"You ready to turn this shit up a little bit?"
Ryan Bingham gives fair warning before peeling into a new, riff-driven headbanger that repeats the question, "Guess who's knocking on the door?"
"It's me, motherfucker! I'm knocking on the door!"
Not exactly the road-worn reflection that netted him a 2010 Oscar for "The Weary Kind." At a two-night Stubb's stand in September, "Guess Who's Knocking" came off atypically loud and impersonal for the thoughtful troubadour tough (revisit "The Cowboy Song," June 5, 2009). Moreover, what might have elicited a Dylan-at-Newport outrage – Bingham shedding his locally based backing band, the Dead Horses, for a group that sounds like U2 – engendered a mass shoulder shrugging from the fratboys too drunk to notice the elephant in the amphitheatre.
Densely layered, at times snarling, fourth full-length Tomorrowland marks a departure in execution and attitude for Bingham, but his propensity for carrying the weight of the world and singing the sorrows of everyman remains. That alone makes it great.
Before taking the stage a second night at Stubb's, the 31-year-old sat at a picnic table behind the venue to explain why he's turning up his amplifier.
Austin Chronicle: You didn't play "The Weary Kind" last night.
Ryan Bingham: I don't play it all the time, only when I feel like it. I gotta be in the mood for that song. I think I nipped that thing in the bud because on the Junky Star tour, we didn't play that song hardly at all. People would get so mad. People would get irate. At the same time, if you just came to hear one fuckin' song and don't give a shit about anything else, then why should I cater to that?
AC: Your songwriting has such a desperate tone to it. Now that you're having some success, is it hard to keep it real?
RB: I might not be as desperate as I was in those days, but as far as the things I write about, it's the same. It's about places I've traveled and people I've met. The experiences I've had and the whole rest of the world around me. The more you get out there, the more you learn, and at the end of the day, it's about trying to make sense of the world around you and processing that information.
AC: What happened in your life between this album and the last that turned into the emotional core of Tomorrowland?
RB: A lot of people don't know that during the Oscar stuff, my mother drank herself to death and my dad shot himself in the head. All this crazy, fucked-up shit that's been going on through the past five years and since I was a kid. Music was always my way of getting through that.
AC: Did your parents' deaths come through on any particular new song?
RB: Yeah, the song "Never Far Behind." I wrote that about them, and it was the first song I specifically wrote about it.
AC: That was between the last record and now?
RB: Yeah, my mom died before the last record and my dad died right when the last record came out. So it came out and I was on tour, singing those songs every night. It was dark and sad. I couldn't even make it through it. Some nights I couldn't even hardly get through the set. That's why I took the past year off, and that's why a big focus with this record was that I wanted it to be really fun to play live. I had to lighten up a little bit, so fuck it. Let's rock, turn it up, have some fun.
AC: When did you land in Texas originally?
RB: I was born in Hobbs, New Mexico, and then my family moved out to Bakersfield, California, to work the oil field. When I was 10 or 11, we moved back to Texas to the Midland-Odessa area. They all worked in the oil fields there. We bounced around all those little towns out there. When I was about 15, we moved down to Houston for a couple years, then went to Laredo. Right after that time, my parents got pretty messed up and people were going their separate ways and we went up to Stephenville, right outside of Fort Worth. That's where I first started going to these rodeos and playing music. I met these guys from New Braunfels, Doug Moreland and Jason Boland.
They were living behind a bar called the River Road Ice House. They were camping in trailers down there. They were river guides. I had a truck and a camper and was like, "Fuck it, I'm going to move down." So I moved down to New Braunfels and started playing open mics and bars. I was there for maybe four or five years.
AC: What time frame was that?
RB: Probably 2004 or 2005.
AC: Did you do much gigging in Austin?
RB: Some of my first real gigs were at the Continental Club and Momo's.
AC: Where are you based now?
RB: I live in Los Angeles now.
AC: Does it suit you?
RB: It's a real diverse city, out on the coast and the ocean. I kind of live outside of Los Angeles in a place called Topanga. It's in the middle of a state park. It reminds me of the Texas Hill Country. It's out there and there's coyotes running around. I call it the Batcave because you're not really living in Los Angeles. I'm out there on a dead-end road with no neighbors and nobody around.
AC: What's the deal with the new band?
RB: We've been on the road for the past 10 years pretty hard, just relentlessly going out there and I think we all needed a break. Those guys dedicated so much to me and didn't make a lot of time for their own personal projects. It wasn't any kind of a big fallout. It was just rough because we're brothers, more of a family than we are a band. We spent so much time together that we became brothers. It was hard to be like, "All right, let's take a break for a little bit," but at the same time, it's cool what we're all doing now.
AC: A colleague wrote, "He took the Dead Horses to the glue factory."
RB: Well, there's some fucked-up shit out there. Somebody said, "He ditched his band and he ditched his label and he lost his way." It's like, "Motherfuckers, you don't know anything about the band!" They're my fuckin' brothers. You can talk shit about me and my record all you want, but don't be fucking talking shit about the band because you don't know. You weren't in the van hacking it on the road for 10 years, sleeping on each other like sardines.
AC: I always thought you should be in a punk rock band because of your raspy voice.
RB: I've been listening to a lot of Clash and Black Flag and stuff like that. They were a big influence on this record. I think about growing up, being young and tryin' in a system when you don't have a chance in hell. You ain't got nobody to help you. It's a struggle. You're on your own, trying to do something good with your life, and everyone you meet along the way puts you down in the dirt and steps on the back of your head. It makes that mentality of, "Fuck all you motherfuckers! I'm gonna speak my mind and do what I want."
AC: What do you think of the crowds your music attracts?
RB: I think fans are still figuring out who I am, though since Crazy Heart and me always wearing a cowboy hat, people think I'm a country music singer no matter what I do. But if they ever saw us play back in the day at the Continental Club, we were more rock with country influences. A lot of times the media puts you out there in one way, and it's not really what you're about or who you are. The next go-round you go out and sing a song with "motherfucker" in it and people are freaking out like, "Oh my God, what happened to Ryan? He lost his way. He moved to Hollywood!" We've been singing that shit from day one.
AC: What do you want to get across about what you're doing?
RB: You write a song with an acoustic guitar and you can make it anything you want. Put some banjos and fiddles on it and call it bluegrass. Play slide guitar and call it a blues song, or put some distortion on it and call it rock & roll. At the end of the day, it's all folk music.
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