Six degrees of Mark Ryan's 'Mind Spiders'
I read a story once about a young man who happened upon the Ramones LP Leave Home. He thought they were good enough, if a little out of tune, but the album didn't make the Earth stand still or anything. Months later, "Pinhead" popped into his head – but just five seconds of it on loop, like some vestigial tail whipping around, reminding him of a special purpose.
"I don't wanna be a pinhead no more! I don't wanna be a pinhead no more!"
He couldn't get it out of his head, which was disconcerting, so he returned to Leave Home, listening to "Pinhead" so many times that it was imprinted on his not-yet-addled brain. He decided to make it his theme song. We all have one – a song on pause. Not like those T-shirts designed to play one of your favorite jams from a hidden microchip, loudly, when you enter a room. That's not very punk. No, this was internal practice, a life soundtrack, deep meditation on three chords and gabba gabba hey!
Mark Ryan had a theme song before he named his current band, Mind Spiders. His former band the Marked Men went on hiatus last year, causing some hand-wringing over the group's status. And not for nothing: the Denton quartet's Southern three-chord sprint made for Ramones punk, flush with hook-filled ya-yas that shook out your pocket change while making you very drunk. Marked Men songs are branded on more than a few addled brains in Denton, Austin, and beyond.
"We're not a functioning band," the guitarist says from Fort Worth. "We get together and do stuff here and there, but we're not planning on recording anymore. I was writing other songs that didn't fit the Marked Men, and I got kind of bored – wanted to do other stuff."
Ryan churned out last spring's ear-perking World's Destroyed 7-inch EP on Portland, Ore.'s Dirtnap Records. His new vinyl-only Mind Spiders offers evidence that Ryan's onto something beyond mere side project. Lead track "Go!" has a Marked Men urgency to it, but the rest of the debut full-length is decidedly "other stuff." There's a cinematic quality to it, and Ryan's got a strong hand with hooks and melodies, balancing British 1960s doo-wop ("Don't Let Her Go") with lo-fi sci-fi whirls ("Your Soul," "Close the Door"), all guaranteed to be delivered in a brief matter of minutes.
Recording mostly on his own, Ryan nevertheless enlisted musicians along the Denton-Austin highway, which has become happily congested with collaboration in the last decade. The Marked Men's Mike Throneberry and Greg Rutherford of Austin/Denton punks the Bad Sports, play drums, along with Bad Sports bassist Daniel Fried and Uptown Bums guitarist Stephen Svacina. Rutherford and Fried also play in High Tension Wires with Ryan and Mike Wiebe of Austin's Riverboat Gamblers. Ryan used to be in the Gamblers. High Tension Wires has an album coming out on Dirtnap in the spring.
The tangle works. "I'm 36," points out Ryan. "Most of the guys in the band are, like, 24."
He laughs. "They keep me clued in."
Ryan's aforementioned theme song – simply titled "Mind Spiders Theme" – could be a placeholder for a bigger idea, riding an ominous New Wave riff, as does the moody "Neurotic Gold," plunging us into the chattering depths with those bespectacled skeletons on the cover. Mind Spiders isn't a cold album. Ryan's got a cosmic imagination, X-ray vision.
"I intentionally wanted to see if I could do things on my own," he explains. "The stuff the Marked Men were doing got pretty defined. [My] 7-inch was a primitive version of what the Mind Spiders sound came to be; World's Destroyed made me realize what could be done.
"I really like Brian Eno, but I also like old rock & roll, like Buddy Holly – a weird combo of old pop music."
His cover of "Slippin' and Slidin'" marries those two concepts. It's a song done by many – most notably Little Richard – but Ryan was trying to reinterpret Holly's version of the R&B staple. Ryan slows it down, gets heavy-lidded, makes it sound like a come-on.
"There are these tapes of Buddy Holly demo-ing songs in his apartment in New York, just him on an acoustic guitar, and he does a couple versions of that song," relates Ryan. "It's really creepy-sounding and really great. Those are some of my favorite recordings ever.
"I could go on and on about Buddy Holly forever."
In those recordings, found after Holly's death in 1959, you can hear the clinking of silverware in the background, Holly's new wife, Maria, talking. It's intimate, which is perhaps why it's so "creepy-sounding" (see "Learning the Game," Feb. 5, 2010). The rough-cut feel of Holly's apartment demos matches Mind Spiders in that it's one man's raw, personal take – an experiment, from the whoah-ohs to the synth pew-pews, a power-pop heart with a sci-fi brain.
Austin Chronicle: Is there a theme to the album?
Mark Ryan: I think every song has the word spider in it somewhere.
AC: A lot of the songs are very brain-centric, but so were a lot of Marked Men songs.
MR: Yeah, and the Marked Men had a lot of songs that were kind of serious, so I was going intentionally for something more fun. Some of those lyrics [on the album] are so stupid.
AC: For some reason I thought Mind Spiders was a Philip K. Dick reference.
MR: It comes from this old science-fiction story I like from Fritz Leiber. He wrote some fantasy novels, and I think some of the characters become characters in Dungeons and Dragons. I like him. I like Philip K. Dick. I think there's also some obscure Star Wars creature called mind spiders too, which I learned after the fact.
They're actually called Brain Spiders, but that's a minor detail within Ryan's universe. Fritz Leiber's 1961 collection, The Mind Spider and Other Stories, approached extraterrestrial mind control with a bite of black humor, and his 1969 novel, A Spectre Is Haunting Texas, lands in North Texas where overgrown rednecks have recolonized. To that end, Ryan's sci-fi fixation is perfectly pitched.