By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Balancing a full-time job and releasing an album would be enough to run most musicians ragged. But if you think managing one CD release is demanding, imagine handling three in three weeks. Not only is Ryan Thomas Becker holding down his 8-to-5 job as a library assistant at Texas Woman's University, he's playing in three bands—two of which put out new albums in as many weeks recently—as well as releasing a new solo disc Tuesday.
First, the Tony Ferraro-led Eaton Lake Tonics, in which Becker plays keyboards, released Rancho Folly IV November 17. That was followed immediately by the George Neal-led Slow Burners (in which Becker plays guitar and keyboards) release of This Is Why We Fight. On top of that, Becker is planning his December 1 CD release party at J&J's Pizza, where his childhood best friend will play an opening set and his mother will serve toast.
So it's not surprising that he sounds a bit frazzled during a phone conversation he manages to fit into a lunch break last week. But in spite of his occasional apologetic queries of "Where was I going with that?" or "What was the question again?" during tangential asides, the interview proves just as revealing and offbeat as his latest solo album, Neighborhoof, to be released on Gutterth.
Neighborhoof is a mixture of new songs and material dating to about 2000, when Becker first branched out from playing lead guitar with friends' bands into writing his own material. Like his previous solo album, Uncomfortable Index Fingers, Neighborhoof uses a variety of DIY recording techniques, ranging from lo-fi to no-fi, including four-track cassette, microcassette and even having a friend sing backing vocals via Becker's cell phone. The results fall somewhere between early Beck and Centro-matic (whose frontman Will Johnson could be a long-lost brother of Becker's), yet are unmistakably unique.
Becker self-recorded some of the basic tracks, which he and longtime collaborator Grady Don Sandlin (drummer for The Slow Burners and Becker's bluesy, hard-rocking experimental duo RTB2) uploaded to Sandlin's computer for editing. They recorded additional tracks at Sandlin's Denton home, where Becker found musical inspiration from the multitude of instruments available in the living room. Whether he was banging away at poorly tuned piano, shaking a bagful of percussion implements as a single instrument, tapping at a drum with an ink pen or simply strumming an acoustic guitar, he saw the recording process as a chance to experiment with his songs and go beyond the boundaries of RTB2.
"With RTB2, it sounds a certain way, whereas the stuff I do on my own as 'Ryan Thomas Becker,' it can go anywhere it wants to," he says. "Like the first song ['Seek Fire, Anime Kids'] starts off pretty heavy, but it doesn't really go back to that."
"Anime Kids" comes closest to the full-throttle fury of RTB2. Other songs, like the haunting "Tom Landreams," are acoustic-guitar based, having started with a simple foundation of vocals and 12-string guitar upon which layers of sound were added. Typical of Becker's experimental approach is the way he had Jennie Cano's backing vocals on "Tom Landreams" recorded at Echo Lab in Argyle, where the album was mixed by Justin "J.C." Collins.
"My first idea was I wanted to have her sing into a microcasette tape recorder and I'd put her on speakerphone," he says. "But something went wrong, like the battery died, on the day she was available. So I went into the big studio room and planted a mic by my cell phone and put it on a music stand, and put it on speakerphone. J.C. pushed record, and I had her sing four notes. I'd play the note on my acoustic guitar and have her sing the note, like 'Ahhh'."
It's a small touch, but the way those four notes were edited into distorted ghostly harmonies to punctuate the song—along with heavily reverbed guitar and the aforementioned bag-o-percussion—turns an already dynamic and arresting song into an unforgettable sonic collage.
Another highlight is "Praying Matas," which opens with a huge distorted guitar slide that gives way to a funky drum loop and intricate acoustic guitar picking. The song, as the title and lines like "devils with voices and angels with plans" and "forcing the madness into our eyes" hint, was inspired by fellow Denton folk experimentalist Matthew Gray's band Matthew and the Arrogant Sea (often abbreviated MATAS) and the strange major-label illusions and rumors swirling around the group in its early days.
For all its lo-fi raggedness, the album did include some studio trickery. Not trickery like vocal pitch correction, but plain old deception, such as on "Whistle."
"Grady set up some microphones, and what I didn't know was that he pretty much already had the drums checked," he says. "So he told me to start checking them [as the track played], but the whole time he was recording it."
Becker was red-faced with anger, he says—until he listened to the track.
"Listening to it is so refreshing because it's first-take and just all over the place and carefree," he says.
As much as Becker goes for innovation with his music, he also finds comfort in repetition and simple nostalgia. His mother and a childhood friend will play important roles in his CD release show Tuesday at J&J's Pizza in Denton, when his singer-songwriter buddy Grant Cross—a friend since first grade—will perform an opening set and his mom will serve toast with assorted jams and jellies, reprising the roles they played on the same date four years ago in the same venue.
But despite all the work that comes with releasing his own CD—not to mention two other discs all but simultaneously and working 40 hours a week—you won't hear Becker complain. Rather, he is overjoyed by the changes that have come since the last time his mother served toast and jam in the dirty old basement at J&J's. One is the chance to play with Neal, whose Little Grizzly made him one of Becker's early local heroes. And just as great, he says, is finally realizing with RTB2 the potential that he and Sandlin—who played with him in his earliest teenage garage bands—had all along to make a hell of a lot of noise, just the two of them.