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Ryan Traster: Banjo is a four-letter word

Ryan Traster: Banjo is a four-letter word
Photo by Suzy Henningsgard

Funny how a change of heart can take you by surprise. Ryan Traster, Portland resident by way of Minneapolis, is back with a new album immersed in indie-rock -- it's just this time, he's dug a little deeper and hit some country roots. Like Traster, the new album Get Easy cuts straight to the chase, brushes cheeks with brashness, and makes no apologies.

The singer is back in town to share the new album and he, along with bandmate Mike McGarthwaite, share the story behind the new album and talk of their love for the banjo and hate for Mumford and Sons.

On the new album: Mike McGarthwaite - Guitar, Lap Steel, banjo Peter Anderson - Drums Daniel Brummel - Bass Jason Borger - Keys

Gimme Noise: Where are you today?

Ryan Traster: Portland.

Gimme Noise: Has the new album been released yet?

Ryan Traster: Not yet. There's gonna be a release show in L.A. in June, and the official release is June 24. We're releasing it via my friend's label called Loon Vault. He lives in Korea now.

Gimme Noise: On first listen, Get Easy is a lot more Americana/country than anything you've ever released. Do you think this is true?

Ryan Traster: Funny that you mention that, because I feel like it came across that way because of the recording, although I listen to far less Americana music now than I did at the beginning of this solo thing. We did this in L.A., and we only had a week to record.. We rented a house, and there was a studio filled with instruments where we ended up collecting a lot of strings on the album. That's how we made it sound so country -- the arrangements.

Gimme Noise: Who did you have on this album?

Mike McGarthwaite: Peter Anderson helped on drums. He's played on all of Ryan's stuff so far. Peter recorded in Minneapolis, and we took his drum parts in an envelope to L.A. We drew a picture of Peter on the envelope. [laughs] It was a striking resemblance.

One of the most fun things that we realized while we were there were the notions of what the songs would be. We were lucky enough to get dudes out there to play on the record as well. That mix ended up being very cool.

Gimme Noise: There was a lot of banjo on this album. Who contributed the banjo?

Mike McGarthwaite: That was me. It turns out that banjo is actually a four-letter word in L.A. People don't like the banjo. [laughs] So we flew out there and told the producer that I'd be playing the banjo and some mandolin, and he assured us that he could get those things. But a couple of Facebook posts were met with ridicule, so we actually had to rent that banjo to be able to have it on the record.

Gimme Noise: Why do people hate that instrument so much?

Mike McGarthwaite: Maybe they tend to lean more on rock side of things on that side of the country.

Ryan Traster: The Jayhawks used it wonderfully on their album Rainy Day Music -- it's subtle and nice. I love the usage of the banjo, but it gets associated with Mumford and Sons now. Mumford is definitely not cool at all.

Our producer helped make it cool. It's a really interesting story on how I met him. His name's Joe McGrath -- no relation to Mark McGrath. I was hanging out at a bar in New York, and I was really drunk and it was really late at night. Fortunately, it wasn't too late in L.A. I started spouting off on how I thought Love is Hell by Ryan Adams was one of the best sounding records ever. My friend Cory was like, "My band did a record with the guy who mixed and engineered that record, and I know him." I made him give me his phone number; I wanted to talk to him. Against better judgement, he gave me his number, and I called him at 3 a.m. New York time, but it was only midnight in L.A. He's a 50-year-old guy with a family, and he answered, and I started telling him I was going to move to L.A. in two weeks and make a record with him. That's pretty much exactly how it happened. [laughs]

Gimme Noise: I'm glad it worked out. It could have gone either way, and he could have hung up on you.

Ryan Traster: For sure. During our first meeting, I spoke with him about my ideas for the album. I could tell he thought I was insane, but he dug it. It was a match made in heaven.

Gimme Noise: How do you think he changed the album?

Ryan Traster: I had a lot of demos, and he helped pick out what songs he liked the best. He didn't structure too much, but there were a few times he added a bar or a bridge. His best contribution was that he was exactly on the same page as me and Mike. We all wanted it to sound exactly alike.

Mike McGarthwaite: We liked the wide breadth of artists that Joe worked with, so he brought a really good sound to the project.

Gimme Noise: Have you worked with a producer before?

Ryan Traster: We worked with Ed Ackerson on the first EP. He was super awesome, but I was still really green. I didn't have an idea of what I was doing. There wasn't much for him to contribute.

Gimme Noise: I feel Ed runs into a lot of young musicians.

Ryan Traster: He knew how to deal with my supreme idiocy.
 

"When the Morning Comes" by Ryan Traster from Look Sessions on Vimeo.

Gimme Noise: Many of your songs are autobiographical.

Ryan Traster: They definitely are. I feel like every song on the record is very personal.

Gimme Noise: What about the last song on the album, "Keep Us Clean"? As soon as I heard it, I realized that it was amazing. What's the story behind it?

Ryan Traster: I was in a guest house that I had rented in Echo Park in California where I wrote most of the songs. I don't know if there's a story behind it as much as it was a stream of consciousness. I was going through one of those typical late 20s existential moments where I was like, "I don't even know how I got to this moment." With that song, I was reaching back to before I was a songwriter where I wondered how I used to be this kid who played baseball and lived in suburbia Minnesota, and now I'm in Echo Park living a fairly depraved lifestyle. I think I was more questioning the general circumstances of why I was there at that moment.

Mike McGarthwaite: What goes well with the writing on that song is that the recording process paralleled the tune -- as far as being an organic type of thing. Ryan killed the guitar and vocals.

We wanted to figure the texture for that song. I remember it was extremely late at the end of one of those days, but we decided to plug in a last deal. I think the haunting sense came from the last minute approach and included this really saturated effect -- a wailing. It brought out that stuff.

Ryan Traster: I'm happy you mentioned that song, because it didn't fit on the record. It was just me and Mike playing. I guess I forgot about it; it's my favorite one on there.

Gimme Noise: Ryan, what do you think you would be like without Mike?

Ryan Traster: God, I don't even want to know. We've honestly been friends going on 15 years; we went through all of the phases together. It's funny, because even though our lives are so vastly different, we are so similar.

Mike McGarthwaite: I think Ryan and I are the most similar dissimilar people you could probably ever meet.

Gimme Noise: The last time we spoke, you were talking about a break up and life coaches. Is it hard to talk about personal situations in your songs?

Ryan Traster: No, I read interviews with a lot of songwriters, and they say it's difficult to have a lot of stuff exposed. Maybe I have the luxury of not being super famous, but I don't look at my songs as if a lot of people are going to hear them. From my perspective, it's very cathartic.

With that being said, when I write, I rattle off whatever's in my head, and it's not until after that I can sit down and figure out what it's about. I've been writing so long, I've got a method down. That's how I operate creatively.

Gimme Noise: You had posted a while ago about someone asking what you would do if this music thing doesn't work out. I don't think I ever saw your response to that.

Ryan Traster: I get that question a lot, especially, sadly, from family members. I guess the only thing I can say is it's not relevant to my situation, because it's what I am. It's what I do. It's like asking someone, "What if that whole heartbeating thing doesn't work out?"

That's what I do. I wake up, I write songs, I play songs, and I think about the next songs I'm going to make. I go to bed thinking about the next song. Unless I stop putting out albums -- and even if I don't make music off of it -- I'll still be a musician.

Ryan Traster will release Get Easy at the 7th Street Entry on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 with Moonmaster and Julia Read.
18+, $10, 8 pm
Purchase tickets here.

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