Interview: Ryan Walsh of Hallelujah The Hills on 10 years of being in a ‘real band’
Being in a rock band is about more than just playing chords and screaming into a microphone: It is about lining up your life and committing to something where the odds are low and the obstacles are many, the work is back-breaking and the “pay” is a concept spoken about with air-quotes. A decade in local-based rock and roll is the equivalent of staying at a desk job for several lifetimes — and by that math, Hallelujah The Hills should be wizened gurus sitting upon a mountaintop dispensing local rock bromides to truth-seeking neophyte groups. Which they sort of are, maybe.
Many drummers and vans later, Ryan Walsh and company close 2015 by recording their fifth long-player, Deluxer Mandatory, and playing a show on the tenth anniversary of their first show, this Friday, November 13, at Somerville’s Cuisine En Locale. It’s all part of the hustle that never abates even after a decade: Book the shows, write the songs, record the albums, get into hijinks, attempt to keep everyone from quitting, and fit it all in the margins of a day job and a life. For Walsh and the rest of the band, this is not just a phase they are going through, it’s a life plan where careful consideration and a willingness to enter into unplanned chaos result in rock and roll mayhem and joyous anthemic guitar jams. Walsh carved out a few minutes during his lunch break to fill me in on how the sausage gets made.
Daniel Brockman: So you guys are just about to jet to record your next record — where are you headed?
Ryan Walsh: We’re gonna do it at the same place we did the last one, at 1809 Studios in Macedon, New York, near Rochester. The manager of Tallahassee opened it and is the engineer and we wanted to try something new. And I like to kidnap the band and put us sleep-away style so you can’t be distracted with errands, etc. It’s perfect, they have a little apartment for the band. It’s the first album we’ve done ever where the lineup is the same as the album before — and this is our fifth.
Hah! What do you attribute that to?
It’s a lot of things. It’s a) no one’s making a living off of these things, b) we’re grown men and there’s gonna be personality clashes, and c) I think that things move in cycles and people don’t want to do this forever, or they don’t want to do the same thing. I think it’s overall pretty stable for a band that’s been together for 10 years, except for a stretch where we had five drummers in two years, and I was sick of training drummers and I almost quit. We had a drummer quit on stage once.
Oh really? What was the story with that?
He’s a young kid, and he’d laugh about this now, but he was on stage and another band member said something to piss him off and he’d just had it. And once you do that, quit onstage, there’s no going back, he had to follow through.
You guys really started hitting the road early — what do you attribute your road dog nature to?
To be fair we do tour less now because a) I’m more interested in recording and b) as everyone gets older it’s hard. But we made it to California last year which was awesome. But initially we had a label for the first two albums and there’s expectations that if they’re putting it out we had to push it, so we did a lot of touring then.
Yeah it’s tough though, like there’s the ideal of “We’re gonna be a real band and tour!” and then next thing you know you’re playing to two people in Ypsilanti, Michigan, or something.
It’s funny that you mention that city, because I had one of the worst nights of my life there: I had full blown flu, snow storm, no one’s there, we’re in the club, and I was like “Let’s just pack it back up,” and the sound guy was like “I’m getting a show!” It was whatever the rock bar was there, but the sound guy was like “Do the set.” I sat down like an old blues guy and I wanted to die.
But at the beginning at least there must have been motivating factors to get out of town?
Well, the guy who signed us to Misra Records was like “What do you need to be a real band?” and I was like “We need a van,” so we used the advance to get a tour van. And we had a booking agent so it wasn’t impossible.
You guys definitely walk a fine line with making what some people would call “intelligent music” — especially in today’s indie world, it’s easy to fall into the abyss of a certain kind of faux intelligence.
I think we’ve gotten better at walking the line — somewhere along the way you want to be unique but you also want people to instinctively move when they hear it in the room with you. You’re trying to combine something tribal with something bookish. Which just as it comes out of my mouth sounds awful.
“Something tribal with something bookish,” I think I’ve got my pull quote for this piece now!
Hah! There’s definitely a lot of pitfalls there, certain people do it better than others.
Do you ever work on a song and think “This is too dumb for the band” or does the band have any internal concept of what constitutes the average intelligence of a Hallelujah The Hills song?
I definitely don’t try to make it live up to any intelligence quotient, I’m all about imagery, setting the scene, telling the story, a mood, trying not to set the same mood to the same stories all the time. But no, I’ve never thought “This is too dumb.” Sometimes someone in the band has told me “This song is too dumb!”
But those people aren’t in the band anymore!
Hah, sure they are! Some of them…
But I think that around the first album, when we were getting called bookish, literary, a lot, I think it confused us a little bit, caused us some internal strife, like “Is that anything anyone wants in a rock band?” I just tried to make ideas ideas instead of intelligence or literary whatever. The idea’s the thing.
I love the concept of the “real” band that you mentioned earlier, this Pinnochio thing about wishing until it comes true. Was that a big thing at the start, becoming a real band?
Well yeah, I guess, especially back then, with like message board bullshit where people were like if you didn’t do a certain amount of touring you weren’t a real band, so yeah, I really wanted to go for it. Mostly for internal push-myself reasons. But it’s a whole education you have to figure out. I did book the first tour, and it was interesting, it was fun.
Right, this idea that you’re going to meet this network of like-minded people — but you also find out just how competitive it is and how insignificant you are.
Everything you learn in Henry Rollins’s Get In The Van isn’t true anymore. In every city you’re not going to make that connection because those people aren’t going to be there the next time you come through and it’s just in every way it’s not the same. But you’re right, there’s a glut of bands and… I remember playing shows where you were just hoping that you’d play with a good band that night. And I’m not a hater, I love to support and cheerlead for bands, but I just couldn’t find anything I liked and it gets really depressing. But then eventually you meet those people who are either in bands or not in bands and then when you actually do connect it’s cool. You know, someone you meet some random night in Milwaukee or whatever, and I’m still friends with a ton of people that I met like that.
Is that what motivates you guys to keep going, just this quest for those kinds of connections?
Well, I think this band, we’re like the way Pac-Man lives on the white dots, we live on new songs, so if we don’t have new songs we get bored. And it works out because people enjoy the albums and we enjoy making them. It’s what a band should live on. I always look at the release schedules of ’60s bands in awe, where they’re doing two albums in a year. But this will be our fifth album, and then a b-sides collection with like 18 tracks, so we’re proud of it.
The really weird thing about the concept of being a real band is that it isn’t necessarily due to the amount of work a band does — people just kind of decide if you are real or not, right? Like other people outside of the band?
Oh yeah, sure –it’s out of your control, for sure, it’s kind of other people’s perspective.
A “real band,” it’s such a weird nebulous term. I guess at the outset I just wanted to do my best and to say that we tried it in a way that if it turned into what we did for a job that would be amazing. But I had a million other milestones below that that I would be totally satisfied with. But I dunno, you start small, like “I would love people, strangers who aren’t friends or family, to come up to me at shows” and you get that. And you go up one notch, just little milestones like that. But I think that they’re all about other people connecting with whatever creativity you work with. And I think that’s when that becomes real, the audience is the other half. If you’re making a song real, I would say that one ingredient is an audience who loves it or sings it or gives it back to you. They heard it and they loved it, that sort of thing.
What do you think has changed since you started this band?
Well, for one, all of my time being in bands has been parallel with the rise of the internet. Like when I started touring you had to get a big road atlas, then I toured with printing out every “to” and “from” on Mapquest, and then a device that was a hundred dollars that you put in the windshield, and now everyone has it in their pocket. And that’s crazy, because that’s over 10 years!
It’s almost like place is less important, like where you’re starting from.
Well, the internet’s really made clear to me how it didn’t matter whether I was in New York City or L.A. or whatever, that’s definitely true.
But localism must matter to some degree, right?
I feel like there are bands that I feel a kinship to, sometimes not. I was reading recently about the “Bosstown Sound” that MGM tried to manufacture in the late ’60s, and it was a total failure.
Right, no one outside of here knows what to expect if you’re from Boston.
Yeah, or if they do, it’s maybe not what you want. I dunno, I’m proud of Boston and where we’re from and all, but I would just pick bands instead of the whole “scene” or anything.
Yeah, maybe Boston, musically, isn’t very cohesive?
But can you think of a city that is?
I dunno, maybe other places always seem more cohesive when you aren’t from there!
Right. Like I always think of a place like Athens, Georgia and the whole Elephant Six collective thing, that seems pretty cohesive.
But I always imagine that that sort of thing is so much smaller if you’re from there — like I’ll bet there were a ton of bands that were from Athens at that exact time that had no interaction with that whole world, nu-metal bands that didn’t even know it existed.
Right — and these things are kind of made by journalists, who document it and then it exists to this day.
Speaking of which, you are doing this thing where there is an author that is following you and the band around, documenting your every move — do tell what that is all about!
Hah! Well, there is an author named M. Jonathan Lee, and about a year ago he asked if he could start his fiction novel with some lyrics of ours. So I was honored and said yes, he sent me a copy, we read it and we were all pretty pleased with how it all came out. So then he started talking about how he’d like to come write a book about the band.
No, non-fiction. And we love when weird stuff happens. We love weird shows, whatever. So we said yes, although we assured him that he wasn’t going to get rich writing this thing! But he sold it to his publisher, so it’s actually happening. So we’ll have him with us at the hips while we’re recording, playing shows, etc. for the next two weeks.
So he’ll be at the studio with you?
Yeah! so I don’t know what to expect but like I said before about the Pac-Man white dots thing, new songs keep a band going, but so do curveballs or new things. So it’s flattering, like “Oh, someone wants to write a book about us”. So hopefully it’s a nice document of the band or —
Do you know what he’s shooting for? What’s his angle?
Yes and no. I mean, he’s interested in kind of fate, coincidences, how a million things bring people to one thing. And an album is something that brings five people to one thing, and he’s been asking us about the life decisions that bring us here to do this.
That’s so weird, the life decisions, that’s a really strange way to look at a rock band!
But it’s true, I mean, we all could have bailed many times, or taken a left turn.
Right, it’s more bittersweet than people understand, you’re always like “Why am I doing this?” even at the best of times, “Was this a good idea?”
Right, “Is this sane?” Yeah, of course. But I think you end up doing that with anything you do. We’ve just never been doctors, so we don’t know! But I’d rather screw up in life by saying yes to stuff than opting out, you know?
HALLELUJAH THE HILLS + LANDLADY + ETERNALS :: Friday, November 13 at Cuisine En Locale, 156 Highland Ave. in Somerville, MA :: 7 p.m., 18-plus, $10 :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page :: Featured photo by Samuel Quinn