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Review + Q&A: Ryan McGregor – Through Flood, Through Fire (2023, Ramble Records)

It is a cold but beautiful morning. It might be one of the last winter dawns. The sun is weaving itself through the wisps of mist into a perfect impressionist painting. I listen to the birds for a while, and then I put on Through Flood, Through Fire by American artist Ryan McGregor. I get up and watch the sunset some more. The sun creates a perfect mood board for the music in colors through my front window.

As the orange glow brightens and slowly and feebly starts at its attempt to warm the winter earth, I dive deeper into the music. It shimmers. Like the sun’s rays in winter, its guitar tones try to wriggle its way from out of the dense reverb clouds. In three long form pieces, Ryan McGregor explores both his guitar, and the song as a canvas. Like a painter, he knows when to add more layers, more depth, more warmth, and when not to.

As the day gets brighter, so does the music. Perfectly in synch with the fiery golden sunrise Ryan McGregor makes his music lighter and airier, lifting the listener up from a slumber, and into the new day. When we get to the beautifully warm acoustic guitars of final song The Stale Time’s Flow we are up and awake. We got up in stillness, aware of the world and ourselves, thankful of it, and of this wonderful music that proved itself to be such a warm and welcome partner.

So now we’d like to know the man behind these wonderful tunes. Meet Ryan McGregor, Boston resident, solo artist, sound engineer, sound painter. Especially take note of the music he listens to, you might learn a thing or two…

How are you? How has the pandemic period been for you?

I’m doing okay, thanks for asking. At the start of the pandemic, I was still living in Los Angeles, and it was pretty wild to see this sprawling mecca just suddenly shut down. It really made me notice the city as more of this living, breathing thing. I could hear everything in a much more intimate way since the inhabitants and industries suddenly quieted down. I had also just started a Bachelor’s degree at Cal State University Long Beach the previous semester, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse. It was nice to have something to occupy my time, but it was challenging being a composition major and not being able to take advantage of the facilities or work with the performers face to face. We made the best of a difficult situation though and did lots of collaborating on Zoom and through file sharing.

Can you introduce yourself, how did you start out making music, were you in any bands before… etc?

My name’s Ryan McGregor (b. 1983), and I began playing guitar around thirteen. I started playing because my oldest friend got a guitar and had begun taking lessons, and I thought that seemed like a cool thing to do. I studied with the same teacher for a little while but soon decided to continue on my own. When I started high school, I became the lead guitarist of a band that was influenced by Nirvana, Green Day, and other alternative nineties bands. We underwent several incarnations, each revolving around a personnel change, which always happened to be the drummer. With each new drummer came an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. So, we would change our name and alter our style a bit. By our final incarnation, the primary singer/songwriter became the drummer, and my friend, Pete, became the singer (I guess we had a real identity crisis). By that point, we had transitioned into more of a punk/hardcore band. I left the band a couple of years after high school, and it wasn’t long after that I started making instrumental guitar-based music. 

Since then, I released a cassette tape on my friend’s now defunct tape label, Complicated Dance Steps, called Leaping Off and On (2012), improvised with various musicians around Los Angeles, including my friend Tim Phillips on synth, and released several solo projects on Bandcamp and Soundcloud. The only band I’ve been in since high school is a duo with my friend Charles Dragoo on drums, also formed in LA. We combined our love of improvisation, free jazz, and punk and made a few albums together, all of which are on Bandcamp and other streaming services under Ryan McGregor & Charles Dragoo.

What can you tell me about your musical background?

Aside from the whole band thing, I just love the guitar. My dad was into guitarists like Jeff Beck, Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, and Pat Metheny. These influences are probably not too apparent from listening to this album, but I think they’ve cropped up here and there. When I moved to LA I really started getting into the acoustic guitar and people like the recently departed Steffen Basho-Junghans, Jim McAuley (an amazing LA-based guitarist and friend who also recently passed away), Bola Sete, and many others.       

What does a regular day in your life look like?

Well, I moved to Boston about six months ago and have been working at my brother’s sandwich shop, Deep Cuts Deli, in Medford. I’ve also been helping him and his business partner build out a new space in Medford Square that will be a restaurant, brewery, and music venue. So, that’s been keeping me pretty busy at the moment. I am also a live-sound engineer, so I will be running sound once the space is up and running. We are aiming for around April 1st.

What is the best thing about Through Flood, Through Fire?

It was the first time I didn’t set out to make a whole album but instead approached each piece on its own over the course of about a year and a half. As a result, I think each track has its own feel but still works together as a whole. It was also made while I was studying composition, but I was kind of making it in secret because I didn’t really bring it into my composition lessons or use any formal notation/theory. That said, I think some of that made its way in there, at least in the way I was thinking about form. 

Who are some contemporary musical heroes of yours?

Oof, that’s tough, I’m kind of all over the map when it comes to music. Well, I’ve always been a champion of the music of Richard Youngs, I think he’s great. Lately, I’ve been digging all of that early Japanese ambient stuff like Hiroshi Yoshimura, Midori Takada, and Satoshi Ashikawa. There’s this experimental Brazilian composer named Chico Mello whose various projects (especially Telebossa with composer/performer Nicholas Bussmann) I’ve really been into over the last year. I’ve also been obsessed with the Mexican composer, guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist Eblen Macari, whose album Música Para Planetarios (1987) has been on repeat for quite a while. He originally composed the music for a weekly series where he performed in a planetarium in Mexico City, which is pretty damn cool. 

More direct influences on the music I made on TF, TF are people like Rafael Toral, Fripp & Eno, and Christian Fennesz.

Can you tell me about how you went about composing and recording songs?

Usually, improvisation is at the core of what I do. Most of the time I try to approach each piece/performance like a real-time composition, but I often have some general “themes” and/or a loose structure that I use as my guide. With this album, I did that, but then I took what I did and used it as the material for another performance (sometimes a few), manipulating it through various effects and processes. I also work with traditional notation and graphic scores and plan to continue exploring that realm.

What are your immediate and long-term future plans?

I just want to keep challenging myself and prolong a creative spirit long into my older years. I would like to write more for other instruments/ensembles, play live again (which I haven’t in quite some time), and collaborate more with old and new friends alike.

What should the Weirdo Shrine reader do after reading this interview?

Go check out Through Flood, Through Fire, and some of the amazing music on Ramble Records, maybe go out into nature if the weather permits, eat some good food, and perhaps call an old friend.


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