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Remember when the big fat Mother Superior in The Sound of Music told Sister Maria that every time the Lord closes a door somewhere, He opens a window? Well, Ryan Breen's career trajectory has been something like that, except, perhaps, without the divine intervention part. No matter how benevolent a supreme being is, it's inconceivable that it's paying this much attention to one skinny, 28-year-old Arizona musician/producer, ensuring that whenever one gig folds, another falls into his lap.
Yet even when he isn't continually hopping from project to project, you get the sense that for Breen, the one-man brain trust behind the expansive soundscaping-turned-catchy dance-pop of Back Ted N-Ted and staff producer at Modern Art Records, there is no such thing as downtime — that somehow every life experience is collected data that gets stored away and eventually finds its way into the mix and there is no ruminating over a wasted moment.
Until this year, Breen's individual musical profile has been largely abstract and instrumental, but he's allowed a backlog of personal feeling to filter in to Back Ted N-Ted. Which makes the group's — or rather Breen's — new EP, Hookie, such a pleasant surprise. First off, it is hooky, filled with stick-in-your head choruses and vintage drum machine slaps. The title track's lyrics explore heartbreak as if coming off the ether in the middle of a dance floor, to where even sudden light-bulb epiphanies like "I left her for better" and "I know it's gonna be hard now" might feel less painful. Ditto for the bubbly kick of "999 Buttons," a song that recalls a relationship from a safe distance of 10 years after its demise. Having made electronic music for the 10 years, it's a big step for Breen.
"I got into writing lyrics because my dad [Mike Breen] is a songwriter. He plays folk and country," says Breen. "He always used songwriting as a way of dealing with shit, as a form of psychology or counseling. A lot of songwriters do that as a way to process stuff and articulate it. There's a lot of dance. I loved glam and I loved all the Justice stuff but it seemed to lack that soul, that personal what-are-you-thinking-what-are-you-feeling."
"I did a Back Ted N-Ted full-length that was just instrumental three years ago," he continues. "The structure was, like, whatever. Sometimes a song would have 13 parts, but I got lost in a sea of musical whatever-ness. I think I've just gone the other extreme."
Breen's introduction to the world of programming started when he was in a rock band that played to beats they made up on keyboard. "I really got excited. I was struggling in high school at the time, and it was the one thing I could do for hours and hours and not get bored. I had a hard time with day-to-day stuff. I had a hard time with math — focusing on that [for a long time]. I kinda had that rebellious attitude toward my math class; I didn't need to know this stuff for real-life experiences."
Understanding math is a crucial part of programming beats — being able to count out bars and measures — but Breen found a way around it with various drum machines and programming software and the visual representation of making beats.
"From that I went to the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe after high school. I learned a lot from it, mixing techniques. If you're really studio-minded and you want to be in a big studio in L.A. and work your way up the food chain, it might give you a lot of opportunities. I didn't really want to do that; I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to be doing. I was making beats. I was fortunate enough to meet Coppé. Right out of school, she hired me to run her studio."
Breen made two albums of trance-y dance music with the Japanese singer, who moved to the Valley in the early '90s but didn't become musically active until late in the decade when the Radar and Bombshelter DJs were around. While that was happening, he began doing demos with Chronic Future that ended up landing the band a deal with Interscope Records (2004's Lines in My Face).
"We started getting into more underground white hip-hop, the college intellectual stuff, what was not in the mainstream. They asked me to go to L.A. to help do production and play guitar and record an album with Sean Beavan, who produced all the Marilyn Manson records. He was really nice. We wound up staying out there for six months, blasting through Interscope's money like there's no tomorrow. They were fine with it. That was toward the end of the record labels as they once were, flush with money. We caught the tail end of that and had per diems every day to get paid for getting to work on the record and have a place to stay. It was awesome."
Breen went on tour with them for a few months before they started opening up for big bands and touring Europe. Itching to get Back Ted N-Ted into the studio, he worked with local bands like Colorstore, Sweetbleeders, and on the first two Treasure Mammal records. And, out of the blue, he got a remix gig from Grammy-nominated singer Imogen Heap.
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