I interviewed American Steel in their van before a recent San Diego show at the Che Café. For the record, Ruairi's name is pronounced Rory.
Please state your name and instrument so I can transcribe this later.
Ryan: Ruairi will be here in a minute too, but I am Ryan and I play guitar and sing.
John: My name's John and I play bass and sing and Ryan and I have been found to have fairly similar voices so we'll try to differentiate ourselves.
Ryan: Why don't you come back here?
Ruiari: It's okay, I'll just chill right here.
Jamie: I'm Jamie and I play drums.
Ruairi: I'm Ruiari. I sing and play guitar.
For the longest time, I've been wondering how to pronounce your name. The first thing I wanted to talk about is how you got started. I've only seen one interview and it seemed like the interviewer only wanted to talk about your influences.
Ruairi: Ah, that question.
Yeah. You won't be hearing it tonight.
Ryan: We basically got together years ago. Ruairi and I were hanging out a lot at my place in the city. We never intended to be a real band. We were just hanging out and drinking. We had a little place where we could rehearse, this sort of a beat up old recording studio, and we started playing around. We had a show to play so we took the name from a warehouse across the street, never really thinking that anything would come of it, and then somehow, we kept playing and having fun and got John to play and got Jamie to play drums. We just started playing some songs and taking it more seriously. It was sort of an organic thing. Friends got together to play music and it happened.
I hate to admit that I only just got a copy of your first album tonight, but I heard it a long time ago and from what I remember, it had more of a ska feel to it.
Ruairi: Our first record definitely had some ska stuff going on on it. There were only a handful of songs where we definitely utilized it. The second album, we didn't really do much at all.
Ryan: At all.
Ruairi: I think there's definitely some touches of, more so now, Caribbean flavors, more like Police rip-offs than anything else, sort of like being influenced by people that were influenced by it. It's still there. I still like it, but it's been a while since we actually brought out the up beats.
It seems like there's been a really marked progression from the first album through "Rogue's March" and "Jagged Thoughts." To me, it sounds like "Jagged Thoughts" stems more from of a folk and protest song tradition like Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs than the punk tradition that "Rogue's March" stems from.
Ruairi: I can see that. I don't know that there was any focused or concentrated thing, but with all of us, there's a lot of folk history. Me and Ryan, both of our moms were just folkies and certainly it's one of the few styles of music, whatever country that folk music came from, that never really gets old, that you were forced to listen to as a kid and still like today.
Ryan: And also, as time goes on and we continue being a band, it's not exciting to keep writing from the same viewpoint, doing exactly the same thing over and over and I think we're finding ourselves blending in more music that we grew up on and other styles that we really enjoy listening to a lot because we're all into tons of different kinds of music. I just think we're playing around with more things now than we perhaps were in the past.
As a musician, isn't it a bit like being dead if you aren't interested in new things?
Ryan: Absolutely. It gets very boring very fast. Ruairi: It works out, man. Music fans like getting into new music and musicians like reinventing themselves. It's a good symbiotic relationship.
So what's the songwriting process like?
Ruairi: Usually one person writes the song, the frame of the song, which includes lyrics, melodies and usually a significant amount of the arrangements, and then there's always some sort of melting pot once someone brings in the rough draft. It always gets pared down or we might hash cool parts out, go off on some tangents, but it's pretty straight-forward. It's not really as collaborative as some bands. It's not really by committee, like a lot of bands are.
So does that include bass, drums, etc.?
Ryan: Recently, it's a lot of ideas. I think everybody ends up adding their little thing but usually people at least have a concept of what the final song should sound like in their head.
Ruairi: Yeah. It depends on the individual character of a song. A lot of times, I'll have a song totally written and I have parts like distinct parts in mind where I'll ask everyone else to play certain parts and sometimes I'll come in with a song and I'll just have a loose arrangement and a melody and go, "Okay, let's see what happens." Everyone plays around with it.
Ryan: We play with it for a few practices.
Ruairi: It varies with the song.
John: But nothing's really co-written in that sense.
Ryan: Like, someone brings in a verse, someone brings in a bridge, that totally happens.
John: Especially with lyrics. Lyrics are pretty much autonomous. Don't touch them.
Ryan: You can comment on a chord choice but you don't really comment on people's lyrics.
Ruairi: Unless it's my poor grammar.
John: That comes later.
The lyrics on the new album seem more personal than "Rogue's March." On "Rogue's March," the songs were still very political. It's not that the politics aren't there on "Jagged Thoughts," but they seem much more subtle.
Ruairi: Definitely. Sure.
So how can you criticize someone's personal lyrics?
Ryan: Exactly. That's what I mean. It's a bad idea.
It seems like it would lead to fights.
Ryan: It probably would so we don't test those waters.
So the personal is political and the reverse is also true. On "Rogue's March," the lyrics seemed more overtly political - "I'm ashamed that you're not more angry," for example, whereas on "Jagged Thoughts," it seems that the politics center around the frustration of daily life and the desperation and depression that result. How did this come about?
Ruairi: I think a lot of those political songs were a lot of my particular rantings, the more overtly political songs, and I think that maybe, to put it in sort of a cynical light, a lot of people when they go through their late teens and twenties tend to bite off a little more than they can chew idealistically. I think maybe there's some of that there, not like there's a lack of conviction for any of the thoughts espoused on the last record, but I think it's sort of like becoming an adult. You sort of step back and realize there are a lot of other things that are more significant to you. Maybe it is sort of a subconscious realization that the political is personal.
It sounds like you're saying that the overt political bent has been tempered a little bit by experience.
Ruairi: I think that would be an accurate statement.
Ryan: I think also from record to record, that represents, what, a year and a half between the 2 records? It's just a hell of a lot of time of the 3 of us being on the road together. We had all these experiences and our lives changed a lot in that period of time. Our music reflects that.
Well, especially going through the things that occur on the road. Every band has horror stories about being on the road.
John: Speaking of all the touring, it may, and this is something I'm just thinking of now, also have something to do with feeling like we're part of some loose descriptive label, where the second album, "Rogue's March," might have been just a shot in the dark. We toured a few times before that but it was just something that we were doing on our own. I don't know. Maybe with this record there's ...
Ruairi: A little less isolation maybe?
John: I don't know. I almost feel like this one is for our friends, for our families. It feels a little less lonely for a record after going out so much.
Have you had any bad reactions to the album yet? It does sound really different from "Rogue's March."
Ryan: I have to tell you, between the time you record a record and the time it comes out, there's about a 3 month lag so I was just sort of waiting for the shitstorm to start. I'm really happy with the record, but my first reaction was that kids are not going to know what to do, but it's been so positive. It's been really cool actually. I think I didn't give people as much credit as maybe the deserve for being into different kind of music, just like we are.
Or being open to it.
Ryan: Yeah, and I mean, it's still us.
Ruairi: Most people who like music, even punk rockers, like a lot of different genres and a lot of types of bands within those genres, but I always got the feeling that people liked a band for what they were. That was their classification for that band, they kept it that way and that band has to stay that way. They can like a totally different band as long as they stay the way they are too, so if one band is a little more eclectic within that band, it's no good, but if someone's broader musical tastes are eclectic, it's fine. I think maybe that's less true than I thought it was too.
Ryan: It's funny. I think it's one of those things that, with time, people look back on things that bands have done and they're okay with it, but when it first comes out, they don't know what to do with it, but anyway, reactions have been very positive. It's been nice, it's been exciting.
I was surprised when I heard it. I think I was expecting a continuation of "Rogue's March" and instead it sounded like electrified Dust Bowl folk from the 40's. Anyway, I wanted to talk a bit about the songs, beginning with "Rogue's March." In "Loaded Gun," there seems to be a distinct historical perspective, especially the line "Change the names but somebody remembers." You talk about the Pinkertons, you talk about the National Guard and almost everything but Marines who killed steelworkers. Where does this perspective come from?
Ruairi: I don't know if there's any particular attempt to keep the framework of that song in the past. I think at its essence, it's just a pretty straightforward anti-authority song and the real anger that I still feel. I was watching a retrospective on the 60's and it had a spot on Kent State and I started to well up and cry. I was fucking pissed. I think those moments are just as relevant now, especially when I think we can assume that things are the same, if not worse, as they were then. Something that happened before I was even born makes me shake with anger. I don't really know how best to answer that one.
Ryan: We're interested in that stuff. I mean, we all read a fair amount and I know Ruairi was into a lot of political writing. We just have an interest in the history of struggle.
And usually that history gets left out of textbooks. It takes people like Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky to reveal it.
Ruairi: Yeah. I bet a lot of people don't even know about Kent State and that's one of the more famous incidents, much less mill workers or coal workers or dock workers in San Francisco. People might not even know about the U.S. government's atrocities to other peoples in other countries on their soil, much less to their own people on their own soil and that's just overt, heavy-handed, broad physical violence. That's not taking into account the day-to-day economic violence that's being enacted. I don't know. I'm totally dodging the question again.
Not really. You're bringing up interesting points because it seems like there is pervasive psychic violence being perpetrated on the American populace and on the world as a whole. If you examine the constant bombardment of commercial messages about how people should look and what they should consume, how can that not in turn lead to depression for people who can't afford it, which in turns leads to economic violence such as sweatshop labor, and actual physical violence when someone decides they want to steal money or rob someone for a possession that shouldn't have the kind of status that it does?
Ryan: After a while, that becomes more of a societal thing as opposed to a strict government thing.
One of the most interesting lines that I found on "Rogue's March" was "East Oakland is a no-go / But the liquor store is COINTELPRO." The only meaning I've been able to derive from that line is that the liquor store represents a counterinsurgency initiative by doping the populace so that they don't see what's going on or do anything about it.
Ruairi: Well, I don't know if you've ever been to East Oakland, and I don't know if it's so much like that these days, but the police never used to take squad cars down there. It was almost like rebel-held territory. Only helicopters would fly in there. Then they would swarm in with squad cars if they were in pursuit of someone, en masse. Obviously in that area, there's a lot of poverty and alcoholism, but I think a lot of it also is community policing which I guess I've never really mentioned particularly. That's pretty much the type of thing that was used on the Panthers and the thing that's even more overt now. They have community policing stations at McDonald's in Berkeley and they basically keep tabs on what's going on in that neighborhood, who's who, what's what. It's just unnecessary information gathering. There's no reasonable cause to be investigating people's day-to-day lives or the activity of that particular neighborhood. It's just gathering information so they know where and when to strike when they need to. That was a lot of what I think that line was gearing toward.
Expressing frustration at the intrusion into our privacy.
Ruairi: Right, and the angle that everything is suspect and everything will be investigated and reviewed before there's any cause for it.
Like what's happening in Tampa with the security cameras in Ybor City. It's turned into an interesting civil rights issue because the cameras monitor and videotape people in public spaces without prior consent which seems to violate the Fourth Amendment. It looks like it's headed to court in short order.
Ruairi: I'm surprised they're getting anywhere with that. They've had those cameras up all over the place. It's cool that someone is actually getting some mileage in fighting against it. It sort of reminds me of a joke I heard, but I think it's a true story. I think L.A. was trying out cameras - like at toll bridges, they have cameras there to catch you if you don't pay - they were trying those out for running red lights and a guy got a picture of him running a red light in the mail and a ticket for what he was supposed to pay, he owed them $75 or something like that. So he photocopied $75 on a photocopier and sent them a picture of $75. That's fucking hilarious. I don't think they thought it was very funny.
Ryan: That's fucking great. Apparently, he still had to pay anyway.
Actually, it's illegal to copy currency. It has to be 33% larger or smaller.
Ryan: I actually remember being told that by some grade school teacher when they were doing some math unit on money.
Anyway, the song that grabbed me most on "Rogue's March" was "Hope Springs From Somewhere." Back in 1993, I had a really serious illness and almost died. I think that's why the song really moved me, especially lyrics like "It's a new day and I'm alive / What more could I ask for?" It's a very powerful, motivating, optimistic song. I understand that you went through a bout with leukemia a while ago. I'm not sure I can frame a question that would do any sort of justice to the experience you had, but could you speak a bit about how that song came around?
Ryan: I was actually writing that song while I was in the hospital. I can't hand write at all so my mom brought me a little laptop computer to do it on. We were recording the record between hospital visits for me, so I'd get a week between chemo stays where I was okay enough to be allowed out so we recorded bits of the record then. I was just trying to keep staying positive because I knew that would help me be healthier. Instead of getting frustrated by every little setback, I was going towards a goal. It was a lot easier to have something cool to do, like make a record with the band and having good friends and good family. The cool thing about that song is that it's one of those things that I just wrote personally but I've met up with people. I met this one girl who was really sick with cancer too and was really excited about the song. She told me about it when we had been touring forever and we were frustrated and it was really cool to find out that she was inspired by that. It suddenly made playing music together feel worthwhile again. I don't know. It pretty much just comes out of that experience of trying to keep my life together and staying positive.
Did you find it difficult to write that song? It seems really raw and honest, especially the lines about being lonely at night and falling back on old friends and memories to keep you company.
Ryan: Not really. I've always written a lot for a long time now and it's just part of my vernacular. Most of my songs tend toward the personal to begin with so taking the stretch when something fairly traumatic is happening just sort of comes with my territory.
So is the leukemia still in remission?
Ryan: Yeah. I've been in remission for over 2 years now. I have 2 and a half months left before I don't have to take any medication at all. I'm very much looking forward to that. I'm pretty psyched. I keep my doctors and my nurses happy. I stop by and they're really happy to have a patient who goes out because we were on tour within a month of me getting out of the hospital, so that excites them and gives them hope too.
They're really used to people who want to lay in bed or sit on the couch for days.
Ryan: Yeah. That's not so fun.
On "Time Gone By," you're talking about wasting lives. It almost seemed to refer to the idea of the liquor store as COINTELPRO in "Loaded Gun" in the line about wasting our days with fucking and drinking. It seemed to resonate.
Ryan: Not really. It was really more just an old song that got a new life. It was just a song about waking up some day, just looking around and the house is fucking trashed, everybody's disgusting and just being sort of revolted with existence in general. It's kind of a gross little song. I really like the song, but I was just frustrated with the sameness of everything. It's also sort of a sentimental song because it has references to people and lost loves and all this kind of crap.
I didn't get the impression that this album was especially upbeat or optimistic.
Ruairi: I don't think the title of the record is a misnomer at all.
"Rogue's March" seemed more hopeful and optimistic. The new album seems more downbeat, like "Lonely All The Time." Some of the lines in that song, like "I wore a red carpet overcoat / So you could complete your task in style / I crossed my eyes a million times / To pretty your smile" are not especially heartwarming things. What led up to this? The lyrics seem to have far more poetic turns of phrases, like turning a phrase by altering a word to give a more ironic meaning, and the songs seem a lot more depressing.
Ruairi: I was fucking depressed. That particular song was exactly about someone who made me very lonely and depressed.
Ryan: I had the feeling that a lot of that type feeling probably came out of all the time we were on tour and a couple, maybe a few of us, had kind of fucked up relationships going. Things that were nice relationships get really fucked up and go sour during the long time we're on the road and I think some of that might have crept into that feeling, being lonely on the road.
Ruairi: Me and Ryan were sitting at the mixing board when John was doing his vocals on "Wake Up Alone" and we were going over lines, like "Let's go back and listen to that line," and Ryan looks over at me and goes, "We've got a heartbroken little bend here."
John: I like to say we spent last year leaving. We toured 4 times last year and people who aren't on tour with you - which is everybody - sees that as leaving.
Ruairi: Yeah. I think this album probably is a lot more romantic, not only that the depression or whatever is in there is based on individual romances, but like you said, it's a little more poetic and that's romantic in another sense also. Those are the best love stories, the sad ones.
Yeah. This is pretty much out of the blue and just my free association, but at times, it reminded me of Dire Straits' "Romeo And Juliet" and "West Side Story."
Ryan: Kick ass!
I think "West Side Story" came to mind because of "Maria," but that name is the only real connection. It just seemed like you were telling stories on this record, almost out of the narrative folk tradition, as opposed to expressing anger.
Ruairi: Yeah. I think also, just for my own lyrics, I made a concerted effort, I think much to the dismay of my friends and bandmates, to sort of speak, not just write but speak, conversationally, more stream of conscience if you will, for lack of a better phrase, not really in a Beat sense, but just speaking what's on my mind, throwing out terms that might seem nonsensical but that actually have some weird association to other people. Sometimes, those things are more articulate.
I have to ask you about this - you said stream of conscience. Did you mean that or stream of consciousness?
Ryan: It's what we call lubricated speech.
It's better than river of feelings or dreams.
Ryan: Field of love?
John: Hectare of longing.
Ryan: Hectare of longing?
And what exactly would you sow there?
John: That's our seventh album.
Since you guys in the back have been kind of quiet, let me ask you a question.
Ruairi: Are you guys locked in in the rhythm section?
That's actually what I wanted to ask about. How do you work together? Do you practice together to figure out what would work well?
John: Actually, we did that once and Jamie seem pretty chagrined by it. We wanted to see if something would work in the context of a song, but no, we don't have sectionals. We sort of work out our stuff at home and we have stuff to practice rehearsing to bring to the practice. Actually, Jamie just recently rejoined the band. Our old drummer is named Scott.
Ryan: He was on "Rogue's March."
John: He was on our first 2 full-length records and we parted ways at the end of last year. Then Jamie rejoined the band around December of last year, so we've actually only had about half a year.
Jamie: We're just starting, I think, to get comfortable. With this album, I was just thrown into trying to learn all the songs.
So you're settling back into it.
Jamie: Yeah, exactly.
Ruairi: Jamie had about one month to do a demo session and then rehearsal sessions before we went into the recording studio.
Ryan: Fortunately, he was a quick study.
John: Fortunately, he's the musician in the band. It's been really great. We're all getting used to playing the new stuff, but we did an interview last night and I said that I enjoy playing the new stuff a lot more right now just because there's a lot more room which might sound a little trite, but there's a lot more dynamic and that can be a lot more fun live.
Well, it sounds like there's more room for expression.
Ryan: Yeah, and it makes the really in your face ... oh, that's a terrible thing to say.
John: In your face!
Ryan: It makes the more aggressive songs feel more interesting and aggressive when they're backed by quieter, more introspective songs. You lend power to both the quiet song and the loud song by doing both.
Right, because there's so much contrast.
Ryan: Exactly, and that makes it more fun to play live.
John: We had our first experience a few months ago of trying one of these new songs out for the first time and hearing people talk over part of it.
Ryan: We could never hear the audience before. It was completely bizarre. I'm looking around at everybody going, "What the fuck is going on? I have to hit a falsetto in a minute and I'm going to die."
Ruairi: Hit that falsetto like your life depends on it.
So have you actually had people talking during the shows much?
Ryan: The shows have been going really well. The particular show we were talking about was a very large show that wasn't really so much our show. I think it was the first show we did ...
John: They're always quiet during the second verse though.
Ruairi: I just think the beginning of "Rainy Day" is so goddamn quiet and it was just normal chatter. They weren't being loud. There were just quiet, hushed whispers that we could hear. 700 people whispering to each other, going, "I've never heard this one, these guys suck!" I don't know.
John: Was that at Slim's where there was the guy who pulled me over to the middle?
Ruairi: That was a different song.
John: We were opening for a huge band. They were a much louder and faster band than us.
Well, that introduction is really powerful. It's really quiet for about a minute and a half before it picks up, but even when it does, it's not a fast rave-up.
Ryan: It's definitely not fast.
It's just a really beautiful piece of songwriting. I'm really impressed by the album because it's not something I would have expected. It strikes me as an album that defies the idea of what most people would identify as punk's form.
Ryan: That's fine.
John: Those are the bands that, historically, tend to last; bands like The Minutemen who, if you play 5 seconds of them, are not a punk band but if you take them in their whole context are punk.
Ruairi: Punk, to me, seems kind of like a middle aged beast. Punk is 30 years old, which I guess wouldn't make it middle aged.
Ryan: Middle aged, no. Not unless it's going to die at 45.
Ruairi: I think of it metaphorically, like a lot of the swashbuckling and nihilism of punk as a teenager or newborn would sort of be inappropriate now at its age and that it's better that it's more contemplative and reflective and maybe a little more subtle.
Ryan: I don't know. I'm fine with swashbuckling once in a while, but why keep doing the same thing over and over? Music is what's interesting. We all come from a punk background and that's great, but we also love music of all kinds. To make it interesting to be a band, to make us interesting as a band, there's so much music out there and there are so many little things to try. Why let a form of music guide our musical decisions? That would just be silly.
Since I know you have to go on soon, do you have anything you'd like to add or clarify? Anything you think I left out that needs to be discussed?
Ryan: Nope. Glad to be on the road again.
Ruairi: Good interview.
John: Good questions.
Ryan: Quite thorough.
Well, I hate talking to bands about their influences.
Ruairi: That drives me nuts. You can just see my eyes roll. I have to roll my eyes a couple of hundred times to get it out of my system.
I think it actually came from Maximum Rocknroll in a list of questions that they printed to help people do band interviews. If I remember right, the first question was "Who are your influences?"
John: Then they retracted it and said, "Do not ask questions like 'Who are your influences?'." Above all. That is so boring.
It's one thing to ask what a band's influenced by and be specific about, like talking about a certain style of music or a specific song, like "Two Crooks" actually reminds me of The Pretenders.
Ruairi: That's cool.
Ryan: We've gotten lots of comparisons on that one.
Ruairi: Someone told me it sounded like a Smiths song, like they had to check and see if written by the Smiths and we were covering it or something. We use that sort of Detroit pop beat a lot.
John: It's also the laid-back feel.
Well, the guitars remind me of "Don't Get Me Wrong" of all songs. I like being able to listen to the song and hear that resonance, but at the same time, I don't think you'd cite the Pretenders as an influence.
Ryan: No, but we've all heard it plenty of times and it all gets blended into the ...
It all gets blended into the gestalt. So any other last words?
Ryan: Thank you. Thanks a lot.
Thank you for the great music.