Peter Ryan has played percussion in a number of projects from his hometown of San Diego, on to Seattle with Kusikia (whose record was put out by fellow San Diegan-gone-Northwesterner Alex Miranda on his vinyl and cassette label, Talking Helps Records), and down to Portland where he has moved out from behind the drum set and taken on songwriting in earnest as Whales Whailing.
You could probably call it freak folk or New Weird America, if you were into that sort of thing, but Ryan’s baritone murmurs go beyond any of that.
It’s occult without being obscure, spiritual without being indoctrinating, and psychedelic without everything melting into washed out paisley puddles on the floor. It’s the moment of clarity after the ritual is over and the mushrooms are on their way out, when thoughts flow unfiltered from the super-conscience into frank and fearless folk tunes.
Returning to San Diego on August 10 for an appearance at Lestat’s (3343 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights), Ryan is touring on his debut full-length, Light Body Heavy Being, featuring the lilting harmonies of Portland staples Luz Elena Mendoza (Tiburones/Y La Bamba) and Jem Marie (Ghost Ease). Ryan arranged and plays everything on the album, but his live entourage includes Ryan on vocals and guitar, Johanna Warren on harmonies and bass, and Phillip Rogers on drums.
Chad Deal: I understand you grew up in San Diego and played in a handful of bands while you were down here. Tell me more about that.
Peter Ryan: I grew up in San Diego and moved to the Northwest in 2004.
When I lived in San Diego, I played in Rebar and Plums with songwriter Jordan Hammond [Primitive Noyes], the Displaced, and I made some guest appearances with Bunky when they played 21+ shows. They'd let me play shaker so I could get in the door, ‘cuz they were one of my favorite bands. I have also toured with a band from the Northwest called Kusikia, and we've played many times over the years in San Diego. I played drums in all of those bands. It’s been a while since I've led a band as a songwriter.
CD: Your lyrics come off as super honest and confessional, almost like a memo to God or a suicide note. Can you tell me a bit about the themes you dig into and maybe give some background on a tune or two?
PR: As far as songs go, I hear them as messages that pass thru me when I have moments of clarity. They are always messages I need to hear and to learn from, and I think they’re meant to be shared for those who could also resonate with them. The best songs feel like they come from a place outside myself, like I am momentarily possessed by an inspired, healing spirit energy.
The more I sing the more I become in touch with that energy. So singing feels like a guiding and healing experience. “Spirit Light” is one of my favorites. It flooded out of me one morning as I was waking up. I was still in a dream state the morning after I met my friend Luz (who sings on the recording). We had been discussing out-of-body experiences and dream-visions we've had, and we sang songs for each other. I felt inspired by her music and our conversation and when I woke up the song just about poured out of me: first into the guitar, then words onto paper. I finished it before I was fully awake.
Then I woke up and thought it was beautiful and called Luz to invite her to sing it with me. The best songs come out like that. It’s totally written within 5-10 minutes before I can even think about it. Nowadays, our bass player Johanna sings the harmonies on most songs live, so that recording captured a rare moment.
CD: Is the ego an enemy to be conquered or a tool of which to make use?
PR: To me it’s both. There are times when I struggle to step out of my ego, so I feel that I am battling with it, but like I say in "Clouds Shadows", "Love will be my torch at night that burns away the toxic fights with demons/ fighting them gives them more strength ‘cuz they eat condemnation for their dinner/ so I will starve the demons out by washing them with a shower of my love/ and they'll thank me and be on their way..." etc, etc.
But there are also times when my ego is a powerful tool. When I feel like I am a wandering soul that is simply in awe of existence and has no concrete identity, I use my ego to help me communicate and navigate the social customs of daily life in a society.