Find out why in this exclusive tell-all with Ryan Smith, one half of the premier power pop couple of the Twin Cities
Ryan Smith was the kick in the ass Dave Pirner needed to bring Soul Asylum back to its early-to-mid-90s glory upon the release of the band’s excellent new album Hurry Up and Wait.
Taking over for a guitar giant like Dan Murphy is no small feat. But the Minneapolis-bred Smith, who has played lead guitar in Soul Asylum since 2016, proved to be far more than just a substitute for another guy with his own super power pop outfit Ryan and Pony.
Working in tandem with his wife Kathie Hixon-Smith (aka Pony), the couple has been making music together since they met while on tour with indie rock journeyman Mark Mallman. But Moshi Moshi marks their proper debut as a unit. And while both have their own respective bands in Ryan’s The Melismatics and Pony’s band Hundred Flowers making waves in the Minneapolis scene, their first album under their new handle finds the couple going all-in on the sugar rush with the help of Peter Anderson (The Ocean Blue, Run Westy Run, The Honeydogs) on drums. Moshi Moshi sounds like K-Pop rewired for release on Twin/Tone, and is currently available on 12” blue vinyl LP, CD, digital download, and via streaming services Chicago’s Pravda Records (also home to our own Lilacs!).
Ryan and Pony are our favorite new act of 2020, and it was a pleasure catching up with Mr. Smith for this exclusive chat.
What was it about Japanimation and/or Japanese pop culture that inspired the motif of Moshi Moshi?
It really was a weird cosmic coming together of elements. Years ago, we wanted to call an album “Moshi Moshi” with our other band The Melismatics, but it got voted out. Our band name was already hard enough to pronounce and spell, so we didn’t need an album title with the same potential for confusion.
Seeing as this was our first record as this new project, it seemed like a fitting name. “Moshi Moshi” is the Japanese way of greeting in a phone call. It’s like us saying “Hello, can you hear me?” to the world with a new album. As far as the anime aspect, I had met this incredible artist Sara Miscavage through Soul Asylum. I had always wanted to make a music video with anime, and we finally knew the person that could pull it off. When it came time for us to create a video for the single “Fast As I Can”it was the obvious choice.
After we saw the video, it all started to click. We had a “thing” developing with the album title and the anime imagery. The next step was to make the artwork follow suit. The only person that could do that with consistency was Sara, and she knocked it outta the park. Creating a consistent vibe with the imagery and sound was important on this record.
How did you both specifically set out to make Ryan and Pony different from your other projects? How are they the same?
We set out to make sure this album and band didn’t sound exactly like The Melismatics. We wanted the vocals to be harmonized and beautiful rather than aggressive. We wanted the music to be chaotic, manic, danceable, noisy, layered, and orchestrated. You can still tell it’s us though— we just took a different turn musically. This direction is more indicative of our roots. Here you’ll hear more influences of Jesus And Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, Husker Du, and the Everly Brothers. If something sounded like it should be a Melismatics song, we didn’t use it for this album.
You recorded Moshi Moshi at a number of studios: Flight Simulator, Flowers, Master Mix, and The Kill Room. How did each space inform the experience and sound of the album?
Flight Simulator is our home studio, which is where the majority of the album was tracked. This gave us the ability to work on the album for a longer period of time, and tweak it endlessly. I really wanted to make an album I could still be happy with in 20 years. We cut a few tracks live at The Kill Room, which gave it a different energy. That was a necessary ingredient for the album. Flowers is a classic Minneapolis studio that we’ve worked in many times over the years, so it felt like home.
How did you guys connect with Peter Anderson and what drew you to his style of drumming that made you feel he was a good fit?
All three of us met at the same time years ago playing with our mutual friend Mark Mallman. We go waaaay back! We’ve both worked with Peter countless times over the years. He’s an important part of the Minneapolis musical community— and it really does feel like a family. Peter has always had this great feel that is rhythmically solid retains some looseness at the same time. He’s kind of like the modern Kieth Moon.
As a fan of both Run Westy Run and The Ocean Blue myself, I’d love to hear what some of your favorite music is from either of these bands?
I love The Westies! The first 2 SST albums are classics. I always liked “Green Cat Island” a lot too, and that was on our hometown label Twin Tone.
As far as The Ocean Blue, it’s all great from what I’ve heard but the albums I’m most familiar with are the debut, “Cerulean,” and “Waterworks.”
How has your addition to Soul Asylum informed or enhanced the Ryan and Pony experience, if at all? Is Pirner a fan?
Most of the music on “Moshi Moshi” was written before I joined Soul Asylum, but there are some notable exceptions. “Trouble In Mind” was written after joining the band, and I have heard people say it sounds like a Soul Asylum song. It wasn’t intentional, but when you work together so closely there is going to be some natural osmosis.
I never feel comfortable speaking on anyone’s behalf, but I will say Pirner has been highly supportive of what we are doing for a long time. The reason we are working together is out of a mutual respect and admiration. He’s always been one of my favorite songwriters. Period.
Would love to hear what its been like playing in Soul Asylum for you, and how far back you both go with the band’s music. Are there any particular songs in the band’s catalog you enjoy playing most? Also, do you agree that Let Your Dim Light Shine is super underrated and deserves to be more appreciated?
It’s been an incredible experience. It’s got way more of a genuine band/family vibe I would have imagined. Being from the Twin Cities, Soul Asylum had been local heroes long before Grave Dancers Union. I was always aware of them, but GDU is about the time I started playing guitar relentlessly and I remember sitting on my bed trying to figure out some of those songs by ear. Now I play them in the band LOL.
Some of my favorite songs to play live with Soul Asylum are “Freaks,” “If I Told You,” “April fool,” “Sometime To Return,” “Can’t Even Tell,” …. I guess I could go on and on. It’s a really fun band to be in. I feel incredibly lucky.
Let Your Dim Light Shine is a great album. I think it is underrated because it had to follow GDU. I also think Silver Lining is criminally underrated.
How has it been working on and promoting Moshi Moshi at this particular point in human history, six months into COVID-19?
It’s been weird, but at least we knew this was coming. When Soul Asylum released Hurry Up And Wait, we were on tour. COVID hit, and the rug was pulled from under us. That album has done very well out of the gate, but we had to adjust to the new world quickly.
By the time Moshi Moshi dropped, we knew there would no tours happening. Everything had moved online. It feels weird, but the challenge is to connect with people in a genuine way without seeing them in person. I guess for me, I think about the albums I grew up with, when records were something you lived and wrestled with for a while until they became part of your life’s soundtrack. That’s what I hope Moshi Moshi can be for some people rather than simply something that you stream a few tracks from.