(photos: Estefany Gonzalez)
William Ryan Fritch wants to talk about his daughter.
“I promise this is the only Dad video I’m going to show you,” he says one long afternoon at his place. His daughter, nine-month-old Wilder, is napping in the other room, which is in another building. He lives in an old water tower in the outer hills of Petaluma, on a winding country road where there’s space enough between houses to make San Francisco developers weep for the unused acreage. It’s a little rural, but there's still reception. So he pauses to play a video of a blonde baby girl smashing a keyboard in his studio. “When I’m working on mixing I just give her a little keyboard. The numbers of times that she finds pitches...” he says in mild wonder.
“Although, she may grow up to be the reverse imprint of that. She’s gonna be all, ‘I’m gonna be your accountant, dad.”
It’s almost like the old tale that comedians are often the most troubled people — William Ryan Fritch, maker of doomy, murky instrumental compositions, is startlingly upbeat. He gestures wide with his hands when he talks and greets people he’s never met before with deep hugs. He calls his dog, a hound named Verde who constantly lopes a few feet behind him, his “hero.”
But there’s a morbidity; a constant dread and pining in his work, at odds with his bright life on earth. William Ryan Fritch specializes in making soundtracks for the end of the world.
Fritch demonstrates a sarangi, a string instrument common in traditional Indian and Nepalese music.
It seems utterly banal to start his story this way, but Fritch knew he wanted to be a musician from a young age. Growing up in rural Florida, he wasn’t exposed to a wide range of music. That changed on his babysitter’s 98th birthday. “She belonged to this Black Methodist church in Florida...Her preacher, who was kind of like leading the birthday celebration for her, sat down at this out-of-tune piano, and he just made music like…” He makes a harsh, whirring sound, pushed out from behind gritted teeth. “Like, pour out of it....And as a little boy, I’m just watching this like, ‘Wow, I wanna be able to do that. I want to be able to change the space because you’re pouring sound into it.”
The other reason has to do with a former theme park in Florida, which until recently was the domain of local urban explorers. “When I was in second grade I went on this field trip to this horrible, horrible theme park in Orlando called Magic of China or something...They had, like, a miniature Great Wall of China, and...you would essentially be catered Panda Express and watch Chinese gymnasts flipping around, but!” he pauses for drama. “They had, and you’ll see it around Chinatown in San Francisco...it’s a two-stringed instrument and the bow is laced in between the two of them. There’s this crystalline, piercing purity to it.
“I was obsessed with it. And my parents were like, ’God, he listens to the weirdest music.’”
These stories makes incredible sense for the kind of music he turned out making, and that he turns out at a staggering pace — Ill Tides, out tomorrow on Lost Tribe, will be his fourth this year and his 14th since he started working solo. His new album — which seems weird to even say because when someone is as prolific as he is, is anything new? — rattles into being, opening with an unsure hum that slowly washes into mourning strings, distant choruses, and a soft march of percussion.
That’s not to say his outlook is all he is — he’s known his share of trauma. He has to couch it with gratitude, though. “It ended up great and she’s [a] super-healthy, amazing, happy baby, and...like, I would do it 30 times over…[but] it was exhausting,” he finally admits. Wilder's birth was precarious and traumatic. He won’t say what happened, but he does mention meeting with infant mortality specialists. “You have all these images of like, 'We wanna have a homebirth,’ [and you’re] kind of curating what you want...and you’re quickly thrust into the reality.” During birth, his wife was helicoptered to UCSF for urgent treatment. They spent eight weeks there. “You go through this and...[It] makes you feel closer to everyone else that’s struggling, which is, like, a shocking number of people.”
Fritch and Verde.
And that’s to say nothing of the great tumult this country is going through, which haunts him, even out here in the middle of near-nowhere. “I feel profoundly neutered in my ability to affect these things,” he says. “You can have anger and you can feel that you are persecuted for your beliefs, but there’s like real, physical change and struggle.” Ill Tides, he knew right away, was to be a great purge of all these feelings.
But this afternoon he seems content. Wilder has woken up from her nap, and he’s carrying her around the wide campus of his living space. He’s in his studio now, standing among his hoard of instruments. Most crowd the floor. Some hang on the walls. A few pieces hover in the rafters. But he knows where everything is, and he remembers how he got them. The classical guitar he traded a meal at Carrabba’s for in high school. The upright bass in the corner was bought for $400 from the great-great-grandson of its original owner, who brought it from Austria. It was made in 1904 — he shows off the wear at the top of the neck.
“I like microdetail,” he says. He goes to his computer — his main gig is composing soundtracks and scores for film and television. He plays a clip of music he’s making for a documentary featuring Bill Nye. Fritch describes the scene it’s meant to accompany — Bill’s in Greenland, where the ice caps are melting at an alarming speed. The music sounds like it. There are 99 separate tracks of music on the thing, for four minutes of Bill Nye talking about ice caps. He’s also working on one about Mongolian eagle hunters and the dismantling of their nomadic lifestyle by encroaching technology. “I had to, like, develop these little ways of doing, like, my own throat-singing, but in a way that...wasn’t derivative and on-the-nose.”
It’s hard not to notice the little things when you’re around him, too. In the brief breaks between his breathless conversation, it’s all warm breezes slithering through tall grass, golden from the beating of the unshielded sun. He’s picking at the soft wood of the table with his fingernails, ground down from what looks like a bad biting habit. Sometimes those things find his way into his music, too. “I’m sure there’s like five or six elements in this new album where there’s like...” he coos like a baby. “Or, like, dog scratching.” Oakland, where he lived and worked before coming here, wasn’t much quieter. “Police sirens, I had a BART station not far from me...and we used to have 400 chickens that lived across the way,“ he says. “I did this film called The Waiting Room that was all about Highland Memorial...[it was] very serious, and I’d have chickens making sounds in the middle of the soundtrack. I’d be like,” — he throws up his hands — “‘Goddamnit!’” — he laughs and brings them down on the table — “‘I cannot have that!’”
Oakland seems as distant as the ice caps out here. But the loss of Mongolian eagle hunters, the slow disintegration of the planet, and a human’s impending end still finds him on this quiet pass in the North Bay. He thinks about it a lot, actually. With the subject matter he soundtracks, he kind of can’t help it. But he remains unflaggingly optimistic. “Life goes on,” he says. “If a natural disaster happens, there’s still the cicadas in the backyard.”
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