Interview | Matthew Ryan: “The most resonant work came from failing.”

And we say hey
How do you say goodbye
To a dream that just won’t die

A few years ago, I saw Matthew Ryan perform as a duo with violinist Molly Thomas, and they ended their show in the audience, playing one of my favorite songs, “Your Museum,” sans amplification. It’s still one of the most beautiful live-music moments I’ve experienced, because it cut through all the bullshit and served as an unexpected invitation to come and live inside the song for a few minutes. And that’s what live music should strive to do: deliver equal ground.

So whenever Matthew Ryan releases a new album, I have hope that there are those moments bottled up somewhere in his songs. With Boxers, his new studio album, he’s offered a loud, mostly electric statement on the swinging emotions of the working class. And it’s excellent. Let’s have a listen to the title track now.

I recently talked to Matthew Ryan via phone about Boxers and working class America.

You’re coming off a trilogy of albums where you sang about some heavy stuff. There was so much to digest.

You know, that three record span there, sometimes you come up with an idea, and it’s a good idea, but then you have to do it. And those three albums, Dear Lover, I Recall Standing as Though Nothing Could Fall, and In The Dusk of Everything were all seeded in a personal event, an accidental situation that became life changing if not life threatening. So you get intimate with… (pauses) I mean, life is beautiful, man. There is no doubt about it. And I think it’s beyond irony that it sometimes takes the loss of it to engage with just how beautiful it is.

And so, I had the thought that I wanted to tell that whole story. And for those who have been listening to my records, they’ve never been Disney records. I don’t have any patience for fake empowerment. So, I had to see it through, and I’m glad I did, but it almost became like an actor playing a role too long. It was exhausting, and honestly, for all the beauty that can be announced in life-changing events, to ruminate too long on it can be dangerous, so it was time to do something else. And to be honest with you, I got tired of acoustic and electronic instruments in that process. So, I fell back in love with the electric guitar, and I think we made a rock ‘n roll record.

Yeah, I think you did. And you went on tour with The Gaslight Anthem before this record was recorded. How was that tour, and tell me about how Brian Fallon got involved with the record. Is that when you met Brian?

That is when I met Brian. I was sitting at home, and somebody had texted me that Brian was mentioning one of my songs online. It was on Twitter, and I tweeted back to him how much I appreciated it because I’m a fan of The Gaslight Anthem and always have been since hearing The ’59 Sound. I love that guy.

The bottom line is, when I went on the tour with them, it reconnected me with something. I had gotten so stuck in my aquarium, and I didn’t see a world outside of it, and it kind of shook me. And this is something that Brian and I talked about regularly, that we all kind of get in these modes in our life where we only see the road we take to work, and we only see the room that we eat in, and we only see the window that we look out of at work, and that’s a dangerous mode. And Brian’s friendship opened something back up. And that was scary, to be honest, because I feel connected to my life, but I was stuck in a mode, and Brian’s friendship really shook me up. So, that was the beginning of crawling out of that trilogy. (laughing)

And really, we were going to do more with Dusk, but after that run with Gaslight, and I went home, I was absolutely certain that I wanted to do things different, so I took a hiatus of almost two years, and really haven’t done much in between. I kind of said, “fuck it, I don’t want to do it this way anymore.” I never wanted to be a singer-songwriter, it was just something that happened for a million reasons. So I just walked away.

There’s a line in the title track of Boxers: “How do you say goodbye to a dream that just won’t die.” Talk to me about that.

The word dream, you see it with rainbows and unicorns and shit. But really, we all have the fucking thing that pulls us forward. And I would hope that it would have a collective message to it. I’m not particularly excited by my own struggles; I’m inspired by other people’s struggles. And when I say that, it’s more a longing or a hope for people to get a fair deal. I just want to make that clear, that I’m not inspired by my own struggles. I’ve been very fortunate.

You said something once in an interview, that you don’t write “happy” music because that’s not necessarily matched the experiences in your life, meaning that the reality is that life is up and down. It’s not always going to be happy.


And I think people sometimes think that only you have to be “sad” to listen to “sad” music. For the record, I listen to “sad” music all the time. But I don’t think most people go to music to find a connection with reality. I think a lot of people want music to take them somewhere else. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, my thoughts are evolving on that. But I will say that I’ve thought a lot about it. I think we’re living in a time of wild contention. I think there’s great joy available in music; I think there always has been. And I do think there should be happy pop songs, of course I do. But it should be real happy, pure happy, not some scientific happy that will make you want to purchase something. Or wear some clothes or some jacket or some hairstyle. You gotta understand, never before have people been confronted with an idea of what they should or should not be. And our economy depends on people making choices, and that’s where we’re at.

I get uncomfortable when it’s thought that there’s a formula for everything. Now you got my mind racing….whatever…

Well, it’s not “whatever.” I think we both agree there’s an issue here. There’s not a formula for everything, and the truth is that the best work and the most resonant work came from failing. And it certainly didn’t come from singing in front of former pop stars who are now in a position to dub you as a temporary pop star. Now, I know we’ve always had goofy shows like this, and I understand the need for it, but you have to have more to your culture than that.

Well, we could talk about this all day. Tell me about Boxers.

Well, Jason, if you listen to the album in consecutive order, from track one to track two, there’s a reason why it is what it is. It’s telling a story about a couple that are working class people, and they’ve bought into the idea of due diligence, that if they show up, that there’s upward mobility. So it’s implied in the song that the guy loses his job, and they’re down to one income. And he loses his job because of nothing he did, but because the company couldn’t sustain the workforce. And so, there’s a reason why it goes from “Boxers” to “Suffer No More,” and I don’t want it to be misunderstood that this is one guy complaining about his life, because it’s not.

I think there’s a reason why songs are sequenced the way they are on albums, and I think we’re slowly getting away from the importance of that.

Oh, I agree.

You know, and I have to go back to this…I remember watching CNN once, and some guy was saying how, “well, if you get put in a financial situation, that’s when you tap into your emergency funds.” But what happens when there’s no emergency funds?

Right, right. That’s something that’s been on my mind. You don’t get to hear the voice of the working class anymore, you get to hear the voice of the person who doesn’t understand what the working class is going through. I don’t know who said that, but that guy clearly does not understand what the working class is going through.

I met a woman late one night, all that was open was a Taco Bell, so I went and got a Taco Bell. I was on tour, on a night drive, this was a while ago. And this woman looked completely beat down. And I asked her, “look, I don’t mean to be rude, but you look tired, are you okay?” And she says, “well, I am tired. I work another job until 3, and then I come here and work to 2, and then I get up and do it again. And I’ve been doing this for 18 days straight, and also getting my daughter to school.” And I know that was real, and I want to hear that woman’s voice on television. She communicated to me very clearly what she was going through.

What I’m getting at is that I wanted to make a record that spoke to that. I’m tired of working people treated like they’re free riders, or they’re this or that, or they’re not job creators. There are a lot of people in our country that are working their asses off because they still believe in an idea that if they apply themselves, that if they themselves can’t have a better life, their children can. And I think we as a country, it’s an idea that we need to make more achievable. Otherwise, it’s another lie.

Is that what “Anthem For the Broken” is about? I feel like you could have played the woman in the Taco Bell that song.

See, Jason, here’s the thing. I know that song has been out for a while, and I don’t want that to make it less of a song on the record. It’s an important song on the record. And all of it, like I said, is not inspired by my own struggle. In many ways, I’ve been fortunate. I was lucky enough when I was younger that I got signed, and I’m not in the fucking boxing ring. Now I’m not saying that my life is necessarily always easier, that it’s not challenging, because it is. But I’m not inspired by my own struggle; my struggle is almost intellectual. I don’t mean that to take away what I’m doing or what I’ve been through, but this record is inspired by people who I feel have been getting a raw deal. I do mean what I’m saying. And maybe it’s archaic to believe that music can have anything to do with that conversation, but it’s what I wanted to do, and all the guys who were in the room with me believed the same thing: that work should lead to security, or the hope of security.

There was a time in my life where I didn’t understand what people meant when they told me life would get tough. And believe me, I know I live a blessed life, and I know that people have it way tougher than me. Still, life is difficult.

I had a conversation with a friend, and this friend and I don’t share the same politics, but it doesn’t matter, he’s a great fucking guy. And this was when things were crashing in 2008, and I remember him saying, “I just don’t understand why people don’t go back to school, why don’t they just re-educate themselves.” And I told him, “I don’t think you understand how close to the ground some people are. I don’t think you understand what it’s like for somebody to lose a week’s pay.” Now, you can list the reasons why a person is in that position, but they were also never armed with the tools to get out of it.

You know, we’re these creatures who can have the objectivity of observation. Oh, she should do this, oh he should do that. Like, we all give relationship advice: “Oh, it’s easy, just do this!” But we always seem to forget what it’s like when you’re in the ring and you’ve got some punches to your head, and you’ve put so much time into this fight, and you don’t know any other way out. And so all objectivity is lost.

Tell me about your song “We Are Libertines,” and how that was written.

Oh man. That was written with the perspective about somebody without conscience, you know? And I wanted to make it feel like initially that it was a good time, that these guys were having a good time. And they justify what they’re doing, because they don’t know who they’re doing it to. It’s inspired about this weird disconnect we have.

I love how the album ends, too.

There are a number of ways it could have ended, but I wanted it to end with an idea that in a lot of ways the things we experience, they are just weather. Sometimes you only have to move through what it is you’re feeling to reconnect with hope. But I do think it is important to move through that weather, and also find empathy for others. And I think that’s where the value of conflict and struggle are found — that we’re not alone. What’s beautiful is how each of us navigate. We’re just these emotional engines, it’s pretty amazing.

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