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Ryan McGuire: Metal Reasoning


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Bassist Ryan McGuire, a master of classical composition, uses this skill as a strategist in the metal underground. His band Ehnahre is quite unlike any other in that field, baffling committed rock fans with its advanced theory and unstructured time signatures.

In another way, he throws off jazz and improvisation aficionados with his part in the trio The Epicureans. From subtle and silent, to outright savage, this band shake the concept of sound to its foundations, forcing a new look at how it is made, and how it fades away and disintegrates.

Aggressive and intellectual, McGuire hits hard. But emotion and the most serious intent are at the heart of what he does, which can be scary at first, but soon opens up doors to the imagination, where all theory falls away, or renews itself to offer another adventure.

All About Jazz: Now what I first want to say to you, Ryan, is that often when I first hear a Boston musician—anyone from Dave Gross to Joshua Jefferson to Forbes Graham—I don't know what to make of them. They sound strange, they're too quiet, or, in my ears, awkward. But when I first heard you—I think you were playing with Josh Jefferson at The Lily Pad (Cambridge, Mass.)—it immediately struck out at me that you knew what you were doing. You were very potent but you never got in anyone's way. Which is a great feature for a bassist—to be out there and heard, but dance with players where you never got in their way.

Ryan McGuire: Well, thank you very much.

AAJ: Let's start with a brief bio. Where did you grow up?

RM: I grew up in Cape Cod.

AAJ: What town?

RM: Yarmouth. It's mid-Cape.

AAJ: The elbow?

RM: If you look at the Cape as an arm, Falmouth is the armpit, Chatham is the elbow and Yarmouth is somewhere in between...I grew up there, went to high school there, started playing bass when I was probably 14—well I had actually started out by playing saxophone, when I was about eight or nine years old, in public school. I took lessons privately. We didn't have much of a music program in public school. So everything I did was private.

I went out to go to school for music at UMass Lowell for a year, and then I quit that for a while to tour—

AAJ: Was this with Kayo Dot?

RM: No, this was with another rock band I had back at the time. And we were playing around the East Coast and I was busy with that, traveling. And then I went to Berklee, in maybe 2002, 2003, and went through the steps there. I was in Kayo Dot while I was at Berklee. Kayo Dot broke up and I finished school, and I started my band Ehnahre.

It just occurred to me—is that an acronym?

RM: Me and some of my high school friends had a band called Negative Reasoning, so people would call us "NR." And we just decided to change it and spell it out phonetically. And nothing ever really materialized with that but we decided to pick up the name again when we went to start up a new band, after Kayo Dot.

AAJ: H's—you see them in Bhob Rainey's name, or, Sun Ra was Sonny Bhlount when he first came out. What is it with H's?

RM: I don't know. They're popular!

AAJ: Now here's my first question: I imagine you like John Coltrane.

RM: I like Coltrane.

AAJ: Coltrane said he did everything in extremes. Ehnahre does extreme metal; it's a very driving, high-volume band. On the other hand The Epicureans is an extreme on the other end almost— although it does have its savagery. It's very disturbing in one way, but also very quiet. I see you working in extremes. What drives you to those extremes?

RM: I can't really answer that. It's just some innate desire to take it right out to the very edge as far as it can possibly go. Other than that I don't really know. It's just kind of an indescribable force that I just want to push and push and push, further, and out to the edges.

AAJ: Well, you're a peaceful guy, but you look very powerful...And your extremes— they're very calibrated. I see those two sides of you, the peaceful and the powerful, at work, one bringing you back and one pushing you out again.

RM: It is sort of a calculated insanity, going out to these edges. It feels extreme and intense but at the same time it's also very planned. It's thought out.

AAJ: Ehnahre is in many ways a metal band, but it also applies serialism. Do you have a classical background?

RM: I've always been interested in contemporary classical music. At Berklee I studied classical composition. That's where I got my education and writing styles—serialism, atonality, things like that.

AAJ: Did you learn other forms of classical?

RM: The whole spectrum. We had to learn writing styles from early renaissance to baroque, to classical and romantic.

AAJ: I can hear all that—when I first heard Ehnahre, I think it's that loud screaming you do that put me off at first but I listened to it again and I really loved it. Especially at the end when Noell Dorsey and Greg Kelley come in and do that chorale thing...

Upright bass is an unusual instrument for a child to pick up.

RM: I actually started on electric bass. I didn't start on upright until I was about 21, when I was at Berklee.

AAJ: Now the upright bass is heavy—and you play heavy music. Any connection between the two?

RM: I've just always liked big, low frequencies. Even when I was playing saxophone, before I picked up bass guitar, I wanted to play baritone sax. I ended up playing baritone sax. I've just always loved that low frequency. Even as a child I can remember turning the bass all the way up listening to songs.

AAJ: You probably don't want to psychoanalyze yourself...

RM: Yeah, I don't know why, I try not to think about it too much.

AAJ: A lot of things in music can't be put into words. That's why they're music...My next question has to do with The Epicureans. Now you play a stringed instrument in the band; and Ricardo Donoso almost treats his drum like one—the way he uses the bow. He'll stick the bow into the skin. Is he actually cutting the skin when he's doing that?

RM: He's broken a lot of his drumheads. He uses a variety of tools: forks, gadgets, but he's actually sometimes ripping the drumhead.

AAJ: You play pretty aggressively, too.

RM: Yeah, I tend to.

AAJ: Dave Gross plays sax. I once read that Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone as a substitute for a stringed instrument in a marching band. So my theory is that, the way James Brown treated everything as percussion, you and Dave and Ricardo are kind of a string band.

RM: I guess I can hear that. There's definitely that kind of fluidity. It's obviously not very percussive. Dave does this circular breathing and there's this fluidity we try to create in a piece.

AAJ: There are a lot of abrupt changes.

RM: Abrupt shifts, but generally the parts aren't very staccato and the phrases are very elongated. I would say fluid in the sense that it's not rhythmically driving.

AAJ: What brought you three together? Who started the band?

RM: Dave started it. At one of the festivals at the Piano Factory (Boston), I played a solo set. And Dave approached me and said, "I'm looking to start a band. Do you want to play?"

AAJ: So you made an impression on him...He just said he wanted to from a band, not "We're going to do X, Y, Z"?

RM: At the beginning, when he first introduced himself, he didn't mention a direction he wanted to go in. That came more at our first rehearsal. He in his mind had been coming up with—he wanted to come up with a group where it was almost kind of static music. I guess something had been brewing within him to create this band but he didn't articulate it at first, we just started working on it when we got together.

AAJ: Interesting you said almost static. Time always creeps in.

RM: The idea was to take one idea, whether it was bowing one sound, or the fork on the head of the drum but just take that one sound and work with it, for a while and let it develop, just that one sound, and then change. But make those phrases much longer and much more developed.

AAJ: You are an experienced cook and chef. Like music, it's a creative endeavor and it's also about teamwork. Do you see one feeding on the other, or does your day job, or moonlighting, interfere with the music?

RM: It actually tends to interfere with my music quite a bit, but only in the sense of the hours.

AAJ: But you like what you do?

RM: I love what I do...They're so parallel. Cooking, you take your ingredients, and you make something out of it. And music, you take your different ingredients and you create something out of it. Artistically, food isn't quite as abstract as music, but they're both working in the same realm. They feed the same artistic drive in me.

AAJ: Other projects going these days?

RM: I was doing Dilettante, with was Skinny Vinny (Josh Jefferson and Andrew Eisenberg) plus me. I do a little classical writing on my own. I do some side stuff, play on a record here and there. But nothing really focused or serious. My two main projects are Ehnahre and Epicureans.

AAJ: Back to being a cook: there's an element of danger there; getting burned. And when I see The Epicureans live there's great deal of drama and tenseness—tension. At one show I saw, I imagined three guys out in the cold woods at night, trying to build a fire. Dave starts whistling at one point, trying to allay the fear. And I get this sense of impending danger that you're trying to summon up the courage to deal with, and you do. Which is the amazing thing about seeing them live.

What do you feel is captured on the CDs?

RM: I feel like the CD and the live experience are two completely different things...When we do our recordings, we close-mic everything, so that every crick and creak and every little noise can be heard, and it becomes almost this giant wash of sound and you don't know whose doing what. It all gets lost in this monolithic, sort of drone almost—shards of sound coming out from every direction. Everything kind of gets lost, in this one, giant beast.

AAJ: The three bears...Now, Ehnahre make me think of a group like Sepultura. I know Ricardo, especially coming from Brazil, likes them. Are they an influence?

RM: Not at all. Quite the opposite. They're very rhythmic. The pulse is very strong in their music. Whereas Ehnahre, on our first record, there's no meter anywhere, it's just falling apart—all over the place.

AAJ: I was talking to a New York saxophonist, Ras Moshe. He was saying that what drove the traditionalists crazy when the new jazz came out wasn't the noise, but the lack...

RM: Of meter?

AAJ: He said it's what he's heard from older musicians who were there at the time.

RM: I would believe that. That's even kind of trend in metal today. There's a lot of bands who are playing a lot more dissonantly and atonally. But they also have a very strong meter. And our music gets lost on a lot of people because they can't—there's no rhythmic element to grip onto, and it's very alienating for a lot of fans of metal.

AAJ: Now, I was just listening to Coltrane's Live in Seattle, and towards the end of one number on that album, he starts this "Roar! Roar!" and "Om!" What drives you to do the loud yelling?

RM: Growing up, I listened to metal in high school and that was my main musical outlet. And that was always present in what I listened to. And the more screaming and roaring, the more intense the music seemed to me. There's just something about that that still speaks to me today.

AAJ: What groups would they be?

RM: Bands like Morbid Angel, Immolation, Suffocation.

AAJ: More underground types?

RM: These are actually the more popular.

AAJ: How about alternative?

RM: I still love Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden—the grunge bands.

AAJ: Soundgarden, with Chris Cornell—I like the way he screams.

RM: Yeah, he kind of wails...

AAJ: How about Guillevic? Do you like poetry?

RM: I do love poetry. "The Man Closing Up," that we used on our first album [The Man Closing Up (Semata, 200)], was based on Guillevic, but it was written by Donald Justice...When I was in school I wrote a lot of classical art song, and I still write a lot of that today and so I'm always poring over volumes of poetry to find inspiration.

AAJ: Do you write lyrics at all?

RM: No. I use only poets for texts.

AAJ: Will that always be the case?

RM: Yes. I feel like, I'm a musician, not a poet. In the service of the art it would be better for me to use someone whose craft is more skilled in this area. A lot of people think that that's cheating or not genuine, but it's the same as if, if I compose this metal song, I get a drummer to play drums.

AAJ: Now, how far do you look into the future? I asked Vic Rawlings this question when I interviewed him.

RM: What did he say?

AAJ: He said he looks two years. "Beyond that starts to feel grandiose."

RM: I would say I look about two months into the future.

AAJ: There was a novelist who said that writing a novel was like driving in a blizzard where you can only see two feet in front of you. I get that feeling when I listen to The Epicureans, like you are only seeing two seconds in front of you.

RM: Yeah. And you don't know what's coming around the corner.

AAJ: On the other hand you compose. But I guess at the same time, when you're composing you're looking very closely at what's in front of you, too.

RM: It definitely develops very closely from what came before it. Occasionally I'll write with an overarching theme, and certainly using the texts creates a theme, but in terms of where I'm going, what I plan to do—I don't plan too much in advance. Which maybe I should, but as it is I just go with the flow.

AAJ: In Ehnahre, what's the balance between composition and improvisation?

RM: Definitely leaning heavier towards composition. But there are definitely very strong improvisational elements. So there will be very few sections where it's completely free. However, most sections, the guitar will play a phrase, the drum will play a phrase, and it will all be encompassed, this one big phrase—and it might not begin and end at the same time; it's very loose, metrically.

So, we might be doing something where the guitar is playing a phrase and the drum is doing a roll, and the vocal line will go somewhere in the guitar phrase...It's up to the guitarist to choose, "I want to stretch this out or make it shorter." There's a lot of visual cues, and freedom in terms of rhythm. But I wouldn't call most of it free improvisation.

AAJ: What do you feel your music represents, or says? For example, free jazz speaks of freedom, racial freedom.

RM: I would say there's no political or ethical ties...For me the music plays a much more emotional, inner role. More of an introspective...

AAJ: To foster introspection in your listener?

RM: Yeah.

AAJ: On a surface level your music is very extroverted. How does the introspection play out with the loudness? I know there's a lot of complexity at work.

RM: Ehnahre for me is sort of representing introspection on a level of insecurity, really deep fears. It's that looking inside, the part that you don't necessarily convey on the outside and even on a conscious level don't deal with. But way, deep down in, there's this raging, fearful, terrified person. And that's kind of what that music is.

Selected Discography

Ehnahre, Alpha/Omega (Fun with Asbestos, 2010)
Ehnahre, Pipeline Live (Semata, 2009)
The Epicureans, A Riddle Within a Conundrum Within a Game (Eh?/Public Eyesore, 2008)
Ehnahre, The Man Closing Up (Sound Devastation, 2008)
The Epicureans, s/t (Semata, 2008)
Calliope Quartet, Musike Techne (Self-produced, 2008)
Kayo Dot, Bloody Panda Split (Holy Roar Records, 2006)
Ryan McGuire, Scented Leaves From a Chinese Jar (Self Produced, 2006) Daughters, Hell Songs (Hydrahead, 2006)
Kayo Dot, Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue (Robotic Empire, 2006)
Toby Driver, In the L.L.L...Library Loft (Tzadik, 2005)

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