Steve Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool Records continues to live up to its name. As the artist roster grows it expands by bringing on a collection of artists whose talents are many, and whose sounds are truly diverse. We recently spoke to Jesse Wagner, the singer songwriter previously best-known for the contributions that have helped artists like Kid Rock and Lenny Kravitz soar to new heights. Her solo debut on Wicked Cool is an expression of Roberta Flack meets Laurel Canyon by way of Stax Studios. Now Ryan Hamilton comes forward and delivers an unexpected new record that finds him channeling sounds that will remind you of Tom Petty and Pete Droge, but that in the end are inherently all his own. It’s a record informed by his recent divorce and inspired by an epic road trip across America’s historic Route 66. The record moves from fun-filled rockers to tighter life inspired torches. This is done with ease and no need for apology. That’s pretty cool!
His last album This Is The Sound won praise from fellow artists like Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz who called it “masterful and spectacular.” It also put Hamilton in a spotlight that awarded him the Independent Music Award for “Best Indie Album. Under the counsel of Steve Van Zandt — and with the support of fans across both sides of the pond — Ryan Hamilton lays down a confident bet that Texan takes on all of life’s moments, good and bad, are ones that can get almost anyone through anything. When you give Nowhere To Go But Everywhere a spin, you’ll likely agree that it represents a bet you’d take to the bank day in, day out.
We spoke to Ryan recently about the new record, Stevie Van Zandt and Wicked Cool Records, and that one personal item he couldn’t possibly part with.
GOLDMINE: After going through all that you recently did in your personal life was making this album somewhat cathartic?
RYAN HAMILTON: Yeah, absolutely. It was hard for me to pick which songs would go on the record because there were so many sad bastard divorce moments. There were over 40 demos and some of the more “cathartic” ones didn’t make it on the album. The whole process was definitely therapy.
GM: After all of the praise and recognition that you earned with the last record was there a different follow-up that you had begun to map out or that you are currently sitting on? This record seems to have come together quickly.
RH: Honestly I didn’t really think about it because that record was still riding high getting the support of some big names. We had won the Independent Music Awards’ “Album of the Year,” so there was no pressure to put out another album for at least another year. You know life happened, and divorce happened, and then this other album just appeared out of nowhere. We were just kind of enjoying the success of the other record! (laughs)
GM: Much like Blood on the Tracks, this is largely a divorce album. How do you feel about playing these songs live for the balance of your career, night after night? Seems like an experience you’d rather put in your rear view mirror.
RH: That’s a really good point AND question. I think you have to (and I’m sure Dylan did as well with Blood on the Tracks) have that moment where you go “if this goes into the world that’s what happens.” It’s going to be an instant “close my eyes straight back to that moment in my life” kind of thing for 10 to 12 songs. And with half of the songs it’s going to be just that when you play them live. So there’s that kind of “come to Jesus” talk that you have to have with yourself that I had and had with my family. I even had it with Stevie and the label. I said “I think I can do that, I think I SHOULD do that, and I think that people will relate to this.” But in a weird way I needed other people to tell me that it was OK. Because where I struggled with it was not about being raw and honest about things. Instead, I didn’t want people to think that I was using my marriage ending as some kind of promotional tool, because it was all very real to me. In the end I feel that it’s come together in the right way. And again, the songs that ended up on the record, even with those songs that are real heavy emotionally and lyrically, I think it remains a very hopeful record. So I shouldn’t be torturing myself too badly on the road when I perform this record. There still will be a part of me that does a little bit on some songs. But that’s OK. I think that’s a testament to being a singer songwriter.
GM: It’s interesting to see the variety of artists that Wicked Cool Records are bringing on board. They aren’t just about signing garage rock bands. How did you come to join the label?
RH: The short version is I was in two previous bands that were supposed to be a huge deal and the next big thing. They almost broke through. They both had big record deals and attracted big management companies. ‘All of that. Instead it went to s**t, both times, right when we were on the verge. So I went to England to start over and try one more time with zero intention of ever signing with another record label. It was total DIY, start over in a new country.
Stevie heard and loved the band. I spoke to Wicked Cool and there was definitely some interest there. But it was as soon as I spoke to Stevie on the phone for the first time that it just clicked for me. You’re talking to a fellow artist who has that same point of view. He can talk to me or Jesse (Wagner) in a way that the other suits can’t and just don’t know how to do. He can really break it down. Putting aside the fact that he’s Stevie Van Zandt, he just has a very artist-friendly view and that’s what sold it for me. To have someone of that caliber not only get excited to work with me and the other artists on the label, but to be that humble was also a big deal for me. I felt safe. It’s a very rare thing in this business – especially when you’ve been through the ringer a couple of times.
GM: What was the songwriting process like with Steve Van Zandt?
RH: I like working with Stevie because he gets right to it. There’s zero BS. He doesn’t have the time or patience for that, especially when it comes to working on songs. Everything is “this works, that doesn’t. I don’t like this, this is great”. On this album in particular he sent me several notes on every single song and we would get on the phone together and go through them. He does this really wonderful thing where he hears potential in a song and knows a place that it can get to that I don’t. He will go away, get his guitar and sit down with the song and record what he’s hearing and then send it to me in a voice memo. For him to take the time to sit down and do that is a really special thing. So it was a cool combination of a no BS approach and a track record that speak for itself in terms of songwriting and producing. You feel very lucky to be getting notes from someone of that caliber. And it’s fun!!!
GM: You have built a remarkably large and loyal following in the U.K.? How do you carry that enthusiasm to the states?
RH: Man I don’t know and if you can figure it our please let ME know. I mean it’s a long way to fly to go play sold out shows. I’m the only American in my band. Part of me loves that but I don’t know what needs to happen. Right now my mindset is that it’s just going to keep getting bigger in the U.K. so let’s make it SO big that America to pay attention. That’s starting to happen a little bit. In New York, California, Texas and then kind of in the Pacific Northwest we are starting to see little pockets of that develop. So, fingers crossed.
GM: What is the origin of the name Harlequin Ghosts?
RH: So Stevie actually helped us when we wanted to rename the band. We Ryan Hamilton and The Traitors. When Paul Ryan was Speaker of the House my Twitter handle used to be @TraitorRyan. That started trending for all the wrong reasons so we knew we had to change it. I don’t know if you know this but trying to find a band name in today’s world is impossible. They’re all taken. So we went down a black hole and tried to find a name. Stevie had some great ideas and helped a bunch. We finally narrowed it down to four we all really liked. There was just something odd in a good way about Harlequin Ghosts. Once I heard one of my British bandmates say it that was it. It sounds beautiful in that accent. There’s no real deep meaning. There’s a little bit of a Tim Burton reference here because of the Harlequin Demon in his film The Nightmare Before Christmas. ‘Nothing more. It just kind of clicked.
GM: Mike Peters from The Alarm makes a contribution on the record? Your sounds are so different. How did you become connected?
RH: That’s a testament to how well we have done in the U.K. Mike was a fan of the previous two records and we had the same radio “plugger” in England. The Alarm had a new album coming out at the same time as we did so he (Mike) got in touch and asked if we wanted to tour with them throughout the UK. And, of course we did. So we did the tour with The Alarm and just hit it off. AND, we stayed in touch which doesn’t happen a whole lot in this business. More often than not you go on a tour with someone and you kind of remain acquaintances. You’re happy to see that person when you run into them somewhere, but rarely do you strike up a real friendship where you stay in touch and check in. That’s happened with Mike and I’m very thankful for it.
GM: The song “Oh No” references scores of popular rock band names and song titles. What were the ones that just missed “the cut”?
RH: It’s a fun, silly song on purpose. It also was painstaking to find titles that worked and that were still meaningful to me or classic enough where people would know the reference. There was some stuff from the late '90s that I loved on a personal level. But it was just kind of forced in there and didn’t fit. I remember wanting to put Full Moon Fever in and didn’t but instead used Wildflowers instead. It worked better which is fine with me. Any Tom Petty reference, I’m in.
There were two Beatles album references and I was looking for another album to try and replace one of them. In the end I decided if there is any band that’s going to get referenced twice it might as well be The Beatles.
GM: You cover Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” on the record. I can hear something in your music that ladders to his. What else do you listen to for inspiration?
RH: When I was a kid I fell in love with my Dad’s music. My friends made fun of me for it because they were into Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails and I wanted to listen to Foreigner, the stuff that people consider “classic rock.” I love all of that music, even stuff like the Marshall Tucker Band, Bob Seger, and REO Speedwagon. I can probably sing all of the words to an embarrassing number of REO Speedwagon hits. I just love it. There was something free about what was happening during that era of music. Now it seems like everyone is going back trying to draw inspiration from that era when what those guys were creating was something that felt new. That inspires me.
GM: There is a lot of tasty guitar work on the record. Is this you playing lead?
RH: No that is either our producer Dave Draper or Ben Marsten, who also added guitar to the record. They’re just leaps and bounds beyond me as guitar players. I’m pretty good at coming up with ideas about where the guitar sound should go but those guys play it! I consider myself lucky to have guys with me where I can go “how about this?” and they can play it!
GM: “We Gave It Hell” is a powerful break up song. I’m taken by how crisp the writing is. It’s economical but still packs a punch. How do you approach the songwriting process?
RH: For me each song is its own thing. They come in these very brief, inconvenient moments like when I’m driving, those moments where you are focusing on something else. Thank God for phones because I often have to pull over to capture things. If I don’t they just disappear. With a song like this I was driving and I just had this moment of asking myself whether we had really tried our best. It was just kind of a personal moment and then boom that line “a broken heart is not the end it’s a brand new start” hit me. So I pulled over and it was all there in probably five or ten minutes. That song is a great example of a track that didn’t change from original demo to final recording.
GM: I watched your Zoom chat with Drew Carey. You spoke a lot about guitars and what it says about a performer. So what’s the most prized possession of yours? Is it a turntable, a guitar, a piece of percussion or something else?
RH: Mine is really random. I own Jack Kerouac’s belt that he had when he was writing “On The Road”. It’s a long story but the gist of it is that the guy who was running an auction that was set to happen for the estate and Jack’s nephew are big Bruce and Stevie fans and found me and our music through them. They found out that Kerouac was a big hero of mine. We got on the phone and like a week or two later that I received a package with all of this documentation and inside was Jack Kerouac belt! I have a little home studio here where it’s on display. I have always been tempted to make it a guitar strap out of it or something that’s always with me when I play. I just have never quite let myself do it. But I do always think that Kerouac would love to hear that it’s traveling again!
Can I get An Amen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=YEAFgKjBhO8
Jesus And John Lennon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_fmnVclToo