Chris Ryan on Brazil, Russia and life after Covid

Drummer, producer and all-round fascinating guy, Chris Ryan, is the frontman for Northern Ireland punk-jazz outfit Robocobora Quartet. As the drummer and vocalist, he propels the band along with a style that is genuinely hard to define but if you took Talking Heads, the New York cool of David Bowie’s Black Star lineup, mixed it up with a spritz of Fugazi and Charles Mingus and baked for a few years at Belfast’s Sonic Arts and Research Centre, then you’d be somewhere in the same neighbourhood. Drowned in Sound called the band’s 2018 album Plays Hard to Get ‘the most daring, fully realised LP to emerge from Ireland this year, and it’s hard to imagine it being topped.’ The band’s instrumental version of the same album's opener ‘Short Stretch of the Day’ won admirers across the globe when it was picked up on the HBO documentary Game of Thrones: The Last Watch.

Chris was transported to São Paulo in 2019 as one of three Musicians in Residence, Brazil – our own programme of international residencies with PRS Foundation – to give him the opportunity to connect with new sounds and focus on his writing. ‘I’m purposely going into the experience with a sense of malleability,’ he said before the trip. ‘I’m looking forward to the opportunity to learn what I can along the way, both in a musical sense and also in terms of language and speech, which the main thrust of my writing.’ The music already coming out of this trip speaks well of the future.

In 2020, Chris and Robocobora Quartet headed to Moscow, St Petersburg and then Murmansk within the Arctic Circle for a run of live shows as part of the UK-Russia Year of Music supported by the British Council. ‘It’s amazing to make it up here, and for people to be so welcoming,’ he told the Guardian’s Andrew Dickson. ‘Northern people make their own warmth.’

Few musicians we’ve worked with – and we’ve worked with a fair few – can claim to have experienced both Brazil and Russia in just a matter of months. But then not many can claim to be the vocalist-drummer-composer-frontman of a Northern Irish punk-jazz act. Stephen Bloomfield caught up with Chris – virtually during the UK lockdown – to talk about his experiences of both countries. So expect Brazil, Russia and Robocobora but also Belfast, Dubai, Covid-19, birth, death, ‘the life of animals or planets and so on …’. Meet Chris Ryan.

 

Stephen: How are you coping with the Covid situation? Has this been an unexpectedly creative time at home or has the coronavirus crisis completely ruined any plans you had for this time period?

Chris: It has definitely been a change, but luckily my working life is quite diversified so it hasn't been that huge a shock to the system but I have friends who are day-in-day-out gigging musicians who have been hit hard. Financially it's been a hit – I've had all my gigs and recording sessions cancelled but it just means now I'm spending my time mixing and writing and collaborating online instead. I live a pretty low-overhead life so in a sense I'm lucky.

I've been open to doing all sorts of stuff recently ... I think the residency gave me that kind of confidence

What were the highlights of your residency in Brazil? Who did you meet that inspired work and what do you take from the experience / where might it lead?

It's so difficult to sum it up concisely but the whole trip was pretty transformative for me. It was the first proper residency I've done where I was just an 'artist' and nothing else. I met so many amazing people and actually made some proper friendships with folks I still chat to. The whole thing has made me think of my work in a more holistic way - that my more technical or audio engineering life can inform my composition or writing, for example. There's a Laurie Anderson interview where she talks about thinking of yourself not as a painter or musician or composer but as a 'multimedia artist', which is a meaningless title but if you feel like making a film one day, no-one will say "But, wait, you're not a film-maker!". I've been open to doing all sorts of stuff recently, even doing some visual art in the past few months. I think the residency gave me that kind of confidence. It was also incredible to see a sense of community and the support for LGBT+ rights and ethnic diversity - I had never seen such visibility of queer and gender non-conforming people and it meant a lot to me. The experience gave me some food for thought for life back in Northern Ireland.

 

Above: the track ‘Cai’ produced by Chris Ryan during his residency in Brazil featuring Francisco, el Hombre and Yorka

 

I understand you grew up in Dubai? How does the culture compare to your current home of Northern Ireland – was there a period of adjustment?

I'm originally from County Wexford in the Republic of Ireland, so even here in Belfast I'm not necessarily 'local'. Though I've lived here for almost a decade and it feels more like home than anywhere else. But yes, I grew up in Dubai, from about 1998 to 2010. It's a strange place in many ways but it definitely gave me a lot of perspective when I moved here. Having done most of my learning about how the world works from living in the United Arab Emirates, there are a lot of things about the UK and Ireland that I don't take for granted, like social care and the NHS. I also was absolutely shocked to find out that there's a thing called the Arts Council and public funders will give you money to make art!? Insane! 

Growing up in an isolated place geographically was interesting. I got really into punk rock and DIY music. From about 13 or 14 years of age my friends and I were putting on gigs in skateparks and backyards and I was recording bands and doing live sound. There was (and kind of still is) no notion of a music 'industry' there so it was quite nice in a way to gestate our early musical developments in a place where you couldn't even consider the commercial appeal of it. It was only much much later in my life that I started to think of music as more of a career and I think I'm quite lucky for that. Kids growing up in LA seem to have the idea of money-making attributed to their creativity almost immediately, don't they? That doesn't seem too healthy for making art. Additionally, the drinking age in the UAE is 21 so the idea that we would want to wait until we were 21 to play music live in a bar was ridiculous so we didn't even think of that. I was 19 when I left. Every gig we did was all-ages and in non-traditional venues because how could it not be? It did shock me when I came here [to the UK] to find that live music is inextricably linked to alcohol sales - it's quite perverse actually to have something so beautiful connected to a destructive industry that relies on addiction.

Thinking of your studies at SARC – the Sonic Arts Research Centre, Queen’s University, Belfast – what's special about SARC and how do you think your time there, or your interest in sound art more generally, has influenced your work? 

SARC excited me because it seemed to be about a lot more than just 'audio engineering' – you could study composition and acoustics and instrument design, too. As I said I was recording bands from about 14 so I had taught myself a lot of things in a hodge podge trial-by-error way. It was really cool to then learn all of the theory after the fact. It seems a good way to learn – lots of years of play and then learn the theory to find out why things didn't work and why things sounded and behaved certain ways when you were experimenting. I used to go to the studios at night and on the weekends and go round the back of the consoles and racks to see how things connected to each other. I think it's entirely on you to make use of a place like that when you have access to it.

 

Above: Inversia Festival in Murmansk. The Robocobora Quartet trip was part of the UK-Russia Year of Music. Credit: Ivan Mityushev

 

What were the highlights of your trip to Russia with the British Council for the UK-Russia Year of Music?

The Robocobra Quartet trip to Russia was pretty amazing. In a way we were shocked by how it, culturally, wasn't as different as we expected. Of course, as a band, we're going to be in our own bubble, but it's easy to forget that it's still just another country in Europe. They were probably some of the best shows we've ever played too – I think the band were on a high just because of the privilege we were afforded to take part in the whole trip and from the kindness and hospitality offered to us.

You're kind of taught that other ways of living might even be dangerous

At the time you tweeted that it reminded you, in a world that you felt sometimes encourages people to be distrustful – "download VPNs!" you joked – that we're not so different at all ... 

I have a Chinese friend who I was talking about this to recently. I think if you've spent most of your time in the US or UK you have an assumption that the Western way of doing things - be it policy, social traditions, manners et cetera - is the best or 'correct' way to do things. And further to that, you're kind of taught that other ways of living might even be dangerous. But truthfully, one person’s draconian government is another person's safety net. I think that's being shown right now with Coronavirus - the fact that authoritarian government systems are able to deal with a virus a lot better than other countries where freedom is paramount. The USA is genuinely a very free place - the market is in control of most things and as a result it's pandemonium when an issue requires a collectivist approach.

Heading closer to home, to Belfast, can you tell us more about Start Together, your work there and its role in nurturing emerging talent?

Start Together is a cool studio - it's my favourite place in Belfast to work on records. I'm not an employee there but I do recording sessions there on a freelance basis and we have a good relationship. They have a real nice balance where they have lots of professional equipment, lots of weird or vintage equipment too, but the studio isn't so high-end that it's unaffordable for low-budget artists. I do a lot of mixing and overdubs at my studio in my house and I also do a lot of recording on-location in concert halls, too. I really like taking a more artistic and flexible approach to making records with artists - I would never open a full-time commercial recording studio. It seems like a terrible business idea too, so thanks to Start Together for taking on that task so I don't have to!

Who would you tip as acts we should be watching and listening to, coming out of Northern Ireland – particularly ones that people might not know about already?

Absolutely. Check out: Son Zept, a prolific producer and electronic artist with a cool label called Resist AV; Fears’ ethereal solo voice and electronics; Just Mustard, somewhere between My Bloody Valentine and Warpaint; Careerist, truly unique indie rock; No Spill Blood, metal with a lot of vintage synths and amazing melodic writing and Junk Drawer, a great indie rock from a bunch of journalists.

Thanks for this Chris. Is there anything else you'd like to add – we'd normally ask what your plans are for the future ...

The future?? What future? Oh yes, currently I'm working on a brand new 'solo' project called SORBET that will involve a lot of stuff I was doing in Brazil. It's kind of the apex of my work as a performer-writer and my work as a producer. The first release will be an EP of three songs that encompass (1) Birth (2) Life and (3) Death. The lyrics deal with both the literal idea of physical human birth, life and death but also things like death of identity, birth of sexual and gender experience, the life of animals or planets and so on.

 

SORBET is scheduled for release later in 2020 with a full length LP to follow next year.