Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Interview with Ryan Patterson (Coliseum, Black God, etc.)

This past winter was a particularly brutal one here in the great state of Michigan….colder temperatures and more snow than I can ever remember. When my son Elijah was 4-5 years old we would go on walks forever, just walking aimlessly for hours. He hasn’t been wanting to walk as much the last few years but one day this winter we went on another one of those monster walks; this time surrounded by mountains of freshly fallen snow.

I don’t know what it was about that stroll but for some reason I started thinking a lot about my sons and the relationships between the four of them, and then my mind wandered to siblings in music. From there I immediately started thinking about the Patterson brothers and how awesome the output of both Ryan and Evan has been over the years. Naturally, I figured it would be cool to try to reach out and talk to one of them.

For those who have been living under a rock the last couple decades, Ryan has been creating some of the best and most dynamic heavy music for a long time now; my favorite of which has been the angular, noisy hardcore that has taken expression in Black Widows, Black Cross, and most recently Black God, but also in the form of Ryan’s main project, the mighty Coliseum; which over the years has evolved from raging d-beat hardcore to moody, jagged post-punk.

This summer the band has been celebrating their ten year anniversary with the re-issue of their debut LP via Deathwish, a run up the East Coast with Trap Them, and a culminating week-long run which kicks off this Friday with a free show in their hometown of Louisville where the band will play a career-spanning set, joined by a full cast of former members.

I’ve never known Ryan personally but have always admired his work. As his answers trickled in for this interview over the course of the last several months, I was continually impressed by how grounded, reflective, and wise he is. Read on, and draw inspiration.

You've recently been celebrating ten years of Coliseum, so first things, first, congratulations! I imagine it's probably been a somewhat reflective time….that said I'm curious to hear what stands out for you about the last decade, what you're most proud of, and what you foresee for the band going forward.

Thank you very much. It’s strange to think that the band played our first show in early 2004; it’s a long time but also seems like the blink of an eye. It’s amazing how quickly that time has passed but we’ve played almost 1,000 shows in that time and worked very, very hard over the years. On a strictly personal level, I’m proud that I’ve been able to continue doing this and stick with doing Coliseum all this time. I’m still friends with all of the former members of the band and I’m incredibly fortunate to have Carter and Kayhan in the band now. With the band as an entity, I’m proud of the music we’ve made, the records we’ve released, and all the shows and travels we’ve done. Obviously, the records are the documents of what we’ve created, but contained within those records are our experiences of traveling the world with our music, all the people we’ve met and places we’ve seen, all our lives in between those records. When I think of all the wonderful people I’ve met and/or become close friends with over this past decade it’s truly incredible.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for us... We are about to tour Australia for the second time and we’re starting to work on new music for our next album. From there, who knows? We simply move forward and keep creating music that’s meaningful for us. 

Coliseum has always seemed like it’s defined by your presence on guitar and vocals, particularly since there's been a lot of movement in the bass and drum slots over the years. Despite your steady role as primary song-writer, the sound has definitely shifted quite a bit over the years. Would you say that has been due to your own personal tastes in what you want to play/hear, the influence of whoever the other members are at a given time, or a little bit of both?

I’d say a big part of it has been due to learning to be confident as a singer and songwriter, the growth that comes with experience, and finding out what you really want out of the music you’re creating. When the band started I wanted it to be stripped down and simple, the rawness of the music and vocals was a big part of what was exciting about Coliseum for me when it first began. As time went on we pushed ourselves more each time to try new things within that framework of a heavy, fast hardcore band. Obviously there were always melodic aspects to the band from day one, and then on “Goddamage” we became even more melodic with songs like “Year of the Pig” and “Set It Straight.” 

By “No Salvation” I think we’d started pushing ourselves into a direction that didn’t quite feel right to me and never quite fit. This was partially my fault because I was throwing too many parts into the songs and partially because of the lineup at the time with Chris Maggio on drums. I think by 2007 we’d kind of lost sight of the songs in favor of intensity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I think “No Salvation” has some great songs and it certainly has great playing and production, but after touring a lot behind that record I started to feel unhappy with where the band had gone. 

So with “House With A Curse”, I started focusing on writing with the rhythm section first, laying a stronger foundation and building the songs around that. Going less riff-based and more song-focused. I wanted the band to have more dynamics, more depth. I wanted it to represent more of what I love about my favorite bands, while still having whatever that special thing is that makes us who we are as a band. Carter joining the band was a really big part of that; we have a much more similar musical perspective and attitude toward the songs. From there, we took it forward with “Sister Faith” and I think we wrote even stronger songs while also exploring new ideas. Kayhan was also a big part of that change; he could handle a lot of responsibility musically and was able to make the rhythm section really unstoppable.

When you start a band, you just want to write some songs and play some shows. Even though I wanted Coliseum to be the defining band of my life from the start, I didn’t sit down and think, “Is this exactly the style of songs I want to write and play for the next ten or fifteen or twenty years?” I love progression in bands, I love change, I love risks and new ideas....that’s what makes art interesting, exciting, full of life. I’m not the exact same person I was ten years ago and just as I grow and change, Coliseum will grow and change.

I'm not generally a guy who's real big on the technical aspect of music in terms of gear and tones and all that, especially when it comes to guitar stuff, but the first thing that jumped out at me right out of the gates when I heard "Sister Faith" was the guitar tone. It immediately took me back to a scene in the Fugazi "Instrument" film where they were tracking one of their records and Guy described the guitar tone as sounding "woody". How intentional are you from record to record about capturing tones that will mimic the feel you want the record to have? In general do you feel you learn more about yourself as a musician in the studio space where you have more time to experiment with those sorts of things or in a live setting where you might have to be more spontaneous with certain situations that may arise? 

There is some spontaneity, but it’s all an educated spontaneity, for lack of a better term. Which is to say, I’ve certainly gotten much, much better at creating the sounds I want to hear and using the tools at my disposal (guitars, pedals, amps, etc.) over the years. The sounds and atmosphere created by the guitar are really important to me and they can be different each time, depending on the record or what I’ve learned over time. I had a hard time with it for years; I would change amps often and try things in the studio that sometimes didn’t work as I’d hoped. That trial and error was really good for me in the long run. I have records I’ve done where I am very disappointed with the guitar sound and it helped me get to a point where I’m finally happy with most of the sounds I get.

It’s hard to sum all of this up in a relatively quick answer because there’s so much to it, yet it’s so simple. Ultimately, I’ve gotten comfortable with knowing the sounds that come from my guitars and amps and I try to use them in the ways that they work the best for the sounds I want to hear and they sounds they can make. I’ve always been a humbucker/Les Paul into a Marshall JCM800 guy, and I mostly still am, but I’ve also been able to get a sound that’s a bit more unique to me by really getting to know most of the elements that affect the sound along the way. It’s really just following the signal chain and thinking about each step of it: the picks, the strings, the tuning, the pickups, the pedals, the amp, the EQ, the gain, the speakers, the cabinet. I think about that a lot and while I don’t know all that much about the technical aspects of the inner-workings of these items, I know a lot about how they sound and how I can make them sound. 

There is more spontaneity in the studio because you’re creating new sounds and ideas, you generally have more tools at your disposal, and depending on the scenario you may have enough time to experiment. In a live setting, you have to have things nailed down and ready to go. I’m really meticulous about my live set up and sound, but I’ve also had to learn how to get just about any amp to sound how I want quickly. We’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of shows where we’ve flown in and used rented gear or a backline provided at a festival or the amps in a radio station, etc. While it used to be very difficult to for me handle jumping into situations where I might not be able to use the equipment that I would prefer, I’ve had to learn that skill and I feel reasonably comfortable making it work on just about any amp these days.

I’m a person who really doesn’t care for the flashy or technical aspects of playing guitar. I can respect it, but I just like the sounds guitars and amps make together. I like songs with guitars. I love playing a long sustaining guitar note, hearing it sear out of the speakers. That’s really beautiful to me. I’m not a huge fan of the extravagant guitar solo or the fetishism of guitar gear; it sometimes feels hyper-masculine and loses the point. I could listen to J. Mascis or David Gilmore’s guitar solos any time, but they have soul, they aren’t trying to impress with technical prowess. The same thing with guitar equipment; these are tools (fun and interesting tools, to be sure) that are used to create sound and songs.

I wonder if it's kind of crazy for you to watch you and your brother Evans's musical journeys which have so many parallels; starting in the same scene, landing on the same label, both having been able to travel the world doing music. I'm curious how the rest of your family has felt over the years as you guys started out in bands and as you've been able to make it a huge part of your lives well into adulthood. Also, how often do the two of you compare notes on touring, recording, working with the label, etc.?

It’s definitely amazing and fortunate that we’ve been able to accomplish all we have; Evan and I were just kids who grew up making noise in the basement in a small town in Kentucky. Our parallels are very natural, we’re brothers and we’re close and we’ve been on this journey together the entire time. All these mutual experiences and friendships make sense because of that; our bands are going to be very connected no matter what. In a lot of ways Evan and I are two sides of the same coin. We’re very different people with different tastes and different personalities, but our lives and art will always have that direct connective tissue. We do talk regularly about all the things related to music and our bands.

Our family is supportive and proud of us; they’re interested in stories of our travels. Obviously the music is still relatively strange to the average person and the details of this world of touring, labels, releases, bands, etc. isn’t easily relatable for most people. Our parents are proud of us, they understand how important it is to us, they’ve seen how hard we’ve worked on this since we were kids and how hugely important it is and has been to our lives. 

It's actually been quite a while since I have seen Coliseum play live but I saw you several times in the early years of the band and one of my favorite things about seeing you was your between-song commentary. I always found it to be a refreshing mix of humor, honesty, and humility. I'm wondering how important it is to you to have that on-stage dialogue with the audience versus letting the music and your performance speak for itself. 

It’s important to me but it’s something I’ve had to learn how to balance over the years. It’s an ongoing process. In the early days of the band it was a big part of the experience, the openness and expression was part of connecting with the audience and having the show be more meaningful. Sometimes that backfires and that connection doesn’t happen or I’m unable to properly communicate what’s on my mind. I’ve definitely put my foot in my mouth many times over the years, but even when things don’t work out as I hoped I can at least know that I’m being honest. These days, it really depends on the situation. If we’re not the last band on the bill or if we’re playing a festival I generally try to talk less, focus more on cranking through the songs. If we’re headlining there’s usually a point where I try to let the audience know how meaningful and important this is to us. At the same time, I think I’ve become better as a lyricist and songwriter over the years so I’m better at expressing myself in the songs. At times it’s nice to simply let the songs stand on their own without a lot of over-explanation.

Over the course of your time playing music you've obviously worked at and with a lot of labels over the years; some rather small, some pretty big (at least big fish in a small pond anyway). Just yesterday Coliseum obviously announced a renewed partnership with Deathwish. I was hoping you could give us some insight on that decision, and more broadly just talk about what some of your label experiences have been like over the years and what makes a successful indie/d.i.y. label. 

I’ve been really lucky, I worked at Initial Records for many years, which was wonderful, and I also released a few records on my Auxiliary label and didn’t entirely lose my ass in the process. Coliseum has been fortunate enough to work with huge indie labels, tiny bedroom labels, and many others in between. As for what makes a successful label, there are so many things....the economics are part of the art, doing things affordably is a huge part of making a small label work. Having great taste is another. That said, there are very successful indie labels that put out music that I completely detest and other labels that can barely sell a few hundred records that put out music that means the world to me. Honesty and integrity are a huge part of it. There are really no rules. Coliseum has always been a relatively small band....we’ve never made money for the labels we’ve been on. The labels that we’ve worked with have put out our records because they believed in us and cared about what we’re doing. I’m incredibly thankful that we’ve had so many opportunities and that there are still such great labels interested in putting out our music. We’re excited about the future with Deathwish and had a wonderful time working with Temporary Residence over the last few years.

As I reflect back on my time in punk and hardcore one of the starkest shifts I have noticed over time is a move away from more political, activist type issues to an attempt to be the darkest, the saddest, the bleakest; both in terms of lyrics as well as imagery and persona. I don't want to put too fine a point on this or draw any sort of causation but I feel like your visual work both with Coliseum and Shirtkiller is a part of this move.....maybe on the cutting edge of it, maybe riding that wave, I'm not sure. I guess I'm curious what draws you to that sort of incredibly caustic, dark visual imagery. 

I don’t see that as being the case, certainly not for me and for us. Social issues are incredibly important to me and always have been, and Coliseum has always had some of that content and addressed those things at times. I’ve tried to strike a balance of personal, social, and narrative. The imagery is different from the lyrical content or my personal stance on things. I generally don’t like imagery that’s too on the nose. I don’t like wearing my beliefs on my sleeve, but I do feel strongly about speaking my mind and working toward what I believe is right. I just don’t necessarily want a band t-shirt to spell out all of my stances on things. Dark imagery has been around for thousands of years. In art, music, and film it has been there going strong since at least the 60s. Whether it’s Kenneth Anger or Pushead, it’s been there for quite some time. Coliseum’s imagery has never been “satanic” or intentionally bleak....it’s dark, hopefully mysterious and hopefully with elements of hope and inspiration, which is also what we’ve tried to achieve in our music. I’m drawn to the mystery of the imagery, the powerful elements, the beauty in it all.

What I’ve done in my design work for other people is not indicative of who I am or even how I want to represent myself. In those cases I am simply trying to create a design that looks good to me based on the criteria and needs spelled out by the client. Personally I’ve actively stayed away from things that are macho or misogynistic. I hate those aspects and elements of heavy music and that’s a big part of why I’ve always been drawn more to punk rather than metal.

One of the things I've noticed with Coliseum is that the titles of almost all your records include references to religious or spiritual concepts, and as with most punks, the slant is to look at those ideas with a critical, skeptical eye. At the same time, I feel like at least in terms of the titles, things have gotten more nuanced.....while "No Salvation" is pretty clear cut, "Faith and Curses" or "Sister Faith" suggest a less black and white look at these issues. I know you said you don't always like wearing your beliefs on your sleeve, but to what extent would you say your personal thoughts and experiences with religion and spirituality are reflected in your work with Coliseum?

I think my take on religion is pretty clearly spelled out throughout the lyrical content on our records, sometimes with some depth and ponderance, sometimes with straight forward anger and frustration. I grew up going to church with my mother, but I never thought much about it and didn’t have any particularly positive or negative experiences. I was very young, it was something that I accepted and didn’t question, although I didn’t strongly believe in it. It was while spending some time in the Baptist church during my early high school years that the negative aspects of Christianity began to become apparent. As time has gone on, those negative aspects have grown stronger and more omnipresent and I was turned off to religion entirely.

Spirituality is different to me than religion. I don’t see myself as a spiritual person, but I do see humans as part of a very powerful and wonderful ecosystem on this planet and I see that as majestic and intertwined in every part of our lives and existence. That’s not necessarily something that is reflected in Coliseum, just like many aspects of my life and personal perspective might not have been addressed in the context of the band. 

I write about certain things that inspire me at that moment in my life so I can’t say that the full extent of my feelings on any subject have been expressed in my lyrics. It’s a very finite medium in many ways; you’re trying to get something across quickly while also making it musical and memorable. You could get a general idea about how I feel, or have felt, about many things through my songs, but it certainly doesn’t begin to sum me up entirely.

For even longer than you've been doing Coliseum, you've been doing stuff with Rob Pennington; first as Black Widows, then Black Cross, now Black God. Rob has been a huge inspiration to me ever since the first time I saw BTGOG, I'm curious what it's been like to have worked with him for so long and to have (I'm assuming) grown up watching him to eventually playing alongside him.

Rob is one of my closest friends and longest musical collaborators. I went to Endpoint shows in high school and he was a huge figure to me at that time, he certainly influenced how I approach honesty and expression on stage. He was the one that initially reached out to me about playing music together, close to fifteen years ago, and I’m very happy he did. We’ve made a lot of music together that I’m really proud of; we work really great together in that regard and I’m very happy that we’ve done this continuing string of bands together. He’s a great friend, one of my best friends for a very long time. One of the greatest things about the punk culture and community is that you can become friends and collaborators with people you admire.

Over the course of the last few years Black God has cranked out a series of 7 inches on No Idea, and you've sort of embraced this ethos of "no song longer than 2 minutes, no record longer than 6 songs." Are you guys gonna stick to that model, and is there more coming down the pipe or is it gonna be three 7 inches and out?

There’s always talk of breaking the Black God rules, but I’ve been making us stick to them so far....I think punk/hardcore is a style of music that, in many cases, thrives in the 7”/EP format. Black God is a band that does well with those parameters we’ve set for ourselves, it keeps it simple and keeps the inspiration flowing. We’d hoped to get our fourth 7” out in 2014, but I’m not sure we will. All of us are incredibly busy with all our other aspects of life and it’s been hard to get everyone in the same room together this year. Regardless, whether it’s this year or next, we do plan to continue.

Going from one of the elder statesmen of Louisville punk and hardcore with Rob, to the younger generation, you've also been doing a bunch of stuff with Will Allard, both in your other band Whips/Chains as well as collaborating with him on the mix of the live album "Faith and Curses". What's it like working with Will and is it ever surreal to be sort of the bridge between the older and younger camps of the punk & hardcore community in Louisville?

Well, I’m much closer to Rob’s age than Will’s age, but Will and I are also very good friends. Will works with me at Shirt Killer, we’re in Whips/Chains and Automatic together, and he’s done a lot of stuff with Coliseum, both touring with us as our live sound engineer and recording or mixing various projects with us. The age gap between Will and me can certainly be surreal at times, there’s a very big generational gap when it comes to pop culture references, but our tastes in music are similar and I think we both influence each other a lot. 

I think I may be a bridge between a couple of different generations of the Louisville community simply because I’m so active in music. I was younger than most of the guys in the 90s hardcore bands here and younger than the guys in the bands I first started touring with, then when my brother started touring and he and I were doing music together, I was a few years older than he and his friends. I don’t ponder it much, I just stay busy and stay creative, but it is interesting to have felt like a younger outsider when I first started going to Louisville shows in the early to mid- 90s, then become one of the more visible, long-term participants as time has gone on. Once again, that’s one of the great aspects of punk culture.

Bringing it back to Coliseum, on the song "Bad Will" off "Sister Faith" you seem to be expressing a pretty strong sense of disillusionment with punk and hardcore, which is something I often feel as well, especially lately for whatever reason. Being a decade in with Coliseum and roughly two decades in as a person involved with underground music, what is it that ultimately keeps you anchored in the community, that brings you back when that sense of disillusionment starts to kick in? 

Actually, “Bad Will” has very little to do with punk and hardcore, at least not in a general sense. I’m always inspired by punk; there are always great new bands, always great scenes, always inspiring people. There are always shitty bands, too. I hate the idea of being jaded or too cool for something or “over it” or any of those kinds of terms that come to mind. I never stepped away from this life; I’ve lived it with all my heart and soul for a very long time. “Bad Will” is more about letting it all out. I try to stay positive about things; I try to not speak negatively about things I don’t like in any public forum. I think that’s counterproductive and pointless. I’d rather talk about things I like than things that I don’t like. That said, sometimes you just want to yell “this fucking sucks!” That’s what “Bad Will” is about; it’s just letting off steam. 

Punk as an idea and a culture has limitless possibilities and it’s also malleable enough that it can exist and be defined however you choose. The traveling punks asking for change at a highway exit have a definition of punk that works for them and is real for them. It may be different than my interpretation or how I choose to live my life, but it’s still part of a greater general idea of living outside the lines.

I have never been disillusioned with punk, or even hardcore, because it’s personal to me. It doesn’t matter how shitty some band is or some scene is or what kind of moronic bullshit someone says, punk is and was powerful and life-altering for me. That’s why punk is better than any religion, because it doesn’t have a doctrine, it doesn’t have a book that lays out the rules. It has a lot of music and a lot of ideas and a lot of inspiring people who took their lives and their art into their own hands and built something beautiful with it. That’s what I’ve tried to do and what I continue to try to do every day. 

Whips/Chains crushers: http://whipschainshardcore.bandcamp.com

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