Bill Ryder-Jones on Mental Health, Identity and Survival

Bill Ryder-Jones is a calm voice of reason in hectic times. And although the tracks on his fifth studio album Yawn might sound nostalgic, you notice a certain type of natural optimism when speaking to him. Produced by Domino Records, it is a follow up to West Kirby County Primary, and carries the same dreamy atmosphere with it. Robin Roos caught up with him while he was driving with friends, just after he completed a 12-day tour across the UK and Europe. Bill has now announced a solo tour of Europe starting in February in order to promote Yawn. Even in-between tours, the multi-instrumentalist isn’t ready to take a break and continued producing for other musicians. Read on as he reflects on his life, from mental health issues to recent breakups, and opens up about sexual identity and managing finances.

How are you?
I’m very well, thank you. I’m just in the car of one of the artists that I produce for, who has driven up from Brighton to Liverpool. He just picked me up and we’ve been driving back up north all day, so it’s been quite nice, having a chat.

You just got done touring through Europe. You performed at the Paradiso in Amsterdam as well; how was it to be back?
It was great! I mean, the show I played in Paradiso two years ago was quite a struggle because I’m not very popular over there so there weren’t many people, and that can be a bit embarrassing. It was better this time, because I was supporting Gruff Rhys and there were more people.

You went through France, Belgium and Germany too. Which show was the most fun?
The show in Brussels was very good. The first night of the tour was really good; it was in Paris and it was really exciting. Amsterdam was really good, too. It was the last night of the tour. There’s a tradition whereby on the last night of the tour the headliner sabotages the support act. So the drummer for Gruff Rhys jumped on stage and played a very loud drum solo while I was playing a very quiet bit of my set and it gave me a heart attack. That was kinda funny, and it definitely broke the ice.

What do you think about Amsterdam as a city?
I haven’t spent a lot of time there, but I really enjoyed the little ferry over from Paradiso Noord to the station. It was all misty, we went out for a few drinks and it was pretty amazing to see. I avoided it for a long time, because the first time I ever went when I was 17 I saw someone get stabbed in the chest at the train station. So I kinda avoided it for a few years after that. I guess that memory has faded somewhat.

What’s the difference between touring the UK and mainland Europe?
Touring mainland Europe is infinitely better. Imagine, you drive for maybe 4 or 5 hours in the UK and you’re in a slightly different city to the last one. Only the people have slightly different accents. In Europe, you actually pass through borders and see so many different sceneries. We were in Copenhagen one day and then we did this big drive down to Brussels, and we got to see all these wonderful sights. We made a point of listening to the music of the country we played in. On the way to Düsseldorf, we would listen to Kraftwerk, and on the way to Cologne we listened to CAN and Nico. I think we listened to Shocking Blue on the way to the Netherlands. They have some really good songs.

You’re doing an entire tour through the UK again next year, with lots of new tour dates planned in mainland Europe. Where do you get the energy?
Firstly, we are going to Amsterdam again in 2019. I don’t know where I get the energy. Somebody just says: “Go on tour”. It’s really quite tiring, but you can’t really complain; it’s basically my job. It’s not a real job, I just go away with my best friends and we have a giggle and act like 18 year olds, before we go back home and live our real lives. Touring is not my favourite thing to do, but I actually don’t do a lot of it compared to other artists. I haven’t done a big tour in quite some time now. This was just 12 days, so it’s not that bad.

But you took on a lot of countries in those 12 days.
I don’t have to drive! I just sit in the backseat and fall asleep. When I work in the studio at home, I’m more tired. On tour, I get to sleep so much more. It’s like a holiday.

So you are taking a short break now after all that touring?
I’m not on a break at all. I mainly work as a producer. When I got back from touring yesterday, we worked for 18 hours on my friend’s album. After that, I have someone else in the studio, and then a show in Liverpool and then another studio-session. I’m working on the 23rd of December, when I get four days off. After that, I have another artist in my studio. So, no break!

Looking at your new album, Yawn, which was what the tour was for. For me, I know the album reminded me of going through a breakup, but also making up with somebody.
That’s exactly why I don’t describe the general feel of the album myself. That’s a lovely interpretation you have there, and I do agree. It’s not designed to be one thing or one message. I did have a breakup this May, and a lot of my songs on that record are probably about the attachment I have to people who leave. But it’s also important to me, now more so than ever, to not have a central message. I think it’s much better if you can suggest a feeling and let people twist that in a way which agrees with what they are experiencing.

I was really impressed by the track There Are Worse Things I Could Do, and for me it felt like it was written from a somewhat feminine perspective.
It’s about my own sexuality, and it’s very obvious to anyone that is good in their heart, that you are who you are. It doesn’t matter if you were born with a willy or with breasts, you can wear makeup or a dress. My ex-girlfriend got me watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and I was just very touched by the stories these humans have about how hard it was to be accepted for something they have no control over, and accepting themselves. I’m not breaking new ground talking about it, but it’s really sad that these people are so marginalised. Last night there was this boy I know who plays in a band. We’ve never talked about sexual preference or how he identifies, but he showed up in nail polish. I know he likes to wear dresses and things, and he really got quite emotional about the song. I have a weird audience, but there’s also quite a lot of British lads in there that only talk about women and football. I thought it would be good to put a song like this in there and try to address it in my own small way.

You are obviously inspired by a lot of experiences. Were there any musical inspirations for this album?
My favourite group ever is Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, and although I didn’t listen to them a great deal while I was making Yawn, they will always be my primary influence. A lot of American things inspired me as well. But then again, I’m conscious while I’m making music not to listen to too much music by anyone else. I tend to not read a great deal while I’m writing either. I think it’s very easy for me to make pastiches of other people. In truth, I might have gotten a little close to that with some of the songs on Yawn. I only really draw influence in terms of sonics, the way the guitar sounded and the way the drums sounded. But in terms of the writing, that tends to not be informed by other writers.

You also played all the instruments yourself on the new album. Was there a specific reason for that?
I’ve actually always done that on all my records, except for the first one. I didn’t play everything on this record, some of my friends and my drummer Phil played on a couple of tracks. The reason is that I like to spend a lot of time on this, and I change my mind quite often. For example, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, the track on the album was probably its fourth version. I like to try different styles, and if you change one song, you have to change another one and see what works. It’s just cost efficient to do it yourself. In truth, when we started to rehearse and play the songs together, it sounded so much better than the record. I really wish I had done that sooner and let them record their own parts, because the songs sound so much better live.

You started playing in The Coral, but quit due to stress-related issues. What happened during that period of your life?
I had a nervous breakdown when I was 21. It’s as simple as that, really. I had quite a traumatic childhood and I used a lot of drugs, and then I was in the Coral. At that point, I had a nervous breakdown and went away for a bit. I did rejoin the band, but it made me ill and had to give that up again. I went to university, but that also made me ill, so I had to give that up. Then, Laurence Bell from Domino Records got my phone number off someone and phoned me. He’d heard a couple of songs I had written and offered me a record deal. I had like 50 pounds in my account. I was convinced I didn’t want to be in music, but I left school at 16 without any qualifications, so there was really nothing else I could do so I got the record deal. I made the first record and then, you know how life works, you just take a step every day as it comes. That was ten years ago, and now I’m kind of here. That’s as simple as it gets.

You just power through it.
Yeah, you end up walking down a road and it keeps going until you see a left or right turn. It’s as simple as that. You tend not to notice what comes in between.

You started out quite young. How did you adapt to the changes in the music business after?
The things that had a lot of impact were the internet and the economic crash. That kind of happened just as I was getting back involved, and people stopped buying records; the industry lost its fucking mind over that. Of course there’s a huge difference, as The Coral are much more successful than I am. The difference in 2002, when we got our record deal with The Coral, was that it was worth a million pounds. My record deal now is worth 10,000 pounds, it’s a staggering difference. It’s a lot harder to make a living. But it does mean you have fewer dickheads, because there is no promise of loads of money like there used to be. I actually think it’s a pretty good thing. I’d like to earn more money, but it was getting a bit obscene. Just like football! The amount of money you could earning playing football was getting a bit daft. And creative people shouldn’t care that much about money at all, I think. Speaking personally, 15 or 20 years ago, I had loads of money. Now, it would be a fucking nightmare, the worst thing that could happen to me. Lots of people get loads of plastic surgery, they become narcissistic. That would have been terrible, I would have a ponytail or something, or an American girlfriend. That would have been ridiculous!

You’ve been part of some quite successful collaborations, like Arctic Monkeys and The Last Shadow Puppets. How was it working with them?
It was good, I enjoyed it. They are hugely successful! When I went on tour with them, it was kind of strange at first. Here’s the thing: I’m not a great singer at all, but I’m a very good guitar player. If I don’t have to sing, and only have to play guitar, I’m quite confident. Playing for lots of people while playing the guitar was not a problem at all, it’s like a second nature. It was the best gig I’ve ever had; they paid me a fortune, and I only had to play like 6 songs. They have the best equipment, the best food, the best hotels. It was fucking great!

So it’s the end of the year. Looking back on 2018, what were your high points?
Definitely the tour with Gruff Rhys, which we just finished. He’s one of my heroes, so that was absolutely fucking thrilling and an honour. I didn’t have any low points, it was a good year.

Yawn is out now. Catch Bill Ryder-Jones at the Paradiso in Amsterdam on 26 February.