When he's myopic, Jeff Ryan speaks volumes musically without singing a word.
“I'm not the kind of person that's gonna sit down and write a song like on a guitar and write lyrics,” says the Dallas-based drummer and multi-instrumentalist.
Myopic is Ryan's ambient instrumental project, and “we were here” is his just-released seven-song EP follow-up to 2009's “plays in pieces.” It's shadowy electronic space-dream music that could match up well with such moody, Twilight Zone-ish cinematic fare as Steven Soderbergh's “Solaris” or Duncan Jones' “Moon” as a perfect atmospheric soundtrack.
“I'm not Will Johnson, you know, and I love Will, he's a very good friend of mine, but that's his vehicle,” Ryan says, using the Denton, Texas-based frontman of Centro-Matic as an example of the kind of singer-songwriter that he, Ryan, cannot be.
“I just can't do that,” he said in a recent phone interview. “What makes sense to me is just a collage of sounds. If it makes sense, great, if not I don't know, but that's how I hear things first. More just rhythm and melody and mixing the organic with the electronic, and that's always been something what's very close to my heart. Bands like Mark Linkous and Sparklehorse and the way that he would interpret the organic and the electronic into something pretty heartfelt is hard to do.”
Not that Ryan is averse to accompanying others who do sing. He first came to prominence in the early 2000s drumming for Dallas-based alternative country-rock band Pleasant Grove, which featured frontmen Marcus Striplin and Bret Egner on vocals.
He also was hired by Grammy-nominated engineer John Congleton and Grammy-winning engineer Stuart Sikes (“Van Lear Rose” by Loretta Lynn) to play and record with Sarah Jaffe, The War on Drugs, The New Year, The Baptist Generals and St. Vincent, aka Tulsa-born Annie Erin Clark.
“It was a very, very quick session for ‘Actor,'” Ryan said of the St. Vincent gig. “John Congleton was recording her and just said, ‘Hey, I need you to come play some drums and things,' and luckily I did the title track, ‘Actor Out of Work,' and another track, I think it was called ‘Black Rainbow' ... she and I have remained friends. We did a one-off show together in — of all places — Anchorage, Alaska, last year. That was fun.”
Work with others — and alone
Meanwhile, Ryan has been a regular member of Denton-based lo-fi acoustic indie-rock band The Baptist Generals for 10 years, replacing original drummer Steven Hill shortly after that band released its first full-length album, “No Silver/No Gold,” in 2003. The Generals are finally poised to release their sophomore album, “Jackleg Devotional to the Heart,” May 21 on Sub Pop.
“It's done. We did finish it,” Ryan said. “We finished in January with Stuart Sikes here in Dallas. It's just we haven't been that active ... We said, look, let's finish this thing. I had some creative input (and) I don't consider myself just a session drummer for that band. I'm the drummer in that band, which I feel very honored to be.”
The Baptist Generals hosted a listening party for the album Friday at 35 Denton — the music festival founded by the band's lead singer, Chris Flemmons. A tour will probably follow the album's release.
As for myopic, Ryan plans only a couple of live performances.
“I'm going to do two performances, one in Dallas and one in Denton, and I've considered some very good friends who run the Opolis up in Norman, so I was thinking about doing something there as well,” Ryan said.
To help him re-create the seven pieces from “we were here” in a live setting, Ryan has recruited the Dallas-based band The Waterfalls.
“They're mainly soundscape, experimental, instrumental music, and they've accepted,” he said. “They're going to play the record, and they're going to play it the way they're going to interpret it, like an interpretation of how they see or how they hear the record. And that's kind of what I want because I've done shows in the past, off and on, with the last release and it's great to get an ensemble together and try and put these pieces together.”
But one wonders how Ryan puts these introspective instrumental pieces together in the first place, when he's alone. And what do they mean to him? Take the title track, for example.
“Actually I wrote that song a few years ago,” he said. “It was written and recorded in a matter of maybe four or five hours, and it was in one room, one bedroom in a little apartment we had and my wife was actually in Scotland (her native country) at the time.
“And the only instruments I had around me were an old keyboard and my little vibes set and a Muppet keyboard and a couple of cymbals and a slightly out of tune piano. And when I was done with that track it was like, you know, that's kind of what this project is. It's immediate, this gut-wrenching feeling like I have, to put all these things into perspective right now, and from start to finish it's almost like someone's life. It's like it starts off with this melody and then it builds slightly and you make this dramatic entrance, and then all of a sudden, you know, you're gone.”
It's Ryan's way of saying, seize the day. He just doesn't know how to put it into words.