Easily one of the most talented guitarists and songwriters of the modern era, there’s a compelling narrative around Bill Ryder-Jones (previously The Coral’s lead guitarist): it’s integral to his work, but it’s also far from the full story. SNACK knows the angles every other interview covers with him, so we sidestepped them to discuss good guys, melodies, complex fanbases, and lots more.
Bill, a New Year is challenging enough but you’re on the brink of releasing your latest album, Iechyd Da. How are you doing?
I’m good, yeah. I’m overwhelmed – Christmas can be a thing, can’t it, and New Year, and I don’t know about you but I am fucking skint. I’m releasing an album, which means I can’t work, which no one thinks about, as my job is producing, but I can’t do that as I’m releasing an album, and I have to be here, there and everywhere. I don’t save money because I’m a dickhead, but other than that, mate…
In fairness, the reviews have been great: people are saying things about the record that I’m proud of, they’re getting it. It’s a strange thing to be in the middle of, but it’s good.
I ask this because many of them seem effortless on the record: do you agonise over the lyrics?
Yes, but that’s something I consider to be one of the more interesting parts of making music; making it sound like it’s just happened. When you think of Leonard Cohen, he had songs that took six years to get right. I discovered this through working with Saint Saviour – her lyrics feel as though they fell out of her mouth in one go, but they’re so meticulous.
On ‘Nothing To Be Done’, you ask if it’s true that good guys win, and then admit you have no idea if this applies to you. Is this something that worries you personally? And equally, do you see it in society?
Yeah, yeah, it’s something that pops in now and again. I remember writing that: it fits the melody and you sit there thinking of the next line, and then you think, what’s more interesting? That would have been weeks of filling that line in, coming up with shit lines, and then it just happens. I do worry about it with myself: I’ve never been a bad lad, always been respectful and never cheated on anyone, but there’s things I’ve done I’m not proud of. I’m confident in my therapist and my dear friends, the ones who love me, who say I’m too harsh on myself. That means a lot. But as for other men, I have zero fucking faith.
Did the balance of emotions – joy and sadness, fear and optimism – come naturally on the record, or was it something you worked to balance?
It just happens. Ultimately, I’m a misery arse who loves a laugh. On my own, I get really inside myself and when I’m with others, I like a giggle. Building a record starts off with songs, getting the right light or shade in a song, so you’re dealing with that. And making a record is like making a big song. Same as cooking, or any creative [thing] – just get the right balance for you. I always finish when I’m comfortable.
It would be hard if I had a regular job and I had to do this in the evenings, but this is all I have to preoccupy myself with apart from reading, watching telly, and computer games. I get to spend an enormous amount of time cutting, drafting, reworking, recording: there’s multiple versions of every song on this record. I’d go in on a Sunday with what I worked on last night, record it, change things, listen to it in the pub on headphones, go home, write more, and repeat until you get it right.
It was easier than that – it was obvious from the start that it needed more uplifting bits than Yawn, and that was well easy to do. All it needed was two uplifting bits!
Were there points you stopped and thought: fuck me, that’s a great melody?
I’ll be honest with you, mate, I’m a pretty big fan of my melody writing. Quite often, the songs that make the albums are the ones where I go ‘fuck, that’s a good melody’. There’s a lot of things on this record, musically, that I’m proud of, and no one asks, so thanks. If someone somehow filmed the best goal you ever scored in five-a-sides, you’d watch it back all the fucking time.
The ones I’m most excited about are the ones that appear fully formed. It’s not the most exciting or interesting melodies but with the verse of ‘I Hold Something In My Hand’, even the lyrics came with the melody. That’s so rare.
The thing I got most excited about was the first song on the album: it’s about falling in love with someone who has shown you a song and I’m referencing that song, in the song I’m writing for this person. I then realised I could take her vocal, the chorus of ‘Baby’, and put it at the end of the song and use a pitch shifter to harmonise it. I was buzzing, like oh, that’s good. Very excited. That isn’t even writing; that’s just producing.
You say you haven’t been this proud of a record since A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart, and by song titles alone, there are a few links. Is there a direct line between the albums for you?
Yeah, that was a conscious decision. With West Kirby [County Primary], I never felt it was a great record. Good songs on it, and it’s of a time when I was listening to a lot of music that sounded like that, but it never felt like I nailed the record. With Yawn, I nailed the record, but as soon as we played it live, I thought: these songs don’t make me happy, these aren’t healing songs; they’re just the worst version of what was happening to me. I was conscious I didn’t want to make another record like Yawn. It was hard to play, but great to write.
It was so annoying: as I made more records, I had to drop songs from A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart in the set. When I realised what was going on in this record, using the same instruments, I felt it would be good to tie the records in, link the records if I could. I pinched a few chord progressions from that record.
So you’ll be suing yourself in the near future?
Do you know what, I wouldn’t put it past me.
Obviously, you worked with Michael Head on his Dear Scott album, but how did this track, and the use of Ulysses come about?
It’s not as grandiose as anyone would think. We were making Mick’s album and I knew I needed a track around four or five that wasn’t me singing, and that would hint at ‘This Can’t Go On’. I had stopped writing for the record and I was playing around on samplers and having fun. I came up with this piece of music, wrote it in three hours: that was Sunday, Mick was in on Monday, and I asked if he’d do spoken word over it.
I asked if he’d write something for it and he was like, ‘yes lad, no problem’. Comes in the next day, hasn’t even brought his notebook, so I grabbed Ulysses from the shelf in the studio. I’ve never read it – I don’t know why it’s there – and thought, go to the back page, that’s as good as any. What’s good is that it’s less about Ulysses, more about saying to Mick Head ‘read in time’ without me using the word ‘hip hop’ and watching him get into it. Two or three takes and that was it, I was getting him to read like a kid, and he got it. The only reason it’s called ‘…And The Sea’ is that he turned it into the hook. It’s beautiful.
Without all the production work with other artists in recent years, could you have made this record?
Yeah, but it’s easy to palm off! For the purposes of a good answer, no, I couldn’t have. There were moments when I was working on Dear Scott and struggling with Yawn and thinking, why am I not making music like this? Something dramatic and beautiful that gives me hope?
Working with Saint Saviour, as I’ve mentioned, has me on my toes. There’s no one I’ve met who can marry a lyric and melody so perfectly, so effortlessly. I consider that one of the great crafts. Mick can do it beautifully but Saint, man. Working with people informed this record as much as anything. I owe a lot to many people; anyone who books to work with me.
It gives me confidence, a sense of being, that translates into music, and my self-esteem is built largely on being good at music. Also, having my own studio which is 15 minutes’ walk from my house. Some of the people I work with, even Mick, only get about five weeks to make an album. That’s a lot these days, but I can go three years. I’m working around that – it’s not three straight years – I’m not Metallica!
Was it harder to produce for child or adult musicians?
There’s no difference whatsoever, although you can reason with children. There are some musicians that are like working with kids, in a beautiful way – there’s no point in trying to harness their energy. Mick’s like a kid in the studio, very childish – he’s serious, does all his work at home, but when he’s in the studio he’s dancing and you have to let him do it.
If he turns up and hasn’t done his homework, which is his lyrics, which is all the fucking time with Mick Head, it’s got to be a joke. I know what it’s like, you’ve got to get it right, but Mick is like a kid. Some musicians, though, sometimes you wanna…[he makes a swatting gesture and laughs].
I assume you weren’t in the studio with Elton John (for the Yard Act track, ‘100% Endurance’) but you’d have sorted him out if needs be?
I was escorted out of the building before Elton turned up: everyone was apart from Yard Act. He had that big tour coming up and he was still worried about covid. [Affected gravelly voice] ‘I wanna work with that band from the north, get them down here, bring that little fat scouse one as well.’ Great fun.
It’s not been that long since you worked with Yard Act on ‘The Trapper’s Pelts’ and look at them now.
Testament to loving something, and you get a shot, and not letting it go. You could argue Yard Act could take a weekend off, but fair fucks to you lads, go get it. What else are they going to do? They’re from Leeds. ‘100% Endurance’ is one of my favourite songs of the last decade, or even longer. It’s brilliant.
In your own words, Iechyd Da is your ‘most produced record’. Have you any thoughts on how you’ll bring the album to life on tour?
You’ve got to be aware it can’t be exactly the same. We’ve done two shows with the new line-up: I’ve added the cellist; my keyboard player is dextrous and can play two things at once; Liam is solely on slide guitar; Nathaniel and Ev can do the harmonies. These are things I never had before. There’ll be songs we won’t do.
We have an SPD-SX [sampling pad] thing for ‘This Can’t Go On’: I don’t want to play in a small venue and people hear kids on backing tracks ,but we use it on that track. It has a cool intro and I want all those Mellotrons and strings to be in it live: that’s the one, everyone loves it, no one is going to complain. With ‘It’s Today Again’, if we do it, it’ll be a smaller band version. The band can’t half play at the minute, though, and we’re reworking old songs –I want to enjoy the gig like an audience.
My audiences are great, wonderful, but they’re not there to headbang and lash pints around. They’re there to check I’m alright, to hear us live, do a bit of filming. Obviously, you have cities that are a slight exception [he means Glasgow] but sometimes [with past gigs] I’d be rocking on the guitar and then look up and think: I’m the only one sweating here! I don’t want to play ‘Two To Birkenhead’ or ‘Mither’ all the time: the aim is to write so many good songs that I can play a calm set where we play nice songs.
I’ve also realised recently how much colour affects me, so we’re not having lights, we’re having one tone. I know some people want to see me, stand at the back, don’t want to be twatted like that, so maybe the colour of the house on the album cover, we can chill out and enjoy it.
There is a duality to your fanbase, isn’t there? The football lads and the people who love the orchestral stuff.
It’s mad, innit? The only issue with the duality is, I need to find a way to make it known to everyone that I get messages from people saying ‘my anxiety or depression makes me unable to attend or my friend couldn’t go or I was a bit intimidated that day’, and I get messages saying, ‘I nearly didn’t come but I’m so glad it did’. And my only issue with the oi-oi ‘Two To Birkenhead’ brigade and people who get leathered and talk is they need to know there’s people in my crowds who are uncomfortable, who should come to a gig and feel comfortable.
I’m not sure how to do that yet, but we’ll get there. It might be a case of ‘reserve your shit, we’ll do Birkenhead at the end’, and if anyone wants to leave before that, they can. What we need at gigs is like a football stadium, with a standing area and seated bit. It’s not hard; we’ve just got to think about it for a bit.
It feels like you play a different venue in Glasgow every time you come back. Are you not allowed to return to the places you’ve played before?
Fuck off, haha! I don’t have anything to do with any of that! It’s funny when you post a tour and you get the inevitable ‘No Newcastle?’ There’s a temptation to reply, ‘do you see the word Newcastle?’ I don’t say, ‘I’m not playing there’ – c’mon lads, I don’t know! ‘No Australia?’ No, there’s no chance of that mate, more chance of all you coming to West Kirby than me going there.
March 2024 looks busy for you, but so far, the rest of the year is more open – do you have things lined up that you cannot announce yet?
Here’s the reality: I’m worried about it financially, like the rest of the world. I cannot book any production for the next few months as I’m promoting an album, and production pays my bills. We don’t have much booked in from April onwards. I’ll get a bit from the gigs and PRS will be better this year, but my main focus is the studio. I need some jobs, some things to start coming in, but that’s the nature of this work. You can feel like that and then three people want to book in at the same time.
There’s a couple of secret things I can’t mention that if they come off, I’ll be buzzing. But chances are, I’ll do this tour and hopefully a lot of production work. My annoyance is, I worked so much last year and spunked it all on ale. I’m out of it now, but I worked my arse off and I didn’t save a fucking penny of it.
How do your music chord books go down with your audience?
That’s a huge help, that. I couldn’t tell you the numbers, but I know the hard work of me sitting down doing it is worth it. I’d say Patreon is the thing that has changed my life the most. The money which comes in per month – I don’t see it, it goes straight out to pay for the studio – and without that, things would have been really tight.
You can’t pretend Spotify aren’t skullfucking us. It’s a great thing, I use it myself, but with the political side and what it’s grown into, it’s disgraceful that we aren’t getting paid for our music on that platform, the biggest platform in the world. I should make more of a stand against it, but you’re beholden to it. People know Spotify is shafting us: it’s easier for me to mention it now as I’m getting radio play, and they pay you.
I’m looking at £12 a minute on 6 Music, so for a three-minute song, that’s £36 a play versus £0.007 a play [on Spotify]. That’s just numbers and how twisted it is, but what am I gonna do, start my own streaming service? Nah!
All photo credits: Marieke Macklon