Philadelphia's Ryat (due tonight at Rhinoceropolis) started as a solo project for multi-instrumentalist avant-garde songwriter Christina Ryat before Tim Conley joined the sonic adventure that is making music in this unit. With both Ryat and Conley benefiting from backgrounds in improvisational and experimental music, their collaboration has produced a richly detailed sound that successfully bridges the gap between outsider electronic music and something more accessible. The band's latest album, Avant Gold, finds Ryat and Conley stretching themselves into pop territory -- but in their able hands, that pop is a panoramic, layered affair comprising sound ideas sculpted into playful passages. Because of the duo's varied background (separately and as a band), it's been able to play unique shows of pure improvisation and work with other artists in a more open-ended fashion. We caught up with Ryat and Conley en route from Bozeman, Montana, to their next adventure, and talked about their creative process as performers as well as Christina's involvement with the Annenberg Foundation and Tim's previous work with Bernie Worrell and Mike Watt.Westword:
What was that Flying Lotus song you covered? Why that song and that band, and how did you approach covering that sort of thing?
Christina Ryat: I think Flying Lotus is one of the most cutting-edge electronic artists and instrumentalists right now. I was really drawn to that track, and I was hearing how you could chop it up and have a lot of fun with it. We like to pull out a cover here and there -- an obscure cover most of the time. One reason is that I like to promote independent artists that not a lot of people have heard of yet. A lot of people have heard of Flying Lotus and a lot of people haven't. I was happy when people were like, "What was that song?" -- or just to mention it every night to check that out -- to promote experimental music and keep bringing it to the surface and the forefront.
The song is called "Nose Art." I think I started calling it "Noise Art," because that's what I felt it was for a minute. I think I wrote it when I was chopping up the track. I named the track that, and I forgot the title was "Nose Art," so now we're changing it back.
How did you get interested in playing so many instruments, and how did you come to integrate them in your current project?
Christina: It started off little by little. I started playing guitar because I wanted to write my own songs. Honestly, that's when I was eighteen. Then I went to school for music, and you had to play piano, so I had to learn piano, which I love for improvising and making songs. So I ended up studying jazz, because I like improvisation. I played in a lot of different bands where, if I was hearing sound, I wanted to use that instrument -- or if I heard a synthesizer. I'm the type of person whose ears perk up when I hear a new sound or a sound that I like -- "Oh, how can I play, what can I do?"
That kind of happened when I was introduced to Reason software. When I moved to Philly and met electronic musicians like King Britt and Jneiro Jarel, they were like, "Oh, if you like to do all this, you should play with Reason." Then I really got into production, modifying and tweaking sounds. I've always used a lot of pedals, and my ear just gravitates to different things, and I get bored really quickly. I think it's more about getting bored really quickly and getting stuff out of my head.
How do you approach doing improv in general?
Christina: Last night was really exciting, because we happened to be in Bozeman, Montana, playing the university. We were asked to do an improv session with some really awesome players in town. Tim and I had a really good time, because we really loved that space. It's sort of a zen space, where your ears open up and you're bouncing off everybody. I hate when people play too much. Sometimes there's a moment where everybody's playing crazy at once -- that's really fun. But it's all about listening and reaching into that part of your soul that's really raw and organic -- almost that songwriting space where you're creating a new tune and it's so exciting and so fresh. That's why I love improv, because you're in almost this, like, meditative zen space of complete openness, and you're letting everything out.
Tim, how did come to work with Bernie Worrell and Mike Watt, and what was it like working with them?
Tim Conley: It was great and totally random. The Bernie Worrell scenario was, we were playing in upstate Pennsylvania. I guess he frequently hangs out at the place we were playing. We were good friends with the owner, and the owner was really excited, because she knew he was going to be there, and she'd try and get him to sit in with us. We played a set and took a break. During the set break, we kind of met him and hung out for a minute and asked if he wanted to sit in on the next set.
It was the middle of summer, but he was wearing leather gloves -- just super protective of his hands. So he goes up -- we had a keyboard set up on the stage -- and he comes and sits in and starts off by only taking off his left-hand glove. He started up this jam playing with just his left hand. It was super funky and awesome, but he was only using his left hand. We got into the jam a little bit and we all started interacting, and it was almost like we had to prove to him that we were worthy of him using his right hand. Finally, he took off the glove on the right hand and actually really started playing. It was a pretty hilarious situation, and we all started cracking up.
With Mike Watt -- I don't know if you know a lot about Mike Watt, but he's really obsessed with the ocean, ships and maritime themes. So this other band I play in is called Sinking Ship. I randomly went on his MySpace, and he had us on his top friends. But he had all these marine-type top friends. Me and Christina were going out to play, and he was on tour with another band that the drummer -- Calvin Weston from Philadelphia -- is a good friend of ours.
Christina: Yeah, he's a fusion drum legend.
Tim: He played with Ornette Coleman and Billy Martin. He was on the same tour, so I kind of threw him a message on MySpace saying, "Hey, we're going to be in the same town at the same time, and we're good friends with Calvin and would love to do a session with you while we're out there, or just try to do some playing." He wrote back and was so nice, and was like, "Yeah, come out to the show and sit in and play."
Christina: I think he knew, since we played with Calvin, that we were high-level improvisers, because you can't really play with Calvin if you're not. I think we lucked out on that with Calvin on the gig. He was like, "Oh, they play with Calvin, Tim can play with us."
Tim: I basically went to the show and met him, and we played a Stooges cover, a ten-minute jam. I think it was "Funhouse." It was a couple of years ago, but I think that's what it was.
Christina, how did you become involved with the Annenberg Foundation, and what sorts of lectures have you given on the subject of production, technique and composition?
Christina: That show is in two weeks. How I got connected is, I had done sort of a performance seminar called "Atypical" at this venue called the Painted Bride that brings a lot of world music and different music to Philadelphia. The seminar was about electronic producing and live looping and the sorts of things I'm doing. During the seminar, the people that do the production and booking there were really excited about it.
The festival that the Annenberg Foundation was putting together is called PIFA, and it's all about collaboration and about France in the 1920s and how there was so much collaboration happening in all different types of sounds and styles. The Annenberg Foundation wanted the Painted Bride to bring together three people who were really different artists to collaborate and write new music for this theme. They picked me based on the "Atypical" performance. They also picked a Cuban drummer/composer, Francois Zayas, and a traditional Indian choreographer, Viji Rao, who was originally from London but is based out of Philadelphia.
It's been interesting writing that music. I've been touching base on using little instruments that represent France, like an accordion and stuff like that, but at the same time, they really wanted me to bring the thing that I do -- so I definitely incorporated beats. I do this seven-minute vocal improv looping thing with one of the dancers. I'm bringing in a visual artist and Tim as well to play some other parts. The drummer is composing a lot of the music, and we're sort of writing parts over the top. We wrote the structures of those songs a few months ago before the tour, and the dancers have been working to those rhythms and time-signature changes and the themes we've worked on together. The Annenberg Foundation funded it so that we could start working on it and put together a really nice piece for the festival. I love working with dancers. Tim and I did a thing with a performance-art group two years ago. It's so exciting to feed off of that, because it's another form of collaboration for us.
How and why did film and visuals become such an important aspect of your live performances?
Christina: I always think in terms of visuals anyway. I have a bunch of screenplays in my brain as well. I don't know if they'll ever come out, but I've been thinking about a lot of that for a while. When I'm creating a song I have visuals in my head and I think it really adds to the meditative state people get in when they listen to music -- that they have something else to look at as well. With just me and Tim, it's really fun, because we're hopping on a lot of instruments, because we're like octopi playing. At the same time, I wanted to give the audience something else to focus on as well. Kind of get in the zone with the music and open up their ears and all their senses. Annapuurna, the woman we're collaborating with, came to one of our shows and asked if she could set up. She's really new on the scene, and young and really fresh -- she's into 3D animation and all kinds of things. She's really into working with our ideas and concepts. We kept this one a little more simple in terms of shapes and images. We didn't go too crazy with visuals in terms of actual pictures of things, we went with more animation. I think it adds so much to the show.
Why did you call your latest album Avant Gold?
Christina: We were on tour, and we did a lot of improvisation to develop the sound between me and Tim. We actually toured Europe on all improv. When we got back, we really liked the avant-garde stuff we were doing, and we felt like a lot of the fresh sounds were created out of this avant-garde, improv place, and we wanted to really incorporate that into our sound. At the same time, I've never really written more of a pop record, and I wanted to write more of a pop record. It's just where my head was at for this record. For the next, it's in a totally different place.
When we only had a few songs working, we knew we wanted to call it Avant Gold because we wanted it to be like avant-garde and sort of like pop songs. We also liked the idea of having that color with it, gold. The word came out in the studio when we were recording my first record, Street Noise Orchestra, and I was recording drums, and instead of saying "avant-garde" I accidentally said "avant-gold" and I didn't know why. Then the engineer was like, "Oh, that would be a great record title." And I thought, "That kind of fits us unbelievably perfectly." And I kept that in my brain for a while.
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Tim: It's kind of tongue-in-cheek as well. It's two things that don't really go together. The idea is avant-garde music and pop music; it's almost like "jazz millions" and making millions of dollars from jazz. It's kind of humorous.
Christina: The whole record, we wanted that feel as well. We take things seriously, but we joke around a lot.