The beauty and darkness of Ryan Linnegar is explored time and again through his photography and lyrics. But who is this poet, musician and artist really?
The Courthouse Newtown is not your usual choice for conducting interviews if a journalist and I soon start to understand why. Here I am sitting in front of a rather nervous Ryan Linnegar with the cursory jug of Coopers Pale at the ready whilst I sit there trying to test levels on my Sansa music player in the hope I can even hear him over the din. But it wouldn’t be very indie rock of me to have chosen a place of quiet repose and be sipping Barossa Valley red wine (not that Ryan would really mind either way, being a fan of red himself) so here we are on a warm afternoon surrounded by the sounds of the early work finishing drinkers crowd trying to conduct a semi formal, informal interview.
“Ready for this Rowdy?”Using his nickname I am hoping we are getting a little bit over the frost and uncertainty I can feel emanating from Ryan.
He looks out from beneath his fringe with his big blue eyes, “I still don’t know what I will be able to contribute but OK.” He takes another sip of beer.
Having only reached five years seriously playing music in Sydney and a mere twenty three years on the planet, Ryan is only in the beginning of any kind of real creative career or real understanding of his own goals and processes. In a city like Sydney where the world has been turned on its head by a decade of pubs pulling out entertainment and putting in poker machines, it’s probably the hardest market in Australia and not one which gives much to the fledgling musician. But Ryan is already driven, having started his own band, writing and also taking artistic and band photography. This, combined with the fact he is incredibly stubborn is bodes well for his chances of success.
I hit him with my first question. He blinks and stumbles a little.
“I’m not sure how my creative production influences my daily life, but I am sure it does,” Ryan takes a moment to think before continuing, “We are always filtering what we experience and bringing that through into a creative mould, it’s always running in our heads whether it’s subconscious or not.”
“Do you think there is anything uniquely Australian or culturally significant about your work?” I am on a quest to find one respondent at least who has something to contribute to this question.
“I think living in Australia definitely impacts on that if only just because of the landscape and the sense of that and the vastness of it- there’s a kind of weight to that that you sort of feel in some way. I think growing up in the country gives me a different perspective on the city I now live in and I am really interested in Australia in terms of landscape. I am interested in exploring the rural landscape and the rural poetics that are part of Australia. Through that, I explore the landscape inside of me,” he speaks, he sips, he smiles, “Was that alright?”
I nod and continue on. Contemporary Australia is the next subject on the agenda. He brushes this off, stating he doesn’t go out of his way to make music which comments on socio-political constructs and that his music is only relevant to contemporary Australia for it being written and performed at the time. His story telling, however, is something he has a little more trouble articulating.
“Everything you do is part of what you are trying to convey. But for me, well, sometimes things are a little too personal. In my lyrics for example, I would rather veil what I am trying to say. Some people are really intent on having a personal vent with what they create. Sometimes it’s as though they are up there with the audience saying ‘this is what I want to express, this is me and my personal opinion and fuck you if you don’t want to listen to it.’ But I approach things in a different way. I like working with characters, other people’s perspectives, to mask the really personal side of my work. Maybe that is just part of who I am, and I am not necessarily saying that is a good thing, but the songs I write are pretty obtuse sometimes in that they aren’t a personal reflection of myself in any literal way. It’s personal because what is the point if I am not going to write from a personal point of view, who or what am I going to write it for?”
“So what is the story behind the song, solo rider?” He blinks a little and tops his beer off from the jug. He takes a moment to ponder with eyes on me which express bemusement and a little suspicion.
“It isn’t a story per se. It’s more about the idea of letting people into your life in some way and not having that kind of stoicism or blind stubbornness that a lot of people believe in. It’ about the idea of sometimes it’s OK to rely on other people,” Ryan takes a further moment to think, looks at me to see if he has answered the question ‘correctly’ and says “That was a pretty left of field question, Bek!”
I laugh a little, allow him to take a decent drink and we continue away from the more personal questions for the time being.
No musician in Sydney who’s operated for more than a year in the gigging scene speaks praises of the scene and Ryan is no different. Between bookers being hard pressured for the maximum amount of punters as opposed to exercising quality control or planning their strategies through to horror stories of not being paid or the lonely ache of just not having people in a room to watch you play, the choice to change venues so they enjoy poker and poker machines as regular pass times as opposed to music or other forms of entertainment, or urban pressure placing people who shouldn’t be living next to live venues in easy reach of the complaints department at local councils and forcing noise restrictions and in some cases, closures, Sydney’s music scene has been pulverised by mismanagement, greed and a lack of direction for a very long time. However Ryan and people like him continue to play, despite the horror stories or the troubles. They still chase down venues asking for gigs and go home with barely enough money to pay for the petrol involved in getting to the gigs, let alone to cover the cost of rehearsal, recording or gear. After bitterly rallying against the scene and commenting on it so much to various different people, it was inspiring to hear someone like Ryan speak about it.
“Gigging is the best representation of how we sound because even with the best recording, things change during the recording process. It’s pretty much the only access some people would ever have with our music, considering we aren’t available at a retail level. Playing on stage gives the audience a much more sensory experience- there are things happening on stage, there is life, noise. It’s so much more immersive for the audience. We’ve struggled with a lack of people coming to see us and for the person who books that venue, we know that is unfortunately their main concern. But when you haven’t got any money to promote yourselves it can be a battle sometimes. The noise factor is also a problem sometimes with some venues not wanting you to play too loud which is hard because sometimes we get a little raucous,” he laughs and continues, “And maybe there needs to be a little more interest on the part of who book at the venues in putting on bands that suit each other and nurturing their live music from the start as opposed to expecting bands to bring them paying customers because let’s face it, how many people you bring is hardly a good measure of how good you are. But I do think the live music scene in Sydney is improving each year. Four or five years ago it may have been a bit shit but its bouncing back now. It’s not its heyday and Melbourne is a little bit healthier but it’s getting there.”
You can almost hear “all I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air…” playing in the background as he talks about his ideal venue of a big room at the back of a decent pub somewhere with good lights and sound, a cheap cover charge and a passionate booker who enjoys music and people to play to. The wistful look in his eyes, the day dreaminess of his face, it’s just hard to believe this tiny piece of utopia is such a hard thing for Sydney to get right. I mean, if the bands are happy and the punters enjoy the music, why aren’t more venues or bookers encouraging it? Maybe the burns on the audience who did try to support the scene a decade ago are too deep to forget, or people have just shifted their perspective away from live music. But if Ryan is right, new growth is starting to occur and this bodes well for us all.
“So, how long as your brother been working on creative projects with you?”
“Tim? I wouldn’t say he works on any creative projects!” Ryan laughs to himself. I am more than a little bemused.
“But, he’s your drummer,” the statement lingers with a certain air of question about it.
“Oh that’s not creative!” Ryan laughs again. I guess this is the sort of thing you can say about a twin.
Tim has been creating with Ryan since they were nine or ten years of age, so their ability to be able to translate music and share a vibe has certainly had a lot of practice. As anyone who has worked closely with a sibling on a creative project will know, there is a certain advantage to being able to know a person quite well for an extended period of time, and have the added benefits of having grown together in terms of proficiency and taste. They understand each other’s creative goals, enjoy and share the same musical tastes and also have the ability to speak to each other in a way where the brother side of things means a little less diplomacy is required. The only trade off in the situation is the lack of being able to be objective with each other, which, through their friendship and their years creating together doesn’t hinder much.
The other members of the band, Rich Berndt and Nathan Easey, came to the band via “the local music rag”. Ryan counts himself extremely lucky to have musicians of the calibre and found the process of engaging these two new band members into the band a fairly easy one. Their attitude and musical tastes suit the band vibe and Ryan couldn’t be happier with the extra level they have added to the band.
“Their style is different but complimentary to the music. The process of getting them involved was really simple- I just sent them recordings of the tracks we had written, they came to a rehearsal and got a feel for the music and then joined in. From then on, it was great because we could have a little more happening in them musically. Having Nate means I don’t have to play as much and can change the sound and with Rich on bass and Nate playing his own style of guitar, they have given a new perspective to the songs we have written. That is great because sometimes I am so close to the songs it is hard to see them in any other light and it is good to have people who can do that and in turn share their vision for a song. We are really lucky personality wise too. They have affected our sound and our band in a really positive way.”
Not to stir the pot necessarily, but to get to the kernel of how the band operates, I ask “On a couple of occasions, you have referred to Helter as ‘your band’. Is there an element of you being the creative lead on the music and if so, how do you think that benefits the band as a whole?”
Ryan takes a sip of his beer, starts his sentence a couple of times, “All artists want to have control of their work. In a band it is a collaborative effort and it is a bit harder to maintain control over your work, but I am not some kind of Nazi control freak!,” he laughs before continuing, “I do want things to be performed or a certain kind of feeling portrayed or an atmosphere conveyed so maybe I do take control in that way. I do think it is sort of a marriage of convenience in a sort of way with the other people in the band as well because they know I am always going to be writing songs and they don’t have to worry about the well being depleted any time soon. Sure, sometimes people can feel a bit like they have been left out, or at least that’s how it usually works out. But with my band, it hasn’t happened with us yet and maybe there is a potential for it to happen as I am in control of the creative side of it and people do have on opinion. I have seen others experience, but we don’t have any worries with that right now.”
Relaxed by a second beer and happy talking about his band and music, Ryan looks quietly pleased with what he has achieved. Like any creative person, there is always the worry of money for recording, or how to sustain creative production in the long term when opportunities are fairly thin on the ground. But Ryan is lucky in that together with being musical, he is also a very talented photographer, and this, together with his writing skills and experience with web and communication, will hopefully allow him at least to maintain creative product on some level as a working lifestyle.
“I haven’t held down a ‘real job’ for a while. I float about and do bits and pieces, photography mainly and a little bit of web to keep myself going. Living off creative production in Australia would be great but it’s not a practical reality. It’s more likely I will make a living off photography than any other creative pursuit because I am not really interested in doing writing in the commercial sense or as any that is the sort that sells and music is another story of not having much of a chance but for different reasons.”
I roll out one of my common theme questions, “Everyone learns from mistakes made when doing creative projects and endeavours. Can you describe a moment where you believe you made a mistake, the impact it had, and how you will avoid such a mistake in the future?”
“Making a mistake? Me, I have never made a mistake!” Ryan flashes me a beautiful smile and continues, “Oh of course I have. I try to get rid of them from my memory. But yeah, there’s songs that I have played where I have fucked up things or haven’t sung the lyrics right. I think most singers or musicians can relate to that.” Ryan stops to think, takes a sip from his beer and holds his breath a little as he contemplates telling something which has obviously had a rather large effect.
“I did some live reviews for FasterLouder and I reviewed this band and I wrote a negative review of them. The guy from the band actually rang up FasterLouder and got my number and rang me up and asked why I wrote such a negative review. This was a free gig, I didn’t get paid to write the review and did it primarily to see what writing reviews would be like. Maybe I was a little naïve and a bit too cynical in writing that review and I had to explain myself to this guy which I never envisaged I would have to do and it left me on the back foot a bit.”
“Would you write the same review again?”
“Yeah probably. I would do it a little differently as I was a bit nasty in it I suppose. I thought that’s what you have to do when you’re a reviewer but obviously sometimes you have to take a bit more of a balanced approach,” he laughs and shrugs, but it is easy to see a little bit of unease attached with the situation.
I roll out another cornerstone question, “Would you class yourself as a sensitive person? Do you think this influences your work and if so, how so?”
Ryan laughs, “Yeah I suppose I’d say I’m sensitive. I think that’s just all artists are sensitive to life- they have to be otherwise they’d have nothing to work with. It’s something that makes what I am and I can’t really do anything about it. There’s a certain kind of masculine stoicism that comes into play sometimes where I am trying to express thing which are hard to fight against sometimes. Yeah, I would say I’m sensitive. Artists have to be to be sensitive to the world around them.”
Another attempt at opening up this enigmatic little song writer is attempted, “On your MySpace, you describe yourself as ’artist’. Cynic. Romantic. Melancholy.- how do you think these self identified character points and these terms you identify yourself with influence your creative work?”
A bit of shock ripples through Ryan’s face, “Have you been stalking me?” He laughs it off, “I don’t really think of myself in those terms. That’s just what I wrote when I did that. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a concise way to describe certain parts of my life. I don’t think I really consciously think about myself in those ways when I am doing anything like my writing or anything, it just sort of happens.”
I tread gently with the next question, “What role, if any, do you think being gay plays on your creative projects?”
“I don’t know, I am sure it’s always there but not a conscious part of it. I don’t intentionally want to kind of have that as a motivation or defining factor. I’m sure it does influence me, obviously it has to. I don’t think it should be what your creativity is all about because it’s just one part of who you are.” His response is filled with a little bit of gingerness, a bittersweet kind of sensitivity which is very hard to capture when only armed with a recording device and a pen and paper.
The last of the stock standard questions is unveiled, “What advice could you give to other creative practitioners in Australia that may benefit?”
Ryan clears his throat, I whisper to him this is the very last question and he takes a moment to contemplate his response.
“I don’t think I am the person that should give that advice, all I can say is keep doing what you are doing and don’t be swayed by people trying to persuade you to do other things. It’s really hard in Australia to find a way to keep doing that because Australian society or the Australian mindset is in such a way that people don’t value the arts in the same way they value sports or those other kinds of national pastimes. There is a sense that you’re on the fringes and sometimes it’s a very lonely place to be for some people. It’s simple- if people feel compelled to create, then that’s a part of them and they always will, it doesn’t matter what tries to stop them or what gets in their way and just keep kind of doing things which are truthful to yourself.”
Since the time of interview, Found at Sea has released their debut album, ‘lumieres’ and continued to tour around Sydney, Melbourne and regional NSW.
You can enjoy Ryan’s photography