“I’m a survivor really, I think,” says Ryan Dahle. “I walk onto a job site and I figure out what’s missing and that’s kinda how I live my life.”
This is how the 46-year-old guitarist/singer/songwriter/producer describes himself when we ask him how he sees himself. Since 1989, he’s been making music with his friends and family; as a member of the recently reunited Age of Electric, the sole constant in Limblifter, a third of CanRock dreamgroup Mounties (alongside Hawksley Workman and Steve Bays), a producer/engineer (k-os, Hot Hot Heat), and as a solo artist, having released the stellar Irrational Anthems in 2009.
For the past year, much of Dahle’s focus has been on the return of Age of Electric, the beloved quartet consisting of Ryan, his brother Kurt, and the brothers Kerns; Todd and John. Though each member has kept busy over the years with high profile gigs since AOE’s 1998 break up (Kurt left the New Pornographers last year, while John has played with everyone and Todd has been making noise on his own/as a member of Slash’s band, The Conspirators) the idea of an AOE reunion has been in the works for a while, ever since Todd assisted in the return of Ryan’s stolen guitar over a decade ago.
“Somebody that knew of the band saw my guitar on eBay, someone who knew how to get ahold of Todd,” Dahle says over the phone from his Vancouver studio of the guitar, which was stolen in Toronto back in ’95. “(They) sent a message to him saying the guitar case had ‘AOE’ spray painted on it. Then Todd sent me a message.
“We hadn’t really talked in a few years at that point, so we started chatting again and we started writing songs not too long after that, so that’s where these songs came from. In some ways these songs are new and in some ways they’re quite vintage, these new songs. That’s why we feel that the new ones we release, we’ll come up with a few more, just to make it more ‘right now’ with what we’re thinking and feeling.”
Dahle notes that there are four new tunes in the can (just prior to our phone call, Kurt was in the studio working on them) and that the aim is for a full length.
“It really depends on everybody’s schedule and our level of productivity in the creative avenues,” he says of the potential release, which he mentions is coming together quite naturally.
“I think when there’s a combination that happens between musicians, there’s a chemistry that kinda dictates what the sound of any three or four people are gonna create – there’s a continuation of the same voice,” Dahle says. “When we hear the new material, it’s connected to the old. I think we’re all more capable musicians now, not that we weren’t before, we just have different experiences and I think that it creates more interesting avenues we can go down. These new songs are definitely harder to play, at least for me. They’re more challenging, the arrangements. A lot of the old material is usually held together by common threads of one common guitar part or beat. These are a little more tricky.
“There’s a phenomenon with some of the singles that I’ve written in my career, no matter what band, they can be the hardest songs to play, maybe because they’re not just the standard thing to play.”
Yes, the singles. Essential on Much Music and rock radio from 1995 onward, such tracks as “Ugly,” “Untitled” and “Enya” from AOE’s self-titled debut LP and “Remote Control” and “I Don’t Mind” from 1997’s Make a Pest a Pet were CanRock staples (three of which were solely written by Dahle).
“I don’t know if my creativity comes from fitting formats. I wish I could be more strategic in how I write for the radio, but I think I’ve forged a career of writing songs that are a bit off the centre, and therefor it creates something new,” he says of his songwriting. “Chopping away at creating something that fits something new that fits into a format but you never thought it would is kind of where I’ve built my whole career.
“Kurt and Todd, they planned this band from when we were 15 years old, so I was bred to be in this band, I was taught what we were gonna do. We are one thinking entity and I don’t think we ever really were super inspired by other things on the radio. We were listening to things that were older or more sophisticated.”
Dahle mentions that falling back into things with his band brothers was simple – proving that a natural fit is always a natural fit, no matter how much time has passed.
“It’s because none of us ever told each other what to do,” he says. “The taste of my brother Kurt is a lot of what we kinda rallied around. We all have tastes and things, but he kinda dictated what would happen because he wasn’t playing stock beats, and John wouldn’t react to things that weren’t cool to him. When Todd and I were writing things they would have to get through that filter. When they were participating in writing as well, the same would go, but you have this filter of them making sure that it was right by them. It’s kind of one big entity, especially since we don’t discuss a lot. It works or it doesn’t.”
Another thing that proved to work quite well was (and is) Limblifter, the band Ryan and Kurt formed in between AOE’s two full length releases. The quartet, now made up of Ryan Dahle, bassist/vocalist Megan Bradfield, multi-instrumentalist Gregory Macdonald and drummer Eric Breitenbach, released the insanely inventive Pacific Milk in 2015 and is prepping to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its ’96 debut with a string of summer dates.
“In some ways we’ve been celebrating that record since it came out, we still play all the songs,” Dahle says. “The only thing I think about is how it affects the future. If I can get the band to play all those songs in a row, it’s kind of a trip. In fact, I think we’re gonna play it backwards.
“For me, I’ve done it before. We did it at our first show at CBGB’s in New York city, we played the whole record all the way through and we did it throughout that tour and then we’d play Built to Spill covers when we ran out of songs, but someone said we should do it backwards so that we could do ‘Vicious’ last. I thought it was a good idea.”
Making the jump from songwriter/guitarist who only did the odd vocal to fronting his own band by default was something Dahle maybe wasn’t comfortable with 20 years ago, but today he’s glad he gave it a shot.
“I was writing songs for Age of Electric because that’s what I was told to do,” he says, noting he also helped to manage the band, book gigs and produce the records. “We all kinda play to our strengths and I never really thought of myself as the greatest guitar player, so I was always looking for other things to do. As I kept growing as a songwriter, I realized that I kind of changed what I was doing so I was no longer writing songs for Todd’s voice.
“Going from Todd to another lead singer wasn’t really an option for me because you don’t find a better singer than that.”
When Kurt caught wind of these “extra” songs, Limblifter was born. Demos were quickly followed by a deal with Mercury in the states and seven days of recording, split between Calgary and Vancouver.
Then came the promotion – a perfect ’90s combo of steady touring and music video output, with Much Music’s reach going beyond what any Canadian touring band could ever accomplish.
“People always complain about making videos like it’s some sort of horrible job, but I don’t know, there’s a lot worse things to do,” he says with a laugh, mentioning how sometimes being on camera can put you in strange situations, like being part of a stock car smash up derby in Winnipeg for the “Vicious” video.
“It was dangerous. There are some shots, if you slow ’em down, you can see gas splashing up behind us, because there’d be gas cans behind our seat, because that’s the safest place to put gas, beside the driver, because you’re not supposed to hit the driver’s door. And there were no seat belts in those machines either.”
He also notes that AOE’s videos had a lot going on behind the scenes – though it was all worth it, as the videos wound up a fixture of Much’s Daily RSVP, a show in which viewers would call/write/fax in their requests to Bill Welychka or Sook-Yin Lee.
“The ‘Untitled’ video was super uncomfortable,” he says of the minimalist black and white performance clip. “We were at the Parliament (now Legislative) Building in Winnipeg, which is amazing they let us use that place. We were in this huge, beautiful marble room with this 10K light shining down on us and it was so incredibly hot. At the beginning of the day I had on a polyester sweater with leather or suede on it and I wanted to take it off after a couple takes, and the director’s like ‘nope’ because we couldn’t all of a sudden not have it, so I’m gonna bake under these lights.”
What sort of Vancouver band keeps coming to Winnipeg to make its videos? Turns out it was because of a cameraman from the MTN Pulse News.
“He would come and shoot us at our shows at the Zoo in Winnipeg, then he would go back to the station and cut a minute of us playing and use our recording and sync up to it, and on the 11 o’clock news it would come on and he would have basically one minute that looked like a music video,” Dahle says of Derek Warne, who also directed the simulated single take video for AOE’s “Ugly” at the Hotel Fort Garry. “They were really kind to us, I think they also gave us that day for free, and we paid for damages like light fixtures and stuff because it was a whole floor of the Fort Garry.”
It’s all of these experiences and more that keep Dahle creating, collaborating and caring as a musician and producer.
“I love it. It’s great. When I was younger I always concentrated on one thing. As I move on, I keep on feeling a variety throughout the day and throughout the week is a good thing. You want to keep playing and moving as a musician, and I’m really always excited to record things. It’s not enough to just play and it’s not enough to just record, so for me, always switching between the two things is a great scenario.”