Thug Entrancer: Interview
“I don’t like what it takes to be a musician in this day and age.”
In recent months, Ryan McRyhew has returned to Denver after a two-year stint on the South side of Chicago, where he lived with his wife, Kristi Schaefer, as she completed a grad-school program in social work. We’d crossed paths many times over the years prior, mostly at Rhinoceropolis, the fabled DIY venue located in the Rino district of Denver, where he was either performing or sitting behind a table selling tapes from his Laser Palace label while some other youngster with a sampler was bouncing off the walls on the other end of the room. McRyhew’s musical career, though refined and developed in Chicago during this time, was born and raised in Colorado. He started out channeling his obsessions with goth and industrial noise through chopped beats in a duo called BDRMPPL and eventually hit a stride providing the musical underbelly for Hideous Men, a long-running project between him and his wife.
Fast-forward to 2013 and McRyhew was just starting to scratch the surface on a new musical identity that would become Thug Entrancer. The project had the bounce of juke and footwork, but with a dream-like lucidity that came with using polyrhythms, odd time signatures, and breathing dynamics. After a string of small-run cassettes and digital releases, the Thug Entrancer guise caught the attention of Daniel Lopatin and his Software imprint, resulting in this year’s outstanding debut full-length album, Death After Life.
Behind the neoprene veneer of McRyhew’s music, steeped in the plastic, metallic textures of synthesizers and programmed beats, is a real human being with a little round belly; a small nose; short, brown hair; and lips that are drawn with a nearly permanent smile. McRhyhew, who is playing a handful of shows this week, is discovering the importance of living life in the moment while realizing his spiritual self through music, and he recently chatted about this and more with Tiny Mix Tapes.
So how does it feel to have the album out there?
It feels great. It’s very surreal for me right now to have attention on this very personal process of mine. This record that I finished a year ago, too, that’s been sort of dormant for about a year, and then now it’s… It just feels good that it’s in someone else’s ears.
Was it something that you left alone for a while?
I think making it was about a two-month process, but it was just me recording nightly, dialing in these songs in a live setting…
You’ve had a hand in so many different projects over the years. Does it feel like you’re settling into something that resembles a main focus, or will there ever be such a thing in your life?
As far as I can say, this is absolutely my focus. I mean, the whole preface of Thug Entrancer was that it was music that I always wanted to make, but never felt like it was appropriate to make. Living in Denver, there was always this sense of having your hand in so many different genres and being influenced by so many different things that finally I just got to dial in and focus on this one thing. And still, the record is all over the place in terms of electronic styles and what I’m into and influenced by. But it’s definitely the most focused, instinctual record I’ve ever made.
Did you feel like in some ways you had to isolate yourself to get it there?
The record was really the sum of me living in Chicago and having that isolation. When Kristi and I moved out there, I knew one person and we had only been to Chicago twice, so we moved out there and she jumped straight into grad school and I had all this time to just develop. Really, my first few months there, I didn’t make any music, I just absorbed my surroundings, which is kind of a new process for me because being here I was playing so often and so involved in putting on shows and releasing things through Laser Palace and being intentional about Denver being this big deal, you know? So I uprooted, moved to this lonely island of Chicago and developed from there. It was an intentional isolation, but it also is a huge city and coming from Denver, it was pretty overwhelming to navigate.
So are you happy being back in Denver now? Are you still feeling that sense of isolation here as well, or are you feeling the itch to reintegrate yourself into more collaborative projects?
I feel [that isolation] here as well, mostly because a lot of my old community left around the same time I left. Things have changed so rapidly here, and I think when you’ve had an experience and then you come back to a place with that experience, it’s very hard to translate. I had this intense… the last two-and-a-half years of my life have been so intense and incredible, but how do you even begin to communicate that to people who weren’t there with you and didn’t go through it? It’s very weird, this weekend will be the first weekend I’ve had here in Colorado. I’ve been flying every weekend of the year. So in a lot of ways I don’t really feel physically connected to this space at all. It’s odd.
I’m not embracing death fully, but not fully being afraid of it and knowing that that’s the thing that you and I have in common, and that we all have in common in this room. You know, we’re all going to die.
It has changed a lot. What are some of the positive things you’ve seen since you’ve come back? Is there anything negative that you’ve noticed?
On the positive tip, it’s so cool to come back and see all these new faces making new art and music. There’s so many young kids here that I think came up in the past few years when I wasn’t around, living at Rhino[ceropolis] and doing these really creative things, and I think that’s so inspiring. But on the flip side of that, I feel so disconnected from it. Part of it has to do with my age. I think at this point I didn’t want to continue the DIY thing forever. I love it, I love it with all my heart; it’s where I came from. But there’s a bit of maturity and dialing-in, and figuring out your identity and developing it instead of being so aware of what’s going on around you, and so focused on putting a community on the map. Because Denver has this isolation, it has this sense of urgency to show the world that it is this magical place. And I think it is. It really is. But the older you get the more you’re just kind of like, “It is magical. So is Des Moines, IA, and New York; so is California.” There’s all these little hubs of magical creativity that I don’t think are more important than any other.
It’s a lifestyle thing too, man. I mean, I don’t want to hang out in warehouses until four in the morning anymore.
It can be disappointing but it’s also a fact of life. I’m constantly embarrassed about all the great stuff I’m missing.
I feel like at this point my politics and my art and my identity have become a lot more subversive, which I feel is a little more impactful. It’s a little more malleable and I’m able to reach out to people beyond warehouse walls and really connect with people.
Like that experience has made your message stronger.
Absolutely, I feel like it’s just a little more… permanent in that way, because I’m able to communicate with everyone and meet people where they’re coming from and try to relate that to what I do. Especially with this record, I’ve had so much attention from people who would never listen to this kind of music. But they embraced it for some reason that I’m not aware of. I’ll meet people at shows that are just, like, “I just got off of work and wanted to check it out. I read some review on Tiny Mix Tapes or whatever, and I came to the show…” And they’re completely unaware of my process or the people I’m associated with… and I love that so much because I feel like I’m doing a good job. If I’m able to trick people into experiencing something experimental or progressive or weird, and they don’t really feel alienated by it, I feel like that’s awesome to me. That’s the kind of the thing that I’ve always wanted.
How old are you now?
I just turned 30.
Where did you see yourself at 30, 10 years ago?
Honestly, right here pretty much. I never felt very comfortable in most of my… you know, driving around, playing DIY spaces and living this sort of punk, travel-music life. I never felt comfortable with it, and I always saw myself as always making music. That’s all I’ve ever known for my entire life is just how to make music, and I think that’s why I’ve adapted into different projects and different identities. Because things change but I just want to keep going… I started BDRMPPL making harsh sampled noise with a little bit of rhythm, and it was so sloppy and it was so punk, but I always wanted to refine myself and refine the sounds and have this — not necessarily an intellectual relationship with sound, but a little bit more intimate. That’s what I’ve been working toward this whole time, where I see myself now. [laughs] — Or back then.
You were talking about your travel schedule a little bit earlier… That is a completely new thing for you. How are you adapting to the schedule? You’re a professional web-developer, right? Is this getting in the way of your job? Do you see that as your profession still?
I feel like they’re very… they’re very related and supportive of each other because if I didn’t have that consistent, 9-to-5 sort of thing, I’d probably… I dunno, I need stability to function.
Are you employed by someone, or do you have your own LLC or something like that?
Yeah, no, I work for this company called The Arland Group that’s a creative agency based out of St. Louis, and has an office in Denver. So I’ve worked with them and I uprooted and went to Chicago, kept the same job. I built this relationship with them where they really respect the fact that I am a musician, and [as] I see it they’re definitely not competing, I just see them as two facets of my life that aren’t related. I think it’s really hard to be a sustainable musician without bending really hard. I’ve never wanted to just make a record just to make money or know that this is the safe thing that’s gonna secure me a lifestyle. I just can’t really commit to that. It’s crazy, traveling a lot; it’s super-hard. I was just in New York and my flight got cancelled because of the storms out there, so Kristi and I flew out at midnight, got in at 6 in the morning, took the train to the Mexican Summer office, did a Boiler Room set, and then hung out for like three hours, and went to the venue, did a set then, and then fell asleep. So that was my weekend; not sleeping and traveling a lot. Which is pretty taxing, you know, but I love it. I’m so eager to show this record and show my music and style and connect to people. Again, I just love all the weird experiences that come with being a musician. It takes you to the weirdest places because people love music and they always want to facilitate it, but they don’t necessarily have the right means… You just gotta meet people halfway and see if they’re a good fit. Fortunately everything has been 100 percent legit with transit and stuff, and again I think it comes back to building up this history that I’ve been working toward. I think it’d be hard if I just came out, made this record, and no one really knew of me prior, or I didn’t have a good body of work to reference before. I don’t think a lot of people are digging into what I’ve done in the past, but I think that it’s all there and I know how to facilitate because of my history of working.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the concept of futurism in music, especially after watching the video Milton Melvin Croissant III (MMCIII, Buddy) did. His work is always in that same, basic visual style, and I’ve always related the two — his visual style and your music. Somehow that connection makes a lot of sense. A lot of the talk about your music and your record is in terms of the history of electronic music, what’s been done in the past. But I think about “Death After Life” more in terms of the future of electronic music. Is there some kind of division there, or… I don’t really know what my question is, it’s more like I want to talk about it.
Yeah, absolutely, I think that’s a great question because when you work with electronic music, it’s such a new concept for people… It isn’t, but it is if you consider the burst of electronic artists and solo electronic artists performing, getting booked like bands would normally do. That’s a phenomenon [of] the last 20 years. It was a lot harder to gain a good reputation as a musician if you were solely doing it electronically, without some sort of niche attachment to it. But I don’t feel like my music is nostalgic in any way, or intentionally so — I could see that it could be [considered that way] because of the tools that I use. But there is this sense of archaeological awareness of electronic music solely because I grew up listening to musique concrete and really, really old electronic music and kind of skipped 20 years of it. I went from that to early-2000s with Fort Thunder and all these crazy noise people, and I missed House when it was happening when I was younger.
Like 90s stuff, Chicago House and stuff like that?
Yeah, it just never resonated with me. And it wasn’t until I started utilizing these tools and then tracing back the development, like the 808 — Where did something like this come from? I always came from a pretty industrial noise aesthetic, so that was my attachment to it, but if you dig into it and see House music (which really was the influence of all music happening now — there’s House in every song) — it came from out of nowhere. It came from the Chicago club scene where disco was dying down, DJs were just showing up with drum machines and playing jams to people. But it felt like a really isolated experience. The crux of what I’m doing is being aware of House, being aware of how electronic music was made, but really trying to have my own identity with it, my own relationship with these instruments. There is this historical sound to it, but I feel like the rhythms and the textures are very futuristic sounding.
I always think of Chiba City and this dystopian landscape… like an empty club where everyone has died and it has this record on repeat.
Is Thug Entrancer some kind of a character that’s not you? And if that is true, I think this music exists in his world. Do you see images like what MMCIII creates when you’re composing your music, or is that by chance that he just nails it?
I think as far as Thug Entrancer being an identity, there’s so much cyber-punk influence. Growing up and reading William Gibson, and even… I’m a total nerd, I used to play Shadow Run, role-playing game shit, and a part of me really loves this fictional world that has such an interesting aesthetic to it, and I think that Thug Entrancer definitely has an identity that is separate. It is a very futuristic, cyber-punk-influenced soundtrack. But I think I’m so based in reality that I prefer not to play into that as much. I think when I’m composing, there are visual elements. I always think of Chiba City and this dystopian landscape… like an empty club where everyone has died and it has this record on repeat. I definitely hear that, and I visualize that when I’m composing. But my compositional methods are so technical that that becomes the focus… It becomes a spiritual process for me, a very meditative process. I get lost in my songs when I’m making them. Everything on the record is improvised. Some of those tracks I recorded one-off, like the single, “Death After Life,” I did that and I never did it again. It was just one night, I got really engrossed in my world of electronics, and that’s the result of it. It’s a very personal, intentional, spiritual journey when I’m making these songs. So when it comes to Buddy and I collaborating, we really just connect. We’re great friends, so we always have these crazy conversations about, “Yeah this would be cool..”
With that “Netrun” video, there was very little collaboration. He would show me stuff and I was like, “Yeah this is perfect, this looks great.” But with this last video, I had a good concept, and we talked about the concept and what it meant to us, and then it deviated so far into how Buddy does things and Buddy’s identity with art… He told me after the fact that it was his honest attempt at recreating what it’s like in my brain. So that is the landscape of my brain and the motivation of my brain, and the little dude at the end is my spiritual self, and my driving force, and that was the motivation behind it.
One thing I really liked about his video and all of Buddy’s work is that a lot of people think of cybernetics and the technology era that we live in as being a very claustrophobic and closed system, but he sort of opens it up into these wide vistas. I think your music moves fluidly through those environments.
I think it’s awareness of space, and how to make space and physical landscapes be interesting on their own. With the record, or with that song, it’s a very minimal composition, but it’s the relationship between the things going on that makes it significant, and his visuals are like that; it’s not this or that, it’s the vibe that he has created that makes it engaging.
When you were done with that first track, did you know right away that it was called “Death After Life”?
I knew before I even made the record or even started the record that that’s… I knew I wanted the record to be about that.