Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills. I am looking forward to their new album, “Have You Ever Done Something Evil” due on May 13 2014 – when it may actually be spring in New England 🙂
Please describe your journey of forming Hallelujah the Hills.
I went to film school and during the first day of my “films of the 60’s” class they showed us a move called Hallelujah the Hills. Shortly after that I received a grant to record an album with the people of my hometown of Dedham, MA. Even though I thought my path was going to involve making movies, opportunities kept coming my way with music. So that’s where I put my energy. After The Stairs ended, I was so in love with the idea of making albums that I immediately started Hallelujah The Hills with friends who were also musicians. That was the beginning, now 4 albums and many tours later, we’re here 7 1/2 years later.
How does a sense of place and geography affect your creative process?
There’s a line in the song with the same name as the band that goes, “I was born in Vermont / She was born in Vermont / We’ll all die in Vermont” and so many times after a show, audience members will come to me to ask if I’m from Vermont. I’m not, but the character that sings that song is. Geography is important to me. I’ve always lived here in Massachusetts within 10 miles of my hometown of Dedham. I read some Stephen King interview once where he said, “It takes a lifetime to really get to know one place” and I think that’s true.
Who and what have been your artistic influences?
I think artistic influences might shape the edges of your creativity, but it’s your friends, family, and immediate surroundings that really fill up the insides of the creations. There’s more of my friends in these songs then there are musical heroes, you know? Sometimes when I’m doing an interview and I start name dropping Bob Pollard, Maya Deren, and John Ashbery I think, “Well that’s technically correct but really, wouldn’t be amazing if I could just somehow show them Neal, Anthony, Jeff, Chris, Jenna, Evan, Shannon and Ed?”
I am really enjoying your most recent album, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Trashcan.” What inspired the title?!
Well JJ’s [James Joyce’s] “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” has always seemed like such a great title for a retrospective for an artist or a band. But if you’re gonna reference that, you gotta undercut it in a way to put a pillow under the fact that you’re quoting Joyce in your album title. Calling your young self a ‘trashcan’ seemed so funny to me. When you’re young, you’ll throw any idea, food, drink or drug inside of you, get it?
I love the video for “Confessions of an Ex-Ghost.” What prompted the Twin Peaks connection with the video?
Learning all about director David Lynch was the first thing that clued me into the idea that maybe, just maybe, being a creative person was a way to live an adult life. Twin Peaks did something significant to my teenage brain. It was a long, tough journey to see it, first of all (pre-internet, tracking down VHS cassettes, long story). Agent Dale Cooper is my favorite fictional character. I wanted to create an homage to the show and since I don’t have access to a room cloaked with red robes and a black&white zig zag floor, this scene was a close second. Plus, it’s so magical. The idea that our unconscious is also a detective and can be polled for information with unusual methods is so true, so beautiful.
One of my favorite songs by you is “Dead People’s Music.” How was the song-making process for this track?
My girlfriend said to me one day, “Put on something new. All we’re listening to these days is Dead People’s Music” and the whole idea for the song leapt into my head. It’s her favorite song of mine too which makes it especially nice that the inspiration came from her comment.
I am sensing existential themes (or at least imagery) of mortality and death across your albums (e.g., “Effie’s on the Other Side” from Collective Psychosis Begone; “You Better Hope You (Die Before Me)” on Colonial Drones; “Hungry Ghost Extraordinaire” from No One Knows What Happens Next and “Some of them We Lost” on your most recent album). What do you make of this?
Life is only interesting because it ends. How can you not spend time thinking about that? Ram Dass says, “Dying is safe”, only a door into the next adventure. Is it a cop out to take refuge in that idea? These are the fun topics that I’ve decided to write a lifetime of pop songs about.
How has it been working with Kickstarter to make albums?
Kickstarter is something that has changed the way things work for creative people working with the longer end of the long tail. A significant boon for all artists, I’d say.
What was it like to put music to Jonathan Lethem’s lyrics for the song “Monster Eyes?”
It was a great exercise and I enjoyed the results.
Do you have plans to release and/or perform any cover songs? If so, which?
We’ve covered a lot of John Lennon solo songs over the years. But mostly, I think we’re really great at crafting Hallelujah The Hills songs, so we stick to that.
What was the experience like of your song “Classic Tapes” being featured on the television show, “Make It or Break It?”
To be honest, there’s no story there. That was a matter of music for money. My nieces and cousins were excited. They like that show.
In what ways is your work feminist?
I made a mix tape for this teacher in high school. We’re still great friends. He listened to the mix and said, “it’s all male artists” and I said, “so?” and he said, “you’re missing 50% of the world’s experiences in this mix tape” and gave it back to me. That happened at THE PERFECT time. I actively started exploring a lot of women songwriters and falling in love with their work.
I might not be the best one to answer this, but I hope that my lyrics represent women in the same, honest light that I try and represent men. At the very least, all I can hope is that the ideas I put in our songs hopefully seem repellent to those who try and maintain the male-dominator-culture. My girlfriend is a brilliant songwriter and we sometimes go over each other lyrics, offer insights. I’d love to ask her about this, actually!
What feedback do you have for aspiring musicians?
Never consider yourself an “aspiring musician.” As soon as you say you are one and believe it, you are one.
I really like the demo for “Pick Up An Old Phone,” which will appear on your new album. The song sounds intimate and you have described the album as “wholly unlike the other three but still sounds like us.” Can you say more about that?
I’m not sure I can! I just know that we’ve never remade an album. We’ve always changed. They are all different and that’s a point of pride for me.
I admire your stamina. What’s next for Hallelujah the Hills?
Our new album comes out May 13, we’ll tour California and the east coast over the summer. We just love making things and we’ll continue to do so!