the best!  For a non-musician looking at a musician who is obsessed with technique, it may not always be clear how that person is progressing or what they're doing differently.  You may think "Oh, you've already learned everything!  What else is there to do?"  But no, there is always something you can't do.  Anything you CAN do, there is always a way you can add a layer of complexity to it, even something as simple as playing faster.  So yeah, that's the future for me, just working on technique, some new musical ideas, and hopefully putting together another album sometime in the near future.

Below are the songs "Coming Back For You", "I'll Do It By Myself", and "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond"  from Ready Or Not.  Be sure to hit up his Bandcamp for a free download, his Facebook for any further information, and of course his 1000 Hours blog to follow his progress.

Coming Back for You

I'll Do It By Myself

The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond

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