Musicians From My Past 3: Matthew Ryan

Left to right: Matthew Ryan, Arthur Hatton

I once told someone that having someone else play one of your songs is like letting them take care of your child, and that’s why (as I discussed in a previous entry) I stopped playing in bands and stuck with an acoustic guitar. It’s not that I didn’t want to write hard rock or play electric guitar solos, it’s just that finding the perfect combination of people who really respected each other and could be entrusted with emotionally sensitive music is so incredibly difficult that I think it’s really only happened to me once in my life. Musically, I trust Matthew Ryan with my music more than anyone I’ve known, and this has led to the best musical friendship I’ve had in my life.

Right before I left for my mission for the LDS church to Lubbock, Texas, I moved back in with my parents in Lexington, Kentucky to save some money. It was right around the beginning of 2004. Under most circumstances, 20-year-olds really shouldn’t live with their parents. Under any circumstances, really. But I had actually just been through an awful time in Rexburg, a very confusing time in Seattle, and a few really emotionally intense romantic relationships, so this gave me a chance to really settle my mind and accept the fact that I would be basically a monk for two years in a foreign land, playing no shows and recording very little music. However, I did want to end on a high note, musically, and so I took to playing in coffee shops in Lexington to tighten up my game before I would have to give it all up for two years.

I really wasn’t expecting anything to come out of it actually, and I have a terrible memory for people, so I just went to little open mic nights and played and then went home. I am not sure I could ever enjoy myself in a coffee house again, due to the fact that cheap piezoelectric pickups really start sounding pretty awful after a few minutes, and it’s so incredibly hard to stand out when playing an acoustic set with 10 other people in one night. Not only that, but in a coffee house there are no age restrictions, so usually it goes down like this: every 15 minutes, a high-school age kid with hair down in his face saunters in with an entourage of meticulously preened girls with eyeliner, plays about three really bad songs written by either John Mayer or Jack Johnson, and then when his set is over he leaves with his flock and doesn’t come back. However, I did notice some pretty cool talent at Common Grounds in 2004. One of the musicians that stood out to me particularly was a guy who went by the name of Junior, who seemed particularly adept at galloping acoustic strumming patterns and some very interesting time signature changes and syncopated rhythms (which I later discovered he didn’t actually know were time signature changes and syncopated rhythms). His lyrics weren’t your typical open mic fare – he had a sense of humor about him and a wise way of combining interesting words. Definitely a cut above. So I began talking to the guy every week and eventually bought his CD, recorded on a computer microphone in his bedroom (unbeknownst to his parents at the time).

Junior’s actual name was Matthew, and his CD was awesome. It was funny, melodic, edgy, and you could tell the guy was not quite content with his acoustic guitar and was really longing for a heavy band.  I actually still think some of these really early, immature songs he did in the first years of his songwriting are still some of the best he’s ever done, and I’ll remember them forever – “Stolen,” “The Fight of Your Life,” “The Torch,” “One of These Days,” and “Maria, Queen of Ireland.”  Oh, and “Willie From Venus,” which is the greatest song ever written in the history of mankind.  Not only that, the dude and his friends – Aaron (the Baron) and Kevin – were great to hang out with. Over the next few months we really got to know each other and hang out quite a bit, though they told me at one point that I seemed a little mysterious to them, since I had just come to town from out of state, didn’t know anyone, and didn’t talk about my past very much. You should have seen the looks on their faces when I told them I was about to go on a church mission trip – for two years.

Matthew and I really bonded over our music though. We’d perform each other’s songs at Common Grounds and began planning joint shows. I thought it would be funny to create a Matthew Ryan Fan Page on the Internet, and so I did. Just as things seemed pretty awesome, my mission date finally arrived, and I left my guitar at home and moved to New Mexico and Texas. I had really known Matthew for just about six months.

This wasn’t the end of our friendship, though. Matthew and I corresponded quite a bit over my mission. He would send me CDs of his newest songs and we were both planning on starting a band when I got back. I would guess that Matthew wrote me more than almost anyone outside my family (though Jim from 4F did send me some cookies, and I guess some letters too). I am not sure I really expressed to him how much hope those letters gave me. Going on a mission is extremely difficult, psychologically and spiritually. The hard part wasn’t illness, rejection, or persecution, for me. It was the lack of real intimate relationships and the difficult task of carving out my own spiritual identity in the context of a very grueling religious regimen that I often found myself in conflict with (treating people like numbers, being antagonistic towards other belief systems, immaturity and power-crazy leadership). However, knowing that I would soon have a creative outlet with a musician I respected and admired so much really helped me through that mission. I valued his letters almost as much as those from my mom.

So when I came home in October of 2006, I felt like I was opening a new chapter in my life. I started working at a music shop and immediately began performing in Lexington again. Matthew and I would work the central Kentucky acoustic circuits pretty heavily, and this included Common Grounds in Lexington, The Lock and Key in Georgetown, and LiveWire in Richmond, but our real plans came to fruition when we started an official band with my brother Thomas on the drums and my sister Grace on the bass. After some pretty intense, frustrating attempts at naming the band, we settled on Killer Ellipsis – a somewhat obtuse grammatical joke that basically nobody could understand or spell – and it was the best band I’d ever play in. Thomas was amazingly intuitive on the drums and knew exactly how to compliment songs perfectly with his vocal harmonies, and Grace laid down a solid melodic foundation, offered substantive feedback, and rounded out the harmonies with a high female voice. Matthew and I finally had the chance to add all the elements of our music we’d heard in our heads but never had a chance to perform or record – distortion, drums, dynamics, solos, etc. There is a short clip of an early show (on the tiny stage at Common Grounds) here, and you can tell that we were still working the kinks out. However, I think we really reached our creative height with Grace and Thomas. There weren’t too many places to play in Lexington except for The Dame, which was a grimy little hipster joint with a cool history and good sound equipment that, unfortunately, was torn down to make way for an awesome new skyscraper or something in downtown Lexington (oh, and the skyscraper was never actually built, so as far as I know that block is just a square of grass in the middle of downtown – so much for the main indie music venue in Lexington).  Apparently Wikipedia isn’t aware that The Dame hasn’t actually existed for years now.

The magic of working with Matthew, and I think the real power behind our collaboration, was the mutual respect we had for each other and our music. I simply loved Matthew’s music, and this mutual respect inspired a friendly rivalry. When one of us would write a great song, the other would sulk for a while, write their heart out, and come up with something to beat it. I think some of my best songs came out of this kind of competition: “Shy,” “Bring it All Back,” and “You’re Better Than That” (two of which are available in some form on my Bandcamp pages).

We had the same general musical sensibilities. We both loved melodic acoustic songwriting, but we also couldn’t help ourselves to some metal and alternative rock (he was a Metallica guy, and I was listening to mostly Dream Theater at the time). The idea to somehow combine the two without sounding like an amateurish Collective Soul, I believe, was our main goal, and I think we pulled it off as best as we could, given the resources we had. In short, Matthew and I made a great team and had a musical kind of telepathic communication that made the infuriating and frustrating parts of being in a band somewhat bearable.

Killer Ellipsis, version 2: Paul, Matthew, Mike, and Arthur

Unfortunately, not every age can be golden. Both Thomas and Grace left town (Grace for college, Thomas for his mission to the Dominican Republic), and this left us scrambling for new band mates. We found a bassist named Paul who was passionate about playing, and an all-around nice guy to have around, too. However, finding a drummer was a little harder. We auditioned guys that just weren’t that good, checked Craigslist regularly, and hired and fired one guy after a single show for basically being very stubborn and pretentious when we were working with him. Finally, we found Mike McLaughlin on Craigslist. He was easy to get along with and had a good practice space, and put his whole heart into playing. All during this time we had recorded and finished our first and only album, written entirely by Matthew, called Wild Irish Rose. Thomas and Grace managed to get on the album (though Thomas never got to really hear it until he got home from his mission), and I think it turned out remarkably well. More on that album later. When we recorded our second album, we decided that I would be writing it in its entirety, but unfortunately, the band wouldn’t last long enough to see that day. Though we put in an honest effort, playing to mostly empty rooms in Cincinnati, Louisville, and Nashville, I think the money and hard work that it took to really keep things going (combined with increasing gas prices) took a major toll on us. Killer Ellipsis finally ran out of steam and we broke up.

However, I do remember Killer Ellipsis as a great time that kept me out of a lot of trouble, despite the fact that it was immensely frustrating and, in hindsight, a money pit. It was the only band I’ve played in that recorded and pressed a full album, went on local tours, and gained somewhat of a following. It was and still is a big deal for me that I had a chance to really experience all those things before realizing that I didn’t want to be a professional musician at all, at least, not in the traditional sense. However, even more than that, it meant so much to me to finally find a person I could really entrust with my songs, because I haven’t actually ever had that since (besides Thomas and Grace).

Matthew still writes and records music, but with two kids and a wife, he’s moved his music to the Internet. He has started a new project under the name From The Fire, and fortunately has preserved Wild Irish Rose under that band name, so you guys should still listen/buy/download it. I still think it’s a great album and I am quite happy that I was involved with it in some way.

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5 thoughts on “Musicians From My Past 3: Matthew Ryan”

  1. I think every guy in our generation needs a money-pit passion project to prove their manliness and intellect. You should consider yourself lucky that you didn’t choose something silly like grad school. Oh wait…

  2. Great article. Killer elipsis was an awesome band. Believe it or not I just had a Facebook message regarding that album. The friend wanted more. Exceptional band, amazing music.

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