With all the recent attention paid to economic conditions in modern music, it’s becoming more common to find artists willing to share the facts and figures of making a career in that industry. In the media, these candid admissions are often (spun into) complaints about existing outlets not doing enough to ensure that musicians are compensated for their efforts. Yet not every day does one have a chance to assess the state of economic affairs with veteran musicians who’ve experienced decades of changing business models and have arrived at their own unique brand of DIY recording and distribution — one that harbors few illusions of making money.
R. Ring is hard to define. Though the website provides some clues and descriptions (names, instruments, pictures and tones), this is not a band formed by design. I’m introduced to them after seeing a live performance at the 2012 Nelsonville Music Festival. Armed with just two voices and two acoustic guitars, the music commanded the full attention of the crowd, which is no easy feat at an outdoor festival and in the presence of competing sound from other stages.
Mike Montgomery of Ampline and Kelley Deal of the Breeders and the Kelley Deal 6000 prefer not to put any labels on their project, which spawned one of last year’s most indelible singles (“Fallout & Fire” b/w “See”). R. Ring moves at its own pace, far removed from most of the conventional mechanisms of the music industry as we know it. The duo talks to PopMatters about record stores, their handmade discography, and the thrill of having nothing to hide behind. This is R. Ring.
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Let’s begin by talking about your record store performances from last year. What role do record stores play in exposing your music to listeners?
Mike: I wish that record stores played a bigger role than they do. It seems like they just dwindle from city to city as you travel around. They used to be everywhere, but now it’s just like, the specialty record stores that have the deepest roots are the only ones that seem to be hanging on. But it still seems like they’re all sort of struggling. I think it’s kind of sad, where it seems they’re inevitably going to go. I feel like they always have been an integral part of the music — not necessarily -making process but distributing process. It seems like they’re sadly going away, so I think for us we would love to continue playing at stores or having stuff in them for as long as they last.
Kelley: I have a love/hate relationship with record stores, because — it’s one of those things, and it’s completely my fault — where I walk in there and it’s always cool guys working there. You guys know what I’m talking about, right? And you go in there and you know immediately that you do not know as much about music as the dude behind the counter does. He knows all the releases, he knows what bands are out, what’s happening, what is shit, what is shit-hot. You know, it’s really kind of judge-y. I also have this other feeling. You know I went to rehab in Minnesota and part of the deal with that — this was in the nineties — is that I had to go to a halfway house. And I stayed there for three months. And part of that was that you had to go get a job. During the day, you had to go somewhere and be accountable and have responsibility. So I thought, ‘well I’m going to go to the record store and apply down there’. And so I got an application, did my application and everything, and I did not get a call back right away. Next time I went into that record store, my application was tacked onto the bulletin board behind the register, with a note saying something about — and a picture of Kim or something having to do with Kim — something about ‘Cheapo Records won’t hire her sister’ or something like that. And I remember I walked in there to pay for my Willie Nelson album that I was getting because I was covering “Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground” for a compilation. So I have to be at the counter and I need this copy of the song. And I could feel the blood go up. I was so embarrassed. It was so embarrassing, and I said something to the guy like, ‘can you take that down?’ So ever since then, I walk in going, ‘alright, what’s going on with you guys?’
Mike: Why can’t they be more like libraries? Librarians don’t give you shit, whether you check out a choose-your-own-adventure or a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. They’re just happy that you’re reading a book.
Kelley: That’s true.
Mike: I do know a lot of these guys — and we’re digressing, I feel like — I do know a lot of guys that work at record stores and there is this chip on your shoulder kind of thing but at this point in my life… When I was a kid and I would go in, I felt like I was being judged every time I put something on the counter. Now it’s like, it doesn’t matter. There are movies and books about it, whatever. It’s fine. It’s a comedy routine. It’s a rite of passage for somebody.
Kelley: It is a rite of passage.
Mike: …to get the cool job at the record store.
Kelley: Or not.
Mike: Or not.
Mike: What was the original question? I feel like we danced around it.
I think you answered it, about your relationship to record stores. I guess the follow-up would be, given that music distribution is changing, do you think your hand-crafted approach is the best/most effective way to reach listeners/fans?
Mike: I think so. I think for us, especially. There are just two of us. Even before we started playing together we were both very interested in handmade-type things. Like I draw and paint and make stuff and Kelley makes stuff and knits and does crafty-type stuff. So to marry those concepts with putting music out was a really natural step. It just felt like it was right there in front of us. I still like CDs and tapes and records and so does she, so we just thought well, we don’t want to pay to make a whole bunch of these, because who’s going to buy them anymore? But you don’t want to hand just a blank CD to somebody, so we thought well, we’ll just make a little package or do something fun. It’s been fun for us to work on together and people seem to like them. As far as the record store, it would be great to personally make every single copy and walk down the street and hand it to the guy at the store, or right to the person who wants it — to cut out all of the extra steps. I guess I’m what I’m getting at is I’m not interested in digital distribution at all. I don’t personally download music or listen to stuff on my computer, ever. I still listen to tapes and CDs in my car or at the studio. I would be fine if there was a way to personally hand a copy of everything to any person that wanted it. I would be fine if that was the way things were distributed.
Would that be economically viable for you?
Mike: Well, I think we’re losing money on these things that we make. We spend a lot more time making them than we charge for them.
Kelley: We’ll never get the time back. But the thing is, actually I enjoy doing that anyway on something else, so why not? For me, especially with the Internet nowadays, when I hear a new band — whether I do or don’t like it — if I hear it online, I have no context for the band. It’s hard for me to get a hook in and latch on. Even if I like the song, I can’t get on board. There’s nothing to board. There’s no… It’s just air and it just leaves. And it’s a wonderful couple minutes I have, but there’s no relationship or something. And so I do feel that’s why I like going to YouTube a lot of times and seeing whatever anyone has up on YouTube, if there’s any visual at all — pictures, even.
How many songs are on these limited-run CDs that you make?
Mike: I was going to ask Kelley that today because I was going to make one more for a person and I couldn’t remember which two songs were on it. I think it was a song she did with Kelley Deal 6000 called “Scary” and one that we’ve been playing live but hadn’t really recorded yet called “Steam”. I think it had those two on it.
Kelley: That was just recorded in the kitchen. It’s not like we’re just taking it off the record and giving it out. There was the wood-burned one, there’s the metal one with the hammered tin, there was the — have you seen the one with the skateboard that we did?
No, I have not seen that one.
Kelley: We’ll send it to you.
Mike: No we won’t, because we don’t have any more.
Kelley: Well, you’ll have to make some more, won’t you?
Mike: To answer your question, I think I made fifty of those wood-burned things. And I think I made 60 of the hammered tin cases. And those had two songs. One was called “Hundred Dollar Heat” that there’s a live clip of, that somebody filmed and put up. So we recorded that here in the kitchen and put that on it. And I think that song “Steam” was on there again. It’s made two appearances now.
Kelley: Then “Mr. DNA”.
Mike: And then the other thing we did — I don’t know if these will be official releases — but we just made them and took them with us for these trips, just something to kind of have on these trips. We made a hundred copies of this thing that was a sort of more involved process. There’s a skateboarder named Kristian Svitak that started travelling with us just so he and I could skate. He was friends with Kelley. And he came on a couple trips with us and then he said, ‘Hey you guys know I do play the drums.’ So he said, ‘I could play with you on some songs if you want.’ And he had asked us if we would help him cover a Devo song called “Mr. DNA” because he had a skateboarding part in a seminal video from years ago that he was wanting to reissue digitally, but Devo’s label kept taking it down because he originally had his part edited to their song. You know, these skaters, they never got permission for anything. They would just take a song and edit their clip to it. So since it kept getting taken down, he wanted to cover the song, and re-sync it up to his part and put it back online. So that’s what we did, and so he reedited it and released it online and we thought it would be kind of nice to–
Kelley: –people actually asked, ‘Hey, can we get this song?’
Mike: Yes, to have something more tangible. So then we made a bigger piece of wood, about the size of a seven-inch, about a quarter-inch thick, and it was gripped on one side like a skate deck would be and the other side had the disc on it. There’s also the video clip on there as well, so you can hear the cover that we did and you can put it in your computer and see the skate part synced up to it. So we made a hundred of those.
Describe your process for writing songs for R. Ring. Is it different from how you approach your other groups?
Kelley: For me, I know that when we were talking about the music, quote, industry a little bit earlier… Although people can kind of bitch and moan, including myself, about how it is not possible to monetize music anymore, unless you’re like Lady Gaga, which is like a whole different kind of thing, you know where she’s a personality. So one of the things that is really positive — a positive thing about this whole idea is that once you take the whole idea of whether or not you’re going to make any money from music, once you take that off of the table, you can actually kind of go, ‘Okay what do I want to do?’ And then it becomes really fun — not that it wasn’t fun before — but it was always this idea of walking this line between making sure it paid for itself or making sure… I’m wringing my hands as I’m listing these things off: Will a journalist like it so that he’ll cover it so that the label will sell this and sign us for another whatever. Now that that’s all off the table, it so doesn’t matter. It really is up to, ‘Hey Mike’, ‘Mike’s over to practice tonight’. ‘I think we’re going to try to work on some new stuff tonight, if we don’t talk all night.’ And that’s okay too. Because he’s got to go to work tomorrow and so do I.
So if your priorities are different, then that changes the way you approach your art?
Kelley: It really does. And it’s only your attitude about it and what your relationship to music is in the first place — it really goes back down to that. ‘What is my relationship with music’? And I found that I actually really enjoy it, whether I can make a living off of it or not. And I’m very relieved about that, because I wasn’t sure. You don’t know.
And for musicians who are just starting out–
Kelley: They’re fucked. I think what it is, is musicians just starting out– I don’t know this for a fact, but I get the idea that they think something else is happening. I don’t know that but I have talked to other people and they seem really surprised that they can’t make a living off of music. And I look at them and I go, ‘Why are you surprised’? ‘Weren’t you around…’? And then the fact is they actually weren’t around in the last ten years. A lot of them don’t remember it. But this is not new to them. This is not a new music model anymore, so don’t they know this?
Mike: I can only speak for — I do live sound and I record a lot of bands and a lot of them are my age. Some are older. But a lot of them are younger. And there is this– maybe they read articles or maybe they’re inspired by bands that are much older than them or something. But I do hear a lot of bands talking about this idea that this big industry hand, if they could get the golden ticket, this big hand could come down and swoop them up and change their lives. And I do think for a lot of people starting out, the reason they’re playing music or what they’re looking for out of music is maybe different than someone that’s been doing it for a long time. Maybe they’re looking for a quote-unquote break or to make it, whatever making it is, this brass ring that if you could just grab it, it could change your life… or the idea of getting signed, or ‘if we only had this, then this could happen’ or ‘everything would fall into place’. When you start breaking it down and saying if you actually did get signed by this label that you’re talking about, here’s how the deal would be structured, here’s what would happen, and nothing would actually change for you. So when you break things down for younger people that are starting out, it’s sort of an eye-opener. There still seems to be this illusion that there’s a music industry that supports itself, fosters creativity, and supports the acts that contribute to this machinery. But I don’t see a lot of that.
Kelley: I don’t see how that could happen. Unless we’re doing it wrong, Mike.
Mike: I don’t even know what we’re doing.
Mike: I mean, well, we’re talking about this machinery or this structure, but in reality the three of us having this conversation right now are involved in this machinery. Like there was a label, Misra, and there was a guy there, and he put us in touch with you, and you’re writing about music and we’re talking about it. You probably play music yourself, or you’re at least very interested in it. So we are all sort of a part of this. We’re all under this umbrella, but it seems like, I don’t know… There’s definitely still interest, and so young people playing music, there is still interest, and there is this idea that something exists out there beyond just yourself or whatever you and your friends are into. But it’s hard to even talk about it because I don’t think anybody really knows how the nature of it is changing or what it’s going to change to. But it’s obvious to at least the three of us that there is interest and passion and creativity still present. Something will happen and something will happen with music. Something will happen with the way it’s distributed and the way it’s listened to and the way it’s broadcasted and received.
Does the relative freedom from the machinery affect the way you record your songs? Does home recording play a bigger role?
Mike: It can, for sure. For the songs that are on the seven-inch that you have, I have a recording studio and we have bells and whistles if we want to use them. But both of those songs came together really quickly and we were both surprised with them. So we thought, well, we like these. What’s the point of beating it to death? Like these are, this is how it sounds in our heads, so what does it matter if we run it through a zillion things or do a whole bunch of takes or a whole bunch of overdubs? You know what I mean? For us the process is like, let’s just see if we can even record together and see what happens.
Kelley: For me the concept of recording, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it, for even the, quote, lo-fi thing. Doing it like this where you just have two guitars and two vocals — that is quite interesting and quite challenging to record. And I like the process of trying to capture what’s happening when we play; the process of that. For instance, the two songs that are on the Misra release, Mike has a recording studio, so we fortunately do not have the problem of paying for a lot of recording time. So I have the option of going down to Candyland at any time that Mike has available, and we can record a whole album! And that’s wonderful. And the other thing is that we can also kind of just do it in my kitchen. Here’s the thing: A lot of these songs have acoustic guitars. Acoustic guitars are funny animals to me, because most acoustic guitar sounds on record, I don’t like. I find it very tricky to record a good acoustic guitar. And so even if it seems like we’re just kind of one-offing it all, a lot of thought goes into it. Like acoustic guitar sounds good in a room, live, or figuring out what amp and what room and what mic you’re going to put on it, to record it at that next level.
A lot of current bands seem to think that just because they have home recording software, they don’t have to put a lot of thought into mic placement or any of those principles. When in fact those things do make a difference, don’t they?
Kelley: Absolutely. And a lot of times when it’s just two guitars and vocals, the sounds have got to be right. You have limited amounts of textures and tones and notes out there to deliver, or to communicate a mood or a feeling, you know — sonic information. But it’s fun and it’s challenging. And a lot of times it does happen when you just set a mic out for a song, and for whatever reasons, you’ve captured it. And a lot of times you don’t. We’ve done that quite a few times. We’re like, ‘This just doesn’t sound like it sounds live. Why? We’re singing it. There’s the mic. What’s the problem?’
Some of the sonic qualities I really enjoy in your music (live and recorded) are the effects of space and silence. Do you consciously leave the space open to let the music breathe?
Kelley: Yeah, totally.
When you play live, it seems like the audience is hanging closely to every sound because of that technique.
Kelley: I think that’s great. I really love that. I totally understand what you’re saying. And you know what’s weird about that? A lot of songs actually sound really good if you put that — let’s call it a drone or we could call it a pad. You know that’s actually a recording term — this idea of laying down a pad. And usually it’s like a sound generator or a white noise machine. It’s like a thing that people do and they put down a pad of music, and then they build a song around that and it just ‘thickens’ it, if you will, in a horrible way. And, you know, there are positive things about that too. You know, ‘never say no to something’, although that would probably be a good place to start saying no. But yeah, the spaces in between are very important to us as well. And that’s really hard sometimes, because there are a lot of bands that get up and play live and they’re playing the crowd’s favorites and the crowd is digging it because it’s familiar. They know what to expect. And then we come out, and we’re like, ‘here’s a note. I hope you’re enjoying that note because that’s the only note you’re going to get for just a second. Okay, here comes a little vocal. Are you feeling it? It’s really cool, isn’t it? No, you don’t like?’ So it is kind of–
Mike: There’s nothing to hide behind, really.
Kelley: No, there is nothing to hide behind. Good point.
Back to the composing process: How does it compare to your other acts?
Mike: I mostly just play with Ampline right now. There are two other guys: A drummer and a bassist. We usually just work on everything when we’re together in a room. I start playing the guitar and you can just hear where everything else is going to fall into place. And then you start pushing and pulling each other. You’ve got loud instruments and that idea that holes get filled in. It’s easier to write. Things start falling into place more quickly. It’s sort of obvious. If I’m playing this thing, the drums are going to either do one of ten things here and the bass will do one of ten things and we’ll have things gel more quickly than if it’s just two people intentionally trying to leave things out. We sort of nitpick every single thing that I’m doing or Kelley’s doing, more so than I would with Kevin or Rick from Ampline, where you know, I just start playing a loud guitar and they start smashing on their things and it’s the song. And it’s totally fine. And we all like it and I love it. But when I try writing with Kelley, it’s different because you don’t have a rhythm foundation to automatically build on, nor do you have any contributing noise to hide behind or to cover yourself while you get to a part. It’s what Kelley said. It is hard to put an emphasis on each note, even though sometimes it might sound like she is playing a weird note, she’s really thought about it. It’s weird for a reason or it’s just out of pitch for a reason. It’s definitely a lot more labor intensive or thought-out, I think, to leave big holes in things.
Kelley: On the other hand, especially in our situation, when we are trying to do an upbeat song… You know if you’ve got a drummer? Sweet. He’s laying it down. It’s already upbeat, depending on his tempo. With us, if one of us is not, it becomes really interesting. How do you make something upbeat if somebody’s not chugging? And then, if somebody is chugging, and being like the drum, then what is the other person doing? Playing chords? Okay, then where’s the melody? Okay, well we’ve got some vocals. Do you have to chug the whole way through? Or let’s take the chugging out. So where does the rhythm come from? What is the rhythm? I don’t know. It becomes really interesting.
Mike: We find ourselves thinking and talking about things that I never thought to think or talk about. These things and concepts just fell into place because there was a rhythm generator and a bassist, and you’d just play together and it would gel and it just happened. But when you take all that music and sound away and it’s just two people with guitars and voices — and we’re not Simon and Garfunkel, where it’s beautiful harmonies. I’m not saying we don’t do harmonies, but it’s a different sort of songwriting. How do you make weird, off-kilter rock music without drums and without loud volume?
Kelley: Because we’re not a folk band where you just play a few chords.
Mike: It has been a really fun and exciting challenge for me and I think for both of us, to try to write in a different style, to where we are sort of supporting each other musically but still making interesting music.
So are you taking any steps toward creating a full-length LP?
Mike: I think that would all go back to your question about stores or distribution of music or whatever. The idea of, what even is a full-length? And this is something we’re trying to figure out for ourselves and we talk a lot about. Do people even listen to full albums anymore? Or is the consumption method now a song at a time? Or ten seconds of a song at a time? So if there’s no outside force like a label or a marketing model that is insisting that we make an LP for a reason, do we want to make an LP, or do we just want to keep doing small batches of a song as we get it? I think it’s hard to answer because I don’t think we know yet. No one is saying you have to make this album. And we haven’t recorded twelve songs that we’re just sitting on. We have a bunch that we could record, but we for some reason haven’t started doing that yet. We just keep doing a little bit of it at a time. Maybe we’ll just keep doing singles. Maybe we’ll do them with Misra. Maybe we’ll do them with– we haven’t really gotten that far, really.
Kelley: Let me just say, that sometimes when I read that we say, ‘We’re doing things really organically,’ or when I read some other people say that, I feel like an ass. But the thing is it is organic in that there is no model. No business plan. There is nothing.
What are your expectations for the upcoming European tour? Without an album to tour in support of, which songs do you choose to play?
Kelley: I am so nervous about this tour. I was thinking about it the other day. I mean, do they know what they’re getting?
Mike: I don’t know.
Kelley: I mean, is anybody going to show up?
Mike: I don’t know that either. I’ll be there.
Mike: Yeah we have a lot of songs that we can play, Tommy. We just haven’t recorded them yet. I feel like we’re still figuring each other out, really. Even to put the mantle of ‘band’ on it is sort of weird, because it really never started out to be like a travelling unit. We were just going to bounce song ideas off of each other. And we started playing shows. I don’t want to say, ‘It’s happening so fast’…
Kelley: I knew I wanted to go to Europe. I remember saying that to you — ‘I would love to play Europe’.
Kelley: But I didn’t do anything about it. Why? Who am I going to call? Europe?
Mike: Well normally you would have to have an album that you would be touring to support, or whatever. Like I was saying, I don’t know how things work nowadays. I don’t know. It seems fine just putting things out at our pace, just doing whatever we’re doing.