By: Arlene R. Weiss
This has been a momentous and fortuitous year for Ryan Rabin. The amazingly gifted co-founder, drummer, percussionist, songwriter, and producer, of indie rock band, Grouplove is poised for the September 13, 2011 international release of Grouplove’s stellar eponymous debut album, Never Trust A Happy Song.
In barely a year’s time, Ryan and his Grouplove band mates, Christian Zucconi, (lead vocals, guitars), Andrew Wessen, (lead guitar), Hannah Hooper, (vocals, keyboards), and Sean Gadd, (bass guitar), have released a critically acclaimed EP last January, they’ve been heralded by NME Magazine as one of the “Best New Bands of 2010.” They’ve toured to sold-out venues in the USA and in several cities in the UK, Europe, and Australia, and they’ve played music’s most prestigious, international festivals including Austin, Texas’s South By Southwest, Australia’s Splendour In The Grass, and the UK’s legendary Glastonbury. And just this month, Ryan and Grouplove played a blistering set, lighting up the stage to the delight of adoring fans in Chicago at the one and only Lollapalooza.
Phenomenal vistas indeed for the luminous Ryan, whose father is esteemed award-winning film composer, and former Yes guitarist, singer, songwriter and solo artist Trevor Rabin.
Ryan’s love and regard for drums began as a child, when he first became enthralled with seeing and listening to the incendiary percussion of drummer, Lou Molino III, who has collaborated with Ryan’s father on Trevor’s 1989 Can’t Look Away solo album and tour, and on several of Trevor’s film scores.
Ryan first learned to play drums on his very first set of drums, “an old Ludwig children’s starter kit from the 80’s”, that his dad bought him. He then gigged through his high school and college years with several musician friends and with local bands, developing into the drummer of incomparable power, precision, and talent that he is today, tearing into his kit with Grouplove.
Ryan beautifully and creatively spread his musical wings and continued to artistically evolve, venturing into songwriting, and especially into producing, something which he holds very close to his heart. The talented Grouplove producer now has his own production team dubbed “Captain Cuts,” with Ryan mentoring artists including hip hop’s Outasight and pop vocalist Kenzie May, who have benefitted from Ryan’s studio finesse.
Ryan has also played drums with Jason Bonham and L.A. bands The Anthem and The Outline. Ryan has also collaborated with his father, on Trevor’s scores for 2001’s “American Outlaws”, for which Ryan composed additional score music and played percussion, 2007’s “Hot Rod” for which Ryan composed additional score music, and on 2009’s “G-Force”, Ryan and Trevor co-wrote the song “Mexicano” together. Ryan also plays drums on 2 songs on Trevor’s greatly anticipated instrumental solo album, which was tentatively scheduled for a September 2011 release, now delayed until sometime in Late 2011.
With Grouplove readying to fly to Europe for a spectacular three-day stand at Paris’s Rock en Seine Festival, and the UK’s Reading and Leeds Festivals, Ryan graciously took time to discuss Grouplove, crafting Never Trust A Happy Song, his many musical influences, producing, songwriting, and his tour de force of explosive virtuosity on drums!
Arlene R. Weiss: Hi Ryan, how are you. I want to wish you congratulations and to Christian, Sean, Hannah, and Andrew on the September 13 release of Grouplove’s Debut album, Never Trust A Happy Song. I just love the album, it’s stunning! You must be so proud and excited!
Ryan Rabin: Yes! I’m very excited about it. It’s our first full album and also my first major release as a producer, so it’s very exciting on a few different levels.
Arlene R. Weiss: How did the band get chosen to play at the very prestigious and internationally acclaimed Lollapalooza? What was that experience like for you, and what were the emotional and artistic highlights?
Ryan Rabin: I think we got booked for Lollapalooza off of the strength of our EP. Our booking agents got hold of that, and soon after that we began working together. They have since then secured most of our touring dates off of the buzz of the EP. In terms of that particular show, it was an unbelievably hot day, so the performance was exhausting, but it was equally exciting as it happened to be the 20th Anniversary of the festival.
Arlene R. Weiss: How did you come up with, and what is the meaning behind the title, Never Trust A Happy Song? Also, after initially releasing your EP earlier this year, what was the initial impetus for crafting the album?
Ryan Rabin: Initially, it was just a funny phrase that our bass player Sean said one day as a joke, and then as the recording process continued on the album, it kept coming up in conversation, and slowly it turned into something that became meaningful for all of us, in different ways. It grew on me personally because I took a bit of meaning out of it in the way I sometimes listen to my favorite songs. A lot of great songs are very happy or sunny, and even tongue and cheek. But often, when you take a second listen or a closer look into the lyrical content or the melodic vibe, it usually reveals itself to have a deeper meaning or purpose, and over time evoke more of a melancholy or sense of longing or nostalgia. So the album title for me personally represents that journey you can have as a listener.
Arlene R. Weiss: With this being your breakout debut album, how did you conceive the album and what artistic statement and goals were you aspiring to achieve in writing and recording it?
Ryan Rabin: We never try to write with a specific idea or goal for the entire album. We actually try to make sure we’re not getting comfortable with one approach throughout the album. Each song is its own unique piece of music and the only consistent lines of aesthetic approach lie in the way we sound when playing together, and in the guideline that we all stick to, which is, try to do something different on every song. Other than that, we just sort of let the songs come to us from a variety of places.
Arlene R. Weiss: Grouplove’s music is imbued with such beautiful textured attention to detail and songcraft, hallmarked by a wonderfully spirited exuberance. Where does this innate joyful essence come from that flows and shines continuously through your music?
Ryan Rabin: It’s funny….at a show recently, a guy asked me how we were able to pull off looking so happy while playing the show. I couldn’t understand the question, and I still don’t. How can one not enjoy playing music live to people who are excited to be there and listen? It’s the strangest thing for me to see artists or bands that seem to be bored or unhappy on stage. I suppose it’s a part of the whole image choices they make, but I’ve never really understood that kind of approach. Even if your music is dark and sad, there should always be a little moment to let the audience know that you’re enjoying performing for them. For us, I guess that’s the whole show.
Arlene R. Weiss: Can you describe Grouplove’s songwriting process…who writes the music and lyrics?
Ryan Rabin: It just depends on the song. Several songs on this album were originally partial old demo’s Christian had kept from his past, that we then reinterpreted as a band. So there are lyrics and melodies pre-existing that Christian had written that we then took and sort of “Grouplove-ified”… a lot of that happens in rehearsal, as well as while we’re recording the song. Sometimes Hannah or Sean or Andrew will have a similar raw lyric or melody idea that the others take and reinterpret, or add on to. It’s very collaborative and everyone’s writing roles shift around in each song.
Arlene R. Weiss: When Grouplove was first germinating ideas, what was the impetus for, and what influenced the style and creative direction of your music, songwriting, and aspirations for the band?
Ryan Rabin: Originally when we made the EP, we were not a band. We were just friends that had met under strange circumstances that decided to mess around in my home studio and see what came out of it. We were obviously very surprised and excited after the first couple of tracks came together. We began to feel we were onto something special. There were no direct influences on the style. We just picked and chose individual little raw ideas, and built on them in the studio, similar to how we have done the full album. But yes, this EP came together before we had ever really jammed or rehearsed together as a band.
Arlene R. Weiss: What did you, and each member of the band, bring to the table in synthesizing each of your individual artistic visions and ideas into one collective, creative vision and whole entity?
Ryan Rabin: Again, it’s hard to give a solid answer to that because we weren’t really keeping track of our individual contributions, as it was such a new and open process working together, and we were working so quickly. Sometimes it started with a little verse idea from Sean, or an old demo idea from Christian. Sometimes I would just hear melodies working over someone else’s guitar line and I’d sing them to the others and they’d learn to play them and then that would become a lead guitar solo or synth line. It was really all over the place.
Arlene R. Weiss: My personal favorite song is “Itchin’ On A Photograph,” which is such a joyous song and a real audience favorite whenever you perform that live. Why do you think that that song resonates so powerfully with your fans?
Ryan Rabin: I think that song is the most straight forward rock song we have, and the vocals and
guitar line in the intro really draw me in right away. The message of the song is simple and powerful as well. Let go of your past, living for the moment.
Arlene R. Weiss: I love the video for the song where you and the band get into a pillow fight. You must have had so much fun shooting that!
Ryan Rabin: It’s always fun throwing pillows at your friends! It ends up being really messy, and we got a lot of dirty looking feathers in our mouths, but it was well worth it.
Arlene R. Weiss: The album has a very organic sound. Where did you record the album and the EP? Were either recorded at your father’s home based studio, Jacaranda Studios?
Ryan Rabin: Actually we haven’t recorded anything in Jacaranda Studios. The EP was done in my parents’ garage, with equipment I’ve just slowly acquired over the years. I began recording music when I was twelve, so I had a bit of time to build up my gear collection with a few hand-me-down pieces of gear my dad doesn’t use anymore. Then the album was done on the same equipment, but recorded in my apartment in downtown LA..
Arlene R. Weiss: Were there any technical, sound, and audio challenges, in regards to leakage, feedback, and bleed through from your drums and the band’s other instruments?
Ryan Rabin: The difference between the EP recording in the garage and recording the album at the downtown apartment was that there was no isolation room in the garage. So it was a bit more difficult to get the desired drum sound since you can’t hear it through the speaker monitors until after the drum take is performed. In my downtown apartment, I set up a live room in the storage space in the garage of the building. I ran about a hundred feet of mic cable snake out of my apartment, downstairs and into the storage room, and had complete sound isolation for the drums and amps etc. It was much more time saving to be able to hear what the live elements will sound like before tracking them. Much less guess and check involved. But at the end of the day, you don’t rest until you get that sound in your head.
Arlene R. Weiss: What production aspects did you implement to acquire the wonderful ambiance and supreme dimension in your sound mix?
Ryan Rabin: I try to put as little software effect as possible on the instruments, unless I’m making up for a really bad tracking room, which was the case in the garage. For the most part I try to focus on the overall EQ spectrum of the track as a whole, and if I’m still not happy with the dimension, I might add a bit of a vocal plate here or a hall verb on the overheads or something. But for the most part I like to paint an accurate picture of the place where the songs were recorded, so I try to incorporate the room’s sound into the mix. This is all of course excluding stylized effects and processing, such as long trippy vocal delays or EQ sweeps, etc. For example, the end of the track “Gold Coast”, from the EP. It had an EQ filter fade out instead of a volume fade at the end.
Arlene R. Weiss: How long did it take to record and mix the record?
Ryan Rabin: I believe recording took about sixteen days and mixing took a week.
Arlene R. Weiss: What mixing consoles and process did you use?
Ryan Rabin: The final mixes of the album were done by Michael H. Brauer at Electric Lady Studios in New York. He works on an SSL9000 with a large collection of great outboard gear.
Arlene R. Weiss: What drums and gear did you use in the studio, and what was in your kit?
Ryan Rabin: I used my Gretsch drums as well as my Ludwig drums. Both kits are about the same set up. The Gretsch is a 20″ kick, 14″ snare, 12″ inch rack tom, and 14″ inch floor tom. The Ludwig is the same except it has a 22″ kick.
Arlene R. Weiss: What are you using in your drum kit when you perform live?
Ryan Rabin: I also rotate between the Gretsch and the Ludwig. I suppose if I ever get a drum endorsement, I’ll make a hard decision between one of those two kits!
Arlene R. Weiss: I love the song “Gold Coast,” which you co-wrote with Christian and Hannah, and was featured in the 2010 film, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which Trevor scored. What inspired you to write the song, and can you detail how and why you chose that song to create a certain mood, emotion and atmosphere for the film?
Ryan Rabin: Sean Gadd also wrote that one with us. The original idea was an old demo of Christian’s, and we re-arranged and wrote it while recording it. I submitted that song to the movie because the director apparently wanted a sort of mellow vibe, but still heavy sounding track, so “Gold Coast” came to mind.
Arlene R. Weiss: NME Magazine has heralded Grouplove as one of the “Best New Bands of 2010” and showcased Grouplove earlier this year on your first UK tour. How did that come about?
Ryan Rabin: I think that all stemmed from the self-release of our EP, and then eventually its re-release by the Australian label Dew Process. The EP gained a bit of buzz on the online blog scene, and from that we got written up by NME a few times. Then we were approached by Dew Process to license the EP for Australia, which was very exciting for us. So the Splendour In The Grass Festival add stemmed from that relationship, and the others all grew from that initial UK press.
Arlene R. Weiss: A little bit about Grouplove’s beginnings. Didn’t you and Andrew grow up together?
Ryan Rabin: Yes, Andrew and I were the only members who had known each other before we met everyone else in Crete. We went to rival high schools but played in bands together and have been best friends for a long time.
Arlene R. Weiss: How did you and the members of Grouplove first meet and decide to form a band together?
Ryan Rabin: Andrew convinced me to spend my last couple of weeks after I finished college abroad, I was studying in the Czech Republic, on the isle of Crete. He and his brother helped start up an artist residency in a little run down mountain village called Avdou. It was a crazy group of painters, musicians, and circus people, living amongst the locals. The “commune” founders threw a little music festival in the town, and I played some bongos and sang with Andrew. Christian, Hannah, and Sean happened to have wound up there as well.
Hannah was invited to paint. She’s been a fine artist her whole life and has an incredible body of work, pre- Grouplove. Check out her artwork on her website www.hannahhooper.com. She had just met Christian about a week before they left, and she invited him to join her in Crete. Sean came with his best friend’s band who played the festival, and the five of us just sort of quickly became great friends. We formed a little group within the larger group of people in the village. It wasn’t until a year later when Hannah, Sean, and Christian were visiting Andrew and I in LA that we decided to record some music together. Even then, we weren’t officially a band, nor did we plan to be. It was only after we had finished tracking seven or eight songs together, and everyone returned back to their respective homes, New York for Hannah and Christian, and London for Sean, that we decided we should not let this music we made together go to waste. It was then that we decided to make a run of it as a band. Sean left everything behind in London, Hannah and Christian sold everything and drove across country, and everyone was relocated to LA.
Arlene R. Weiss: Let’s discuss your musical beginnings. Coming from a family steeped in such a rich musical heritage, where so much of your family plays everything from guitar, to drums, to piano, to violin, and your father, Trevor, is such an esteemed and gifted film composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, producer, arranger, engineer….when did you first realize that you also wanted to venture down this path and be a musician?
Ryan Rabin: I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision. I always enjoyed playing in bands growing up. Taking piano lessons was something I asked for, but didn’t quite enjoy. I obviously am now grateful that I did take lessons otherwise I would not be able to write, record, and produce, and possibly never would have taken up the drums.
Anyway, I always enjoyed playing in bands, but I never took it too seriously. Even when playing in a band with Andrew when we were close to finishing high school, I always knew I still wanted to go to college and get a degree. And by the time I got to Greece and met everyone else, I was reserved to being done with playing in bands. At that point, I just wanted to finish school, and see where life took me.
I had known for a while that my absolute favorite thing was to be in the studio producing. It was never a conscious decision though. I think it sort of naturally evolved out of playing in bands for fun. But there was never a moment in which I looked at my family’s musical background and said to myself, “Wow, I really want to be like them.” Then, funny enough, once I had finally decided to stop touring and playing in bands, the best band of my life sort of appeared out of nowhere.
Arlene R. Weiss: How old were you, and when did you first know that it was drums that you most enjoyed and wanted to pursue playing? And why drums and percussion? What is it about them that fires and sparks your creativity and inspires you so?
Ryan Rabin: My dad’s best friend Lou Molino III is one of the best drummers of all time (in my opinion). I always saw him playing when I was younger, and he looked like he was having such an amazing time smashing the drums. It just seemed more fun than my piano lessons. But I stuck with piano for a bit, and then one day a friend of a friend showed me how to play one simple beat at a little kit that was in my buddy’s living room. From there, I just slowly picked it up and stuck with it. My dad heard me playing at a friend’s house, and bought me a cheap little starter kit the next day. I never had lessons but I always tried to copy the way Lou played in order to get better.
Playing the drums is such a physical experience for me, I tend to get a bit lost in it and I enjoy that part of it. Also, drums and backtrack play such a huge part in production these days. A lot of producers nowadays demand at least a third of the publishing on a track in which they composed the drums and backtrack. And it’s no different for me. The drums play such a huge part in all my productions, whether they are rock or pop or urban, and I enjoy that creativity just as much as writing lyrics or melodies.
Arlene R. Weiss: What other instruments do you play?
Ryan Rabin: A bit of piano, and a little bit of guitar.
Arlene R. Weiss: What were the first drums and kit that you played?
Ryan Rabin: An old Ludwig children’s starter kit from the 80′s. I think it makes a cameo in one of my dad’s old music videos. [Author’s Note: Ryan’s Ludwig children’s starter drum kit appears, as the white drum kit covered in black polka dots that Trevor plays in the 1989 video for Trevor’s solo song, “Something To Hold On To.”]
Arlene R. Weiss: What was your first band, how did you come about joining them, and what kind of music did you play?
Ryan Rabin: My first band was with my old friend Sam Teller. We played cover songs, and recorded Weezer’s “The Sweater Song” on one of Korg’s early digital four track recorders. I hope one day I can find that recording. It’ll make for some great laughs.
Arlene R. Weiss: What other bands and artists have you played, produced, and collaborated with?
Ryan Rabin: I played a bit with my friend Trevor Lukather. I had a couple of decent bands in high school and college, one called The Anthem and the other called The Outline. I’ve done a lot of production work with up and coming artists. Outasight is a great hip-hop artist I’ve worked with, and Kenzie May is an amazing pop talent. Jason Bonham let me play on his kit a while back, and I’ve done some extra film scoring work for my dad here and there. [Ryan composed additional score music for 2001’s American Outlaws and for 2007’s Hot Rod, both of which Trevor scored. Ryan co-wrote the song “Mexicano” with Trevor for 2009’s G-Force.]
Arlene R. Weiss: Who are your influences as a drummer and how have they informed your own playing and technique?
Ryan Rabin: Louis Molino III. If I can play even half as good as he does, I’ll be a happy guy.
Arlene R. Weiss: What other artists, songwriters, and music inspire you?
Ryan Rabin: I love all genres of music. My first favorite artist was Michael Jackson, and he’s still very important to me. In terms of production, no pop artist has put out better songs.
Arlene R. Weiss: When did you begin songwriting and what inspires, influences, and sparks your creative process?
Ryan Rabin: I sang my own made up songs from a very young age. I have a very old recording of one of them. It’s hilarious. Even as a drummer in bands, I am never satisfied if I don’t contribute to every aspect of the music. A lot of times that ends up being very production oriented, re-arranging riffs or lyrics etc., but I’m very much melody oriented. If a melody doesn’t catch my attention in the right way and in the right context, I feel it can be bettered, and I always try to do that during the writing process.
Arlene R. Weiss: What songs are you especially proud of that you have written?
Ryan Rabin: I’m proud of all the songs I had a hand in writing in Grouplove, whether it be more production oriented writing, or melody writing, but I think one of my favorite songs is one that might never be released, called “Black Coke White Jeans.” It’s a song Andrew and I wrote together in college, and we just never realized that project fully. There’s a full album we did that’s just sitting on my hard-drive.
Arlene R. Weiss: You played percussion, to much critical acclaim, on Trevor’s score for the 2001 film and western, American Outlaws. Was that your first time performing on a film score, and can you describe that experience and what it was like emotionally and creatively for you?
Ryan Rabin: That was really fun, because it was the first time I had recorded drums or percussion on top of what was seemingly a finished product. The score hadn’t gone to orchestra yet, but all of the rest of the writing and in studio pre-production tracking was done and my dad had me come play a bunch of stuff over the existing score. I’m lucky I got used to playing to a click track early on because some of those time signatures were difficult.
Arlene R. Weiss: You also play drums on two tracks for Trevor’s upcoming instrumental solo album. Can you discuss the style and direction of these songs and your artistic experience collaborating with your father on his record?
Ryan Rabin: This album is all over the place. I suppose you can call it a form of jazz, but it’s really insane to listen to. Every time I listen to the songs, I hear something new. Playing on it was great. He brought in the music one night, I listened to it, heard his rough electric drum track, and then recorded my own live takes. We did it all in one night.
Arlene R. Weiss: With your parents, family, and roots being from South Africa, and you visiting there often, how have the indigenous rhythms and music of such a wonderful, richly multi-textured, culture, people, and nation influenced you, and in what way has that informed your approach to percussion and your playing and technique?
Ryan Rabin: I’m sure subconsciously I’ve picked up some influence from South-African music. Mostly I loved listening to the famous a-cappella groups. Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Gospel Choir were on constant rotation in the car on the way to school.
Arlene R. Weiss: Growing up and being around the multi-faceted music of your father, how has that enriched and informed your creative and artistic sensibilities?
Ryan Rabin: I think that one of the most important things I picked up from him was that there is no easy way around getting something right musically. Obviously music in general can be a subjective experience, but there is such a thing as playing or performing something, right or wrong. Once you get it right, you can make it your own. But first you have to get it right, and there are no shortcuts.
Sometimes you just have to sit on the drums for a week to get your brain to accept a new way of playing a beat. Sometimes a software compressor won’t equalize your levels perfectly, and you just gotta sit there and volume automate every single plosive and sibilant in the entire song so that the vocal is pleasurable to hear. Do I sound like a nerd yet?!
Arlene R. Weiss: This has been such an amazing, whirlwind year for you and for Grouplove, with so many new and wonderful creative and life experiences. What artistic paths do you hope to explore in the future..and how and along what new creative roads do you hope to grow, evolve, and aspire to as an artist, for yourself and for Grouplove?
Ryan Rabin: I’d like to continue to build on this growing success with Grouplove, and hopefully this debut album is the first big step towards a long and fruitful career of many albums and memorable tours. I’d also like to simultaneously continue to produce talented artists, in lots of different genres. I think both Grouplove and my production work compliment and help each other, in terms of growth in success as well as growth in my own learning experiences. If I can do all that and still get eight hours of sleep for at least two nights a week, I’ll be happy. No such luck yet though!
Just an FYI, my production team is called “Captain Cuts”, @captaincuts on Twitter and at www.soundcloud.com/captaincuts. We have some cool remixes up on Soundcloud. And also be sure to visit Grouplove at www.grouplovemusic.com for all tour information and for our debut album, Never Trust A Happy Song, which is out September 13, 2011 on CD, Vinyl, and MP3 download!
© Copyright August 30, 2011 By Arlene R. Weiss-All Rights Reserved