Sullen Ray’s first foray into Europe: Inspiration and motivation for BLUE minor

Our very own Sullen Ray has just come back to the States from a European tour with Tarah Who?. From logistical considerations and musical inspiration, we had a chance to pick his ear about the whole experience, and we talk about the future of Sullen Ray as well.

His last single was “Dive”, released on the Villaintine’s 2014 compilation. Listen here!

Sullen Ray and Tarah Who? in Europe

I know originally you were planning to just do a U.S. tour. How did you and Tarah Who? decide to go International instead? Whose idea was it?

Yeah, Tarah Who? and I had planned an early spring tour from San Diego to Seattle! But the opportunity for us to go to Europe came up when Tarah was in contact with friends in Paris. Since Tarah is from Paris, she was a huge part in making that happen. She knew the places that were scheduled for us to play and obviously the area, so we jumped on board a plane and went for it!

It was literally all decided within a week. We emailed the venues we were already scheduled to play here in the US, told them what was going on, and all of them were very excited for us, and said, “No problem!”

Have you been to Europe before the tour? If so, have you played shows there before?

I had not ever been to Europe before, I always dreamed of going, so I took the opportunity!

I’m not particular when it comes to guitars! I don’t care if I have to use a pink Hello Kitty guitar. I was always taught that it’s not the guitar, it’s the player!

How did bringing gear and/or organizing to rent or borrow gear work? I know you play with a lot of pedals and own a lot of gear. What were your must-have pieces of equipment that made it across the pond?

I didn’t bring anything equipment-wise. I quickly learned that in Europe all the venues are backlined! It’s not like here in the US. Usually backlined means that you show up and there’s a crappy drumset and amps that look like they’ve been dropped off a 3 story building.

But in Europe it’s all top of the line equipment with choices: Orange amps, Fenders, Ampeg. You basically choose what you want to use. They do this because there is no room what so ever for bands to bring their own gear. Most venues are down in a basement! It’s actually a very “help the musician out” culture, unlike here, where it’s fend for yourself or die!

Pedal-wise Tarah had a basement full of pedals, and we put together a couple of pedal boards for both of us, and I just used any guitar that was available. I’m not particular when it comes to guitars! I don’t care if I have to use a pink Hello Kitty guitar. I was always taught that it’s not the guitar, it’s the player!

I know you played with various musicians from over there rather than bringing your entire U.S. lineup. How did you all prepare to play leading up to the tour? 

I sent the demos of my music over the World Wide Web to the musicians who were going to play for me! They picked it up quickly and basically the first practice was just to hear us all playing together, them knowing the songs was never an issue… They knew it!

But hearing my music with a whole new feel and intent made me really step back and say “that’s what I want!” instead of always feeling like “ok, this is sort of what I’m going for.”

Did the songs change at all as a result of working with different musicians?

There was a guitar player Pilali, who I really enjoyed playing with! He understood where I was coming from musically, and for me it was the first time I really got to hear it the way it was supposed to be! I was hoping he would have been able to come back with us to help me re-record some stuff, but it didn’t work out!

But hearing my music with a whole new feel and intent made me really step back and say “that’s what I want!” instead of always feeling like “ok, this is sort of what I’m going for.”

All my musical influences are actually from Europe, so to hear Europeans play it made the music sound and feel like I always dreamed it to sound like.

What was your favorite city?

Dublin, Ireland, the Mecca of all my favorite bands: The Cranberries, My Bloody Valentine, U2, Gemma Hayes, Snow Patrol. So when I landed there it felt like I was somewhere special!

But also the whole city is completely based on music. It’s like walking into a venue amusement park! You can feel the music emanating from the streets!

What was your favorite venue? 

Favorite venue was a simple open mic in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s always nice to hear your music completely stripped down to the core to see if it can hold up song-wise, not just fx and hook wise.

Also there was a random guy there who came up and played with me over an impromptu jam. I grew up playing with guys who would literally just tell me the key they were in and you had to come up with your part on the fly (and by part I don’t mean some blues solo through the whole song, I mean an actual cohesive part). It was nice to go back to my roots for a moment!

Sullen Ray in EuropeDo they run shows any differently out there, or is the etiquette of loading in, sound-checking, guest lists, drink tickets, and everything else we sometimes do here the same everywhere you go?

The major difference is the backline. Other than that it’s pretty much the same! If you are used to booking shows here in the US, it would be super easy for you to do the same in Europe! And actually most people speak English, so it can be easy, or at least the same email game we all play here!

One thing is that the sound check for the first band is super early! If you play at 9pm, you are there at 6pm and sound checking at 6:30pm, then you wait!

Now you’re back in L.A. finishing up BLUE minor. Where are you at with that album now?

Well, I learned a ton about myself and the music I want to be playing while I was in Europe, so I came back with refreshed intent to just do it my way, the way I want it to be! So for the past 3 weeks, I have been writing, writing, writing! And in that process, I think the new stuff is coming out more the way I have always visioned it to be.

What makes this recording time special though, is that Dee Clement (from Peachy Keene) has helped me co-write 2 songs for the album. And she will be singing back-up/harmonies and melodies on the entire album. Her writing has really influenced me, and it has been a great blessing to have her write with me, and be more present in this BLUE minor project!

When do you plan to release it? Do you stick to very rigid schedules, or do you try to be flexible?

I plan on releasing BLUE minor in July, with this new EP I want it to be the foundation of what people will be expecting from Sullen Ray.

I do have schedules and goals I want to reach at certain times! But I do have to be flexible because things change! Like this EP BLUE minor… It was originally supposed to be a small 3-4 song EP that had the song “Dive” on it! And BLUE was going to be the title of the full album…

But I ended up falling in love with the name [BLUE minor] and now it’s become the actually album/EP that I’m going to release. Meaning, instead of releasing an EP and then a Full-Album, I’m releasing BLUE minor as the work I want to represent me!

In the year that I have been working on this album, I have written over 32 songs for it and out of those 32 songs I’m only choosing 7 of them to be released. And lo and behold, “Dive” is not one of them! So with all my plans and schedules, I have to be flexible because you need to allow time to process what your true intent as an artist is!

Sullen Ray in EuropeYou did all of the auto-tuning of my vocals for my band’s EP (thanks again for that). When you have a very developed skill like that, does it affect how you approach recording your own vocals? For instance, can you tell when a take is a good performance and can be saved with a little bit of auto-tuning?

I always treat auto-tune as a tool, not a vocal fixer. We spend so much time making sure guitars and other instruments are in tune before we record them: we make sure we have the right fx pedals on, make sure we have the right tone coming from the amps, we spend so much time making sure the music is perfect, and yet we feel doing the same with the vocals is somehow wrong. No one is going to sing perfect! No one is going to be completely on it when it’s finally time to record. There are so many human factors involved! So auto-tune as a tool helps center that vocal to the correct key, and that’s it! It would be like asking guitar players to tune their guitars without a tuner! Because it’s literally the same thing… so if musicians are willing to give up their tuners on a recording, then I would give up using auto-tune for vocals!

I know you’ve engineered basically the entire album yourself. Do you mix and master too?

Yes, I do the recording myself because for me that’s how I write. I like to lay down the complete demo version of the song and listen to it a million times, and then from there I decide if I wish to proceed with the song or move on to another.

If I stick with the song then I do a full “Sound Monster” version of the song (Sound Monster is my recording company), and yes I mix and master it! The only reason I do it myself is because it’s the only way to get it done! If I have to rely on someone else’s schedule and time they are available then it gets to be a hassle. But also I don’t really have the money to have a pro-engineer do it!

And the level that I’m at musically doesn’t call for a pro studio version. Not because it’s not good enough, but because it’s a waste of money at this time for me. I’m not famous, I’m not expected to hold up to some producer’s demands, I’m not expected to write a song that has this huge mass appeal so that some record label can make money for rent, employees, and company lunches!

I’m at the level where I enjoy writing music and I have the freedom to do what I want! If I was doing anything more than that, then ok, I would spend the money to get my music pro-recorded. The problem is most musicians think spending the money on a pro-recording makes them pro or somehow gives them an advantage in the music industry. When in reality all it really does is help them give a good sounding CD to their friends and family!

I love playing and writing music more than anything in life, and Sullen Ray gives me the opportunity to do that! If people like it, then that’s amazing! If people don’t, I’m going to do it anyway!

What’s next for Sullen Ray?

On an emotional level, what’s next for Sullen Ray is to always keep moving forward, to keep experimenting with ideas and songs, and to dream bigger and bigger!

And on a physical level the plan is to release BLUE minor with Villains and go on tour in the fall with these new songs.

I love playing and writing music more than anything in life, and Sullen Ray gives me the opportunity to do that! If people like it, then that’s amazing! If people don’t, I’m going to do it anyway! My music is not based on what people think of it, it’s based on the fact that it’s just something I feel I have to do!

But it’s taken me until now to really understand what that really means! To really let go of my life and music, and say be it as it may, I just love to play!

You can keep up-to-date with more Sullen Ray news on his Facebook page and right here on the Villains Records site!


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