We travel from the beginner’s mind to the heart of darkness with Robocobra Quartet’s Chris Ryan.
The sun is setting on a Wednesday evening. Chris Ryan, drummer and vocalist with genre-hopping post-rockers Robocobra Quartet (plot twist: there’s actually six of them), appears on my computer screen enveloped in the sunlight that flows through the window of his home in East Belfast. When I ask him about what motivates him, he says, “The joy is everything.” This statement (along with the discovery that he’s “into meditation” and the Zen concept of ‘beginner’s mind’) might come as a surprise to fans of the band’s recent single Wellness, a chaotic satire of the routines of various social media influencers. But as I learned during our conversation, using his music as an unsubtle delivery method for his personal opinions and narratives isn’t the kind of songwriting Ryan is interested in. “All you can really do is hold something to the light,” he tells me. “Especially if you’re trying to convince someone of something.” This approach works a treat on Wellness, with Ryan borrowing verbatim the words from various articles written by the influencers themselves, instead of just giving us his opinions directly through the lyrics. This means the listener can come to their own conclusions about the ‘meaning’ of the song, instead of feeling like Ryan is trying to preach or pass judgements on his subjects. “I like to write in allegory,” he tells me, “I think it’s a really effective way of doing stuff.”
If you’re reading about Robocobra Quartet, it’s inevitable that you’re going to come across the description of the band’s style used by Drowned in Sound back in 2016 (originally to describe ‘Find X’, a track from their debut LP Music for all Occasions): ‘Fugazi meets Mingus’. I ask Ryan for his thoughts on it; is it accurate and why has it stuck?
“I think for a long time, as a band, we’ve been quite difficult for people to get their heads around,” he considers, “so I have no problem with the thing that people have to do which is sometimes distilling (us) down to something very simple. Sometimes we’re getting compared to bands that I have no connection to but hey, if it helps someone digest something then great.” At the same time, Ryan believes that the best art defies easy categorisation. “If there’s a film that was kind of simple, right, and maybe a bit uninspired, you could explain it easily. But do you ever watch a film that’s so fucking good and someone’s like ‘What’s it about?’ and you’re like ‘I can’t tell you in five words, you have to watch it!’”
Ryan tells me that the recording of Robocobra Quartet’s upcoming album, Living Isn’t Easy, was partially inspired by watching a film; Hearts of Darkness, the 1991 behind-the-scenes documentary about the production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. Seeing how Coppola got the best performances out of a sprawling cast and crew led Ryan to a revelation about how he should be working with the other members of the band in the studio. “Watching that documentary was a huge turning point for this new record. I was like, ‘I need to be a director like [Coppola] and put trust in all these players.’” Ryan tells me that, in terms of writing and recording, Robocobra Quartet’s “first two albums would have been a lot more of ‘me’”, but the new record is more of a collaboration between him and the rest of the band. This involved Ryan bringing his own musical ideas to the band but trusting the musicians to interpret and enhance them with their personalities and skill. He refers to Coppola again; “In that documentary he did this thing where he’s trying to get someone to improvise a line and he’s like, ‘First you have to read the script and then forget the script.’”
Talking about this technique brings us to the Zen concept of ‘beginner’s mind’, and how Ryan sees it fitting into his work, whether as a writer and performer with Robocobra, or as a producer working with bands like Junk Drawer and NewDad. “The first take is always going to have this magic in it,” Ryan says, “and that’s because it’s the ‘beginner’s mind’, it’s the first time the artist has thought about the song that morning. Some musicians are good enough technically to play well enough in the first take while also having that magic or inspiredness. And sometimes the first take is shit because it’s inspired but not rehearsed enough yet.” According to Ryan, one could never accuse Robocobra Quartet of being under-rehearsed. The joy, vitality, and humour to be found throughout the band’s discography is a direct result of how seriously they take their craft. “We work hard,” he tells me. “We spend a lot of time writing and working on records, and maybe I’m a perfectionist, but we really rehearse constantly. We don’t fuck around.”
This lack of fucking around can be heard both on record and in the band’s live performances. Their songs often appear to disintegrate in terms of structure and sound, usually reaching a chaotic crescendo, before snapping back to whatever hook or groove brought us into the track when it started. This is entirely on purpose and wouldn’t be possible without deliberate practice. “We really make it super tight,” Ryan says, “so that when you mess up the jigsaw and put it all over the place, we can put it back together again.” This approach can sometimes result in “people thinking we’ve completely lost it”, but it’s also an important part of Ryan’s and the Quartet’s creative style, and somewhat inspired by the stand-up comedy of Stewart Lee, the English comedian who performs comedy in such a way that it frequently appears he’s forgotten how to be funny. Ryan recalls first becoming familiar with Lee’s work and thinking, “I want to make with music what Stewart Lee makes with his stand-up.” A few years later, while reading Stewart Lee’s autobiography, Ryan was surprised to learn that Lee had said something similar about wanting to do with his stand-up comedy what the English experimental guitarist Robert Fripp does with his music.
If Living Isn’t Easy is anything to go by, then Ryan and the band have accomplished his original mission. Much like Stewart Lee’s comedy, the record is simultaneously challenging and hilarious, with moments of disordered confusion and raw emotion in equal measure. Need more convincing than that? Well, I’m sorry, I can’t sum it up in five words; you’re just going to have to listen to it.
Interview by Joe Joyce
Photo: Colin Armstrong
Living Isn’t Easy is out now, via First Taste. Robocobra Quartet play upstairs at Whelan’s on Saturday September 17, €16