Q&A With Ryland Blackinton of Cobra Starship

Cobra Starship, a June 26 Westword profile subject, is among the more unlikely passengers on the runaway train known as the 2008 Warped Tour – a band whose members didn’t truly come together until after a song released under its name was already well on its way to becoming a hit. Guitarist Ryland Blackinton details that oddity and more in the in-depth Q&A below.

Blackinton tells his story beginning with his boyhood in Massachusetts, where he gained an abiding appreciation for racket, indie-rock style, and continuing through his relocation to Florida, where he met and befriended bassist Alex Suarez. Next, he reveals how he and Suarez connected in Brooklyn after being out of touch for several years and formed This Is the Ivy League, an act with little in common with his current combo; spells out the circumstances that led Cobra leader Gabe Saporta to recruit him and Suarez after “Bring It (Snakes on a Plane)” proved more air-worthy than the Samuel L. Jackson movie for which it was made; concedes that the outfit didn’t start its climb up the ladder of success at the bottom; outlines the process by which the Starship became a real group; divulges the profane lyrics that originally graced “Pleasure Ryland,” a song from the combo’s latest CD, ¡Viva La Cobra!, which was produced by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump; and admits that he doesn’t really know much about the Warped experience.

He’ll find out soon enough.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?

Ryland Blackinton: I grew up in Massachusetts, and then I moved to Florida when I was fifteen years old. So I lived in Florida for a while before moving up to Brooklyn.

WW: Did you get into music before you headed south?

RB: I did. I got into music when I was twelve. I played trumpet in the school band. That was when I was nine. I got a guitar when I was twelve.

WW: What is the coolest song your school band played? Or was there a coolest song?

RB: That Troggs song. [Sings] “Louie, Louie!”

WW: “Louie Louie” is by the Kingsmen. I thought you were going to say “Wild Thing.” That’s the Troggs.

RB: Maybe I’m thinking of “Wild Thing,” then. I always get those two confused.

WW: When you got your guitar, what music did you first learn to play?

RB: I was a big Dinosaur Jr. fan. It was probably “Come As You Are” by Nirvana, but the cooler answer would be “Feel the Pain” by Dinosaur Jr.

WW: Either way, you were a pretty cool twelve-year old.

RB: [Laughs.] Well, yeah.

WW: Did you explore a lot of the music in the indie and grunge areas?

RB: Fortunately for me, a lot of that stuff was happening in Massachusetts pretty close to where I lived. I think there was something about it that felt cool because it came from nearby, and because I could go and see Dinosaur Jr. I think in middle school alone I probably saw them six or seven times, and in total, I’ve seen them getting up into the dozens. So that made them a little more accessible, a little easier to be influenced by. Sonic Youth and things like that as well – and eventually Piebald and all the Massachusetts stuff. I was really into that, too.

WW: And then you headed to Florida, home of the Backstreet Boys.

RB: Exactly. Backstreet’s back, oh boy. But that’s actually when I met Alex [Suarez], who’s our bass player.

WW: Did you guys go to school together?

RB: Yeah, we went to high school together.

WW: Did you start playing music together right away?

RB: It started out that he was in a band, and then I ended up joining a band that was friends with his band – that type of thing. There were a lot of scenarios where we would jam around and play together, but we weren’t in the same band initially.

WW: Do you remember the name of those bands? And what kind of music did you play?

RB: Alex’s band was called Oriole Country, and the one I was in was called the Number One Zeros. I don’t think they let me play more than one show with them, because I just wasn’t right for their band. They were like a pop-punk band, and I think I was still really flannelled then – I was really grungy.

WW: You wanted to play big solos, and they preferred the punchy stuff?

RB: You’ve got that right. Yeah. I did finger-tapping and they didn’t understand it. They’d never seen it before, and I thought that was really funny.

WW: I understand that you and Alex lost touch for a while. Did you go off to different colleges?

RB: We did. He went off to culinary arts school and I went to a fine arts school in Tallahassee – Florida State University. I got my BFA and Alex got his chef’s license and all of that stuff. And then both of us independently moved out to Brooklyn. I found out from a friend that he lived pretty close by. So that’s when we were reconnected.

WW: When you got your BFA, did you focus on acting?

RB: Yeah.

WW: So was that what you’d originally planned to do?

RB: Yeah, I was interested in the theater and things. Right before we graduated, we did a showcase in New York and I got a couple of menial little job offers, so I moved up here to pursue those. And Alex had a catering company that fell through, and he wanted to start off with a clean slate somewhere. We both thought we were going to do something completely different. But it’s a good thing the way everything worked out, I guess.

WW: When you and Alex got together, did the music immediately reignite?

RB: Yeah. In high school, we had a lot of similar music tastes, but when we reconnected, the big one was Of Montreal. We were both really into Of Montreal, and also Belle and Sebastian and stuff like that. So on that level we connected a lot. And I had a couple of songs I’d been working on, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with them. I played them with a couple of other people and they didn’t really get it. And he kind of came at the right time and we started to make music together. It really worked out well.

WW: At that point, did you start calling yourselves This is Ivy League?

RB: Yeah. That’s when we became Ivy League. We later had to change it to This is Ivy League. At that point, it was really Astrud Gilberto, bossa-nova inspired. That was at least my thing. I liked that and folk music and Kings of Convenience, and Alex was really into the indie-pop stuff. I guess it ended up being an amalgamation of the two.

WW: The bands you’re naming off wouldn’t be the first ones anyone would think of in conjunction with Cobra Starship…

RB: Yeah, I know (laughs).

WW: How did you wind up being drawn into Cobra Starship, then? Did you know Gabe [Saporta] from before?

RB: I didn’t know him too well, but I’d seen him out a lot. In high school, we were massive Midtown fans, so I kind of knew about the band. I knew who he was, so we’d see each other out a lot, and he’d come to see Ivy League a couple of times as well. At that point, Alex and I were interested in going out as touring musicians, and I remember we were trying to get a Ben Kweller tour or something – and Alex almost went out on tour with Say Anything. We were interested in going on tour, and Gabe came at a really opportune time and asked us if we wanted to play these songs and join the band, and we did. It was good timing.

WW: When that first conversation took place, was the song from Snakes on a Plane already out? Or was it before then?

RB: Yeah. No, wait. It was right around the same time, but here’s what it was. Right around the time we met, it was happening, but I hadn’t heard it or anything, and it wasn’t big at that point. I think it was the week they tracked it. He had played us four other songs, and Alex and I heard them and were like, “Okay, this is fun music.” But we were knee deep into recording Ivy League stuff and we needed some time to think about it. We weren’t really sure. And then I saw a magazine article – it had a picture of Gabe with Samuel L. Jackson and a couple of other people and I wrote to him and was like, “Wow. What’s this all about?” And he wrote me back, and it was something to the effect of, “Well, now do you want to do it?” And I said, “Yeah.”

WW: Was the realization that you’d be starting at least halfway up the ladder instead of at the bottom a major factor in your decision?

RB: Yeah. At least the excitement factor, which definitely went through the roof. With the Ivy League stuff, we were trying to finish this record and we felt like we were really close. But we just came to the agreement that this was a really good opportunity to write pop music and tour around and go on a bus, which I’d never done before. We didn’t really know to what extent we were going to do it. We just had a good feeling about it and went for it. And that’s that.

WW: When you got together to make the first album, did he already have everything pretty much the way he wanted it? Or did you have some creative input?

RB: Well, the first record he’d done by himself. At the point that we joined, the record was in the final week of completion, so all the songs were written.

WW: And completely performed?

RB: Not completely. There were a couple of little things here and there, and Gabe was excited about getting us into the mix in some regard. I think he just wanted to get us into the liner notes in some way, get us involved. So I did one guitar track on a song and Alex did one or two bass tracks on songs, and Nate [Novarro] was already in the band, so Nate had done some drums as well. But we didn’t become creatively involved until the inception of the second record.

WW: On those first tours, were you not only learning the songs, but also learning how to interact with each other onstage?

RB: Absolutely, yeah. It was all a learning process. One thing I found really interesting about the entire process thus far is, the first time we played was on television – it was on the Jimmy Kimmel show. There are people who really sacrifice a lot in order to get to a point where they can even just take a van across the country. So it was like playing Chutes and Ladders and getting to that really tall ladder on the second turn. That was so intriguing to me. I’d been onstage before, and Alex had, too – Alex had toured with a previous band. It wasn’t like we were puking and trying to figure out how to do it before every show. At least we’d done some of the groundwork. But that first tour was where we kind of found our dynamic, figured out how the songs were going to go. Everyone said it sounded like we were like a rock cover band of the songs on the record.

WW: By the end of it, did you feel like you’d made the songs yours – meaning the band as a whole?

RB: Oh yeah. From the perspective of Gabe being the person who wrote those songs, he was really open to the idea of us changing them, personalizing them, altering them in ways that made them more exciting for live viewing – for example, ridiculous outros and really long metal stuff, stupid stuff, but stuff that made it more fun for us. And that’s what made it easier for us to get into it.

WW: On the second album, what was the process? Did Gabe have all the material again, but did he do things as you just described – let you work things out among everyone?

RB: We had a big assist from Patrick Stump, who we were on tour with at that time – Patrick from Fall Out Boy. He had taken on the role as producer and ultimately as another member of the band. Alex and I between the two of us had a couple of songs, I had a couple of songs, Gabe had a couple of songs and Patrick had a couple of ideas. And basically the way it would work was, we had an external hard drive that we’d trade between one another. Gabe would take it and do a vocal track, I would take it and do a guitar track, Alex would take it and do a bass track, Patrick would add some synthesizer, etc., etc. So it kind of had a science-project feel to it. I just wrote the whole record that way, and a lot of the little garage-band kind of stuff we did ended up being on the album itself, because we wrote it in a really short period of time and recorded it in twenty days. It was very off the top of our heads, but I think that was to our advantage.

WW: You mentioned the participation of Patrick and touring with Fall Out Boy, which are obviously huge commercial attributes. But has it been difficult to come out of Fall Out Boy’s shadow and establish yourselves as a band in your own right?

RB: I think that a lot of people do think of Pete Wentz when they think of that whole Decaydance thing, and we are on his label, and in a sense, we’re all part of the same family. But I think we’re different enough from them that we don’t have any problems establishing ourselves as something that makes us unique within that whole thing. We’re happy to be part of it, but that’s the things about Decaydance. You’ve got Gym Class Heroes, who are completely different from The Academy Is, who are completely different from us, who are completely different from Panic at the Disco. There might be an underlying theme for all of that under the Fall Out Boy thing, but at the end of the day, I think we’ve all got our own little niches, and we all share a lot of the same fans as well, which is a nice dichotomy.

WW: I wanted to ask you about the song “Pleasure Ryland.” I came across an interview Gabe did with Out magazine…

RB: Oh, yeah…

WW: I guess I don’t need to read the quote to you, since you seem to know exactly where I’m going. [In the piece, Saporta said, “That's the song that Ryland had all the music for, and we didn't know what to do with it. And then one night, we were fucking wasted on the bus, and we just recorded it. I wrote those nasty lyrics. We used to refer to that song as "Lick My Balls," because he just laid down some words to have on it, like, [singing] ‘Lick, lick my balls, and play with my asshole.’ We had to change it around and make it legitimate.”] What’s the story?

RB: Well, I have a little bit of a potty mouth, and I think when you’re on tour, sometimes you say things that would make a sailor blush, and they don’t mean anything. In this case, I was writing the song and I had all the parts done, but I felt like it would be cool if there was a Vocoder part – like a real West Coast hip-hop Vocoder-sounding part. And I’m not sure why, but the first thing that came to mind was, “Lick my balls and play with my asshole.” It’s something I’ve never even said in real life to anyone, but it seemed to be the right thing at the time for the demo version of it. We obviously had to change it.

WW: Since that story was published, have you gotten a lot of ball-licking offers from fans who come to see you?

RB: Surprisingly, no, thank God. Maybe after this one.

WW: Maybe we can help you out in that regard. Would you reject those offers out of hand? Or would you be open to the possibility?

RB: There will be a screening process (laughs).

WW: Even after the second album came out, there are probably still people out there who don’t regard Cobra Starship to be a real band just because of its origins. I gather that you think it’s just as much of a band as any of them out there at this point.

RB: Absolutely. The only thing that makes us really different from a lot of bands is that it started with a single. It didn’t start with this long process. Gabe obviously laid a lot of these bricks with his career in Midtown. That’s a huge part of it. In a sense, he, on his own, built up a lot – and him being the frontman, his friends went with him. I think it was a right-place-at-the-right-time kind of thing. And even though it started with a huge single, we’ve done all the things that a normal band would do after that. We’ve been on tour nine and a half months out of every year since that happened. We talk to all of our fans all the time. We answer our own MySpaces, etc., etc., etc. We still execute all the things that a band just starting out should execute to have a real fan base. We’re very lucky to have been given that huge ladder at the beginning of the game, but we never forget we were that lucky. We constantly feel grateful about that. We don’t take anything for granted.

WW: I understand that you guys sold out all the dates on your last headlining tour. Is that right?

RB: Yeah, that’s right.

WW: Given that you guys are drawing so well on your own, some people may be surprised that you’re doing Warped Tour. Is that something you committed to before the last tour? Or was it something you just wanted to do?

RB: I don’t know that much about the Warped Tour, so I apologize. But the thing I do know is that from our perspective, it’s just an issue of making ourselves available to people who want to come out and see us. We have a pretty serious tour regimen. We don’t really take any time off. I think the opportunity was there and we took it because we weren’t doing anything else. And also, to go out with The Academy Is and Gym Class Heroes again, which are bands that we’ve toured with a lot, I think it all just sounds like it’ll be pretty fun. That’s the motivation behind doing it, I think.

WW: So you’ve never attended Warped Tour before as a fan?

RB: No, I haven’t.

WW: So this will be your baptism of fire…

RB: Yes, this will be my baptism. I don’t do well with the sun, so that’s the only thing I’m nervous about. Other than that, I think everything will be great.