Bill Ryder-Jones interview: Liverpool is a hell of a lot more progressive

Mark Dale talks all things Merseyside with Bill Ryder-Jones ahead of his forthcoming tour dates.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 27th Oct 2016.
Originally published: 16th Oct 2015

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"Bill Ryder-Jones? He's such a lovely guy!" This is the unanimous response when doing some background work in preparation for an interview with the musician, producer, singer and songwriter who's now signed to Domino records.

That's exactly how he comes across too. Warm, affable, down-to-earth and patient, he courteously answers anything that's asked. Although now three albums and several film soundtracks into a solo career, not to mention studio production work for the likes of By The Sea, Saint Saviour, The Wytches and Hooton Tennis Club, there's a suspicion that, despite his discernible manners, he'd rather be talking about the here and now than the past. That's understandable.

A lot's already been said about his past, having been thrust into the spotlight when still a teenager as lead guitarist and also the youngest member of The Coral. The band were the most popular Merseyside act of the early 2000s, each of the albums Ryder-Jones recorded went top ten in the UK album charts. Singles such as 'Dreaming of You', 'Don't Think You're the First', 'Pass It On' and 'In the Morning' were simply inescapable.

The media of the day were quick to jump on the back of these hit making youngsters and in some quarters they were labelled as leading a revival of Merseyside music. Their highly melodic, sometimes psychedelic sound and assured live performances garnered a huge fan base.

They toured relentlessly, playing premium festival dates such as Glastonbury and a headline slot - with support from the likes of The Libertines and The Zutons - at their own Midsummer Night's Scream held on New Brighton promenade in the Wirral where the band were from. 

Ryder-Jones, pitched to the right of the stage, could alternate between looking feverishly involved or coolly relaxed. His guitar parts were simply stunning. Nobody outside the tight-knit group could have guessed he was wrestling with demons, until in 2005 he briefly stopped touring with the band, citing a stress-related illness.

Bill rejoined the band in time for their 2007 Roots & Echoes album and touring, but left permanently in 2008 and has since spoken honestly about his struggles with agoraphobia, depression and nervous anxiety.

Ryder-Jones re-entered music later that year, recording guitar parts for The Last Shadow Puppets and has continued to work alongside the band's Alex Turner, both on solo releases and with Arctic Monkeys. Bill's own solo career also began almost immediately, writing songs and instrumental pieces and in 2009 he composed the score for short film Leave Taking, the first of four soundtracks works he has made.

In 2011 he released the largely instrumental debut album, which was at times haunting and beautiful "If...", a soundtrack to an imaginary film version of Italo Calvino's novel "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler". The album was performed gloriously in 2014 with Manchester Camerata at Manchester Cathedral.

Ryder-Jones followed that album with a song based sophomore effort, the largely acoustic A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart, released 2013. His forthcoming album West Kirby County Primary is heavier and in places more electric.

Although he once dreamed of becoming a professional footballer, Ryder-Jones has thankfully cemented a career in music. In ode to that, Mark Dale caught up with Bill for a chat prior to his upcoming album release and autumn tour. [At the time of writing]

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Morning Bill! In general are you a morning person? 

Morning! Yeah. Yeah, I am actually. Took me about 29 years to get me head round it, but now I quite like an early start. What time is it now? 10.30. Yeah, I got up around 6. 

[Bill supports Everton] If Roy Hodgson starts Rooney as England's no. 10 at the Euros, which he undoubtedly will, do you think there'll be a place for Ross Barkley in the starting line-up? 

Woah! Straight in with a big one there Mark. I don't know, it's one of those. I've got a slightly unorthodox stance on this. I love Wayne Rooney, I think he's one of the greatest English footballers ever, but I wonder whether it's probably a good time to start bringing in a whole new lot and just cut all the older dudes out.

But that would mean Phil Jagielka too and I think he deserves a gig, so probably not. I think he'll play Wayne Rooney over Ross Barkley. Ross Barkley is one of those players, like Wayne Rooney actually, who I don't think there's any point playing them out of their positions. So, I guess you're only ever gonna start Wayne Rooney, aren't you? What would you do?

Well I'm a Mancunian, a Manchester United fan, but I'm no tactician and, to be honest, I know it's unpatriotic of me, but I don't really support England.

I don't think none of us are tacticians, are we? But that's the fun of it, getting it wrong. You'd go Rooney. Course you would. Yeah, the England thing, I understand. I think that's a real north west thing that (to not support them). I mean, I'm not particularly arsed. 

I read an interview with you early on in your solo career where you said you were bored of the song writing process. Three albums into that now, is that still the case?

No. I think that was when I was trying to do my first record and what I was probably saying was that I was a bit bored of guitar based songs, basically bored of the kind of music I was making. That was just the trip I was on at the time.

It happens. I think it's quite the opposite now. That's what I enjoy. In fact writing's never bored me, it's just sometimes you get bored of the template you work yourself into.

Your first solo releases were largely instrumental, your soundtrack work and your debut album. What part of the song writing process do you enjoy the more, writing the music or writing the lyrics?

I don't know. You tend to have to do the two things in harmony with one another. So I don't know. I think what you enjoy is the result. I don't think you're ever that aware of how much enjoyment you're getting out of the process.

I tend to write quite slowly, I tend to pick up one song over the course of a couple of weeks. I very rarely finish one song in one moment. So, I couldn't really answer that in any straightforward way. But I can tell you that, for the most part, I think of myself as a musician. There's a hell of a lot more to do, with the music. 

You're obviously quite at home in the studio. What is it you like about that environment?

Well I only really go into recording studios when I'm producing bands. And what I like about that is, I like the energy of a group of musicians. Particularly when it's a band, particularly perhaps when they're in the studio for the first time, the excitement.

Usually bands spend months and months bringing this world of theirs to life, in bedrooms or rehearsal rooms and then, when you take them out of that and into a studio, everything changes for a little bit and you have to recreate their world in the studio.

That's the best thing about it, I think, the enjoyment you see those people get from being in the studio. Being around that, that's what I get off on really.

The Coral worked with some really great producers, Ian Broudie, John Leckie, Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow from Portishead. Where did you pick up your knowledge of the studio? 

I think Ian Broudie's been a big influence. Well, a mentor really. We kinda produced a lot of our own stuff before we went into the studio. A lot of The Coral's recordings sounded like how we had rehearsed them. 

I think it just happened over time. I only really got into the production because Liam from the band By The Sea, who's one of my best friends, they were making their first record and they asked me to produce it. I didn't really have any credentials to do it. But I think just the experience I'd had [was the reason they asked].

And that I'm a bit older, I'd been in studios with people like Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow. I thought the way they did things was really clever. I guess it was as much learning on the job as anything, for me. I'd seen what had happened.

Watching the producer when I was younger, like I did, was only gonna be good for that, but most of the way I've decided to produce comes from, particularly working on that first By The Sea record...

I think if you like music, and you're a musician, if you put enough energy into it, it can be quite obvious what needs to happen in the studio. There isn't any great secret to it, I don't think.

Who has influenced you musically on the new album? I was listening to some of it and one of the tracks, although not lyrically, reminded me of Pavement.

I guess it's all the same bands really. The music I listen to is the same as it's always been: Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals... I worked with a band called Hooton Tennis Club and they reignited in me a love for bands like Pavement and Teenage Fanclub and introduced me to some other things that I really like.

But I think the main influence on this LP has been those bands I've worked with, By The Sea, Hooton Tennis Club, like I said before, bands that create a world. I realised that's what I wanted to do. I get the Pavement thing.

Personally I can only hear that on the single 'Two To Birkenhead' (listen below). I can understand that, but I'm not sure there's a whole record. But I love that band. I listen to Arctic Monkeys record too is dead important to us.  

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What's your inspiration for the lyrics? A lot of them seem to come from personal experience.

Yeah, that's it, that's all. I don't think I've got anything interesting enough to say if it's not. I don't think I'm a good enough writer, I don't care enough about the craft of writing lyrics to write about anything that's not about me, about things that have actually happened. Every song is about something that's happened in the past year or so.

With each of your solo records you've done something different, none of them sound the same, you've progressed. Can you envisage yourself progressing as a writer to where you might construct stories, with characters that aren't necessarily you?

I think I've done that in the past, but I've always taken an instance, like, there's a song on the last record 'You're Getting Like Your Sister', which is a full on story about people that aren't me, but it was ignited by a personal experience.

So I will do that, it just tends not to happen, it's a rarity. It's more a case of not wanting to write that kind of lyric. I like a story in a song, it's just not the first thing I'll ever go to.

I think that song 'You're Getting Like Your Sister' (listen to that further down the interview) was an experiment that I probably tested myself with. I'm sure it'll happen again but I'm not pressuring myself to change or reinvent anything. 

You know I didn't see this album as all that much of a departure. I actually thought people would say, oh, it's a bit similar to the last one. But after speaking to people I'm starting to realise it is a bit different. It didn't feel different, I think, because we've been playing the last album live for a couple of years and it got a little heavier live and that kinda worked as a segue for me. So maybe I didn't notice this difference. 

Where did you acquire your talents for string arranging?

I just pretend that I can do it in all honesty. I just decided one day that I would have a go and it was a complete blag. No one's seemed to notice yet.

Your debut album was fully orchestrated, your second album more acoustic and folky and now this new one is heavier and louder. What plans have you got for your next LP and can you forsee combining these elements on one LP in the future?

Never combine strings with heavy guitar music, it doesn't work. So probably not. I've got a couple of songs for the next record but I'm not thinking about it yet really. I think the beauty of these things is they just seem to happen when you're in the right place. The nature of it is that I'll probably have to spend most of next year touring, the other half of the year producing and that'll take me up to 2017 when I'll probably have an answer, I guess. 

You used to quite like getting new CDs. And you used to be surrounded by these rampant music enthusiasts, when you were in the band. Music shops aren't really around as much as they used to be, especially in Liverpool, and you're not surrounded by those guys anymore. How do you get put onto music that's new to you now?

If anything it's the other way. I think these days I'm surrounded by more musicians. I only really get jobs working with bands because I'm such a music fan, I think I land them because they see the enthusiasm. Again, people like Hooton Tennis Club, The Lost Brothers, Saint Saviour, The Wytches, they're all friends that I see regularly.

We talk about music and they put me on to things, which is great and my record label, Domino, they send me things. I have a larger group of musician friends now than when I was in The Coral. And I'm probably more receptive to it now too.

 

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I read that in your earliest days of playing music with the lads from The Coral you used to play covers. What songs did you do and who picked them?

I don't know. It was a long time ago. Motown covers, Beatles covers. It was before we were a band, it's not really part of The Coral story I don't think. It's just before we had our own songs, it's just a normal thing. It might be a question for The Coral that, I can't quite remember.

You must get asked at every interview if you miss being in a band. I've certainly read that and you say that you're happy to be doing stuff on your own, so I won't ask you that same question.

But when The Coral were starting off the media, who like to put things in boxes and constructed that whole "Cosmic Scousers" scene to describe some of the things that were happening in Liverpool at that time. And there were some good bands and things happening, like Bandwagon.

Do you miss that camaraderie of being in a scene where everyone's on the up? Do you miss that kind of buzz being focussed on Liverpool and being a part of it?

Well I think the music coming out of the area now is more substantial than what it was, it's a hell of a lot better than what it was at that time. I think the fact that we had this night was good. Bandwagon was good. But it wasn't that good. It was quite passive and it was obsessed with Liverpool's history.

What's happening now in the city is a hell of a lot more progressive. There are more good groups in Merseyside now than there was back then. I feel much more pride in being involved in what's happening now than I ever did with that scene, without any disrespect to any of the groups that were playing then.

Certainly in my eyes there was only really The Coral that were doing anything that good, whereas now with Stealing Sheep, Ex-Easter Island Head, Hooton Tennis Club, Immix Ensemble, By The Sea... I think there's a lot of things happening that'll stand the test of time a lot better than a lot of that early 2000s scene did and there isn't a big hard on over it. 

But actually the big hard on over the Bandwagon thing was just the NME. And the NME was fucking awful. You said it yourself, they loved the tag on us. They weren't interested in anything really, they just thought that something was happening and wanted to sell a few copies.

Now, the things that people are doing, there isn't a big industry love-in for it but it's a lot more farther reaching. You might see Stealing Sheep in The Guardian, you might see Ex-Easter Island Head doing crazy collaborations with all sorts of people and I think it's a lot healthier and a lot more genuine than what we had in the 2000s. 

You seem to have a lot of pride in Merseyside. Is that the reason you still live here?

I guess it's one of the reasons, I certainly love the area. It's like anywhere.... Nobody asks me what I hate about the area, so I only talk about it when I'm saying what's good about the music here. I could talk ad nauseam about my grievances with Merseyside, but on the whole I do love it and I guess the reason I'm still here is that I genuinely think there is something happening up here now.

From 2006 to about two years ago I found the area quite oppressive, I felt like everyone was a little bit nobby or something. But now people seem to have this buzz, this lightness in Liverpool and on the Wirral, where I'm from, that's quite enjoyable to be around. And it's one of those things, I don't think people from this area travel all that well. Ha!

Was pride in the Wirral part of the reason The Coral held there Midsummer Night's Scream there? Did you want to make a distinction that you were from the Wirral and not Liverpool itself?

Yeah, probably. That's not really something I care that much about, to be honest. I think, for the most part, if you're from the Wirral, the burden is on you [to do that].

I think you don't really care about where you're from until someone says, well, you're not from Liverpool. And then you go, yeah, I know, and that's fine. But you're expected to kind of make a point of saying it.

If you don't go out of your way to say, by the way, I'm not a scouser, then there's always gonna be some sad scouse cunt out there going "You wish you were from Liverpool!" That's one of the things I hate about Liverpool, as much as I love it.

There's this huge fucking obsession that if you're not from the city, then you're desperate to be and if you're from just outside the city limits, then you're a fucking gimp. It's a genuinely odd thing that people where I come from just don't care about. 

One of the things that was most confusing to me was hearing folk from Liverpool call people from outside wools and trying to figure out what that actually meant. I've heard people from St Helens and people from the Wirral labelled that. I remember thinking is everyone who's not from Liverpool a wool to these people?

I think the wool thing is quite charming. Most Liverpudlians don't get the historical reason for that. What's most interesting is that, you'd think, if you were from Liverpool, and everyone who isn't from Liverpool is a wool, then the people from the furthest away from Liverpool would be the most wool. But it actually works backwards!

If you're from just outside Liverpool, you're the most wool and the further away from Liverpool you get, people become less wool. [Laughs]. It's really weird. It comes from the people from St Helens who had to get up really early to come and unload the wool off the ships. That's the reason it exists. 

Liverpool and Merseyside in general have had loads of great bands in their time. But some of my personal favourites have never really lived up to their potential.

I'm thinking of people like The Las and Shack. Why do you think that is? Do you think there's something in the attitude of the musicians from round here that doesn't quite chime so well with the runnings of the music industry?

Yeah, I think that'd probably be the smart conclusion. It must be a character trait. I don't think you're gonna get a nice answer to that, I think it's a sociological thing, I think it's why people from Merseyside don't really think like they're from Great Britain. There's certainly a chip on its shoulder.

I think those two bands that you're talking about and The Bunnymen, who I would count in that, I think you're talking about three groups of people, particularly the songwriters, who are from really oppressive, derelict, dog eat dog areas.

That will always produce a lot of talent, drive and creativity, but I'm not sure it produces the most stable of people. I think that's what probably happened with Shack, The Bunnymen and The Las.

As much as I love those bands, I think it's quite accepted that the singers and main songwriters in those groups, as great as they were with music, they didn't quite rub with a lot of the industry. The love for them from the people is apparent.

Thinking about Ian MacCulloch, who's from West Derby, Lee Mavers, who's from Huyton, Mick and John Head who are from Kensington, you can't imagine people who are brought up in that world to really be able to cope with record executives or bullshit A+R men. We found it hard enough (The Coral) and we were from middle class suburbia. 

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New Brighton - Floral Pavilion, Saturday 26th November

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Manchester - Gorilla, Monday 28th November 

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