US composer and multi-instrumentalist William Ryan Fritch is a bundle of energy. You can get that from his discography. He rarely sits still. Musically he oscillates between modern classical and fourth world exotica, from soundtrack work to his former role in Anticon Stalwart’s Sole and the Skyrider Band. In conversation too he’ busy, ideas flow thick and fast, they’re espoused, chewed over and discarded before being replaced with new thoughts at a dazzling, slightly disconcerting rate. You get the sense that his mouth is always running a poor second to his brain. In little over an hour he references everyone from Van Dyke Parks, to Schoenberg, Missa Luba to D’Angelo. Yet throughout the conversation and across the tangents, his passion for all things musical is infectious. Right now though, on the line from his barn/ studio in Petaluma California, he’ got ants in his pants, waiting for his new album on Lost Tribe Sound to drop.
â€œIt’s driving me crazy,â€ he admits chuckling to himself. â€œIt’s like I have this albatross draped over my shoulders.â€ Since 2010 with his first Vieo Abiungo album Blood Memory, Lost Tribe Sound, a label set up by Ryan Keane from Tokyo Bloodworm has been his home, and it’s a testament to his freakish proclivity, that since then he’ released four more long players as well as a bunch of EP’. So when he suggests he’ going crazy waiting for the fifth, it’s hard not to take it with little more than a wry smile.
â€œIt’s the longest I’ve sat on a record and not put it out. It’s been almost 2 years,â€ he laughs and you can hear the agony in his voice. The album he’ referring to is Leave Me Like You Found Me, a stylistic and creative shift that features in his words â€œa heavy dose of choral vocals and wordless vocal arrangements.â€ But that’s not first up, Fritch opens his 2014 account with a 10 track EP that feature his first lyrical vocals since his first recording from 2006 Plumed & Desiccated. With five vocal pieces and five instrumentals, his approach to vocals shouldn’ be much of a surprise. â€œI try to use my voice the same as I would use any other instrument,â€ he reveals, â€œshifting its focus, function, and texture in the music as a malleable component.â€
But that’s not all, there’ also a third album planned for 2014, Revisionist, which Fritch sees as a culmination of all the conceptual and musical ideas of the two preceding records and sees him moving away from the one man band concept for the first time in his career and roping in contributions from the likes of Benoit Pioulard, DM Stith, Origamibiro and several others.
â€œLast year was such a wildly productive year in terms of recording and writing an obscene amount of material, but it was just not possible to get any of it out into the world until now. The material I had amassed and the material I am currently working on was/is part of a particularly fertile creative period of my life that would take more than one album to reflect. So thankfully we will get an opportunity to share three records this year along with a treasure trove of additional music and soundtracks.â€
His mock frustration, whilst on some level genuine, is tempered with a muted excitement that is a testament to both to his personality and to the way he likes to work. It’s with immediacy he gets results.
â€œFor me as soon as I have the idea of the motif in my head I just press record, and I go and do all of the layers and all of the shaping. All of the pieces that feel the most natural when they’re done, they happened within 48 hours from idea to ready be mixed.â€
You can hear this in his music, not just the precocious energy but also his instinctual musicianship, and his feel for composition. He’ a self taught multi instrumentalist and his barn is overflowing with instruments like cello’, all kinds of percussion, pianos, marimbas, you name it and it’s surely there. His barn is an important component in his music too; you can hear the space, the resonance of the room in his mixes.
Fritch began making music in an isolated part of Florida. He was 40 minutes away from friends, and aside from some early work with an unpredictable local drummer, if he wanted to make music it was on his own, and if he wanted different instrumentation it was pawnshops and church yard sales. Becoming a one-man band wasn’ a calling. It was a necessity.
Eventually some bookers in Phoenix heard his first self released album Plumed and Desiccated and asked if he’d play a show. So he drove three hours to be greeted by seven opening bands, most of whom were Ableton DJ’. â€œNot that there’ anything wrong with that,â€ he offers. It was poorly organised, and in the end he was left with only 15 minutes to play with no soundcheck – in Fritch’ eyes it was a total disaster. He took his cello into the audience and made the best of it.
Still rattled after the show a kind soul approached him, complimented him on his set, said he’d heard some of Fritch’ previous material, was setting up a label and wondered if he’d be interested into putting something out. That person was Ryan Keane. â€œI didn’ know if he was really serious or just blowing smoke up my ass, because I was totally pissed,â€ laugh’ Fritch, â€œnot drunk, just angry.â€
The album Keane wanted to release on his as yet unformed Lost Tribe Sound label was Fritch’ quasi world music experimentations, an album that eventually became the dark sprawling soup of ideas that is Blood Memory.
â€œI was honestly at that point in my life thinking no one wants to hear me do this pseudo world music,â€ he reflects, â€œit’s not world music but it had those influences. I was worried people were going to think I was totally bastardising something.â€
But Keane was adamant: this is what he wanted. When Fritch listened back to his recordings, he wasn’ impressed by the quality, so he stalled Keane and recorded a whole new album in two and a half weeks. In fact only one song appears from the original recordings. Yet Blood Memory doesn’ feel rushed. Strange maybe, dark and murky, yet it’s blessed with its own unique internal logic which is endlessly fascinating. Sounds reveal themselves triumphantly one moment only to submerge again, horns, cello, turntable, synths, even subtle fragments of voice (or voices). Fritch seems to enjoy building order from disorder, crafting a messy, hard won beauty from amongst the swirls and seemingly amorphous, near ambient wanderings. It’s also an album that best highlights his divergent influences, a murky intersection between modern classical, tribal, experimental and film music.
â€œWhen I started listening to African music like juju music, I got turned on to King Sunny Ade,â€ he remembers, â€œI loved those interweaving guitar parts, and I really got into that guitar playing style. He would sing balls to the wall; with complete unbridled enthusiasm and I knew how amazing and inimitable it was. Some white kid from rural Florida could never make music like that. So it was about finding my own way to represent the music that made me feel the most.â€
In retrospect he concedes that he may have gone a little too heavy on the African percussion (he’ wrong). Yet he stands by the sonic qualities of the music (he’ right).
â€œI love African rhythms and most of all I like the texture, the buzzing qualities, the sharper incongruent edges. I mean I listen to film music today, and even composers who are fantastic, every sound is just so completely rounded off and smooth and over compressed with the same kind of reverb. They do a recording on a million dollar soundstage for a film that’s set somewhere nasty, where you need real grit. They could learn so much by seeing what these lo-fi recording studios did, like early dub recordings. Stuff where there is rubberiness, adjectives that you don’ get in high-end studios because they think a drum kit should sound like this or a piano should be that open grand piano. I get sick of that. I get sick of the perfect sound. African music can be so free and it’s so enviable – this idea that you make music with what you have around.”
â€œIt goes beyond being good enough. I just love the idea of someone grooving on a block of wood they’ve carved. Things where the overtones are kind’ve wonky and not perfectly in tune. But because of the playing it’s incongruency works against itself to make something interesting. I just love that. I get so excited when I hear sounds that maybe we would think are unpleasant turned into something that is meditative or to find that perfect Tetris piece. I don’ know of any other music that does that as well as African music.â€
Recently Fritch has worked extensively in film, scoring in the main documentaries, elements of which often find their way into his LP’. His score for The Waiting Room, a minimal modern classical swell of sound actually secured its own release on Lost Tribe early last year. It’s a remarkable film documenting one day in the life of an Oakland public hospital, its patients and staff. Fritch was not the first choice to score the film. In fact the director has already gone through four different composers, including some pretty heavy hitters.
â€œAlmost all of them made it too much “pity me’ or “look at these poor people who are sick and in the waiting room,â€ Fritch offers. â€œAnd it was beautiful music, I mean I heard some of the stuff that was in there before and they were good compositions, but the tone wasn’ right. It didn’ speak to the strength of the community. I lived really close to that hospital. I knew that there was a real “you don’ complain you’re grateful for what you have’ kind’ve attitude running throughout that community. There needed to be some strength and hopefulness running through the music.â€
Emptied Animal, his latest release is a beautiful sun-kissed dream, of gorgeous strings and amorphous psychedelic folk that seems to drift effortlessly from Phil Spector’ wall of sound to a kind of harmonic netherworld. It’s busy as hell, with sounds careering around wildly that seem to reference so much but exist firmly in Fritch’ unique world.
â€œI think there are some sounds (e.g.- the vintage synth clusters, cushy snare drum, and some big plate reverb wash) that could reference a late 60’s rock vibe. For this record I was in a place where I had grown quite tired of making film music and having the process of writing and recording be so rushed that they were essentially one in the same. I recorded various versions of these tunes over a 3 week period where I had some respite from my film work and really tried to take the time necessary to give these songs a sound world independent of my habitual recording practices and tendencies; to produce them as if I had no part in writing them.â€
Removing yourself or your identity from the process seems a bold and thankless task, yet despite feeling like somewhat of a departure, an incredibly immense neo-folk all encompassing widescreen departure, it’s clear that Fritch is also exploring some of his varied musical interests.
â€œI’ve always liked Harry Nilsson and that avante-pop LA scene,â€ he reveals, â€œ it’s maybe a bit too sing-songy for me in a lot of ways, but with all it’s wild chromaticism and the crazy things they were doing with orchestration like putting banjo with pedal steel in with calypso steel drum bands, and strings was very colourful and quirky instrumentation. I’ll be listening to it and think “wait, nothing like this would be in pop music today.’ This was borderline top 40 radio, and is so completely different from top 40 now, which has become this smudge of uniformity. A three minute ten second turd.â€
Over the years and over the albums Fritch’ relationship with his label Lost Tribe Sound, and in particular Ryan Keane has developed significantly to the point where they’re a valued part of Fritch’ musical process.
â€œHe has developed into my tug of war partner,â€ laughs Fritch, â€œfrom the perspective he’ as anal about what he does as I am about my work. He’ an amazing visual artist, but I think that what he does best is that he thinks about the listener experience. If someone really loves music, Ryan really loves music and I really love music. Music is what I do for a living, but I love music. I live and breathe it. I get so excited when I hear a sound.â€
â€œWe’ve developed a comfort in our relationship where we can talk about the finer details. I just trust that if he picks up on something that I should pay attention to it. He is so exceeding generous with his time. That’s worth more than anything. It’s powerful stuff.â€
Lost Tribe Sound are doing something quite special for Fritch’ upcoming releases, offering them as part of a subscription service, alongside a bunch of otherwise unreleased content which will include music, video and artwork generated during this incredibly fertile period for Fritch. It’s a strategy that is aimed at developing a personal relationship with the listener, who by purchasing the material are in effect financing the label and assisting them to create some of the stunning packaging that they have become renowned for.
Fritch, though, is continuing to work on material at a ridiculous pace, and his movement through genres and approaches continues to develop unabated, so who knows, by the time you read this he may have completed another three albums. It’s this relentless pace he sets for himself that makes it clear; for Fritch creating music is more than a desire, more than a need. It’s a quest.
â€œI don’ buy that whole notion that everything that can happen in music has happened. I hear something new every day,â€ he offers before reeling off some unexpected examples where he finds little moments of musical inspiration, from the likes of Dirty Projectors to Feist to Missa Luba. He could easily add his own work too.
The William Ryan Fritch subscription series can be found here.