EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH POISON THE WELL’S RYAN PRIMACK
After making two of the most influential records in the history of hardcore (1999’s The Opposite of December and 2002’s Tear From the Red), Poison the Well made a dramatic shift in style for 2003’s You Come Before You. The band have been expanding on this sound ever since, pushing their boundaries outward with 2007’s Version and this year’s lush and evocative The Tropic Rot. One of the navigators of this expansion is original member Ryan Primack, whose guitar methods inspired a generation of hardcore kids with feelings, only to challenge them as the decade went on. His blooming stylistic shifts have illustrated the band’s staying power, and perhaps served as an influence to those looking to move past metalcore. On the eve of Poison the Well’s tour in support of their new album (and on break from his last night of work before said tour), Ryan discussed his unique set of influences, advice for bands starting out, and the legacy of The Opposite of December in the wake of its tenth anniversary.
How’s life going?
It’s good. I got my last two shifts at a sushi restaurant tonight. I’ve never really worked in a restaurant until my time home, but they’re pretty fun.
Yeah, people who work in the restaurant industry are absolutely out of their minds, but it’s pretty fun.
Has it been really different from your non Poison the Well work experience?
I’ve always had really non-interactive jobs where I really don’t have to talk or interact with people. So this is pretty opposite of that, but it’s been pretty fun I have to be honest.
Are you psyched to go back out on tour?
Oh yeah, stoked. Who wouldn’t be?
That’s true. The new record sounds really sonically expansive, even compared to a lot of your latter day stuff. Are you pleased with it?
Yeah, I’m really excited about it actually. It’s a little more stripped down than Versions. It doesn’t have as much stuff tightly packed in, so it kind of sounds a lot bigger because it’s not a million things fighting to be heard.
But I’m really excited about the way it sounds and working with Steve [Evetts, producer] was a pleasure. So that was cool. It was just a really good time, and I had a really good time recording it. It was a lot of fun.
Was the recording environment different from past records you have done?
Oh yeah, for sure. The last two records we did in Sweden, and it was very isolated and extremely cool, but at the same time there was only one thing you could do when you were there, and that was to do the record. This time we did it in California. Everybody could use their telephones to call their family and talk to their friends. There were a little bit more creature comforts, but overall it was a very similar experience. There were a lot of long days but productive days obviously.
And lots of hookers. Tons of hookers and drugs.
Tons of hookers and drugs?
That’s what I’m supposed to say, right?
Yeah. I’d probably have to hang up if you didn’t say that.
Hookers and drugs everywhere.
Alright cool, so we can keep this interview going.
There was a big shift, at least to my ears, between Tear from the Red and You Come Before You, that’s basically kind of continued on through Versions and this record. As a composer and guitarist, what led to that change?
I think just soaking in more music that you find. Also, I think a lot of it has to do with the things that you hear in your head and that you translate to an instrument. The longer you play an instrument and the more involved you get with it, the more eloquent you are at sort of expressing those thoughts. I think that was a lot of it. At the time that we started Poison the Well and soon after, I was going to school for jazz. There was a lot of stuff that I was into that I wanted to try with the band, but I don’t think everyone else was into that same kind of stuff at the time. I think as time went on, everyone’s musical taste sort of expanded. I know mine did as well. I think that led to wanting to keep pushing ourselves to sound different and not repeat ourselves or whatever you call it.
Speaking of different kinds of music, what was influencing you and the band during the recording of The Tropic Rot? What were you guys into?
I was into a whole lot of surf music.
Really. Still. Sort of like the [surf music from the] late 50s to the late 60s, like The Ventures, Hank Marvin, even Duane Eddy, Trini Lopez the whole gamut of the beachy kind of sounds. All the way up to newer bands like Man or Astro-Man?, the Cosmonauts, and Los Straightjackets or whatever. I got on a surf kick, and I couldn’t help it. And I don’t even surf [laughs].
What do you think that that brought to the album, if it brought anything to the album?
A lot of tempo stuff. I think it brought sort of that surf thing and the little bit of the fact that I’ve been really into soundtrack music from Spaghetti Westerns. It kind of brought a cinematic idea to the music. What it did directly, I couldn’t say because there are four other people involved in how it sounds. Everybody united, no matter what they were listening to, to make a dramatic record.
Speaking in terms of the record having a cinematic sound and a dramatic sound, are you pleased with what Jeff [Moreira, vocalist] did over that? Was it something that you wrote the music and he put his vocals over it or was he collaborating the whole time to sort of help the whole?
He did come to a couple of practices. He’s not notoriously the most diligent musician. Once the song is basically kind of finished, he kind of does what he wants to do with them. The whole idea of being in a band is being part of a collaboration. You have to allow people to do their thing too. Just as many times there comes up on the record maybe a drum solo where I’m like, “Wow ,that wasn’t really necessary,” but you’re collaborating with people and you have to service their musical taste as well as your own.
The idea of give and take in that respect?
Yeah, absolutely. It is a very important idea.
The band has gone through a number of lineup changes since its inception to say the least. Do you think the number of members you have worked with has affected Poison the Well’s sound? Do you think the band would have sounded differently if the lineup had been more solid over the course of the band?
I couldn’t even tell you. I really have zero opinion. I never really thought of that. It’s sort of been our situation, so it is our situation. We just kind of went with it from there and really tried to avoid analyzing what would have happened if things were different. It’s almost as if analyzing my life would have been so different if I had won the lottery. Well, yeah, of course it would have. Do you understand what I’m saying?
Yeah, definitely. Basically, you’re going with things and trying to keep looking forward, work with what you got to work with.
And that’s understandable. The Opposite of December is almost ten years old. How do you look back on that album? How do you feel on its reception and its sort of influence?
I look back on it, obviously, fondly. It was a really great period in my life. It was my first attempt at writing a record with a band that was one that I really spent time and had time to put things together. Obviously that was a really good part. I think as far as the reception and influence it had, I don’t think I ever expected it. To this day I don’t think I totally understand it. Maybe it’s because you really can’t take that stuff too seriously when it came from you. “I know why it’s legendary, it’s because I’m a legend.” [laughs] For me it was just stunning that I was part of anything that had that kind of impact. Very humbly.
I can imagine. Comparing Opposite of December to Tropic Rot seems kind of unfair, considering that you guys have grown a lot as a band and as people during that time. The big difference that I noticed is the usage of melody as compared to heaviness on Tropic Rot when looking back at The Opposite of December. What made you guys move towards melody and making melody a more important part of Poison the Well as opposed to maybe going a heavier, atonal direction?
I don’t know what really motivated it, it just sort of happened so gradually, because from my perspective, the time lapse was quite different. I think one of the things that kind of made us go in that direction is, for me, a big part of it has to do with what was happening around in the particular scene in which we played. Earlier on, things got extremely homogenized around me and around the bands that we toured and played with. I think that maybe going in that direction was probably the most obvious way to sort of separate yourself especially with trying to maintain a musical growth for us. I think if you listen to the way things are, it’s not the amount of dissonance and aggressive things changed, I think it just moved to where the music got to a more difficult palate, but the vocals became more melodic especially with the last two records. Some of the stuff going on musically might as well just be noise [laughs].
But I think that the shift really manifested vocally. I don’t think that the music has become less aggressive really. It’s different, but if you look at it, it’s still pretty rude sounding for the most part.
It’s not pop music, I would say.
Right. It’s tough to describe from my perspective and answer that sort of question because it’s so much my stream of consciousness like being in a band and that’s my life. All those things sort of happened to me in such a slow, gradual way, but to everyone else it seems pretty sudden sometimes. If that makes any sense.
It does. It’s easier for me to wonder about that sort of stuff not being in the band, but for you being the creator of it and being around it all the time, it’s hard.
Sometimes it seems like going to the dentist – things that people think are sudden to me it seems like going to the dentist for three months.
That’s a good way of putting it. As a guitarist, who would you consider influences?
I can’t remember the last time anyone has asked me that question [laughs]. Most recently like a slew of old instrumental country players like Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, as well as Nokie Edwards the guitarist from The Ventures, Ennio Morricone the Spaghetti Western composer, that dude from Ancient Dagger (Don/Dan Becker) is a pretty sweet guitar player, Rory Gallagher the Irish blues guitar player from the 60s and 70s stuff like that.
In hearing where the band is now, especially with the new album, it does make a lot of sense because with a song like “Antarctica Inside Me,” when I initially heard it, it reminded me a little bit of Fugazi in a weird way. Now that you’re mentioning surf, was surf a big influence on that song?
Only in one particular spot, which would be that super fast tempo riff. I wanted to do a surf riff mixed with an old blue grass kind of riff, but obvious I can’t play either of those styles like a person that dedicated their lives to playing them. Most of the people who play that kind of music, that’s the kind of music they play. So it’s really totally dumb, but it works.
As a member of a band that has been on both indies and a major, what have you learned about the industry?
If I had the choice to do it again, it’s like a coin toss of whether I would become involved in this industry or not.
It’s been that difficult?
It’s not that it’s been that difficult, but I look at how it is now and I would so much rather be starting a band right now than when we did. Right now, who needs a label anyway. I think about our first two recordings, The Opposite of December and the EP, we just like played shows and worked jobs and pooled money together to pay for the recordings. They didn’t really give us any money for anything in the first place. It’s not the money part, but now if you think about it, if you pay for your own recording, you can just put it in a computer and that’ll just distribute it for you and you’re done. If you want to get into the Britney Spears market it’s still a necessity to be a part of a label and pop marketing infrastructure. If you just want to be a band that plays music, then you can go do that. I think it’s the coolest thing ever.
It’s definitely kind of liberating, like a great equalizer.
Given the experiences that you’ve had with Poison the Well, would you have any advice for a band that’s just starting off that sounds like Poison the Well and has the same sort of ideas you guys have?
Do as much as you can by yourself without anybody else taking part in how you run things. I know I’ve said a lot a couple of years ago about the bands that we were going on tour on becoming un-self-reliant, I think that’s an important thing for a band to be – self-reliant. You don’t need a baby sitter. You just need each other.
Would you say the most important thing in that regard would be to getting your message and your music out there as opposed to trying to make a lot of money?
Yeah, absolutely. Start simple and start small and go from there. You don’t need to have a label and have a single and be in magazines to go on tour. You can go on tour without any of that stuff, and you should.
I get really bashful, and I don’t know how to explain certain things. A lot of times when it comes to music, my brain goes faster than my mouth. Thanks a lot. I hope I didn’t piss you off.