Interview: Ryan Von Gonten speaks on Christian-core influence and upcoming music
Photo by Walker Spence
I caught Ryan Von Gonten walking into the Knockout about five minutes before doors were supposed to open.
Following the procession of amplifier- and guitar-carrying musicians, I spotted Von Gonten at the back of the venue. He’s wearing a dark button-up and leaning against the doorframe of the green room when I walk up to greet him. We’d agreed to meet after the show for a drink, but given that it was right around dinnertime and we were in the middle of the Mission District, we opted to grab pre-show tacos instead.
Having listened to his records, I recognized his soft-spoken demeanor from songs like “Corpse Flower” and the title track of his last album, Truthlikeness (2018). His overall disposition and calm, measured responses seemed right in line with his brand of indie music. After we got our food, we chatted about his upcoming project, his take on the bedroom pop genre, and his work in the technology side of music.
The Bay Bridged: The last thing you released was a music video for “Corpse Flower,” off Truthlikeness. What goes into making a music video?
Ryan Von Gonten: This video was more like a live take, recorded at the end of the tour we did after the album was released. We’d been playing that song for a while and kind of re-imagining it, or playing it with a certain kind of energy I was trying to channel for the next record. When I was first starting to develop as a musician, like in middle school, I would watch a lot of these AOL live music sessions which were all totally random — I’d see some pop-punk like New Found Glory next to some Eric Clapton. I already knew I liked these records, but I wanted to see the artists play so I could figure out how to do that.
TBB: Do you look to other artists’ videos for inspiration?
RVG: Solange’s music videos for Seat at the Table (2016) were incredible. They really do what music videos are supposed to do, just totally recontextualizing the songs. But I don’t know if I’m an actor. Forming that persona is a part of this whole music thing that I struggle with.
TBB: How was the transition from Texas-based musician to Oakland-based musician?
RVG: It was very humbling. I had the music scene figured out, had my local venues, but moving here I realized if I’m interested in doing this, I need to compare myself to other people making music at my level. Like, ‘I’m really not as good of a songwriter as this other person’ (laughs).
TBB: The Bay Area tends to have genre-specific micro-scenes within the larger music scene. Where do you see yourself fitting in?
RVG: I find myself within the DIY scene in the Oakland area. A lot of musicians in that scene have a lot more formal training than I do, which I find very inspiring.
TBB: I classified your music as ‘bedroom pop’ when I previewed this show. How do you feel about that label?
RVG: I’m totally fine with that label. I think by ‘bedroom pop,’ people generally mean mid-tempo indie pop, usually made by musicians who listened to a lot of Beach House and then recorded that stuff in their bedrooms (laughs). It does tend to imply lo-fi, and I don’t think that’s accurate cause I record most of my stuff in commercial studios. Maybe lo-fi is less of a description of the sonic qualities, and more of a description of the artists themselves. The songs are easygoing; not pushing but more like drifting.
TBB: I always think it’s really interesting to hear about musician’s really early influences. You already touched on some very early inspirations, but what were you listening to in High School?
RVG: I think my biggest influences in high school were like, really angsty rock bands which definitely shows in my music. I was also affected, because of the conservative culture, by the Christian rock wave, specifically bands like Switchfoot. I was talking to my friend about this kind of post-Christian-core music. I’d classify bands like Big Thief in there — it’s not necessarily the subject matter that’s remaining, more the tonal and sonic qualities.
TBB: Listening to Truthlikeness, I hear a lot of emphasis put on the overall sound of a track, to a point where the lyrics almost take a backseat to the instrumental mood of the song. Can you speak on that a little?
RVG: I’ve never been a no-frills songwriter. In the past year or so especially I’ve been exposed to more artists who put their lyrical content ahead of a chord progression or the sonic quality of their songs. I’m definitely not discrediting that, but my music starts out as more of a sonic zone. The vocals start out as just like, vocalizing different syllables and vowels to map out the demo. After I figure out what the song feels like, then I start to figure out what the lyrics are supposed to be.
TBB: I know you also make guitar pedals — does that tie into your preference for creating a ‘sonic zone’ rather than putting lyrics first?
RVG: They’re pretty separate. My interest in pedals comes more from the fact that I want to make really beautiful physical devices. With music gear, you can make a relatively simple box that doesn’t do that much complicated stuff, but it has a nice minimalist look or a good feeling switch and people love it. I’ve been making guitar pedals, but something I’d like to do is make a cassette player. I don’t think there’s a really good, nice-looking cassette player that sits on your coffee table. I don’t want to start a big San Francisco tech company, but things that look and feel really cool and have a single purpose; things that take you out of your smartphone really appeal to me.
VF-104, created by Ryan Von Gonten
TBB: Wrapping up, you mentioned a new record? What information do you have about that?
RVG: The album is going to be called Painfulfree, hopefully out by the end of 2019. This one has much less lacquer on it than Truthlikeness, and kind of feels more raw. We had just finished up our tour, and it got to a point where we could learn and record a song on the same day. I think all my music is about me becoming more independent. I grew up in a really conservative environment, just not very accepting of people. A lot of my music, and particularly Painfulfree, is about the process of letting go of ideas that you were built up on. Even if they really are wrong, letting go can really mess with your head.
After the interview, we walked back into the dusky interior of the Knockout. Von Gonten’s live show is minimalist, this time appearing solo with some drum tracks to back him up. The room swayed in time with his melancholy, nostalgia-tinged melodies. The set was relatively short, but the gossamer tunes kept their shine despite the lack of a backup band. His conversations with the crowd were carried out in the same low murmur that his songs were sung in.
Technically lo-fi or not, Von Gonten’s performance is certainly bathed in DIY ethic, evidenced both by his stripped-back setup and his crowd interactions. The move to the West Coast seems to be suiting Von Gonten and his melancholic, easygoing brand of indie-pop well.