lundi 16 janvier 2017

"Striving to understand and being blown away will always be at the heart of deep listening for me"

I knew very few things about Ryan Miller prior to this interview; I only knew he's a member of U Sco, a terrific and challenging trio from Portland, and was amazed by his short, intriguing Instagram videos (under the ryverb pseudonym), where you can hear a myriad of influences leading to his rather unique voice; I just had to know more about him and his playing. Deep, open-minded and super generous, Ryan pleased me with this in-depth conversation. DANG!

Hi Ryan, so to start with I'd like you to tell me everything about the beginning. How old were you when you started to play, and what made you want to pick up the instrument?  Also: what kind of memories do you keep from that period?

I started out playing bass at 15, very much inspired by my neighbor and good friend John Barnaby.  John is an absolutely amazing bassist and guitarist and is a couple years older than me, I made the switch to guitar quickly.  John introduced me to Primus, Black Sabbath, Tom Waits and a myriad of other amazing artists and bands.  John plays in a great local Portland band these days called Manx.  John and I we're good friends throughout High School but have sort of lost track over the years, such is life!  I owe nearly all of my early inspiration to him!

My Mom bought me my first real guitar for my 16th birthday, a Yamaha Strat copy, I remember that day so well.  I was completely mesmerized by Hendrix, Soundgarden, the Deftones and Radiohead at the time, I'm sure I drove my whole dang family crazy by playing the same riffs for hours on end!

I don't talk about this often these days but I'm a childhood cancer survivor and underwent intensive chemotherapy and cranial radiation therapy from the ages of 12-16.  It was a pretty fractured time for me as far as hobbies go but music and the guitar took hold of me quickly and has never let go.  I played so much, every waking moment and as often as possible.  I had a hefty amount of downtime as well from 15-16 that allowed me the opportunity to really focus my energy on this positive new force in my life.

From then to now, can you identify some important steps that led you where you're now?

When I was 16 I started taking weekly lessons with an amazing guitarist from Tigard, OR named Rod Furlott. Rod taught me so much, not only technique and fretboard mechanics but also about listening to music and even a bit of repair and maintenance.  I'm so thankful for being able to take lessons with Rod. 

"Listening to music" might sound logical, but it's such a deep topic on many levels; could you say a few words about that?

Oh of course, we all have drastically different experiences listening to music!  Rod helped me to focus on listening for things like melody, timbre and time signatures; picking apart the pieces to try to identify familiar sounds or patterns.

Personally, listening to music is an escape first and foremost.  As far as studying music through deep listening, I have to relate what I'm hearing to what I know and understand.  Variations of that are either so damn exciting and over my head or maybe something I can grasp and be influenced by.  

I think maybe I'm influenced to some degree even by things that I do not understand, like monster players with celestial chops.  Striving to understand and being blown away will always be at the heart of deep listening for me.  

Rod also builds guitars and plays almost exclusively on his own instruments, a notion that completely blew my mind at the time!

I think I can trace important musical/ guitar related developments back to musical discoveries and how those listening experiences manifested into my relationship with the guitar; I have experienced many bookmarks in this regard. Rod introduced me to Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin, Pat Martino and dozens of guitar giants that rattle my brain like crazy to this day. Hearing Mahavishnu Orchestra's "The Inner Mounting Flame" for the first time is a huge bookmark in musical discovery for me. Hearing "Boss Guitar" by Wes Montgomery was another early pivot point. 

Two years of Tuesday's with Rod are cherished memories for me. He teaches a lot out of his own book "The Serious Guitarist." This book has an almost permanent residence in my music stand!

A later important step was studying jazz guitar performance at Portland State University for two years. I studied with some really great teachers and players at PSU and ultimately had a great time there. This was an eye opening experience however in that I discovered that I would likely not be entirely happy with pursuing the jazz performance major as my only focus of study. After making making the decision to change direction after two years I was able to focus more of my creative energy on my own music and my personal relationship with the guitar. 

I'm not surprised to read that; it seems that all the guitar players I find inspiring have that common knowledge of jazz - or let's say bebop. How deep did you go in that study?

Oh agreed, I think a part of me will always want to be strictly a bebop guitarist.  Two years at PSU's jazz program was eye opening though in that I found that at that time I needed to focus my time playing in other directions.  

Current bands/projects/etc: i don't know much about you. I just saw a few short live clips from your band U SCO and that definitely made me want to know a lot more! I also know that you sometimes play solo guitar shows.

U SCO is my main project right now and has been for the last few years.  Jon and Phil are my best friends and incredible musicians.  We have been making this music for about 5 years now, we've all known each other for over 10 years at this point.  We make instrumental music with a heavy emphasis on collaboration, we write nearly all of our music together in the same room and refine the compositions like crazy until we're all happy with the output.  Sometimes this process can take a very long time before songs fully come to fruition but we all enjoy the process.  

I do also write and perform music for solo guitar and I'm currently working on my third album of music under my own name.  I was also in a band called With Eyes Abstract for many years, we released two full length albums and two EP's. That music is here:

Ryan, let's talk about practice habits. This is such an important part of one's evolution. What are yours? Here I'd like to go deep in the balance between the technical dimension and creativity, but also tips, or even error... Well, anything that could come to mind.

My practice habits vary greatly, most often I improvise or work on writing riffs that are challenging in a new way.   Usually I'm combining different methods of practice and composition at the same time.   I write a lot of etude type riffs that are circular and change slightly each time (usually adding or subtracting sections to build upon patterns/ signatures/ cacophony).  I like to write down these "etudes" (I use either Guitar Pro or Ableton for this) and create whole compositions this way.  I also like to take videos of myself playing so that I can more easily recall ideas if I don't end up really writing them down. 

Could you say how do you end up playing those riffs? I mean: does those riffs come more from a more "let's see what happen" kind of free playing/ improvisation? It's usually very intriguing, both weird and melodic, and I dig those videos a lot! 

Definitely "let's see what could happen."  I like to work through lines and patterns until they really get under my hands and break them apart into smaller pieces.  This helps me to see what's really important in the phrase and to bring out new ideas for connecting pieces.  

It really means so much to me that you watch those videos!  I really enjoy your playing and videos as well!!  Hearing and seeing what folks are up to outside of their main projects is so great and I like to contribute to that social conversation where appropriate.  I'm thankful to have a space to share my music.

Generally if I don't take videos or write down what I'm working on every session I'll move onto to new ideas without the best reference for the work that I'd already put in.  Often I will nix ideas or practice exercises  altogether and move to new ideas and those videos are all that I have to show what I'd gotten myself into that day.   I'm thankful to be able to dedicate time to practicing whenever possible. 

Do you still practice some technical exercices or run some scales, like to warm up? I'm writing this because warming up is so important. Everyone has different habits but at the end we all need to prevent muscular issues. I personally do a lot of stretching but also practice very slowly. What about you?

Yes, stretching is so important for me too!  A few years ago I got tendinitis in my left hand couldn't play for nearly a month, so brutal.  Continued therapy with my chiropractor for my left arm has been really vital for keeping away from injury.  Lots of stretching for sure and practice breaks are important! I work at a computer 40 hours a week for my job and I also take many stretching breaks there. 
I do play a lot of chromatic exercises and arpeggio type scales.  Often focusing specifically on picking and making sure my hands are working together like they should. 
I also try to transcribe as often as possible too using a combination of my ear and slowing music down in Ableton, I wish I had more time for this!  Rather, I wish I would allow myself more time to dedicate to transcribing music because it really helps my ear training in so many ways. 

Same. I started to transcribe (I use the Transcribe software) like 18 months ago after taking two lessons with Philip Catherine. Those hours spent with him changed my life! Or at least the way I practice ;-)    

Oh that's amazing!  Philip Catherine is such an amazing player!  I'm not familiar with the Transcribe software, looking this up now! 

We haven't discussed gear yet; you mentioned your teacher built and played on his own handmade guitar, but I saw on your Instagram that you too build your instruments! With a deep love for Jazzmaster and Jaguar-like guitars, isn't it?
Yes I do have a deep love for Fender "Offset" style guitars!  The body shape really is perfect for me and I do enjoy tinkering with setups, modular pieces and electronics nearly as much as playing!

Curiosity: what is your current favorite pedal?

This is a tough question!  I've been really digging the Digitech Whammy Ricochet pedal recently!  I've had a few of their variations of the Whammy pedal and this one is my favorite for sure.  Very expressive even without the "treadle" and it tracks really well, so much fun - and a very compact enclosure!

To close this great talk, please give me your top ten records but also the things you're listening to nowadays.

My first top ten list!  Exciting but nerve-wracking, I'll try not to think too hard about this: 

In no particular order, albums that have had a long-lasting impression on me: 

Interstellar Space, John Coltrane and Rashied Ali  

We Move Through Weather, Tarentel
Arms, ZS 
The Inner Mounting Flame, Mahavishnu Orchestra
Science Friction, Tim Berne
Radio Amor, Tim Hecker
Chest, The Nels Cline Trio
Rain Dogs, Tom Waits
Barriers and Passages, Dysrhthmia
For Alto, Anthony Braxton
It's hard not including Johnny Greenwood's Bodysong on this list because I love that album so much.  
I've really been into the new Behold the Arctopus album recently, Cognitive Emancipation.  So complex and intense as all of their albums are.  

Thank you Ryan! 

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