Talking Techno: Ryan Smith Recounts His Muiscal Journey
Ryan Smith is a musician who co-directs Crowbar Corner Studio, San Francisco’s only 24 hr access electronic music production studio, housed within the historic Gray Area Theatre. From touring with the popular band Caribou to working on his own projects like Bathing and Taraval, Ryan continually strives to push the boundaries of electronic music production at Crowbar Corner and beyond.
On Friday August 28, Ryan’s group Bathing will premiere a live performance on Patch in collaboration with Brandon Eversole, a fellow artist from Gray Area’s Incubator program. The show will combine Bathing’s deep ambient music with Brandon’s signature visuals. In this exclusive interview, we got a chance to catch up with Ryan and ask him about his musical journey, the upcoming performance, and his life under quarantine.
What inspired you to pursue music as a career?
I grew up in a household with music in it — my dad played in a really cool 60’s band in Canada, and my mom currently sings in a gospel choir. I grew up with my parents’ record collection, so I listened to groups like Pink Floyd and the Beatles and just got into music that way. I took piano lessons when I was really young, but then I found a guitar lying around and I got into classic rock when I was a kid. I started lessons and played in some bands with friends in high school. And then I kind of just accidentally fell into being a musician through my work with the band Caribou. So, the Caribou, Dan Snaith, is one of my oldest friends. We grew up in Ontario, met in middle school, and stayed friends in high school and college. Dan moved to England to pursue his music, and put out a record called Up in Flames, which is the second Caribou album. At some point before he left Canada I was like, “Look, if you ever want to form a band to play your music live, give me a call.”
I was living in Toronto in my early 20’s, and didn’t really have much of a direction in life, to be honest. Dan just phoned me up and was like, “Hey, do you want to move to London and come play music? I’m going to try and tour this record.” And so I moved over there, and basically just figured out how to turn Dan’s dance music into a live show. So he works by himself in his basement making the music, and then when we do the live thing and figure out a way to bring his music to the stage. It’s fun because I still get to kind of be a fan of his music in a way.
While continuing to tour with Caribou, you also explored your own direction within the electronic scene. How did you begin to forge your own path as a professional musician?
Techno has always been around in my musical upbringing. In my teenage years, the techno explosion in North American and European filtered into the small town I was living in. There was a minimal rave scene in Canada, so I almost came from the psychedelic aspect of it, like in the way that it related to space rock music. I didn’t quite fully appreciate the disco and R&B influences until I was a bit older, and got more into that side of music.
Living in San Francisco for the past few years, I took a stab at making my own music. I was tinkering around at home in between Caribou tours, made a few tracks, and sent them to Kieran Hebden from Four Tet, and I was like “Hey I made this track,” and they were like “Oh this is wicked, make more!” I was actually having a really hard time with it; all musicians struggle with confidence when they first start out. But Kieran was like “Look, I’m gonna put out your music, so you better make some more tracks and finish them up because like, now you’ve got a 12 inch coming out in a few months.” So he pushed me to finish up these tracks, and inspired me to get them how I wanted through this deadline, which is always good for me for working in music.
Bathing is another of my projects. My wife Emma and I wanted to create some fun music, so I showed her a bit about synths, drum machines, and composing at home. It was the most low-stakes music I ever made, but we ended up really liking it, and then we started playing shows and really fun gigs around the Bay Area. It was very casual, but somehow it turned out really nice — maybe the casualness is part of what made it so good. The Bathing music is very minimal and is aimed to be more relaxing and enveloping, so it’s good to have that relaxed vibe.
These days, it seems like all the new innovations in music are coming out of genres like techno and electronic music. Do you find yourself feeling as though you’re on the cutting edge of music?
The edges of music are getting really wild through AI and Machine Learning. I was also involved in the Nsynth project, which was done through the Magenta Labs at Google. The project was pushing towards the future of music technology by essentially using AI to generate novel new sounds. Music technology now is obviously very sophisticated. What you can have just on your computer would blow the mind of someone who was trying to construct a professional studio in the 60’s. These tools are either free or really cheap, and it’s fun to just experiment with them and learn all these cool elemental recording techniques. The cool thing with the digital world of music is not only the incredible sonic tools that you have access to, which could either be like making a really innovative new synthesis method or sequencing method, but also the fact that you have them in your home and can kind of tinker with them in an ‘amateurish’ way.
You’re involved in the Gray Area Incubator program through a studio called Crowbar Corner. How has your involvement in the Incubator impacted your career as a musician?
Crowbar Corner, the studio space, has been around for 4 or 5 years. It was founded by Jacob Sperber, who runs Honey Sound System; he and I are basically co-directors of Crowbar Corner. I had met Jacob really casually before, and he knew that I was looking for a studio space, so I ended up coming on board. From there, I branched into more involvement with Gray Area itself. I put on this performance of a piece called Tactus Tempus, an early generative composition with no central tempo. It was pretty experimental, so it really could have only happened at Gray Area!
I’ve also started teaching some classes on modular synthesis as I’ve got more involved in the art and education side of things. It turned out really well, and it’s the first time I’ve ever taught a class or done anything like that. I really enjoyed it, and it’s ended up being one of my favorite things I’ve been able to do in the last few years. Honestly, Gray Area has been life-changing for me.
Given the contemporary music scene, do you think it’s necessary for aspiring musicians to become familiar with the tech aspects of music production?
As a musician, you have a whole world opening up to you through technology. It’s really helpful to have a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) so you can record yourself, play along to a metronome, or layer up your sounds. I do sometimes think people get a bit caught up in the technology side of it, but I think it’s good to have those tools available to you. Even if you’re just starting to learn guitar, just the fact that you can plug it in, record yourself, and access that is really helpful in learning an instrument. If you’re a musician you should follow your nose, and if you’re not super excited about the tech side of things, then you should just learn the instruments, the songwriting, and the pure performance side of it.
The interesting thing is, if you look at the great bands from the 60’s and 70’s who made enduring music that people still like, there were so many people involved. You’ve got the musicians themselves learning their instruments, plus they might involve a songwriter, and they would also have a studio engineer and a producer. Then they would tour with all these techs and people to fix and modify their instruments, pedals, or amps. Modern technology gives you an opportunity to learn a fair bit of all that stuff yourself and do it at home, but on the other hand, there’s something lost when you’re just isolated by yourself in your house and missing out on that collaborative aspect.
Do you find your music is influenced by other artists working at Gray Area?
Definitely. What’s awesome about Gray Area is that I’ve got this studio space there, and I can just go in and use it as a conventional music studio or to practice music, but then — to give you the perfect metaphor — there’s a wall separating me from the main hall in in the Grand Theater, where performances take place. Sometimes there’s more or less ‘conventional’ music, like a live band playing in there, but more often than not they have more ‘art music’ type stuff going on.
Every once in a while in the studio, I’ll take off my headphones and there will be some amazing sound coming out of the performance space. I’ll go stick my head in there, and there’ll be some incredible composer who’s making music with lasers or something. Being in that kind of environment is amazing. There are some multimedia performance-type places like Gray Area in Europe, but I think Gray Area is really unique for the US in that it works both as a conventional performance space, and then also as this unique art performance space. Those kinds of environments are really inspiring, because one week you might see a more regular band play, the next week it’ll be an art exhibition, and the next something bridging both of those worlds. You can’t help but be influenced by all the cool stuff that’s happening there.
I’ve done collaborations with other artists at Gray Area as well. At the moment, I’m working with Brandon Eversole, who’s one of the other Incubator artists. He does really cool visual art, and he’s creating visuals for a performance with Bathing at the Grand Theater that’s going to go up on Patch. We’re also probably going to do some future collaborations just because we both like each other’s work.
Tell me more about this upcoming collaboration with Brandon. How did that come to be, and can you give us a sneak peak of the performance?
I just saw Brandon’s artwork and I was like, wow this is really beautiful! Seabrook, who’s the production person at Gray Area, had asked my group Bathing to do something, so I asked Brandon to do the visuals for us. I think this is the first time he’s done visuals for a band, which is surprising because he’s so talented. He listened to our music, then made a sort of visual system and played the visuals live for this performance. We filmed in the Grand Theater in a kind of socially distant concert with no one there. It was a really beautiful collaboration, and it sort of looks like a 1970’s TV show, like where there’s a band playing with these visuals fading in and out, but there’s a really contemporary edge to it. Brandon works a lot with these incredibly high definition video mapped cubes. He’s done all sorts of really amazing stuff with the video that I can’t wait for everyone to see.
We did both the music and the visuals live. It really looks and sounds great, but it also has that kind of improvisational element; at the beginning Brandon was like “Are you going to play the songs exactly the same?” And we really can’t do that because it’s improv based. It ended up being really beautiful, because things are kind of reacting to one another. He set up this cool visual environment for us where some of our gear was on a screen with the visuals, almost like an animated tabletop. The whole thing is incredible.
How do you feel about live-streamed concerts during the pandemic as compared to traditional shows? Have you or your groups experimented with any live-streaming?
Yeah, so I did a DJ set for Fault Radio, a local streaming thing in SF, where I was just sitting at home playing records from my kitchen table. Right now, I’m working with Jessy Lanza; she makes futuristic R&B music, and I’m helping her with her current release on Hyperdub. She’s been doing tons of live streaming and videos, and so I’ve got to see that experience just a little bit removed from being the performer. She said it’s been a really nice way to connect with fans, it makes that human connection you miss when you’re not on tours. Honestly, I’m of two minds about it. Seeing performances mediated through Zoom, Instagram, and all that is nice, but I’m a little bit skeptical of people trying to replicate the feeling of a live show over Zoom. If you talk to people involved in mental health, generally speaking, experts in that area will tell you that spending a lot of time on Zoom isn’t great for you — it’s a weird human experience. One of the great things about music is the human side of it. So I think there’s something lost there.
What have you been listening to lately? Any recommendations?
Right now I’m listening to this really great compilation of Indonesian psych-rock from the 70’s. I’m really into it because my friend Vincent Bevins just put out a book called The Jakarta Method. It’s all about American covert anti-communist operations in Indonesia in the 60’s and 70’s, and so I’ve been listening to the music from that period. And it’s been really awesome to get into that; to hear the music and read the story of that part of history in Asia.
This is slightly embarrassing, but I’ve also kind of regressed into being a real Deadhead recently. I’ve been listening to loads of live Grateful Dead records from the 70’s and have really fallen under the spell of the Jerry Garcia ballads. I also want to shout-out my friend John Elliot, who was in the band Emeralds, and makes music under the name Imaginary Softwoods and Organic Dial. He’s been reissuing all the Emeralds catalog and also putting out new Imaginary Softwoods records, which are really beautiful. Check them out!
A long time touring musician with the band Caribou, Ryan also produces futuristic techno music under the moniker Taraval, makes modular ambient music in the live electronic duo Bathing, and has a long running collaboration with Jeremy Greenspan of the Junior Boys running the label Geej. He is an expert level user of Ableton, Max For Live, VCV Rack (virtual modular synthesis environment), numerous hardware instruments, and an accomplished guitar player.
Be sure to tune in for Ryan’s stunning audiovisual collaboration with Brandon Eversole on August 28. The concert will be streamed on Patch — you can RSVP here!
This article was written by Sam Silverman, Editorial Intern at Gray Area.