Detroit is a city that has notoriously birthed groundbreaking and genre-shaping musical artists, such as Iggy & The Stooges, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Aretha Franklin, The White Stripes, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Eminem, George Clinton, J Dilla, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Four Tops, Alice Cooper, and many more.
Multi-instrumentalist, singer, and modern day Renaissance man Ryan Allen is actively doing all he can to not be part of The Last Rock Band and to make his mark on Detroit and the music world thereover. Allen has been making, recording, and playing music since 1992 having spent time as part of The Cold Wave, Destroy This Place, Friendly Foes, Red Shirt Brigade, Ryan + Jono (with Jonathan Diener formerly of The Swellers,) Speed Circuit, and Thunderbirds Are Now!. Allen started his own genre-spanning, awesomely-titled solo project, Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms, around 2011, which, eventually, morphed into the full-fledged four-man band it is today, now known simply as Extra Arms.
Ryan Allen (still listed as Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms on streaming services) recently shared his eighth solo release, fittingly titled The Last Rock Band. It’s an album-length love letter arranged like a mixtape in heartfelt homage to some of Allen’s dearest-held artists, like AC/DC, The Beatles, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, The Ramones, The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, and The Who.
The Last Rock Band is a sprawling 10-track concept album/Rock opera now available through Setterwind Records on CD, cassette tape, and digital album formats. In addition to both his solo and group efforts with Extra Arms, Allen—a busy father and working man—has, somehow, still found time to form yet another band!
BIG LIFE is Allen and a gang of well-seasoned local vets he calls buddies making Melodic Hardcore in the vein of Dischord Records and their all-too-brief “Revolution Summer” era of acts. They’ve been billing BIG LIFE as “if Hüsker Dü was from Washington, DC” drawing major influence from Dag Nasty & Fugazi, as well. BIG LIFE’s debut self-titled album, EP, and/or demo tape will see a release Friday, April 21, 2023 on Setterwind Records.
I recently got a chance to chat extensively with Ryan Allen about all things The Last Rock Band, Extra Arms, and BIG LIFE. Scroll down to check out our comprehensive interview below the break, which has been lightly edited for general clarity.
What prompted you to decide to go as far as to call your latest solo album The Last Rock Band: A Rock & Roll Concept Album By Ryan Allen?
There’s a lot of noise, a lot of music to listen to, and a lot of people who don’t really pay attention to the details (sh*t, people barely read the entirety of an email these days,) so I really wanted to make sure listeners knew going into the record that there was a narrative attached. It’s super-important to me that folks identify that this is a story, that there are arcs to it, that things tie together, etc. So, being straight-forward and calling it out was the only way I could think of where that aspect to the record wouldn’t get missed.
Would you mind briefly going into some of the concepts, themes, and storylines that can be heard across The Last Rock Band?
Sure, the story basically follows the trajectory of a Rock band—the LAST Rock band, in fact—who are trying to “make it,” despite Rock music being “dead” or out of style. They start the band, write some songs, go on the road, and sort of succumb to the pressures of fame. They end up quitting/breaking up and go their separate ways, until they realize this is what they are good at and that the world actually needs Rock “N” Roll, so they get back together to keep the flame alive, so to speak. Sewn into that is kind of my own story of discovering my love of music, obsessing over bands, learning to play guitar and write songs, and even though it can be hard and, sometimes, I want to give up, it’s worth it to keep going because it’s something I’m passionate about and good at. I think a lot of the themes revolve around forward momentum, not giving up, hard work, not letting the naysayers get to you, and leaning into your talent, even if it feels like people don’t care. It’s definitely meant to be a positive and inspiring storyline.
Who or what would you readily cite as some of your greatest sources of personal inspiration and influence while creating The Last Rock Band?
I guess the obvious musical influences or references are some of the great concept records/Rock operas of the past, including The Who’s Tommy & Quadrophenia, as well as S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things and even Green Day’s American Idiot. My goal was to create sort of a “mixtape” approach, where genres and stylistic approaches jumped around a bit, often with the subject matter/lyrics driving the sound of the song. Throughout the record, you’ll hear bits of some obvious references, like The Beatles, The Who, The Ramones, The Kinks, and [David] Bowie, and, maybe, some less expected ones, like Depeche Mode or something like that. Then, there’s some of the stuff that I’m always referencing, like Teenage Fanclub, Superchunk, or Guided By Voices. I just wanted to do something that pushed me out of my comfort zone, while, also, staying true to who I am as an artist. I feel like I nailed it(?) I hope so.
In terms of non-musical inspiration, I was really thinking about what it was like to grow up and be a kid in the 80’s. I was discovering my love for basketball at the same time I was obsessing over music. I was turned on to a lot of music by an older neighbor kid, who was playing me a lot of Rap, like Public Enemy & Cypress Hill around then, as well as hooping with me and my friends in the backyard. So, some of the “spirit” of the record was born reminiscing about summertime slam dunk contests in my backyard, skateboarding, and riding my bike around the neighborhood and just that general feeling of freedom and discovery that happens when you’re young. Everything feels new. You aren’t jaded. You’re a pure sponge just soaking life in. I wanted to inject that feeling into the record and I think it’s there.
What did the writing, recording, production, creation, etc. processes behind The Last Rock Band typically entail?
I made this record entirely on my own with the help of engineer/producer Geoff Michael. Most of what was happening was done in isolation, even pre-Pandemic; just writing and demo’ing at home. I wasn’t entirely sure I was making a concept record until it became obvious that, “yep, I was making a concept record.” Then, The Pandemic hit and I kinda shelved the whole thing, not knowing what was going to happen in general. I ended up working on a different batch of songs that became Extra Arms’ What Is Even Happening Right Now?, which I’m really proud of, but this [The] Last Rock Band thing kept nagging at me… so, once the world opened back up and I was sort of “in-between” commitments, I booked some studio time with Geoff and went to work. I already had the demos and just needed to sort of relearn the songs, so I spent some time listening and getting the drum parts down—it had been a couple of years since I originally recorded them and I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing, so I didn’t waste any time in the studio.
Once we were in the studio, I basically just recorded a guitar part to a click [track] and would, then, go in and play the drums. I sort of went back-and-forth like that for each song until the drums were done. Then, I just built from there. Some things changed from the demos, which is always fun to come up with new ideas or sounds. Once the basics were done, I did some additional recording at home—a guitar part there, a vocal harmony here, percussion, all the keys, “weird” noises, and just stuff that wasn’t rehearsed or I knew I wanted to take my time with and not pay studio time for. Once that whole mess was added, we mixed, probably over about three or four sessions. There was a lot recorded for this, so it was important to go back through and start subtracting or moving things around. I typically like to overdo it during the recording process and, then, make edits later. So, that was pretty much the process. Once the mixes were good, I [sent] it to Paul Miner to master and the rest is history.
So, crazy idea here: but have you ever done (or thought of doing) one big super-show featuring all of your various bands and projects together in one night? It could showcase Ryan Allen solo, Extra Arms, BIG LIFE, etc.!
I have! I turn 44 this year, so that might be the plan for my birthday gig in November. I’m not sure how many people will be able to handle the full Ryan Allen “experience.” (I mean, it would be pretty pretentious,) but it’s something I’m definitely open to.
ho are the members of BIG LIFE and what is each member’s role within the band?
BIG LIFE is Dan Nixon on vocals, Sean Gauvreau on bass, Jordan Vonzynda on drums, and myself on guitar and backing vocals. Dan & I both write lyrics and the whole band worked from some demos I had and, then, fleshed them out in the room. There’s really no rules to the band—anybody can bring a song idea, suggest a change, whatever. It’s open and flexible, which is super-fun.
When, where, and how did BIG LIFE initially form? What’s the BIG LIFE “origin story?”
Pretty simple: I’d been listening to a lot of 80’s Dischord [Records] stuff, started writing a few tunes in that vein just for fun, and, then, realized that it could be a band. Dan & I are super-close and I thought it would be fun to be in a band with him (even though he hadn’t been in a band in almost 20 years!) So, I texted him one day and said, “Hey, we should start a band, it should sound like Dischord 80’s type of sh*t, and you should be the singer.” It was really that simple. I made some demos, he started on lyrics, I looked for some other folks to join the band (Sean & Jordan,) and within a few weeks, we had our first practice—over Christmas of 2022. This band is all about moving fast and not overthinking sh*t, so it all came together pretty effortlessly.
What were some of the major sources of inspiration that influenced BIG LIFE when recording your self-titled debut album, EP, and/or demo?
Like I said, it’s pretty obvious we are referencing the “Revolution Summer” sound of Dischord in the mid-80’s—Embrace, One Last Wish, Dag Nasty, Rain, Egg Hunt, etc. There’s, also, a scrappy 80’s Minneapolis thing happening, too—Hüsker Dü, early [The] Replacements, early Soul Asylum, [and] even early Goo Goo Dolls. So, that’s in there. Then, there’s some of the more modern bands, like Praise, Truth Cult, and HAMMERED HULLS, that we all really like. And I know there’s other sh*t that seeps its way in there, too, maybe, less obvious stuff; like, Jordan is big into Jazz, so some of the newer songs we have may incorporate some less structured ideas inspired by that. We’ll see. I don’t want to box us in too much, even though we kind of have. I want there to be room for catchy songs. I want there to be room for heavy songs. I want there to be room for unstructured, random freak-out songs. Fast… slow. I just want there to be room for whatever we want to do.
How does your output with BIG LIFE sonically differ from what you’ve been doing solo, with Extra Arms, and otherwise in recent years?
I mean, in some ways it doesn’t, really(?) It’s loud Rock music, at the end of the day. I think the biggest difference is I’m not singing that much. Just background stuff. To me, the sound of the band is Dan’s vocals. Despite not being in a band for a long time, he’s killing it on vocals and even though our references being somewhat on the nose, I think his vocal and lyrical approach is really distinct. Like, he doesn’t sound like Ian MacKaye [Minor Threat, Fugazi] or Bob Mould [Hüsker Dü]. He “sounds like Dan” and that’s a really good thing.
Can we talk a bit about the graphic imagery behind BIG LIFE (album cover, flyer artwork, T-shirt designs?) Where did you guys draw inspiration from for the stylistic aspect/representation of BIG LIFE?
Dan has been at the steering wheel as far as that’s concerned, but he really loves Action movies from the 80’s and 90’s. The album cover and T-shirt are…well, I shouldn’t probably tell you, but they are concept sketches from a very popular Action movie from the early 90’s. I like that he took a sort of raw, but somewhat [obscure] direction with the design. It feels “tough” without being “tough guy,” which I think suits our vibe really well. Our songs are raw, Punk-y and heavy at times, but, also, sprinkle in some positivity amidst the ranting and raving. It’s a good balance. I think the designs kind of [emulate] that vibe.
Would you mind recommending some more like-minded up-and-coming bands from in and around Detroit, Michigan that our readership should go check out?
Sure thing: Idle Ray, Deadbeat Beat, Doubt It!, Gusher, Rekt, Twin Deer, Strange Magic, Buried Lights, Normal, Bend, Teddy Roberts & The Mouths, [and] Bitter Truth… I suppose you could listen to Extra Arms, too.
What do you have planned next for either Ryan Allen Solo, Extra Arms, BIG LIFE, or any of your other additional projects?
• Solo: nothing really, though, who knows when or how I’ll get inspired next.
• Extra Arms: we’re working on new songs for a potential new EP that we’re going to record in the summer. I’m SUPER-excited about the songs, so far. We’re trying to do something really cohesive sound-wise and I think it’s going to be a good stylistic pivot, while still very much being Extra Arms.
• BIG LIFE: our EP/demo/whatever you want to call it comes out digitally and on cassette, via Setterwind Records on April 21st! We’re already at work on some new songs, so we’ll see what happens with those.
In general, just create, create, create! We’re all gonna die one day, so I’m trying to make as much cool sh*t as I can before that happens. Thanks Matt!