Ryan Bingham: I kinda miss the spontaneity of my rodeo days

Ryan Bingham: I kinda miss the spontaneity of my rodeo days
Photo by Anna Axster

Ryan Bingham's voice sounds like the guy has spent decades blowing through cartons of cheap cigarettes and gallons of cheaper whiskey somewhere along the lonely, broken mid-American highways. A former bull rider who spent a good chunk of his teens and early 20s on the rodeo circuit, Bingham bounced around the country without a home base before he finally found roots in music.

The New Mexico-born, Texas-raised troubadour is based now in Los Angeles, where he claims he's "settled down." His fourth album, titled Tomorrowland, was released on his new label, Axster/Bingham Records (a break from his previous three, all released on Lost Highway). Tomorrowland is fresh Americana spiced with gritty rock and electric guitar riffs. For fans who might know Bingham first through his award-winning original song "The Weary Kind" (from 2009's Academy Award-winning film Crazy Heart), Tomorrowland might take them by surprise: it's fast-paced, heavy on the rock 'n' roll, and full of swinging attitude.

Ahead of Bingham's show this Sunday evening at First Avenue, Gimme Noise caught up with the singer-songwriter to talk about where this new album came from and how he's doing independently. (Imagine Bingham's answers in a soft, West Texas accent.)

Gimme Noise: Tomorrowland is your fourth studio album, and you're a long ways down the road from when you first released your debut in 2007. What's been the most significant change over the past six years?

Ryan Bingham: Well, just playing, there's been a lot of growing up in traveling a lot of miles. I've been a lot of places I've never been before.

Overall, I think Tomorrowland definitely gets a little more rock 'n' roll than your previous works. "Guess Who's Knocking" is like a loner's anthem. What inspired the shift in sound?

More than anything, it was just playing a lot of electric guitar. I took some time to play around with it... I was just at home, playing a lot of electric guitar, experimenting, playing with tone, and basically that was the inspiration for the record.

You recently got back from touring Europe. How was that for you? What were the audiences there like?

It was great. It was a different feeling when you're traveling from state to state instead of country to country. They stay quiet, too, the crowds -- that's the deal over there.

I'm struck by something that you said in an interview with the New York Times not too far back, that as a touring musician, you see a lot of harsh realities. That's not something that I hear many touring musicians talk about, though I know you can't be the only one who's noticed. So I'm wondering: What has touring, and seeing the road constantly evolve and change, taught you?

The experiences that I have and places I go to, and when I was younger, living around the Austin, Texas area, that all goes into the music. There's more songs that are just about how the more you travel, the more things you experience, the more you have to take into consideration. Going to Europe and Australia, you have a different outlook, a different experience and opinions, and you start writing about different things. The circle becomes bigger.

You've been on your own since you were 17 and have seen a lot of this country, and a lot of the things you've seen are reflected in your songs. I have to ask: Do you ever miss your rodeo days?

Yeah, I do... You know, back then, it was just such an adventure, every day. We didn't know where we were going to go next. We were just living dollar to dollar, and at the time it was stressful and crazy, but it's such a mystery to be that young and to go off-road. Nowadays, you get the big band together and you have deadlines... I kind of miss the spontaneity of just not knowing where you're going to be the next day.

Does Los Angeles feel like home to you now?

Yeah, it does. I mean, home before that was on the highway and in bars, and I had a different set friends... But I met my wife out here and settled down, and I've kind of started a life out here.

You have your own indie label now. Tell me about your decision to do things independently.

First of all, there's just a lot of cut back in the record business... labels have really downsized. When it came the time to do this record, we were already doing everything. We were really hands-on already, and we were looking at our situation, and it just kind of made sense to do things on our own. I feel like we already had a fan base to connect through with social media, and it just kind of makes things more accessible.

I've met a lot of artists who are good at the self-promotion thing and a lot who just don't have the patience for it, who view it as a waste of their time--time they could be spending creating. Do you feel like doing the behind-the-scenes legwork in the music business will cut into your creative time or, more importantly, impact your enjoyment of it?

It's definitely work. It's definitely a job, and I'm really lucky to have my wife involved... but you know, at the end of the day, I feel really lucky to play music for a living. Whenever I think I've got it rough and I'm frustrated, I think about the days I didn't have enough. So I feel pretty lucky, if all I have to do is make some phone calls. And it helps me stay involved and stay connected to the world. It's all kind of how you look at it. I try to make the best of it and try to have fun with it. I'm just so lucky to get out there and do what I do.

Ryan Bingham is playing at First Avenue on Sunday, March 17 with honeyhoney. Doors at 7 p.m. $20. 18+. Details here

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