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Interview with Ryder Evan Robison

On August 24, 2015

VMP: Just to get started, let me say that we’re all huge fans over here of your artwork in general and the work that you did for the Wilco feature, it’s incredible stuff.

Ryder: Man that’s awesome, thanks a lot.

VMP: I'm stoked about this and have a feeling that you’ve got a lot of good stuff to say. To get started how about I ask way too many questions at once: can you tell us why you got into art in the first place, what makes you tick artistically, and who the people or ideas are who have shaped you as a person and an artist? That’s a lot at once (laughs) so just take them in whatever order you’d like.

Ryder: Ok, cool well man first off let me just say how happy and grateful I am to be able to make this piece for you guys, it worked out really well with Matt (Hessler) calling me up and asking if I could do something. He was talking about what the record was and so my thought was that I wanted to go through all the song lyrics and listen to it again, I hadn’t heard it in awhile, and actually the first Wilco record I had was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and I always liked the band because of the documentary they made and they had gone through this fight with their label which was something I had personally been through as well, so they always have been close to my heart.

The way that I interpret things most times is I try to create stories out of animals and the natural landscape, particularly the landscape that’s around me here in Idaho, and so for whatever reason the first and third songs, (“I Must Be High” and “Box Full Of Letters”) the way that those lyrics work in my head, well there are these Kestrels, which are small hawks, that are all around my land and reminded me of those lyrics so I wanted to bring them together. I did a few sketches of them and, you know man, I love tattoo imagery and most of my closest friends are all tattoo artists so I went through this process of how I wanted to draw the Kestrel and once I had that, I wanted it to be crushing something in its talons. So, I decided to use arrows and roses because all around my property in the summer are these red roses, and I liked the juxtaposition of these sharp and soft objects next to each other with this creature carrying both, and so that’s at least how I interpreted those songs and the album as a whole.

So, the way that I got started, honestly, was that when I was a little kid my dad was in the Navy and so we traveled around a lot. I was born in Norway and then from there we moved to Washington State and I spent 8 years there as a little kid. That was when I really started drawing, I did my first painting when I was 5, and it’s something that I’ve always done, it’s the way I’ve always spoken, I guess.

Later in life, around college, I spent some time doing pretty much anything I could that was the opposite of art because I didn’t think it was realistic and no one else in my family did it and I didn’t know that it was a thing you could do for a living. My family were scientists and naval officers and computer folks, but then two third of the way through college I ended up taking a bunch of different art classes and graduating with a bachelor’s of fine arts. 6 days after college ended my band hit the road for a tour and that was sort of my life for awhile. We toured, recorded, got a couple record deals, and ultimately I decided to move to New York even though the band was based in Denver, but we were touring so much it didn’t seem to matter where we lived. That went on for awhile and then in 2006 I left the band to do my artwork full time, so for the past 10 years that’s what I’ve been working on.

I left New York in April of 2014 and moved to Idaho, mostly because I didn’t feel a need to be in New York any more, I was kind of done with it and it was done with me I guess.


VMP: So when you were in New York, were you there for 8 years? 10 years? Or did I just totally mess up the math?

Ryder: I was in New York for 10.

VMP: Where did you live there?

Ryder: 9 years I lived in the East Village on Avenue C and 6 Street, and the last year I was there I moved to Brooklyn and lived in a really pretty awesome loft space with like 8 other people. It was nuts man, it was pretty crazy, it was kind of like Real World meets Survivor, cause you got voted in to stay, you really did *laughs*.

I got married and divorced in New York and so the last year I was there I was living on my own, but I’d been plotting for about a year on what I wanted to do. I started focusing even more on my artwork and it started pointing more towards doing the wood burning stuff. I’d been doing big paintings and stuff for a lot of different people, hotels, galleries, the Museum of Art and Design and so on. I’ve always been fascinated with man made tools and using your hands, which is why I was excited to do something for a record company, you guys make actual records. So anyway I made this hammer with the head made of wax and cast it in Bronze, and the claw part of it I carved into the thorax of a bee and the handle was carved out of a Steller Sea Cow rib, and they’re an ancient and extinct kind of Manatee from the Bering Strait. This guy in the Pacific Northwest had all these bones it’s all legal so don’t worry.

So anyway, wood burning, so I struck up a friendship with the groundskeeper at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn and after Hurricane Sandy came through all of these trees were down so he gave me the keys and gave me the run of the place as far as getting whatever scrap wood I wanted. That was combined with my grandfather’s tools which he had given me, and they were beautiful and worn down and warped, and I wanted to leave my mark on them and my mark on this tree that had fallen down rather than it be turned into mulch, so I started perfecting wood burning. I started collecting tools from upstate New York and imaging what they had seen, what they had been used to make. It’s mysterious, you know, and captivating to me in the way animals are because these tools, these animals, all speak different languages than we do.

So my family had this house here in Idaho that my family built in 1914 and my grandfather had built a huge shop there, which is now my studuo, in 1971 where he used as a machine shop and anyway the house had sat dormant for 10 years and I spoke with my mom and I told her I needed to get out of New York and she says you need to move into that house. I pack up, go see my folks, go to Colorado to see Hessler and my other buddies and then I was on my way to tell my grandmother that I’m going to take over the house and she died on my way there *pauses for a few moments* And so when we got there we didn’t want to bury her there so we put her casket in my car and I drove her to Idaho and brought her home and brought myself home. It was powerful. I’ve been here for over a year now and my girl and I have been making a really really good life out here, man. I get to make something new just about every day.


VMP: Wow. Damn, that’s quite a story. Something you were saying about the old tools you were collecting, and all the stories that must come with them, struck me. It reminded me of my grandparents’ house in this tiny town in upstate New York. They’ve lived there for 45 years or something, and you think about all of the reasons that door has open and closed over the years, and every person who has been on that porch.

Ryder: Yeah man totally, exactly right, it’s like when you’re drinking with people and you clink glasses do you know why you do that? The reason why is for everyone who came there before, it’s a wonderful thing the history of stuff like that. I don’t know, Hessler told me something about why it’s important to have records and have music you can hold instead of an mp3. What’re you going to give your kids? A memory stick?

VMP: That’s one of the things about living in big cities man. So I lived in Chicago for awhile, and I know New York is probably even a step above that, but there’s this big emphasis on making new stuff making the next thing and, I don’t know, I mean I was a Classics major in college so I think I gravitate more towards the past than the future in many ways, and I think there’s something important, in whatever you’re doing, in being connected back to the people and ideas that came behind you. In maybe a mystical sounding way, seeing creating as a more communal process you know, like all of humanity marching through your chest.

Ryder: Yeah! It’s so good to slow down and make things with your hands and hold things like a book or a record in your hands and feel a connection to it. That’s why I moved out here you know, time is so slow out here man. It’s also why I love doing what I do, I get to make stuff with my hands. It’s like your grandparents’ porch you know someone made that with their hands and it’s lasted.

VMP: Right exactly, at one point that porch was one day old

Ryder: Yeah, I’m just really into stuff that’s worn down and I have something against the color bright white because it’s just too goddamn new.


VMP: Yeah, there’s a strange momentum behind things, even if it’s a porch. I mean it’s interesting, because there’s so much in our heads that we just invent. Dreaming or hoping are both great because it sets a marker out there where you can look at it in your mind and say ok if I work hard I think I can get to that place. But there’s so much we just make up in our heads that doesn't really correlate to the world around us at all, and we have our stories however they play out based both on our decisions and on other’s decisions, but to some degree our lives seem to just unfurl almost of their own volition. It’s crazy. So, to me, the truest things we have from a human perspective is our stories, our collections of moments that we can share and continue to draw from.

Ryder: Yeah dude, I completely agree with you, and it’s incredible how, when you have those ideas in your head, what you can accomplish when you set about the work of making it a reality. We’ve been given two incredible tools, our hands, and you can make incredible things with them. Even if you don’t have hands, you’ve got a mind, and there’s always a way to create something if you want to, I think *laughs*.

VMP: Dude totally, it reminds me of how recently I was in Cambridge with some friends and we went punting on the river there. We came across this bridge there that had been built by Sir Isaac Newton, and he had made the entire bridge without any bolts or screws it was held together completely by gravity. So, some number of years after his death a group of students and faculty took the bridge apart to see how it worked. The problem was, when they went to put it back together they couldn’t and so they had to rebuild it with bolts and screws and so on. So it got me thinking on the boat about how for all of us, with our artistic talent, if you think about it too much you can kinda fuck it up. You know? Maybe there are some thing we shouldn’t take apart and try to explain.

Ryder: Totally. You can definitely think things to death and, I don’t know man, I’ve been to a lot of museums and galleries and so on but right before I left New York I went to the Biennial, and there was a group there led by a professor of some sort and they were going on and on and on about some particular artist’s teeth. And from my persepctive, a lot of the time you make things because you had something you saw in your head and you made what you saw. And then, after the fact, it gets analyzed almost to death. Like, what people have to say about something sometimes seems to be more important than an artist’s need to get things out. You know?

VMP: Great point, definitely something to think about in terms of any kind of art we experience, music or otherwise, and not let it slip into some kind of fetish where our opinions replace the work itself.

Ryder: Yeah man, I mean sometimes what’s said about art after the fact is just to make it valuable, you know? And I mean we’re people, we make up bullshit all the time, but some of that bullshit is what makes us amazing you know what I mean?

VMP: Yeah it’s just good bullshit or bad bullshit.

Ryder: *Laughs* Haha exactly. exactly.

Note: If you like Ryder's work as much as we do you can buy some of it right here.


Profile Picture of Tyler Barstow
Tyler Barstow

Tyler is the co-founder of Vinyl Me, Please. He lives in Denver and listens to The National a lot more than you do.

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