'Third Time Is The Charm' An Interview With Ryan Hamilton And The Traitors
Ryan Hamilton has been there and nearly done it so many times now he’s not just got the tshirt, he’s got a whole damn wardrobe full of them.
“My carer can be defined by the size of vehicles I travel in” Ryan tells me. “I started in a SUV then we had a van then we had a bus in Smile Smile (Ryan's first band). Then that went away. Then I was back in a van. Then I was on a bus. Then THAT went away. Then I was back in a van, Mickey's van. Stayed in a van for a while. Now we're back on a bus. So I feel like I'm doing something right this time.”’
Tonight’s it’s the second night of Ryan Hamilton And The Traitors 'Heavy Heart' UK tour and we’re sitting in the lounge of the tour bus, parked behind the Centre For Life in Newcastle. Across the table from me is Ryan And The Traitors drummer Mickey Richards. Touring keyboardist Carol Hodge is making some food while guitar tech Dunc is chatting with Main Grains frontman Danny McCormack (the two go back quite some time thanks to stints in The Wildhearts). Bass player Rob Lane and touring guitarist and producer Dave Draper are in the venue. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheery.
I ask Ryan how the first night at Bannermans in Edinburgh went: “It’s going really good. The first night of the tour is always a bit of a cluster fuck. But, cluster fuck conquered. We had some technical issues last night, not the venues fault. It's just one of those things. First night of the tour, the little problems you notice nobody else notices. The crowd probably didn't have a clue.”
It has to be hard being in a band that spans a couple of continents. Ryan lives in Texas whilst the rest of the band is based in the UK. It’s got to make getting together to practice a bit tougher than most bands.
“It would be nice to go and rehearse a lot but we don't have that luxury” Mickey tells me.” But we talk every day and we'll throw some ideas across. My stamp on it is I'm more kind of Rock than Ryan so with his Country-esque style throwing that down there, then I put my stamp on it and then Rob comes in and throws his take on it then, hey, that's what we've got. It works. I don't know many bands that could pull it off. “
“The worlds of late eighties, early nineties Rock and Classic Rock and Country shouldn't come together” adds Ryan. “It really shouldn't but we've found a way.”
It’s that approach that gives the music its unique feel. ‘The Devils In The Detail’, Ryan’s second album but the first under the Traitors name, was released earlier this year through PledgeMusic and seems to be building up quite a bit of interest. After being a part of the music industry and having success with both Smile Smile and People On Vacation (featuring Jaret Reddick of the Pop Punk outfit Bowling For Soup), the band have stepped outside the usual routine by taking things more in hand themselves.
“The music business got really fucked up a while ago and it started becoming more about the product and the money” mulls Ryan, clearly carrying plenty of war wounds from the situation. “Of course you need to make a living and there is a business aspect but people seem to lose the community. Music was created to experience together. When it was first started being played it wasn't about you go get on a stage and we're going to watch you it was about being around the campfire or, y'know, in a barn where I'm from".
“It's become this whole big corporate monster and I was part of that for a long time. I'm very happy to be free from it. When we decided to keep going and do this thing it was like look, let's do this the way we want. We may not have the money or the resources but we'll find a way. And we are finding a way. The album's kicking ass. The second single (‘Smarter’) is killing it on the radio. It feels really good man.
“You learn some hard lessons though. I'm not surprised by it as you always hope, you believe in it. I feel more vindicated by it than surprised just because we're an independent band competing against the big, bad machine. It's not all bad. I don't hold anything against the Ed Sheeran's of this world because he's a talented dude, but when you're getting added to Kerrang, XS Manchester, Planet Rock or whatever we're on over here.... Then you get people like Virgin or the BBC interested. It takes a small miracle like an act of god to get added if you're not on a major label.”
Looking at him and Mickey, you get a great sense of pride from what they’ve achieved. “It's hard for us as we've been living with the songs for so long and working on it that we have to take a couple of steps back every once in a while. But this is brand new and it's doing really well. It is very rewarding to compete with the big labels with all the money. It just feels like, it's a really cheesy example, the little engine that could. “
It’s good to see that he’s learned from his past experiences. “My former management would get really upset with me because I'd have a feeling or an idea and I'd want to go go go! ‘This feels right, let's go this way!’. They'd want to do things with this old model. Now I go out of my way actually to go with my gut instinct and what I feel is the right thing to do. I think I'm just so anti-music business. It's not always right but I have a pretty damn good track record. I use to hate the feeling of you have to do things a certain way or you have to go on a certain tour. And you go in and it's terrible. You learn not to resent as I don't want to come across as too grumpy or jaded about the music business because you really learn to trust your gut due to bad experiences.“
The internet has been vital in not just the growth of the band, but how they actually work together. “The internet makes it possible” laughs Ryan. ”I'm the guy who used to be in this other band. I was fairly unknown in England when I started playing over here. It's provided this kind of path where I'm the new guy and I think that is worth the distance, because it gives me a chance I probably wasn't going to get I America. I'm starting to get it now but only because I'm starting to get noticed by people who didn't know what I did before. It is a little bit of a pain sometimes.” Ryan constantly smiles, grateful for what he has in life.
“The first album (‘Hell Of A Day’) is like me trying to figure out what I was going to sound like and it turned out great. But this one, when the demos started coming together, I could tell this is going to be an accurate version of our band. Our stamp. Here we are, this is what kind of band we are, we're here to stay. And it looks like it's headed in that direction.”
They all certainly seem to appreciate that each member brings their own spin on things with their music. “If Mickey sat down and wrote a song, what I would bring to a song would not be what he was expecting at all, because he operates in a certain musical world. There's certain artists that he likes that I don't know who they are. 'And he's like how do you not know who that is?' So there's this kind of angle that people come at things. His drumming is a good example, he brings his influence to what originally sounds like some country folk song on an acoustic guitar. And I really love that.” Ryan seems to be happy that they can all keep each other on their toes.
It’s an approach that seems to surpass their writing, but also the way the Traitors approach everything, including how they recorded the album. No big studio costing thousands of dollars a day. Ryan had a somewhat crazy notion to record the new album in his father-in-law’s house in rural Scotland. A bit perplexed as to the reason I ask why he chose the house over a more established studio.
“The first time I ever visited Scotland was where my father-in- law lives. He got this really old house and we went to stay with him. The first time I walked in that old house I was overwhelmed with 'I wanna make an album here'. You don't get to see this land that's seemingly been untouched in forever, I just felt this real instinctual.....and it's a terrible idea to go and make an album in an old house. The acoustics in an old building like that should sound terrible. Who walks into an old house and thinks I wanna make an album here? It's another example of something that shouldn't work but did. There's been a lot of that in my life in the past few years.”
Mikey takes up the story. “We turn up to this place and I'm thinking 'how the hell is this guy (Dave Draper) going to record an album in this house?' The ceilings were sixteen feet high and there was this old mosaic stairwell and he's got mics dropped down two flights of stairs. So he says start playing something so I start playing this groove. He's recreated John Bonham's sound and I'm like oh my word! Bonham's sound is not going to fit on this album mind you, you will need to tweak this. But what that guy did with his box of tricks and the magic of that house...... we could have spent an oodle of money to try and recreate that in a studio. But we spent two weeks in a beautiful part of Scotland and had the most relaxing time turning the demos Ryan sent us into something special.”
It really is something special. For me, ‘The Devil’s In The Detail’ is packed with hooks and great song writing. “All of it, there's no secrets, are taken from what happened in the wake of our former band (People On Vacation). You gotta learn to put the best spin on things that you can. It was hard enough to stay in the aftermath of it all, but there's a way to be consumed by it all and to work through it without it defeating you. That for me is hopeful which is what the album is about. It's about hope in the middle of a storm and about learning from all the terrible shit that happened."
“People always say when they talk about the album that you want to put the top down when the sun's shining, but the truth is it as an album is about some really hard times that I went through and we went through as a band. We know we can get there so there's an element of hope but it's a struggle. But you feel like you're gonna do it. There's songs like ‘Smarter’ that are a little more about figuring yourself out. For me personally it's about figuring myself out at the tail end of getting through a really hard time.'
An unusual influence on his career came from a slightly more unlikely source. “I read a book by Amanda Palmer, ‘The Art of Asking’ (an extension of her 2013 TED Talk), and it was right when I was starting over and wanting to do things differently. That book really opened my eyes in a lot of ways as it's kind of a map. You do this and then you do this. I kind of put on my own spin after I read that book. What does she say in the book? Take the donut. Nobody ever wants to take the last donut. The truth is everybody wants it. So don't be afraid of anyone offering things to you. She might see this and say “that's not what I meant’ but that's what I took from it. Don't be afraid to take the kindness of someone offering you something. There's a lot of cool lessons in that book that you can definitely apply to life."
“She's a great example for independent artists; she's a good one to look to for guidance”
Another surprising helping hand also came from out of nowhere when Ginger Wildheart overheard it.
“There was a party and people were taking turns playing songs. Nobody was paying attention, everyone was drinking. Someone puts on ‘Four Letter Verb’ and Ginger stops everyone and asks what is this? Who is this guy? He put a tweet out but didn't tag me in it so I didn't find out until a few days after when someone told me. So I tweeted him and he tweeted me back. This led to us becoming friends and being the wonderful man he is he said ‘I love your band, I want to take your band on tour. Do you want to go on tour together?’ Because we both have the same ideas about the music business he had the freedom to just invite us on tour. And it was exactly what we needed at the time. Oh man, we had the best time. And those friendships remain. That's what's so cool. I've been on so many tours, and you have a great tour and you become friends with these people and then you'd never see them again. I still talk to Ginger several times a week, I still talk to Connie (Bloom), I still talk to Toshi (Ginger's bass player on that tour). It's been the most wonderful kind of family.”
“We were kind of scared coming on that tour” adds Mickey. “I mean, do we get a van and follow them? But Ginger asked us on the bus with them. We worried something was going to go wrong but when we got on the bus it was if we'd known them forever. They could not do enough for you. For that we will be forever grateful.”
“We still have this moments where an email will pop up and it's Ginger Wildheart, and I hope I never get to be an asshole who gets used to that sort of thing, but I still go 'holy shit!'” says Ryan excitedly.
“It's a testament even though he clearly has his struggles as we all do, it's a testament to the kind heart he has. He's helped out a lot of bands that maybe would have got there eventually; he's fast forwarded several careers, us being one of them. “
Ah yes. Mental health is a topic that’s quite close to all our hearts. The first time I talked to Ryan was when he agreed to do an interview with me for a blog series I write called ‘The Order Of the Dog’ around the subject of mental health. (Editors Note: Please take a second to click through and have a read of Scott's Blog, it has beautifully written pieces offering an insight into dealing with mental health)
It was a candid chat that felt quite cathartic for us both. In fact, when I met him on his acoustic tour earlier this year Ryan mentioned how much he enjoyed it, but also how much his parents had also enjoyed the piece.
“Some days I wake up and I'm fine and some days you wake up and you feel it stirring and you think okay, this is going to be rough for a few days. I stopped taking the hardcore stuff, Effexor and stuff like that and figured out a good combination of supplements and natural remedies that I've been taking for years now. And you figure out how to operate inside that kind of situation. You make sure you take whatever you need to take or you process whatever you need to process. I say all that because it results in different songs because of that mood. I've never been one to sit down and write a song today, I've always let the songs come to me. But they do seem to come more often right before a really low point. So if I'm in a really great mood I'm probably not going to write any songs. I'm gonna call Mickey and talk his ear off for an hour about stuff that doesn't matter, just laugh about pointless whatever."
“Metal health, mental illness, it's all the same, it definitely plays a part in making music. One thing that I think is interesting is you get Van Gogh or whoever back in the day and they were clearly out of their mind. But people embraced the insanity and they'd just go that person's insane but they're creative and they're talented so let them be. Now we suppress the genius. Daniel Johnston (cult musician and artist) is a good example and he's a hero of mine. But we want to medicate the crazy to the point where you don't want to deal with it. There's a balance that isn't happening, and I know our friend Ginger is trying to find that balance right now. When the truth is a piece of that is what makes that person brilliant so you don’t want to erase it. We had all these people in history that because of their craziness they were brilliant. I think society is struggling right now to find a balance between erasing the genius and medicating the illness."
“There's a lot more education that needs to happen, there's a lot more research that needs to happen. There doesn't need to be so much trial and error whenever it comes to medicating someone. Like me, I have a serotonin deficiency; I've had it since I was a teenager. My brother is bi-polar. My family has a history of it. Sometimes it's literally in your blood, or in your brain in my case, and people don't realise that it's not just because you're having a bad day sometimes, it's that you can't help that you're having a bad day.”
Talk turns back to the tour and how it’s going. “We have Carol (Hodge) playing keyboards and singing” Ryan smiles with a sense of pride in what they’re doing. “She did the acoustic tour. And then we have Dave Draper, who produced the album, he's playing second guitar. I'm noticing a pattern. I gravitate myself to people with very strong personalities, very different and unique people with huge talent. So Dave's a perfect example. He's a very talented dude. But when you're super talented you're also crazy in an out of your mind, mad genius kind of way. And I'm that way too. I know I can be a lot to deal with. You have all these big opinions coming together but we're making it work. I know I was taking a bit of a chance getting the mad genius to join the tour but I love that dude. Carol does an amazing job. And I take great pride in what me, Mickey and Rob do together musically. “
We start to wind up the interview as the Traitors are due on stage in about thirty minutes or so. I ask them what comes next. Is there a game plan they sticking to?
“We've really only planned to here” says Ryan. “We've made a lot of new friends up to this point. Not to name drop, but there's an old quote it's not my fault if all my friends are fabulous, but we've made some great new friends. Tony from Terrorvision, of course Ginger, the guy's from Inspiral Carpets, Stevie Van Zandt. To hear him (Stevie Van Zandt) name us all from the album. ‘You've got Mickey Richards on the drums.....’ He probably doesn’t realise but we're all recording it on our phones and sending it to each other like ‘holy shit!’” he laughs. “ A definite fan boy moment but we're not ashamed of having those moments. That's one thing I love about this band is we're very real and humble to the point of if Stevie Van Zandt says your name we're going to freak out.
“So there's these people and we're on their radar now. So I wanna make sure we find a way to stay on their radar. I just know I don't know what that is. We've gotten here and now we have these new relationships so that's a tricky balance between not wanting people to think that you're taking advantage or using them, and maintaining a relationship with someone who believes in you."
“I don't know. We've planned this far and the album is kicking ass. We've already, I don't want to say exceeded, but it's finally doing what we'd hoped it'd do, we're where we hoped we'd be right now. I just hope it results in more touring, hopefully a cool support spot on a bigger tour. That's the dream for everybody, a band like us. All you want is some sort of support spot, some huge band. At this point in your career all you want is they want support a really big tour. And I'd love it if that happened but if not we're going to just keep doing what we're doing.”
And with that they grab their things and head inside the venue. Despite it not being a huge crowd, Ryan And The Traitors still put everything into the show. Afterwards they happily mingle with the crowd, chatting, signing and posing for photos to whoever asks. It’s something that they try to do every gig they play at. Back on the bus earlier I joked with Ryan that I was surprised when I saw him do this on his previous tour, I was more expecting them to be sat backstage with a big pile of cocaine like a Rock star should.
“Those days are behind me. It's more about alcohol and pot sometimes, not that I think pot’s scary.....”
“And rice” interjects Mickey.
“And rice and beans!” he grins. “Healthier diet, healthier drugs. All my drugs are vegan." (Laughs)
“We certainly didn't do this band for the Rock and Roll lifestyle!” chuckles Mickey.
Ryan smiles and adds “We're just people doing a job. I just happen to have a really strange job. It's real fun but it's people working with the talent that they're given.”
Interview - Scott Hamilton
Photos - Neil Vary Gig Photography