Interview: Ryan Patterson (Coliseum)
Here’s a phrase I haven’t heard associated with Louisville’s Coliseum: pop-punk. I think it’s an apt descriptor, even though guitarist, singer and founding member Ryan Patterson has helmed the band through a brief tenure on Relapse. I don’t mean it as a pejorative; Patterson writes songs that make you want to holler along and raise your fist. In another world where Hüsker Dü were the shape of radio rock in the '90s, Coliseum would be an arena act, one that’s managed to infuse post-punk and tone chasing noise rock into melodic hardcore.
In this timeline, however, Patterson is about to take his power trio on a mid-sized venue tour in support of their excellent fourth album, Anxiety’s Kiss. I chatted with the verbose-but-thoughtful frontman about what makes his new album, and his band, tick.
How much have you talked about the new record so far?
A bit. I’ve done eight to 10 interviews so far.
What sorts of things are people asking you about?
It varies from things about recording and things about the songwriting process to general things about the progression of the band. [People ask] average questions about the change of the sound of the band, which is something we talk about pretty much every time a record comes out, or other things about song subjects, song lyrics and the title of the album. I don’t generally find it too redundant. Some questions are redundant and maybe a little tiresome, but I generally enjoy it. It gives me time to kind of reflect on it. I don’t sit around reflecting on the process or the particulars of the record or the songs like this. I don’t sit around thinking about it in these ways on my own time. So, I like it. I like hearing other people’s perspectives on it, in particular. It gives me some insight into how the songs are perceived. Usually, if it’s a good interaction or if I’m in the right spot, it gives me some perspective that I didn’t go in with. So, I appreciate the process, actually. I do enjoy it.
That’s interesting that you said you don’t reflect on your stuff too much. I’ve seen you live several times and an impression that I’ve walked away with is that you seem like the sort of man who does think about his own work a lot. Your work always seems considered; that’s not necessarily the case with a lot of hard rock bands.
I think it’s considered, but every little aspect isn’t considered after the fact in the way that you might ask about in an interview question. I don’t necessarily sit there and think about exactly how I would explain a song or exactly how we all contribute to the record or something like that. Those kinds of things happen. I don’t really sit back and say, “How did we all contribute to that? What production style did Jay use on the record? How are we as a group connecting?” I do reflect on what we do as a group, in the micro and the macro, and that is important to me. I appreciate that that is obvious to somebody else: that it’s shown that it’s important to us. It’s not just something that’s frivolous or done solely for entertainment: it’s something that’s done because we love it. It’s very much of our hearts, our DNA and our passion. It’s what drives me. I do think a lot about it; I’m certainly obsessed with it and passionate about it, but there are things that I don’t think about in the same way that an interviewer or a reviewer might. Someone hears our new record and says, “Oh, I didn’t expect you to take this direction.” I don’t really know what that direction is because that’s just my life, my process, where I’m at and what came out of us. That’s interesting for me to hear whether I agree or disagree with it. It’s always interesting to hear someone else’s take on our music. Sometimes, it might even annoy me or piss me off, but it’s still interesting. Those are the kinds of things that I find intriguing. You anticipate that when you have a new record, but there’s also a sense of dread because, inevitably, anything you do is sometimes misinterpreted as much as it’s understood in the way you hoped it would be.
You’ve done a record on Relapse, so you’re sort of, by hook or by crook, married to the metal underground. In that particular scene, I think there’s a lot of purposeful obscurity to the point where people want their music to be able to be interpreted in a lot of ways. I’ve always thought of Coliseum as a band that’s straightforward in a good way. On the song “Wrong Goodbye” from the new record, I got a one-to-one reaction to the news — it seemed like a song about police violence and the way communities interact with police. It didn’t take a lot of forebrain work for me to start interacting with the song. I sort of appreciate that.
I think there’s elements of being straightforward and elements of mystery. I appreciate both. “Wrong Goodbye” is a very straightforward song — it’s simple and stripped-down musically. We had that moment where that was just what came out. I wouldn’t really call it a poppy song, but it’s got a very peppy vibe. I kind of liked the idea of this very simple, angry, anti-cop sentiment paired with that music. It’s simple, but, like you said, it’s not stupid. It’s not dimwitted, but yeah: it’s straightforward. That’s always kind of been important to me with the band. We’ve always had big choruses. We’ve pretty much always had the name of the song be the name of the chorus. When we’ve failed as a band is when we’ve obscured or lost that; when we’ve done our best work is when we’ve remained catchy and melodic and taken that into new realms without becoming over complicated. I think the first four songs on the record are all very straightforward and simple in their concepts, which doesn’t make them any less important to me. [They feature] ideas of empathy, struggle, police violence and punk as a culture — overall, straightforward ideas that are very important to me. From there, the record goes into more obscure and abstract ideas.
You mentioned points where you think you missed the mark. I’m interested in where you think those points might be.
I hate to harp on those things because those are more private to me. Where I think I’ve, I wouldn’t say failed, but maybe stumbled, is where I look back and don’t particularly love something we did. I don’t really want to say [which songs] because that’s for me and that’s my personal relationship with a song. Someone else has a personal relationship with a song or a record and I wouldn’t want to tarnish that by saying, “Yeah, I think this song sucks.” That may be someone’s favorite song of ours. I just wouldn’t want to do that. I don’t like that idea. I don’t know if it would be cross, cruel or insensitive of me. Maybe it’s putting too much stock in myself to think that it would matter to anyone what I thought about that. That’s just my personal relationship with a song or with a record or whatever. Of course, I loved and completely stood by everything we did at every moment we did it. As time goes on, you have a different relationship with everything. We’ve been a band for a long time and we’ve made a lot of fucking songs. I certainly don’t think every song we’ve ever done is our best work, but I think that’s good — I think that’s what challenges me and us to make better work. That’s why I think we’ve done better work each time.
That’s my personal feeling, like every band. I think we keep doing better and better. At least from House with a Curse on, from the more melodic, modern era of Coliseum on, I think it’s a pretty easy argument to win — that we’ve gotten better with each record — and that’s cool. That’s because each time I look back and say, “Okay. I’d like to do this better or that better. I want to be a better singer. I want to be a better songwriter. I want to be a better guitarist. I want to bring this element in.” So, it’s not even saying I don’t like a song or whatever. It’s just challenging myself to do better or pushing myself to try something new. I hate to dodge the question, but that’s kind of like looking at your face and saying, “I don’t like my eyebrows.” Everybody has those personal things about themselves, and Coliseum is so much a part of me. I could pick through those inconsistencies throughout our history and harp on them, but that’s more of my private feelings. I don’t really want to say anything that might adjust anyone else’s feelings on our history or on a record based on how I might feel about it now.
I definitely agree with you that from House with a Curse on I’ve found myself getting more and more drawn to your work. I was aware of Coliseum from the Goddamage EP on, but House with a Curse really hooked me and Sister Faith really, really hooked me. Sister Faith and Anxiety’s Kiss seem paired. They seem of a kind to me.
Yeah, I agree. They have the same lineup. They’re the only two full-lengths in Coliseum’s history that have the same lineup, which is part of why the records came in relatively quick succession. We recorded Sister Faith, it came out and we toured on it for close to a year. We were kind of planning out the following year, and I said to Carter and Kayhan, “I want to write another record.” They were like, “Really? Already? The other one came out less than a year ago.” I’m like, “Yeah, I know, but we should just jump into this.” I just felt like there was something really special with the three of us. I felt like Sister Faith hit on something that I’ve been wanting for a long time.
The thing I kept saying with that record was, “It’s a record I’ve been going to make for my entire life.” If you had asked what that record was going to be, I couldn’t have told you. But it felt like an achievement in a different way than anything else I had done up to that point. I didn’t want to lose that energy, risk us taking a break and somebody losing interest or any number of things that happen with bands. So, I just pushed us to immediately start writing and that’s what we did.
Sister Faith came out, we toured, we took a break for the winter, we went to Australia, we started writing, we did all this tenth anniversary stuff, we wrote some more and then we recorded Anxiety’s Kiss two years to the day of when we recorded Sister Faith. It was the same studio and we were back with J. Robbin, the same producer. We stayed in the same house in Baltimore where we had stayed for Sister Faith. Everything was the same, just two years later. [We used] the same equipment. We just had new songs and a higher level of energy. I think everybody was operating on a higher level. Everybody brought more to the table and wrote more. I think I sang better and I think we all performed better. It was enough songs because we wanted it to be more of a catered, focused experience.
On every record, there’s always a few songs that kind of get lost in the shuffle, no matter what you do. There’s always a song or two that ends up feeling like, “Oh, yeah — that song. I kind of forgot that song is on the record.” That probably will happen with this record, too. I don’t know. But, we were like, “Let’s just put fucking 10 songs on the record.” We’ve always had more than 10 songs on our records, but we said, “Let’s just put 10 songs. Let’s make it really concise.” That’s why they’re a pair. They have the same energy level because we didn’t let that energy level stop. I feel like Sister Faith is really special and [represents] a really beautiful moment, but I do feel like on Anxiety’s Kiss we were able to be even better. We were able to kind of take the highlights of Sister Faith and make a record of those highlights — of course it’s brand new, so it feels like that. That’s why they’re of a pair. I think that happened because we didn’t stop. It’s cool that you picked up on that. That was the idea.
I’m sure someone has mentioned this before me, but the first thing that really sticks out on Anxiety’s Kiss is Kayhan’s bass. It’s like you’ve finally found the right counterweight to your guitar tone.
Yeah, it’s weird — the first thing everybody who hears the record says is, “Whoa, the bass.” People will write me and say, “What’s the bass setup on this record?” I’m like, “It’s just a Squier bass. It’s the cheapest bass you can buy.” It’s got nice pickups and [we used] an Orange head, but we didn’t do anything crazy. He’s an amazing bass player. He and Carter have been playing together since they were, like, nine or 10 years old. Yes: they are a perfect rhythm section. They make me a better guitar player by allowing me to do whatever I want to do. They’re there and they just completely hold these songs together. I can make these textures and sounds and melodic qualities on top. To me it’s so beautiful, freeing and fun. It’s the least I’ve ever had to think about playing; I can let go and that’s really, really great. It’s cool that you say that. It’s cool that friends of mine, the first people outside of our close group that heard it, that was the first thing they said: “Whoa, the bass.” It wasn’t really intentional. We’re just a three-piece, so you want everybody to have their focus. I think that’s part of the idea of the record, too. We normally make a big deal about this and compress releases or whatever. This is the first record we’ve done in a long time with no guests. There’s nobody outside of the band, other than J., who appears on the record. So, that was another thing — we didn’t want to clutter it. Sister Faith has a lot of guests, which is really cool, but we didn’t want all that extra stuff. I really wanted the three of us to all have our parts, personalities and performances shine. Those guys sing a lot on it. That’s cool that that is something that is audible when you hear the record.
It seems like a lot of people just sort of ignore the bass as an instrument. There’s a certain physicality to Anxiety’s Kiss because the bass feels so prominent in it. That might have been kind of lacking on House with a Curse, where it’s a bit more atmospheric. Anxiety’s Kiss is grounded.
We were starting this process [back then]. House with a Curse was a big transition for us. Mike was a rad bass player, but he and Kayhan are very different bass players. I’m not a bass player but I wrote most of the bass parts on House with a Curse. Most of House with a Curse was demoed by me and brought to the band. I think that was something we had to do to get where we are now. There are songs that Kayhan brought in that were just written on bass, so the guitar parts are essentially texture or melodies on top of that. I don’t see how people exist as trios without the bass that way. There’s just three of us. To me, the bass should almost never — or very rarely — follow the guitar. That was something we had to get out of. We did a lot of that back on, like, No Salvation. You realize after a while, “Well, fuck. That just gets boring.” So, we had to kind of reinvent ourselves as a band and realize that the rhythm section had to be the foundation. That is the case with a lot of my favorite bands. Certainly, every band that I love that’s a trio is held down by the bass and drums. So, we had to do that. By this point, those guys are the absolute foundation of the band.
I saw you guys open for Old Man Gloom a bit ago, and you had a piece of equipment I didn’t see on the Sister Faith tour. What is that machine and why is it so important to what you’re doing right now sonically?
That’s actually just the synthesizer. It’s just an Arturia MiniBrute synthesizer. It’s basically just the synth that you hear in the opening of “We Are the Water,” at the beginning of the record. You can kind of hear it throughout the record on “Wrong Goodbye” and “Course Correction.” Maybe it’s on almost every song on the record. But the guitar is not going through that or anything. It’s going through the PA; it’s a separate instrument. So, we added that. There was a different synth I used for a while. There’s some synth on Sister Faith — there’s some on “Black Magic Punks,” “Everything in Glass” and some other stuff. I used a different synth for a few tours. It was something I just kind of wanted to bring in. Initially it was for textures within songs. Then, I wanted to play a keyed synth so we could have it be more of a musical thing. Once again, that’s [related to] expanding the sound as a trio without adding other people. We just try to keep things relatively simple because we’re a small band. It’s not like we have a bunch of roadies or people to bring stuff out, so we’re kind of throwing everything together. When you saw us we were using Old Man Gloom’s backline. It was larger amps than I use but more stripped down — less amps than I use with less features.
Well you said you were trying to not think about what you’re playing.
It’s not that I don’t think about what I do. Of course I think about it. It’s more in terms of playing once the parts are written and once we’re performing — when it becomes second nature. It becomes very easy in a good way. It becomes something where I feel like we can kind of go off the script a bit and explore a little bit. Playing live, I can be not as concerned about holding it together.
I think there was a long time early on in the band where the songs were more riff-based. I was responsible for holding the songs together because I was the one playing the riffs. That was kind of a pain in the ass. It’s not that it wasn’t fun, but there was kind of a point where I was like, “Okay, I’m just singing and playing riffs.” It’s not that it’s not musical, and it’s not that it’s not good, but sometimes it just wasn’t that enjoyable. It felt like it was a lot of work to keep the train on the tracks. Now, I feel like the train is welded to the tracks but still moving forward. I can do these other things. But, in terms of writing, performing and what is on the record, I certainly think about it a lot. I’ve spent many, many, many, many years thinking about what I play on guitar and how to play guitar. [I even think a lot about] signal path. That’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the years: pedals, amps and how the signal flows through all that. [I think about] how it’s split and divided and where it goes. If you have a modulating effect here and a distortion here, [I consider,] “Which comes first? How do they affect each other?” I’ve wanted to have a lot more interesting guitar sounds. For a long number of years, I just wanted to capture my guitar sound. I didn’t get good studios or good people. Maybe I didn’t know what I was doing as much in terms of sound. I was always trying to find my sound or I didn’t know if my sound had been captured on a record. Then, at one point, I thought, “I think I fucking captured some good guitar sounds. I’ve got a lot of records that I’ve done with a lot of good guitar sounds. I’m kind of tired of having a record where, across the whole fucking record, it’s the same guitar sound.” Now, I want to have lots of different sounds — either within one song or within the whole record. That’s been more of a goal for me. On Sister Faith and on Anxiety’s Kiss, the idea is to have a lot of varied guitar sounds. [I used] a lot of different amps, guitars and pedals to make things more interesting. There’s a lot more feedback, textures and things like that. So, yeah: I’ve thought about it a lot.
I’m not a guy who ever took a guitar lesson. I barely ever learned to play anyone else’s songs. I mean, seriously — I learned some Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü and Ramones. I don’t know how to play barely any other songs besides those. I know how to play the songs we’ve learned to play as cover songs, but other than that I only know how to play the songs I’ve written. Over the past seven to eight years, I’ve worked hard to develop something that is more of a specific style of my own. Since House of a Curse and onward, I’ve tried to kind of get away from chords and more into single notes and the things I really like about guitar, which aren’t necessarily guitar solos. I don’t really like a lot of fast-moving notes. I like notes that are more melodic and moving in a flowing kind of way. I really like to hear long, sustained notes, so you’ll hear those kinds of things. So, those are the kinds of things I feel like I’ve really worked on, developed and thought about.
It’s kind of like what you were saying: it’s definitely very considered. It’s probably overly considered. I’ve had to [come to] understand what I like in order to make the music that I want to make and to not feel frustrated with the music I’m making. I made music when I was younger where it didn’t come out the way I wanted; I was in a band and it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. In Coliseum, there certainly have been points where that was the case. So, I’ve worked to know what I’m doing and to be able to accomplish the ideas that I hear in my head, at least the best of my ability. This has been a bit long-winded, but yes: it’s very thought-out and very considered. After all that work is done, it can be really easy and really fun on stage. I can hit a fucking note and let that note just ring out and sear through the air. It just feels wonderful to me — the sound of a sustaining note through a guitar, a pedal and an amp. That is a really glorious, wonderful thing that I really appreciate. It’s something that I just love to make. Those are the things that I love and I’ve worked hard to be able to make that sound and have it be a part of what I do.
Coliseum’s new tour kicks off tomorrow. Here’s dates:
Fri 06/05/15 Louisville, KY @ The New Vintage w/ Young Widows, Child Bite
Sat 06/06/15 Nashville, TN @ The End w/ Child Bite
Sun 06/07/15 Atlanta, GA @ The Earl w/ Child Bite
Mon 06/08/15 Chapel Hill, NC @ Local 506 w/ Child Bite
Tue 06/09/15 Virginia Beach, VA @ Shaka's Live w/ Child Bite
Wed 06/10/15 Brooklyn, NY @ Saint Vitus w/ Child Bite
Thu 06/11/15 Washington, DC @ Rock & Roll Hotel w/ Child Bite
Fri 06/12/15 Asbury Park, NJ @ Asbury Lanes w/ Child Bite
Sat 06/13/15 Philadelphia, PA @ Kung Fu Necktie w/ Child Bite
Sun 06/14/15 Providence, RI @ Firehouse 13 w/ Child Bite
Mon 06/15/15 Boston, MA @ Middle East Upstairs w/ Child Bite
Tue 06/16/15 Quebec City, QUE @ Sous Sol Du Cercle
Wed 06/17/15 Montreal, QUE @ La Sala Rossa w/ White Lung, Obliterations
Thu 06/18/15 Ottawa, ONT @ Ottawa Explosion / Club SAW
Sat 06/20/15 Toronto, ONT @ NXNE / The Opera House w/ Pentagram
Sun 06/21/15 London, ONT @ Call the Office w/ TV Freaks
Mon 06/22/15 Detroit, MI @ The Loving Touch w/ United Nations
Tue 06/23/15 Cleveland, OH @ Now That's Class w/ United Nations
Wed 06/24/15 Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Café w/ United Nations
Thu 06/25/15 Columbus, OH @ Ace of Cups w/ United Nations
Fri 06/26/15 Chicago, IL @ Subterranean w/ United Nations, RLYR