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New Groove

Published: 2006/04/16
by Mark Ballard

Ryan Montbleau

When Boston’s Ryan Montbleau Band sold out their hometown’s 600-capacity Paradise Rock Club in November of 2004, it was a watermark of achievement for the 27-year-old singer-songwriter and his band. His first words to the raging crowd (and unfortunately not the 200 that were shut outside in the rain): “I used to play at TGI Friday’s.” He was telling the truth. Fast forward just one year, and you can find Ryan Montbleau Band headlining the legendary (and even larger) Somerville Theatre. Clearly, word is traveling-and fast.

Having begun his career playing Boston’s coffee shops and folk venues as a solo artist, Ryan Montbleau has evolved into the front man for the dynamic, eclectic ensemble that bears his name. In addition to Ryan, the band is comprised of Matt Giannaros (bass), Laurence Scudder (viola), Jason Cohen (keys) and James Cohen (drums). The sound that emerges is akin to a cross between Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder and The Band.

Having just released a new album (the band’s self-released One Fine Color) and with a busy schedule of touring ahead—including many of the Summer’s most highly-anticipated festival dates—jambands.com caught up with one of the scene’s rising stars.

You have a new album out, so let’s start there. You recorded One Fine Color at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, NY…what was that like? Describe the experience.

It was fantastic. Sort of the way I had always dreamed of making an album. The place is on a beautiful little farm on the outskirts of Woodstock. There’s a running brook, some horses, chickens, goats, a separate cabin for us to sleep and chill out in. And the studio itself is amazing. Mike Birnbaum runs the place and he and Chris Bittner are just outstanding engineers. They kicked so much ass and just made the process as smooth as anything. We ended up recording and mixing the whole album in 13 days. It could get a little intense, but all in all there was never a feeling of pressure. We just banged it out nice and naturally.

Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted the record to sound like before you went to Woodstock, or did the album take its shape as the process went along?

Well, we were able to record the thing so relatively quickly because there were about two years of touring that led into this record. We’ve been playing many of these songs out, tweaking and refining them over hundreds of shows in the last two years. That’s why we were able to pull it off with no producer. We basically knew the arrangements inside and out. And sonically, we didn’t want anything too slick. We wanted something warm, something that sounds like us playing in a room, because essentially that’s what it is. I think we got that. The guys just came in and really nailed all of their parts. So we had the thing generally mapped out before we went in there, but again Chris and Mike are so good at what they do that they just took the thing to a level sonically that exceeded all of our expectations. We nailed the tunes, and they just got some GREAT sounds.

I’m really proud of this one. It’s by far better than anything I’ve ever put out, I know that for sure.

Beyond the studio, how is One Fine Color different from your past efforts?

The only other studio disc that I have is Begin from 2002. I think I’ve come a long way since then, and comparing the records will really show that. Not only the performances, but the recordings themselves are of drastically different quality. This is also the first full-band studio disc, as Begin is mostly solo-acoustic. And everything else we’ve been putting out has been live recordings over the last few years, including my second album Stages. So One Fine Color is really just above and beyond anything I’ve ever put out. We got someone to lend us $10,000 to make a record, we spent two years on the road tightening up these tunes and this band, and I think all of that really shows. Have I mentioned that I’m really proud of this???

A few of the tracks from "One Fine Color" have been long-time staples of your live show, songs like "Stretch" and "Variety," did you get any sort of new perspective on these songs from the new setting, with the studio’s tools at your disposal?

Somewhat, but for the most part the tunes were there. Again, we had really just worked them and worked them over the last two years with the band. A few years back, I was coming off of a strictly solo-acoustic thing and I didn’t even want the band to play many of these songs. Slowly but surely, though, the band just really embraced the tunes and embraced me as well.

This unit is by far the best band I’ve ever been in, and despite the bland name we are a band. We are a unit and I’m so proud of the way we’ve all come together as a unit.

As far as any new perspective that the studio gave these tunes, it’s mostly just the super-high quality of the sounds that the engineers got. I was blown away and just pumped to hear these tunes produced so richly. Still am. And that was the point of this record— finally do these tunes justice and make an album, not just a collection of live tracks.

One of the tracks, "Thick American Skin," is a clear commentary on the state of the World right now. Talk a little bit about that song.

I’ve never been very political with my writing. I’m not the most informed person in the world, and I’ve just tended to stick to more universal themes.

But, man, look at what’s going on these days!! It’s just impossible to not be affected by this administration and to not be in awe of everything that’s going down. So this tune just sort of crept out of that, and I knew it would be a cappella from the beginning. It’s funny, but the metaphor of the "colors of a bruise" actually came when I was listening to sports talk radio and a caller referred to someone being "red, white, and blue." Kind of a random source for a metaphor, but I thought it was perfect for what’s going on these days. I mentioned the idea of the tune to the band once or twice, but never sang it for anyone until the Gathering of the Vibes last summer. Sort of just surprised it on everyone, including the band.

Your entire style and sound is pretty unique. Let’s talk about your roots and influences for a moment. You’re singing might be the first thing people notice. The second thing people might notice is that you’re also a very talented guitarist. Who were some of the singers that have inspired you along the way and who are some of your influences on guitar?

It’s funny, but when I was a little kid, for a period of years, my two favorite groups were AC/DC and New Edition. I loved them both. Obviously the guitar and the bluesy stuff came initially from AC/DC, and later from Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Muddy Waters, etc. But I have to admit, that I liked the R&B as well. New Edition, Bell Biv Devoe, you name it, all the stuff that now seems so cheesy, I ate it up when I was younger. But the singing in that stuff is what I was drawn to. It eventually led me to the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, all of the stuff that had influenced it in the first place. So I guess it all worked out.

In later years, my biggest influence by far has been Martin Sexton. That guy is just a hero to me. I also love Paul Simon, De La Soul, The Black Crowes, Medeski Martin & Wood, Deb Talan, Ray LaMontagne, and about a million others.

As far as my particular guitar playing style, I don’t really know where the slappy fingerpicking stuff came from. I never consciously tried to play like that, it just sort of developed after years of beating on the guitar.

Aside from past influences, is anything in today’s music scene grabbing you?

I dig a lot of singer/songwriters: Martin Sexton, Ray LaMontagne, Amos Lee, and many of the bands that we get to play with now and again. I’m definitely a fan of Assembly of Dust. We totally look up to those guys. And man, I have to say, Peter Prince is a fucking genius! People just don’t KNOW! I’m sort of friends with him now, but I’m also just a straight up fan. Moon Boot Lover Back on Earth is an incredible album and Peter is just one of the greatest performers that I’ve ever witnessed. Period. And he still kills it every show.

I notice that you share some gigs with Peter and Assembly. Have these guys mentored you at all along the way?

Absolutely without question. Peter Prince just has this insane ability to perform and to draw attention from a room. But it goes beyond that. We’d be in the van on the way to a show and have a big laugh, joking around about one thing or another. That night at the show, Peter would somehow use that funny thing and work it into the set. You have to really pay attention to him sometimes, but the way his mind works is unbelievable. Huge inspiration.

And our entire band looks up to AOD. They’re just so tight and so damn good and it seems like they never make the slightest mistake (though they’d tell you otherwise). Seamless, fluid, and their time is rock solid. We’ve made it no secret how much we admire those guys.

Let’s talk about the band. How did you guys meet, and what can you tell me about the other guys’ playing and what drew you to them?

Well, I’ve been playing with drummer James Cohen for years now. We started as a trio called Palabra. (which actually started as a duo with me and a djembe [an African drum]) back about five or six years ago. That built up and then sort of dissolved when I wanted to really get into the solo-acoustic thing. But he’s always been my drummer and I love him like a brother from another mother. And Jason Cohen, our keyboard player actually is James’ brother. He used to sit in on Palabara. gigs from time to time. James used to run an open jam up in Gloucester, and the house band he put together one night had me and Jay in it. Jay’s a monster player and his role in the band has just gotten stronger and stronger over time. I’m in awe of his abilities. This band has really just evolved slowly over time. A few players have come and gone, and it always seemed like the end of the world when they did, but it all worked out for the best. The lineup we have nowadays I think is rock-solid. Matty Giannaros on upright bass and backup vocals just made our whole band click and I think he’s a monster talent as well. Laurence Scudder on viola just rounds out the whole thing and he’s a very unique player.

I’ve always tried to surround myself with talented guys that I could just let go and do their thing. I’ve never been like, "You have to play this," because to tell you the truth, I don’t even have that ability to know the parts for every instrument. So I do my thing and present the tunes, and just let the guys go to town. I think it’s worked out very well. The guys have all embraced these tunes and made them our own. They’re all better musicians than I am in many ways, so I learn from them every day.

Your shows seem pretty diverse in terms of the fans. I’d almost compare it to Derek Trucks Band concerts that I’ve attended where there’s this funny mix of rowdy college kids right alongside more reserved middle-aged listeners. Obviously Trucks gets part of his diversity from his Allman Brother roots. How would you explain your diversity? Or can you?

I’m really trying to grasp it all, and it hasn’t been easy, though it’s a great problem to have. It really came to a head at our CD Release party at the Somerville Theatre in February. We had 750 people there in this nice old theatre, everyone from 60 year-old-women from the folk circuit, to dancing hippies, to drunk underage college kids, all under one roof.

It was a little much to take in on that grand scale, and it was sort of hard to reconcile everything. But I think everyone had a good time.

As a singer-songwriter, and one who plays solo, I definitely reach some of the folk scene and the more writer-based side of things. As an improvisational band, we certainly are part of the jamband circuit. And I think much of our stuff is sort of accessible to a younger, pop-crowd as well. I don’t really try to write for one scene or another, but I do embrace them all. I explain it like this: You have mind, heart, and body. My mind is in the folk-world, with the writers. My heart is in the jamband world, with the kind souls and the real heads. And my body is for the kiddies! I really mean all of this, though. My heart has always been with the people who truly care about music, and I think the jamband scene is the epitome of that. I’m lucky to be a part of it, and I’ll never forget that as long as I live.

“My body is for the kiddies”—what do you mean by that?

Ha! I guess that does sound a little weird. It’s just a tidy little metaphor, I think— the mind, heart, body thing. By kiddies, I mean sort of the pop world, generally a young fan base. I don’t cater to that in the slightest, but it’s a reality. That crowd is there and they are listening. It’s not the folk world and it’s not the jamband world. It’s little music-heads in their own right, tracking down singer-songwriters on MySpace. If you want me to embody that, fine. I can do that. Put my picture up somewhere, do whatever you want with my name, my face, my "body." The music will speak for itself. And my heart will be with the hippies and my head will be with the writers. I don’t mean to generalize here, like everyone has to fall into one category. It’s just a tidy metaphor. My body is a wonderland. Ha…

You performed at Gathering of the Vibes last year and this year you played at moe.‘s Snoe Down in March along with Camp Creek later this summer. What’s your favorite thing(s) about these types of multi-band festivals? Any memories stand out from past events?

Oh, man, festivals can just be like heaven. I’ve just had some of the most amazing experiences at those things. The music and the vibes can just be so good, so blissful. I remember my first festival, High Sierra in 2003 (I’m still very new to this), I was people watching and just saw two complete strangers, both men, come across each other on a path with many other people. They didn’t say anything, hugged each other, and moved on. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t forced, and it wasn’t gay. Man, I just thought that was pure love, and that’s what it’s all about.

Last year at the Gathering of the Vibes was just like a dream. I still can’t really believe we got to play that big stage, though we were ready to do it, you know? Being introduced to Keller Williams by Reid Genauer backstage totally tripped me out. It was just such an honor to meet Keller and so special to me to meet him not as a fan approaching him, but as a sort of fellow musician somewhere in the same stratosphere. I’ll never forget that experience.

Beyond touring, does the band have any big goals, ideas and plans for 2006?

Well, beyond touring, I suppose there isn't much! We'll definitely be hitting the road hard this year and that's basically all the goals wrapped up in one. We really just want to get better. Like, we're all individually and as a whole freaking out that we NEED to get better. Now. All of these festivals will be a great opportunity, as well as a challenge for us. We really need to be on the top of our game and keep discovering new territory, new ways to keep it fresh every night. This scene will accept nothing less and we just want to give the best shows possible. That's basically it.

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