RYAN McMAHON / CITIZEN STRANGE
by Barry Newman
Copyright 2002 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - #78 - June/02
A giant of a Canadian artist is fine-tuning his next recording project here on the West Coast this summer.
Over the past few years, Ryan McMahon has been writing in relative obscurity on a beach near Ladysmith, occasionally treating nearby Nanaimo to lounge acts or concerts with his acoustic duo or with his four-piece band with guitarist Brad Looyen, under the banner of 'Citizen Strange'.
Last year, after the release of Citizen Strange's formidable first CD 'Sleepness Night', the buzz gradually got bigger... and more doors got busted down.
A larger, touristy-type township to the south - from where crucial cultural & economic decrees affect the fate of serfs from Sooke to Sointula - even got to hear this artist on a couple of occasions, thanks in large part to a cell of well-informed Al Caiola operatives at a clandestine radio station in Victoria.
At risk of being swarmed by a gaggle of civil servants, kabuki repair gangs and taser-brandishing customs occifers, 100.3 The Q's Rick Everett proclaimed 'Sleepless Nights' to be: "one of the finest first efforts the station's ever heard". And by getting Citizen Strange onto this year's ROCKTORIA project, Rick probably waived all subsequent WCB claims incurred by frenzied Furtado fans in the process.
Earlier this year, Georgia Straight called Citizen Strange one of the top 8 acts to see at NewMusicWest.
Ryan McMahon doesn't quite fit the stereotype image of a rock star who has muscled-in on a million models... or a scarfaced poet who saw fire n' rain for 40 years and took to diet lysol & crack-ASA. Frank Zappa warned about the image thing, after music videos stampeded onto mainstage during the early 80's.
When it comes to outright rock, McMahon's vocal delivery matches all known rock gods... with the exception mayhaps, of the nastily-node-gnashed crooner from AC/DC.
Ryan's vocal range, inflection and balance of rasp & clarity, capture and project both the melodic and edge-driven sides of his mature writing style. His lyrics provide the listener with room to conjure & conject without wanting to eject from the riveting roller coaster... as evident in 'Dear Maria', from 'Sleepless Night':
"I have driven down I-5 to find a guarantee and a sleepless night, to see california's coast recline... even eureka in disguise might be nice... i suspect that you'll make progress confused, or dumb, maybe embarassed, no counterpart by your breast through all the routine and through all the habit, DEAR MARIA... the rhythm of your listening ear scarred by hearing me for over a year benevolent and i'm sorry my dear as you read this, i drive and i steer... i'll watch Hollywood bend to it's knees and spread it's art to the other cities not that it's ill in controversy, but i'll place my vote in for placticity DEAR MARIA...it's hard to see you... it's hard to be here"
Ryan describes the lyrics, "about a gutless fella who's had enough of his current situation in life and decides to just up-and-leave one morning. His girl, Maria, will receive a letter when she arrives home from work in the afternoon. Only the song is based on a dream... the fella never actually leaves... only writes down the things that he'd be doing if he weren't stuck in nowheresville... kind of like myself sometimes... only I'd like to think I'd take a few more risks."
Musically, McMahon's material on 'Sleepless Night' wanders the vast soundscape between The Hip, The Cult and a health spa frequented by Jim Morrison.
The diverse talents of guitarist Brad Looyen, bassist Ken Scardina and drummer Billy Hicks, combined with the mix, engineering & production wizardry of Rick Salt at Island Pacific Studios resulted in a ballsy, hard-driving rock record, embellished with spacey, harmony-filled bridges.
"Billy Hicks injected a phenomenal amount of input", added Ryan.
This summer, McMahon is recording a 6 or 7 song EP at Baker Street Studio in Vancouver; with Paul Baker, Hamish Thomson, Tom Dowding, Mike Rogerson on lead guitar... and probably Doug Elliot & Pat Steward.
A notable aspect of Ryan's writing is that most of his material is geared for both rock & acoustic performances. Vocal harmonies are a big part of either presentation.
"The new project will feature more acoustic instruments," says McMahon. As yet untitled, it will be released this winter. Some sample lyrics:
"you don't want to kiss me you only want to frame me and mount me and stuff me and put me on your wall a conversation piece i'll be destined to be listening to the conversations of you all"
Ryan cites many influences.
"I think a lot of Gordon Downie's lyrical work... he's someone in the biz whom I'd really like to meet. I'd like to carry myself with as much intelligence and integrity as he does... even if that sounds like a complete pipe dream. "Tom Waits is an incredibly-gifted storyteller... with many incredible stories to tell.
"Everyone from my generation digs Pearl Jam; it goes without saying. Eddie Vedder has stayed alive long enough to continue singing about what he loves, and with conviction.
"I like anyone who performs with passion and means what they say. I think the audience and most of the record-buying public knows when an artist is bullshitting.
Ryan added, "Seeing a BB King performance in '95 had a big impact on me. His rappore with the audience was amazing!"
Indeed, Ryan's own rappore & wit at a show can be quite captivating. While snapping photos at a recent Citizen Strange acoustic concert, I watched a lost soul who had obviously wandered into the wrong venue, requesting Johnny Cash tunes. Ryan's response to the gal was honest and polite, yet also subtly-amusing to both fans & staff... a fine balance of wit & wisdom which few young entertainers possess (Dave Gogo also has this gift).
Via a few last-minute emails, Ryan and I exchanged some extra "question & answer" things for this article:
BN: What would you say to Jim Morrison if you ran into him at some sleazy bar?
RM: If I met Jim Morrison in a bar, I would first say thanks for being a crazy brilliant dude, then follow up with "I'll buy you a drink if you make sure that John, Robbie & Ray never play with those fuckers from Creed again... they're pissing all over the legacy."
BN: Any advice for other readers who sing, on how to prepare for a concert ... meals, drinks, etc?
RM: Before most shows, I have water & a very light dinner. No caffeine, no beers, no whiskey... I sometimes just guage it on how I feel... but you can never go wrong with water.
BN: Any beefs about the Vancouver Island music scene?
RM: That's tough. It's been really good to me. I've had a lot of cool people nurture me along the way; ever since I was sixteen. More live venues. We need more venues for independent, original artists. Cover bands are great, but it's always nice to stumble into a packed club and discover some new pearl just waiting to be pryed from it's shell by some A&R dude.
BN: What's around the corner?
RM: Expect a new band to re-surface around September. In the meantime, the ROCKTORIA Concert Under The Stars at Centennial Square for 100.3 the Q on July 28.
BN: If you won a huge lottery?
RM: I guess I'd buy a house, fix up my own career, start a record company with some friends... we'd have some weird artists on that label.