A conversation with Silvia Ryder
Interview by Adam McKibbin
The third and best album from Sugarplum Fairies even came as a partial surprise to band members Silvia Ryder and Ben Bohm. Conceived as a lo-fi, self-produced affair, the album proceedings for Country International Records were instead moved to Nashville, where Ryder and Bohm - under the watchful eye of their drummer-turned-producer Ken Coomer (Wilco) - met with a group of unfamiliar musicians. The core of the record remained intact, but Coomer and the band helped add some new layers to a signature sound that Sugarplum Fairies memorably summed up on the title of their last record: Introspective Raincoat Student Music.
Ryder and Bohm decided that it wasn't in their best interests to exist as a live band - they would have to hire out a band for each show - so that side of the band has been, at least for the time being, retired. The market in their hometown of Los Angeles is, needless to say, a tad oversaturated anyway. Radio play becomes even more vital, then, in getting their music out, and Indie 103.1 has recently been giving the new record some spins - even the station's favorite son, Steve Jones, has been playing it. Smart pick, Jonesy.
Ryder took some time recently to talk to The Red Alert about the surprising evolution of Country International Records, as well as the glory of French cinema, the lost art of CD booklets, and a few stops in between.
In the past, you and Benny have had the songs pretty intact before taking them in to record. Was that the case again with this record, or was there more of a give-and-take with the new production team?
Actually, it was even more complete before we brought it in. We had already recorded guitars and vocals. We didn’t plan on hiring a producer. It was just a coincidence, because I wanted to hire Ken Coomer to play drums. Then he listened to what we’d done so far and he wanted to produce it—I didn’t even know that he’d been working as a producer for the last three years. So I took the hard drive, which was pretty much all of the guitars and vocals, and took that to Nashville. We actually kept 100 percent of the vocals and most of the guitars, too.
In an earlier interview that we did, you talked about wanting to make the second album deliberately more lo-fi than the first, because you thought that the debut wound up sounding too clean. Was there somewhere specific on the spectrum that you wanted to arrive with Country International Records?
We definitely wanted to make it a bit happier, and put more variety in. The other one was a lot of same stuff for the whole album. We wanted to use more drums, too, and more percussion—we hardly used any in the last record.
There are even some country-tinged songs.
There are country-tinged, and there are also some ‘80s influences in there somehow, I think. I don’t know where they came from. I guess that was Ken Coomer.
As you’re writing songs, are you listening to outside music, too?
Actually, I don’t listen to music so much. Of course I listen to music, but it’s not like before I start writing, I’ll get a bunch of CDs to try to figure out what direction we’ll go. It’s more subtle influences. Most of the time, we have no clue about what direction the song is going. That’s what’s cool about it—it’s always kind of a surprise.
All of the other musicians, we’d never met them before, we had no idea who they even were. We came to Nashville and they showed up.
Was that a daunting process?
Oh, yeah, it was scary as hell. We wanted to produce it ourselves, but then we thought, “Why not get a second pair of ears and see what comes out of it?”
Are you and Benny writing songs pretty regularly? Or do they come in concentrated bursts?
For me, it’s concentrated, because I write the lyrics to his melodies when they’re done. We write completely separately. I always have to wait for him to have some songs for me to write to. He writes pretty easily in any environment—sometimes he watches a soccer game and just writes a song while he’s doing it. After a while, we realize, okay, we have 14 tracks, we should put them down. But sometimes he writes two songs a week, sometimes he doesn’t write a song for a month.
Something I hadn’t been aware of until recently was that Benny was in a band in Vienna that was pretty high-profile. Can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah, they started as a new-wave band in the ‘80s. Then they signed a major label deal and they became this pop band, four guys, with German lyrics. I know they had three Top Five singles—we’re talking about Austria; Austria isn’t a very big country.
Lyrically, a lot of your songs have a literary or cinematic feel—they feel like snapshots or vignettes. Do you tend to draw more on real-life observations or just on the imagination?
I draw a lot on old French movies from the ‘60s—Truffaut, Godard, all that kind of stuff. One of my favorites movies is Jules et Jim, which we’ve used in a few songs. But, then, mostly observations mixed in with experience—and stuff I just mix up.
Is the style of music you play reflected in your personal listening tastes? Do you stay away from the hard and heavy?
Oh, absolutely. We don’t like very loud drums. I hate drum solos, I even hate guitar solos. Benny is more of a poppy person, where I’m into more mellow, shoegaze stuff.
Are there other things in the works for Starfish [the band's label], or are you just focusing on this release for the time being?
I just got the CDs for Son of the Velvet Rat a few days ago. He actually signed with a European label that has major distribution, and I’m going to try to promote that here. We also want to do Benny’s solo CD, a poppier record—that’s in the works. With us, it’s always the same problem—we have tons of material, but we have to wait until we have the money together to pay for it. Recording the CD itself is the least expensive, but you want to promote it, too. Every year it gets more expensive.
Your last record took its title from a quote about Nick Drake. What was the inspiration for this title?
It’s very simple. It was actually a record label that was abandoned; we saw this building in Nashville. It’s a really weird title—“country” and “international.” (LAUGHS) And it kind of totally fits the music that came out of the CD, mixing the few country elements with European styles. I thought it might be a good title. I hope that they’re not going to sue us, but they looked pretty abandoned.
Are song titles, album titles, album art, things of that nature—are those things you kind of obsess over, or are they quicker, gut decisions?
Well, that’s only me, and I definitely obsess about it. In the beginning stage, it’s trying to figure out the direction, and then it’s finding or photographing the pictures. That picture on the cover is actually a picture that I found. Designing the booklet goes pretty fast as soon as I have the vision of what it should look like.
More and more, those interesting booklets are hard to come by.
I love CD booklets. I love looking at them. I sometimes buy CDs because I like the cover so much. That’s the sad thing with downloading songs on iTunes or whatever. Sometimes you can download the artwork, but it’s not the same thing.