INTERVIEW: William Ryan Key on his new EP “Everything Except Desire” and staying creative in the pandemic
(photo credit: Acacia Evans)
After interviewing musicians in person for nearly a decade before the pandemic hit, and pivoting to the world of Zoom interviews, reviewing live stream sets versus a rowdy night of rock and roll, that was enough of a challenge for me. Nothing in comparison to what bands and artists took on in their creative processes, but as live music is in full swing around the states again, the pivot that came in the pandemic is one that allowed collaborations, being able to explore passions and realizing what some musicians want to be their way of life going forward.
If you were a band just starting out or in those first few years, it’s of course the instinct to hit the road as much as you can now that it’s allowed, especially if it’s something you hadn’t been able to do yet. But for some, this forced time alone was a chance for some serious self-exploration and focusing on the new way you went to approach your craft. William Ryan Key is in the latter of the two categories, and in talking with him recently, after spending 20 or so years on the road as a touring act, his career is entering a new stage and he broke it all down for me. Be it his new adventures into film & tv composing, bringing that energy to his new EP, “Everything Except Desire” (February 11th via Equal Vision Records), to a deep dive into his time during the pandemic, this is a must-read!
In speaking to bands/artists over these last two years, it was such a time of unknown. How have you adapted during this time? We weren’t sure if live music would ever come back, there was so much unknown, it was unimaginable. From talking to bands, some were afraid they would get stranded overseas as borders were crossing. Rise Against in an interview told me they were literally being kicked out of their hotel rooms as they were finishing their latest record. Maybe a bit about where you were at the time as well as how you’ve adapted?
William Ryan Key: So I was out on the road. You know how I felt going forward, the majority of, or at least my financial sustainability as a musician, was going to be made by being on the road. So in 2020, I had a tour booked in the summer that was going to be good. We were excited about it, this little acoustic thing where I was going to team up with my friends at Emo Night Brooklyn, and we were going to do this kind of Emo Night Unplugged thing. Have it be one person traveling as a DJ and have me playing covers. It was going to be fun. Promoters were excited about it when we were putting it together and then, the pandemic hit. And I went crazy after all that because I had just moved back to Los Angeles after five, almost six years in Nashville. I was trying to buy a house in LA but that’s next to impossible for any normal human being, but I was trying. Was treading water for a little bit so I decided to rent a place for a while. Even that is just insane, I need some space for my recording studio and stuff in a house. So, I was stressing and because of the tour, I was like ‘Alright, we’re all good for the year. Everything’s taken care of’. I’m trying to get into film and TV scoring pretty heavily. I’m working pretty hardcore towards that goal, so that was one of my motivations for moving back to LA. Anyways, the tour was gone and I was terrified. In the midst of also being terrified about what was happening in the world right? Those early stages of the pandemic where it was like, ‘What is this? What happens next?’ Then pile on my one sort of thing that I knew was going to be income for me, this tour. And I was excited about that tour because it was going to be really lucrative in a way that I could stay home a lot of the rest of the year. Work on film and TV scoring kind of stuff, what I’m working towards. Well, now that’s gone. Film and TV scoring, it wasn’t a living yet. It’s a project that I was trying to get off the ground. A lot of pro bono work. So I ended up back in Florida where I grew up. I needed to reset.
For many musicians and crew members in our field, we were terrified. Not knowing what was going to happen, if shows were going to come back. And now, it’s funny, to go back to the start of this longwinded answer, I never thought like “I don’t want to tour anymore” but now, I don’t want to tour anymore. Now that I’m home and I’ve found a way to work at home, and it’s allowed me to make music in a non-pro-bono way, to be able to do it every day, I’m good. I don’t need to go back out on the road and be in a van again. When I was doing those solo tours, it was a van and work gloves, pumping gear, and restringing my guitar strings, it was all stuff I hadn’t done in almost twenty years. Yellowcard first got out of our van in 2003, so fast-forward to 2018, which was the first time I was back in a van again. Fifteen years later, doing it all myself. It was brutal. But it was fun, humbling, an adventure. I enjoyed it, but the thing now is I can work from home in the studio every day instead of doing that. It’s been amazing and Twitch was a cool opportunity. I worked with them for about six months. I think I learned, to your point of the question, what did you learn. The first version I had of Patreon was still leaning pretty hard on the Yellowcard stuff, doing a show once a month. Doing this once-a-month acoustic set was the big selling point of the whole thing. But that’s not necessarily what I want to be doing either. I’m scoring, producing, composing now and that’s what I really want to focus my energy on. And so when I was doing Twitch, the whole pitch that they gave me is that they wanted me to produce and stream it. Stream whatever you’re recording. So I was like, ‘Well, that sounds great.’ So I worked with them for about six months but I learned that Twitch is for streamers. In the same way that I sort of learned that being on the road isn’t what I want to do, being a streamer is not what I wanted to do. I found that I would struggle with the access of being a Twitch streamer interaction-wise, while also trying to be super productive and produce music. There are a lot of music producers on Twitch and that’s all they do. Interactive production, like that’s the whole point of their channel. It’s like, ‘Hey guys, come hang and make a song with me. What should this lyric be? Should I use this piano part or that piano part?’ Where what I’m doing, all the music that I was producing when I was on Twitch, was functional for wide release. Whether it was my new EP or when I was touring, I’m more focused and in the zone. And I felt like it was a little detrimental, the sort of atmosphere that is Twitch. So when my contract with Twitch was coming to an end, we kind of just sat around the fire trying to figure out what to do, and I just kind of went well if we did Patreon again? I enjoyed sharing my process and the production. If people were signing up for Patreon, we had more of an ability to say ‘This is what you’re signing up for. This is what you get’ and the response was ‘No worries, all good!’ You’re not going to deal with someone coming into the chat every time being like ‘Does he not talk to anyone?’ Which happens on Twitch all the time, and it can just kind of be a weird vibe. So what if I’m in the studio and I’m doing something in the studio that’s not protected or copyright protected, something that I’m not allowed to show anyone, I’ll just turn the camera on. I’ll turn the camera on and just make music.
So I started doing it a little bit again, I opened it back up in November/December and I think it’s the best of both worlds. The whole journey I’ve gone on from March of 2020 when the pandemic hit to now, it’s great because I do feel settled. I feel focused, I feel like I have purpose, I feel like I have something to do creatively and professionally. At the same time, it helps me with living. I’m in a really good spot. And I owe it to the pandemic which is so crazy to say. If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have done anything with this, I wouldn’t have found this place for myself. I certainly don’t want to make light of it, because so many people have suffered. I think it’s important to say that I did a little stopover in Florida for seven or eight months because the house that I was in was a mile away from my parents’ house. And I haven’t spent that much time with my mom and dad since I was in high school. I mean I left home at 19. So I was coming over for dinner at least two times a week. It was still 2020, not that I shouldn’t have been, but I was taking it very seriously because I didn’t want to get my parents sick. So I was alone, it was just me in the house and I’d come over for dinner and then go home again, for eight months. And for me, I don’t think that I could have known that I needed that much time to work on myself. And I really did. I started meditating, exercising five days a week again, which I hadn’t done in years. I was writing a lot of music. None of those cliches are untrue. You start doing positive things, you get positive things back. So I started to look inward and work on it, write about it. I don’t know, everything just feels really active right now. I’m working on a lot of different things. Just a lot of focus on music in my life and I think if I hadn’t had that time to myself, forced time by myself as I should say, I don’t think I would be here. I think I would probably still be driving around in a van and complaining that my solo music isn’t taking off the way I wanted it to. You know what I mean, I’d still be in that headspace of grinding it out and not feeling satisfied. And at the time, being like ‘Is that how you want your life to be anyways? Are you going to let it be defined by how many streams you have on Spotify? Are these the metrics you want to measure your happiness by?’ And, no. The answer to all of that is no. So I just found another way and I’m really happy.
And you talked about how you got into scoring and composing, and you can see that in the music coming out on the new EP. It’s clear in the music on this release. When did these songs really come together for this new EP?
WRK: For Patreon. One of the perks that I offered in 2020, for the first configuration of my Patreon page, was a new song. Like an original composition once a month. I quickly realized that it was more than I could chew, to provide a fully realized, mixed, and mastered song. I know it sounds crazy, one song takes a month? No, sometimes it’s no. Some people do. Some people are churning out tracks once a week, but that’s not my style. So I found myself kind of up against the wall, every month, at the end of the month, I have to finish this and get it out. So, I did four. I did it for four months. But then this EP, the four tracks were all released exclusively for Patreon. So that was probably done in June/July of 2020, so they’ve had the songs for a year and a half really. And again, this community is so supportive and amazing. Because obviously, exclusivity is part of the feel of Patreon. Getting things that other people don’t have, and I mentioned it to them like, ‘This is going to be yours for a long time before anyone else gets to hear it’ and you get to have this dialogue with your fans in a different way, but it was like ‘Are you guys okay if I put this out as an EP?’ And everyone was like, dude, of course, release it, do it, go big. So you feel just a lot of love and support there. It’s been really refreshing to get out of my own way and realize that there are all of these people that love what I do. And again, it’s not about those metrics. Finding a set of metrics and determining your success by those, because it just depends on perception. I don’t want to look at those things, so finding this perspective of look at this community of people you have. Just still totally behind me on everything that I do. And also being able to make a living is amazing.
So, yes, just starting to do those songs in June/July, that gave me the meat of the EP. And then I started working on, for Patreon, showing the process of it, and not having to write new songs, I decided to start working on some reimaginations of Yellowcard songs. In the same vein that the EP is. So those are also deep and hidden and only Patreon has them. But it is going to be a really cool release down the road. Again, you just stay positive, and you get positive back. One of my favorite artists on the whole planet Earth is this post-rock instrumental group from Nashville called Hammock. Really cool music and I became friends with one of the guys in Hammock because he also lives in Nashville. We’ve gotten lunch together. Met on Twitter, so anyways they are co-producing all of these Yellowcard songs. So at some point, soon, hopefully, this year later in the year, we have a ten-track record coming out that’s Ryan Key and Hammock. And it’s ten reimagined Yellowcard songs that I played the piano part, sang the vocals for, and sent off to them. And they turned them into these giant, ambient house tunes, which is wild. So that came from Patreon too though. Just came up with it due to needing stuff to work on. You have to provide content. It all stemmed from this direction I’m heading into musically. More cinematic or composing as you said.
You spoke about it a little earlier, but obviously from seeing you play live as William Ryan Key and producing this solo music. It’s quite a departure from what you did in the past. You wrote some of these Yellowcard songs when you’re were 13/14. How was it to kind of sit down and sing these songs again and send them off into the abyss and have someone else work with it.
WRK: I’ve kind of done it once before when we did the Ocean Avenue acoustic back in 2013, where I sang them all. But those were pretty accurate reproductions of the songs with it just being acoustic instruments. The keys in all the songs were all the same, the vocals were pretty similar. So when you hear them, when they come out, I think you’ll get a grasp of what I’m saying here. Ocean Avenue is a really sad song, and when you sing it over this sunny music and big piano chords, when you take it down to a speaking voice level. The intensity of singing, changes its entire vibe of it. Then you throw Hammock into the fire, and it hurts even worse. Yeah, it’s interesting. I did a couple of songs that were on the poppier side like Telescope and Empty Street, but also, chill cool songs like we did Transition Home. And Patreon voted on all the songs when we were coming up with what songs to do. I think it just makes the songs feel so wildly different. Especially songs like Ocean Avenue, when you listen to them, the original version of the songs, it’s just super upbeat. Whatever term you want to use, it was the summer anthem of 2004. I turned it into something completely different. I’m excited for people to hear them because I had a lot of fun exploring the songs. Trying to bring a different emotion, and energy to them by singing them in a different register, and obviously drastically different production. I’m excited.
Then I wanted to ask, I know you put out the video for the first single off the EP, “Face in a Frame”. I know it’s a big visual. How did that come together? Was it something where you approached someone, was it something you did yourself? How did that video come about?
WRK: Yeah, I wanted to do something that was pretty jarring and different from anything I’ve done before. I didn’t want to be in the video. Stylistically, a couple of these songs are a little more standard verse, chorus songs and a couple of them don’t have a structure. Just sort of for someone to listen to and experience. And Face in a Frame is one of those, it doesn’t really have a verse or a chorus. It just kind of happens, just continues to happen until it’s over. I wanted to do a visual piece for it, and at the same time that we were talking about doing all of this, Equal Vision Records, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on this project. It’s cool, to have the support of a label again. They’re good people and they were like, ‘Yeah we’d love to make a video, what do you want to do?’ At that same time, my manager, I believe I’m telling this story directly, he just kind of got a wide-net email from Stefano Bertelli. He must have reached out somehow to the management company my manager works for. Something internal, like ‘Hey is anyone looking for a video?’ and Andy (William’s manager) checked out some of his stuff. Went on his Instagram, he did this short film that is just wild. So, Andy had me check it out to see if it was the vibe I wanted, and it was exactly what I’m talking about. 1000% what I wanted the do. The label was all in. The dude finished the video in a week, I don’t know how he does it so fast. It’s all constructed paper figures and sets, and stop-motion photography, it’s crazy. Check out his page if you’re reading this or listening to it, it’s great.
And you talked about it before, but you’re making this a career. You’re making it your living now, you’re getting into composing, scoring. You’ve been writing for other people, like with This Wild Life, touring isn’t really in the plans. Maybe some hopes or goals for you in 2022?
WRK: Well, I’ve been working with Ryan Mendez from Yellowcard in these last couple of weeks. We have this project, at first, we wanted to call it a side project but it’s not. We’re all in, we’re doing it full-time. We have this like EDM thing but it’s also an ambient, score-composition-based project. We’re called it Jetta, the production contracts are still happening because it’s a massive, massive company, that we are scoring a show for this year. We got the gig! So we have details that we’re not allowed to say, or tell everyone about, but we will. That’s going to be our primary focus this year. We’re going to be scoring an entire season of a show for a very large network. So we’re so excited. We finished tracking our first full-length album for Jetta which is an instrumental electronic album. Ryan is finishing the mixes for that now so we’re going to get that mastered. Our fingers are crossed for one of the ten or so record companies that we would dream of landing. Hopefully, they are going to like the record and give us a shot, but that’s going to be finished in the next few weeks, then we’ll start shopping for labels for that. We’re going to put out our first little EP of two originals and a remake, that will be out in a couple of months. So Jetta is really the focus honestly. I’m here to promote this EP on Equal Vision and I’m really excited about it. And I have a few shows this year where we’re going to try to figure out how to do a cool show where I can do these electronic-driven tracks live. I’m excited to try to make that happen. But the other main focus in my professional life right now is Ryan and I are working hard on this Jetta thing. We’re also in the process of announcing our remix for a cool super heavy band. They’re enlisting a lot of instrumental or electronic pop artists and producers to remix their new album so we’re doing that. So a lot of news on the horizon coming out for me and Ryan and Jetta, all exciting stuff.
That’s great that you guys have maintained that friendship for all these years. It’s incredible.
WRK: Yeah, we mentioned this earlier in our chat but we did the bulk of this full-length album that I mentioned, in person. We started it in Tennesee in ‘17 or ‘18, but that was the first couple of songs we thought were going to go on the album. And now those are going to be this little EP. We did the new batch of songs when I moved back to LA in 2019. And in October of ‘21, he came to Nashville and stayed at my house for a little over a month to knock it out, finish all the songs. The tracking, but other than that, we figured out a way to make some work remotely, it’s crazy. We scored an entire film together in the summer of 2020 not being in the same room together. So the technology is there, and it took us a little while to figure it out and get it right. But once we did, to be on Protools and working together from across the country is wild.
From speaking to the bands I did during this time in the virtual sense, for example, Rise Against, across all of these different genres, the way that you all pivoted, is incredible. You still made these full-length albums, you soundtracked a film together, it’s just incredible how the industry just pivoted. Made it work and figured it all out.
WRK: Well, I think it’s in our nature to do what we do for a living. I think it’s not just a band thing, it’s musicians in general. You start out at such a young age, having to fight so hard to accomplish your goals and fulfill your dreams and turn this into a profession. It’s just an instinct, when you get told okay well you might not get to do this anymore, it was like, no, that’s not an option. I think we all just had it in our DNA since childhood. I mean take a band like Rise Against. Think about it, a local band in Chicago, fighting so hard, is now one of the biggest rock and roll bands in the world. So they’re going to have the fight in them to overcome, they’re not going to have something like that derail them after all this time. I think we’ll all share that to some point.
That’s what they said, I interviewed Tim for it, you were in a touring band for twenty years, they’ve been a touring band for twenty years. They weren’t a new band going on their first tour when the pandemic hit, he was like, we’re not going to break up now because of this. Just make it through!
WRK: Love Tim, great guy.
Yeah, he’s great!