Name: Matthew Ryals
Occupation: musician & sound designer
Current Release: Voltage Scores on Oxtail Recordings
Recommendations: Black Hole Survival Guide by Janna Levin / Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 1 by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra
If you enjoyed this interview with Matthew Ryals, visit his website matthewryals.com for more information about music, tours and teaching.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I’ve been creating music since I was 11 years old. I begged my parents for a guitar when I was 10 and they put one on layaway at a music store, which I received for my 11th birthday. Immediately, I formed a band with my best friend that stayed together until I was 18 or 19.
Music suddenly became really important to me at 10 and was an obsession by 13. I remember quitting basketball so I could have more time to write songs and selling my Playstation so I could buy a PA system for my band. I was the annoying band member, always trying to schedule practice sessions. I spent almost all my time writing songs, listening to albums, and fantasizing about leaving Arkansas and touring. I remember that I would often describe listening to a great song or album as a “journey” or a “ride”. I was in love with all the emotions and imagery that would appear when listening to music.
My first major influence was Metallica. When my best friend let me borrow one of their albums, something sparked in me and everything changed. Metallica made me want to play guitar and be a singer. I was obsessed: posters, rare singles… you get the idea. Being raised in rural Arkansas in the 90s, I didn’t have much exposure to less conventional music for a variety of reasons, but I was hungry to find music I connected with.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I definitely went through this. In fact, it’s only in the past two years that I’ve reached a point where what I’m creating feels truly from within. I emulated others for years and tried on so many hats. Going to college and graduate school for music, where I studied classical guitar without any prior study, was a huge and outrageously expensive experiment. I had no idea how it would turn out.
Eventually, my process has broken apart and been reconfigured in a way where every stage has a very intentional purpose. I found various tools that align with my way of thinking, such as the modular synthesizer. All this results in work that is the most authentic I’ve ever done.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
As I mentioned, I was raised in rural Arkansas. But I never identified as a southerner or a country boy and felt very much like an outcast from an early age. I had different tastes, interests, and desires from everyone I knew. I suddenly became aware of my accent around 10 and actually worked to get rid of it. I’m not sure exactly how this impacts my work today, but I definitely feel like I’m on my own, separate musical journey. I’m comfortable with following my nose, experimenting with new ideas, and even changing directions when needed.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
It took me a really long time to find a way of working (the process and tools) that felt right to me. Many times, I felt like I was finally on a path moving straight ahead that made sense, and then suddenly, there was this strong desire to drive off the road and try something else. I’m sure there’ll continue to be changes in the future, but at this point in time, I’ve arrived at a place I can explore for a while.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
After finishing graduate school and studying classical guitar for years, I was compelled to put a small studio together and get back to making my own music. I bought a pair of studio monitors, an audio interface, and Logic Pro. I already had guitars, some mics, and a midi keyboard from my past life. I took this free online class on music production, took extensive notes, learnt a lot, and didn't do any of the homework. Then, I started writing songs and recording.
I spent so much of my life playing guitar and went through periods of singing in bands, so I thought I would be more of a weirder, left-field singer songwriter, writing songs that were perhaps inspired by my classical studies and a lot of contemporary classical music I was listening to. This didn’t feel right and didn’t last long.
Inspired by artists such as Four Tet, I quickly became fascinated by creating and editing music solely on a computer. I mostly sampled music from my iTunes library, very tiny samples like less than a few seconds. I would use one or two samples to create all the elements of a song. Occasionally, I incorporated field recordings. This is how my first few EPs, released in 2014-15, came to be.
Eventually, I started to feel stuck editing and tweaking audio files all the time, and I wanted to expand my capabilities, which led to my adventures into synthesis. I was listening to a lot of releases on Border Community, which has some incredible modular synth artists that I still love today. I couldn’t even begin to afford any hardware equipment, but I started trying to figure out how the bundled synths worked in Logic. Some of it I just couldn’t grasp because the controls were laid out in obtuse ways and maybe my brain wasn’t quite ready for it yet. But I loved the way the synths sounded and how expressive they could be. This is how I created my first album, We Could Make The Ride Better For Everyone, using the bundled synths in Logic. I didn’t even have a midi controller with knobs for 75% of the creative process, so I just automated everything by hand.
Soon after that, I bought my first hardware synths that I still own today, an MFB Nanozwerg and a Tempest Drum Machine, both second hand. I had been playing shows in and around Cleveland, where I was living at the time, with just my computer and a midi controller. The new toys quickly enhanced the setup.
At some point in 2016, I had saved up enough money to buy a Eurorack modular synthesizer case, which sat empty for several months. Slowly over time, I bought some modules and traded things in and out. I became fascinated by synthesis and how I could explore it with a modular system. I tried making all sorts of music with it, prior to getting into the generative and improvisational work I do now.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
The modular synthesizer has definitely been that instrument. Working with electricity to create music in such a very raw and hands-on way has completely transformed my thinking and process. I think I’ve always preferred very fundamental ways of working. I gravitated to playing the classical guitar, an instrument you play with your fingers and directly touch the strings with both hands. Then, I worked with a computer and audio files doing simple things such as cutting up regions, reversing clips, etc. Now, I’m working with synthesis in this very raw, building block sort of way.
Through working with the modular synth, I began experimenting with generative processes. This is a more recent development and sort of ground breaking for me. It has allowed me to find a way to improvise with the synthesizer, to have a dialogue with the machine. And, it has helped me avoid creating meandering jams that merely crescendo and decrescendo. This combination of generative processes and improvisation has led to a creative practice that is very fulfilling.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
My preferred way to collaborate is improvisation with other musicians and artists in a variety of mediums. I love that very first session with someone. But, I also really enjoy working with someone long term and witnessing the growth that can occur. For my new album, Voltage Scores, I collaborated with cellist Clarice Jensen on the opening track and first single, suitcase with a mountain in it. At the time, we couldn’t meet in person due to the pandemic, so I prepared a score for her. I also asked her to do some improvisations. As I thought might be the case, I strongly preferred her improvisations. One of those takes is what appears on the album.