Hi, My Name Is Ryan
Ryan Avery staggers through the Trunk Space in downtown Phoenix, sweaty, smelly, and spent.
For the past several minutes, the 19-year-old front man for the thrash-punk foursome Fathers Day has transformed his flabby, 5-foot-11, 230-pound frame into a frenetic pinball of cherubic fury, including rolling, crawling, and jumping around the Grand Avenue art gallery like some crazed spider monkey.
While the band blasts out distortion-filled punk with the tempo of machine-gun fire, Avery howls out lyrics and slams himself into the dozens of folks who've gathered at the Trunk Space for the group's CD release party, held, fittingly enough, on the third Sunday in June Father's Day.
His antics end in the blink of an eye, as most of Fathers Day's songs last less than a minute, including one clocking in at a mere five seconds. Most of their gigs run 10 minutes, if that.
Yet Avery's wiped out after tearing about, since he jams more energy into one gig than Henry Rollins puts into an hourlong set.
Avery's overheated state isn't entirely because of his punk rock calisthenics. On this sweltering summer evening, the guy's wearing a black-and-white polyester pinstripe suit, a red checkered dress shirt, a neon blue necktie and suspenders. On his face: a fake mustache and Ray-Ban sunglasses. This garish getup assaults the eyes of audience members and leaves Avery feeling "like a baked potato."
"That was a sick song, dudes," he says to the crowd of onlookers. "Man, am I hot."
Avery adjusts a fake trucker mustache pasted to his upper lip, ironic considering he's unable to grow facial hair. In his childhood, he suffered from hypopituitarism (a deficiency in hormones from his pituitary gland), which stalled his puberty, giving him the appearance and voice of a pubescent teenager. It's the same disease afflicting outlandish MTV2 comic Andy Milonakis, whose gonzo comedy is similar to Avery's (although Avery says he doesn't find Milonakis funny).
It's all part of the surreal spectacle and silly shtick of Fathers Day, in which Avery and his bandmates play a costumed quartet of the "world's worst dads," who play punk when they aren't abusing their kids or mistreating their wives.
For instance, Avery is Douglas Patton (a.k.a. "Business Dad"), a misanthropic and homophobic tyrant who performs such songs as "Get a Haircut," "My Son's a Gay," and "When I Say Woman I'm Talking to You." (His bandmates include "Drunk Dad," "Classy Dad," "Golf Dad," and occasionally "Sperm-Donor Dad," who fills in when another member can't perform.)
Their lightning-quick sets last less than a coffee break because most of their hilarious songs feature just one or two lines of lyrics. It usually takes longer for them to set up than it does for the show.
Fathers Day is not the only goofy gig Avery's got going. He's also a member of the a cappella duo The Best Friends; the improv troupe Catorce; a solo performance project and "open diary" called Hi My Name Is Ryan; the Chris Farley-esque talk show Grand Avenue Tonight!; an absurd electronica band called Night Wolf; noise rock group Iggy Pop; and twisted vaudeville-style showcase Uncle Sku's Clubhouse, where he plays the slow-witted and deformed man-child Caspar the Kid. He also draws and paints.
Ryan Avery's an alt-cultural renaissance man and the clown prince of the downtown Phoenix art scene, performing at any of the numerous venues dotting Grand Avenue or Roosevelt Row. He's rarely paid, forcing him to scrape by with a part-time job at Zoës Kitchen.
Being divided amongst so many projects, one has to wonder if any of it is watchable, outside of a train wreck sort of way.
If the crowd tonight at the Trunk Space is any indication, yes, it is. But could this stuff play outside the tiny spots dotting the arts district?
After the Fathers Day show, Avery's collecting compliments from friends and fans when he's approached by Dirty Dan, guitarist and vocalist for local hardcore band George Moshington. They're willing to give up half an upcoming set opening up for punk legends Good Riddance at the Brickhouse Theater so Avery and company can get funky in a venue many times the size of the Trunk Space.
"So what if I could get you guys into the Good Riddance show, would you come play?" he asks Avery.
"Hell yes!" Avery exclaims. "Dude, we would love to play the Brickhouse."
It's the perfect capper to a phenomenal week for Avery. He just landed a killer show. And approximately 72 hours prior, he got the official word that he'd be going on his mission for the Mormon Church.
In addition to being an outrageous performance artist, Avery's also a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, eagerly awaiting an August 23 departure from the Valley to spread the gospel according to Joseph Smith.
Avery's arguably the hippest Mormon since alt-rocker Brandon Flowers of The Killers, or even Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder.
The latter comparison seems especially apt considering that, just like the goofy indie film hero, Avery's king of his own world. He doesn't wear moon boots or dance to Jamiroquai, but he and his friends have their own particular brand of humor, fashion, music, and art. And if anyone doesn't get them, then too bad.
Although he tries to keep his two worlds separate, Avery's faith occasionally conflicts with his lifestyle, and not just because he once sported a Mohawk in church. A few family members are a little concerned that what he's doing might be "against church standards or morals." His art scene buddies, like Trunk Space co-owners JRC and Stephanie Carrico, worry Avery's not only abandoning his craft, but when he returns from his mission in 2008, he won't be the person they know.
"This scene needs Ryan so bad. There's so much more he can do, bigger venues to perform at, bigger channels for him to share his art," JRC says. "I'm just afraid if he leaves, then all the momentum he's made is going to be lost."
After listening to Fathers Day's twisted discography with songs like "I Hate My Kids" and a cover of the Ramones' "Beat on the Brat" it's not surprising to learn Ryan Avery had a troubled upbringing.
And like most tales of childhood woe, this one starts with divorce.
Born in 1986 to lifelong Mormons Crystal and Douglas Patton Avery, Ryan was the youngest of five children in what appeared to be an ideal clan of Latter-day Saints.
But while the northeast Valley family dutifully attended services and participated in their ward, family members report that the Averys weren't exactly the perfect Mormon household.
Crystal Hill Voss, Ryan's 52-year-old mother, is guarded when describing how she suddenly decided in 1993 to leave her husband. (According to court records, Crystal alleged her children were "subjected to prolonged emotional abuse" by Douglas.) She provides few details about the divorce, but claims Douglas was also "extremely controlling at times" of her life and their marriage.
"It just got very apparent that I was his property and I was to do what he said, so that pretty much nixed things for me," says Voss, who's still a practicing Mormon, and has remarried and moved to Evanston, Wyoming.
Matt Avery, Ryan's 30-year-old brother and an Army intelligence analyst at the Pentagon, says their dad was also largely absent from home, off playing golf or constantly working at his now-defunct insurance agency.
Douglas Avery, a 53-year-old Paradise Valley resident, claims his ex-wife's allegations are "completely false," and that he only played golf "like six or seven times a year." He admits, however, he was away from home a lot, which was "unfortunate." He had his share of complaints about Crystal, during the divorce, including the claim that she told their children he broke commandments.
Regardless of who was at fault, the estranged couple endured a long and ugly divorce lasting more than two years and filled with battles over child support and community property. Although their parents shared custody, Ryan and his siblings lived with mom.
Since Crystal worked more than 60 hours a week as a housecleaner and attended night school, older brothers Scott and Matt shouldered the burden of raising the younger kids. (Matt confesses he was "disturbed" when Ryan occasionally called him "Dad.")
Douglas became "weekend dad" or "I'll-take-you-to-Taco Bell-and-Out of Africa dad."
The siblings continued as devout Mormons, and although Ryan's faith helped, he suffered bouts of depression.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't shitty at home at that time," he says. "I tried hard not to let the divorce affect me, but I was only 8 and got to see my father [on Wednesdays] and every other weekend, and my mom worked all the time."
Ryan also started acting up at school. He'd show up for class at Pueblo Elementary School in Scottsdale to keep his mom from getting in trouble, but began disrupting lessons or refusing to participate in class, and foreshadowed his current penchant for performance by breaking out into song.
"It wasn't to be a nuisance, but because I thought school was lame or boring, and I could tell other kids did, too," Ryan says. "I wanted to make it better for them, so that was my whole idea for being goofy."
"He was trying to exert control when a lot of things were out of his control, like the divorce or not seeing our parents," Matt says. "It's like what he does now, but on a smaller scale. Something pops into his head and he'd do it because it was fun or whatever."
As a result of his melancholia and mischief, Ryan's mother tried sending him to a battery of therapists from ages 6 to 13, putting him on meds, and moving him to different schools, like Paramount Life Preparatory Academy in Mesa and Mohave Middle School in Scottsdale.
None of the quick fixes worked.
"I think in her mind, if I went to a different school or spent all this time in counseling, it'd seem like she was raising me," Ryan says. "Lots of people told her, 'You have to put kids into therapy if they aren't happy all the time.'"
At 13, following Ryan's expulsion from Mohave for, among other things, annoying faculty members and excessive absences (he'd stopped going after getting sent home for wearing a wizard costume in class), Crystal let him choose his own path, such as attending Kachina School for Arts & Sciences in Scottsdale and New School for the Arts in Tempe.
And that, he says, is when "everything started to change."
At the charter schools, Avery became happier by focusing less on his personal drama and more on art and music.
He moved beyond pen-and-ink drawings of his childhood (many featuring comic book heroes like Spider-Man and The Punisher) and started experimenting with charcoal sketches, collage, painting, and sculpture.
Valley music venues like the now-defunct Nile Theatre in Mesa also became a "home away from home" as he'd catch ska and rock shows, sometimes "two or three a month," and hang with misfits like himself, including Emily Spetrino-Murtagh, a cutie-pie punk artist who's become his best friend and collaborator.
"It was like this whole new world that blew my mind," he says. "Staying home was a bummer."
Avery's already eclectic musical tastes influenced by his brothers and ranging from They Might Be Giants to Megadeth were broadened by such ska-punk legends as Total Chaos and The Toasters.
He particularly dug on gonzo groups like The Aquabats, a zany Orange County geek-rock outfit dressed in superhero costumes, and was inspired to start bands "with more to 'em than just the music or energy."
Over the next few years, Avery organized shows around the Valley and formed madcap groups with Spetrino-Murtagh. There was a silly ska septet called The Putties; the punk foursome The Hip Identity; and Locking Your Car Doors (which transformed from an "avant-garde futuristic noise group" into a gigantic mob of ruffians trashing electronics to party music).
Talent hasn't necessarily been a requirement for any of Avery's bands. He's way more into "concepts," showmanship, and fun than musical skill.
"With almost everything we've ever done it [was] just because like no one else is supplying the kind of entertainment we liked. So we had to go out there and create ourselves," Spetrino-Murtagh says. "But to call us musicians would be a joke."
Avery's new hobbies were in overdrive, but his academic efforts stagnated. He excelled at art, but wasn't as stellar in other subjects. Although he'd coasted by in previous years, by ninth grade he'd gotten so used to slacking that he wasn't prepared for the effort high school required. Ultimately, he repeated his freshman year three times.
After dropping out at 17, Avery moved out of his mom's house to lessen his familial drama and decided to concentrate more on creativity versus formalized education or getting his GED.
It's a decision, he says, that's helped make him happier.
"When I realized things could be awesome in my life, then I realized I could make anything awesome if I wanted to. I could find the positive in anything," Avery says. "Life gets better for me as I get older."
Ryan Avery has been described by his fans as a "showstopper."
It's a well-earned title, considering he's grabbed people's attention ever since he debuted in downtown Phoenix with a raucous Locking Your Car Doors show at the old Aux space in 2004.
Brodie Hubbard, an acoustic indie rocker and art scene regular himself, says he always "expects the unexpected" with Avery.
"Ryan wants to steal the whole show, like Jerry Lee Lewis when he opened up for Elvis, where no one can follow him," Hubbard says. "When he walks into a room, he owns it, or at least performs with that assumption."
One of Avery's more infamous performance pieces involved his taking the Trunk Space stage in January wearing black bicycle shorts and a motorcycle helmet, scrawling "art fag" on his bare chest, ripping up copies of local gay publication Red Magazine, ranting about his body issues and telepathy, eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs to Tiny Tim's "Ever Since You Told Me That You Loved Me," faking an epileptic seizure, and then crying on the ground in a fetal position.
Try following that, Elvis.
Certainly, Avery isn't the first maniacal misfit to get freaky in the downtown art scene, nor will he be the last. And like other equally eccentric entertainers as I Hate You When You're Pregnant (a now-defunct one-man synth-rock performer who wore women's underwear), many are left wondering why he does such strange stunts.
Avery ponders the question over sushi at Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe in central Phoenix, explaining how his antics aren't simply boneheaded buffoonery meant for shock value or to make himself look cool. Almost everything in his acts has meaning, even the motorcycle helmets and sunglasses he frequently wears. (Both provide security and "special performance powers.")
"A lot of this stuff I'm consciously doing to change and improve myself and maybe even reach out and touch the audience," says Avery, his voice hoarse from scream-singing at a Night Wolf show the previous evening.
His half-nude high jinks at the Trunk Space, for example, were meant to conquer his low self-esteem about his body.
It's an issue he's dealt with for most of his life. From the age of 6 on, his growth began to falter, and he was diagnosed with hypopituitarism at 12. The condition stalled puberty and left him looking and sounding like an adolescent. Over the next five years, he gave himself daily injections of the hormone Humatrope to help his bones and body grow. Avery's "sorta three years behind," but says he'll slowly continue developing.
Because of his high-pitched voice, soft features, and a small case of "man boobs" (a side effect of the Humatrope), Avery's occasionally been mistaken for a girl. He's avoided such awkwardly androgynous instances by keeping his sandy brown hair slicked back into a formal-looking hairdo (always parted on the right) and wearing a fake pair of ultra-nerdy men's glasses.
Although Ryan hasn't acted out any anxiety from these It's Pat-style moments, Matt Avery says his brother once enthusiastically outlined each of the other issues plaguing him, including feelings about their parents, and how certain projects of his would help overcome them.
"I think it's such an impressively healthy way to deal with his emotional stuff as opposed to just being angry, beating people up, or all those other fun teenage things that guys do sometimes," Matt says.
The Trunk Space's JRC says Avery's daring to openly discuss his shortcomings makes his shows appealing.
"He really owns his faults like nobody I've ever met," JRC says. "When he's talking about all these extremely personal things . . . I feel like it's an endurance test [to see] how much of himself can he expose until he has to stop."
As much as he's known for making a loud racket, Avery also has his quiet moments. Pete Petrisko, who plays the titular character in Uncle Sku's Clubhouse, says Avery also enraptures audiences' attentions with more low-key material, such as monologues about his personal life.
"I think he has a sort of innocence with an underlying sadness to some of his performances," Petrisko says. "He might not be the most technically proficient artist working, but he strikes a universal chord with people."
Ryan believes Fathers Day is "better therapy than therapy" for dealing with his parents, allowing him to enjoy spending what little time he can with his pop, which is mostly phone calls or the occasional visit. (Because of commitments to his new wife and children, Douglas says it's "harder" to have a closer relationship with his other kids.)
He didn't always intend for the group to become a quasi-counseling session. Ryan and Emily Spetrino-Murtagh (who plays "Classy Dad," but rarely dresses in costume) formed the band in October 2004 because "it would be funny seeing a bunch of un-hip dads playing thrash." They recruited brothers Andrew ("Golf Dad") and Tristan Jemsek ("Drunk Dad"), who star in the polka-punk band Haunted Cologne and have daddy issues of their own (their dad left when they were toddlers).
While Ryan's character Douglas Patton is named after his dad, he swears most of the band's shtick comes from "watching bad fathers with their kids or stories that I hear and I just exaggerate them."
Family bonds aren't the only matters of the heart Ryan tackles, as he airs his angst about love and romance during Hi My Name Is Ryan shows. He's had three girlfriends, but the relationships didn't last because either he didn't like his paramours or they "weren't into him."
Truthfully, he's "scared of sex" because of its unfamiliarity, as well as some embarrassing childhood moments (like getting an erection while watching a Star Trek movie), and depressing stories he's heard from friends.
When asked if he's a virgin, he says, "Duh," before deadpanning, "I don't think anyone gets the 'Ryan-really-knows-how-to-work-the-ladies' vibe from me."
Not all of the methods to Avery's madness are about purging his emotions. He enjoys slamming around during Fathers Day because "that's how punk bands should be: extremely fierce, loud and obnoxious, and in your face." After most shows, he's covered with bruises as a result. He gets a bizarre satisfaction from making people uncomfortable, he says.
His humor, while sophomoric, is quite playful without being prurient. When performing in Fathers Day or Night Wolf, Avery and Andrew routinely take swipes at other bands, like claiming indie groups Reindeer/Tiger Team and Bikeula are cokeheads.
Like many folks, Andrew first encountered Avery haunting First Fridays and downtown venues like Modified Arts, and the pair bonded over a mutual love of thrift-store fashion, ska, and bands like They Might Be Giants.
"He and I are like two halves of the same person. We both have similar senses of humor, we both like trying to piss people off without actually trying to piss someone off," Andrew says. "We're goofballs and we're not afraid to admit it."
Amy Carpenter, 28, an art teacher at Valley Academy charter school in Phoenix and a member of Catorce, says it's hard not to like Avery, especially with his cherubic appearance, even when he's "doing the craziest things."
"It sorta brings about this biological reaction, you know, to love him," says Carpenter. "Like he's your kid brother or something."
His look also allows him to get away with a lot sometimes, Avery admits.
"Lots of the things I do, if I was like some big hairy man, it would seem weird in a 'this-guy's-creepy' sort of way," Avery says.
Like last month when he made out with a pregnant bisexual woman named MeCca at Soul Invictus Gallery & Cabaret during its weekly "7 Minutes in Heaven" talent exhibition held in June. Avery had been showcasing his "favorite things to do," including enjoying milk and cookies or watching movies, and wanted to snuggle with an audience member onstage. A Sapphic siren volunteered, and their gentle spooning turned into a flurry of deep-mouth kisses, shocking those in attendance.
"It's just so hysterical," Avery says. "I'm this innocent kid, and in a way I took advantage of this innocent woman who's the complete opposite of me."
Hubbard thinks that behind Avery's virgin-like façade lies "an evil genius" akin to Andy Kaufman, even citing Douglas Patton as Ryan's version of Tony Clifton.
"I think a lot of times he's playing dumb or he's playing innocent, but I think he really knows what he's doing," Hubbard says. "I don't think he's always as uncomfortable or embarrassed as he seems to be onstage. I think people are playing right into it."
The final Locking Your Car Doors show is reaching its zenith, and the PHiX on Grand Avenue is the site of a massive orgy of annihilation.
A raging rabble of more than 50 teenage and twentysomething scenesters, many clad Unabomber-style in hoodies and sunglasses, has spent 90 minutes smashing all manner of home electronics into the floor while slam-dancing to a bizarre soundtrack of Avery's favorite party music (including rocker Andrew W.K. and Europop group Vengaboys) blasting over the PA.
Shattered bits of televisions, sewing machines, computer keyboards, vacuum cleaners and other devices lie in a foot-high heap in front of the art gallery's stage.
The havoc isn't limited to appliances, as this mob has also obliterated watermelons and bottles of soy sauce, as well as tossing powdered sugar and uncooked pasta onto the crowd. These foodstuffs soil the walls like bloodstains but stain the air with a pungent aroma.
Avery walks around the venue wearing a black hoodie and motorcycle helmet, surveying the damage. His face is dotted with chocolate sauce. He's winded and "way outta shape" after demolishing several televisions, but finds the energy to encourage his friends and make sure nobody falls onto the scraps on the floor.
The climax of the evening comes when one shirtless hooligan drives a 1990 Ford Taurus station wagon (purchased at a local police auction) into the former garage and everyone starts wrecking it with a sledgehammer or any other object they can find.
Luckily, only a few cuts and bruises were suffered this evening. Regardless, Avery and company required participants to sign irreverent waivers warning of possible contraction of "Airborne Ass Herpes," witnessing of "Rampant Mouth to Ass Contact" or any other harm before they entered.
The PHiX was the only venue willing to book LYCD, as it's been banned from the Paper Heart and Four White Walls on Grand Avenue, as well as Minder Binder's in Tempe, and Skateland in Chandler. The group technically broke up in 2004 (because "we ran out of places to destroy," says Avery), but decided to stage one final show in honor of Ryan's departure.
"For the final LYCD show, we made it to be a pretty big deal as possible, bigger than the last," he says. "But this is just insane. It's the best mess we've ever made."
But transforming a gallery into a hazard-filled junkyard isn't the first time Avery's crossed a line into dangerous territory.
Last Valentine's Day he marched into an open mic night at the Willow House wearing a homemade pink Nazi uniform (complete with jackboots, Hitler mustache, and swastika armband) and delivered a 40-minute monologue about love and romance to a shocked crowd of coffee lovers (some of whom stormed out). A manager at the coffee house instructed him to avoid pulling similar stunts or he'd be banned.
Avery's apologetic for his costume, admitting it was "pretty offensive and weird." His goal, he says, was to overcome his fears of upsetting others and editing himself, in order to become a "more honest performance artist."
Since the Nazi episode, he's gotten more used to people being offended by his performances or leaving in disgust. The latest incident came during June's Uncle Sku's Clubhouse at the Trunk Space when one miffed audience member informed JRC on her way out that she found Caspar the Kid offensive.
Avery says he doesn't care. He isn't bothered by the folks who're offended at his act simply because it's "weird or un-PC or whatever."
The only naysayers that bother him are the ones who say he's "mediocre" or has "no talent."
Namely, Wayne Michael Reich. The local photographer is probably the most vocal critic of Avery and his friends. While he admits Ryan's "a sweet kid," he believes they're hurting the downtown art scene.
"I don't like their bands, I find them annoying, they're idiots, they're loud, they're irritating, and I don't appreciate their so-called music," says Reich, who specializes in both arty photos of architecture and saucy pics of nearly naked women. "Being loud and obnoxious and aggressive, to me, is not being fair to yourself as an artist, it's not being fair to the audience. It's more of an infliction; you inflict your career on people."
Reich has had plenty of run-ins with Avery and company around town. The whole kafuffle kicked off in April 2005 when "Iggy Pop" decided to crash one of the Cone Gallery's monthly "experimental noise jams" which coincided with an exhibition of Reich photography at the space on a Third Friday.
While the band's discordant songs fit in with the other cacophonous music that night, Reich says Avery and Andrew Jemsek were running around and getting in the faces of those who'd come to see his work.
"I worked really hard on that show," Reich says. "And in the space of three and a half minutes I watched a room full of 35 people clear out."
Kathy Cone, co-owner of the Cone Gallery, says while Avery and Jemsek didn't "cause any major harm" with their performance, she feels they sometimes need to "temper their acts."
"I don't want to discourage them from their free expression or anarchy, but they occasionally need to respect others and realize other people's needs are important, too," Cone says.
Earlier this year, however, Night Wolf played the Willow House, and Avery thought it would be fun to wrap the interior of the building in crime-scene tape. He then burst outside and began performing for those seated at the coffee house's picnic tables, including Reich, who shouted, "Shut the fuck up, you talentless hack!"
The situation eventually devolved into a MySpace war, where Reich was getting more than a dozen nasty messages a day from "all these teenagers" (read: Avery's fans), and a couple of contentious exchanges with Andrew at the Willow House. The photographer thinks the whole situation could've been avoided had Avery and company learned how to take criticism.
"I get very irritated in this scene with this seemingly unwritten law that you're not allowed to criticize, and if you do, your head needs to be on a plate," Reich says. "If you're going to perform, you have to get better at your craft. . . . You impress your friends and this small circle of fans, but that's about it."
Andrew shrugs it off. Reich, he says, is "just this angry guy who likes to yell at people and hates everyone."
"With any of our bands, we proclaim, 'We're idiots, look at our outfits, look at our setup, we're joking,'" Andrew says. "So basically, anyone taking us seriously beyond that is a moron, because we're obviously just joking and we're obviously just bored kids who are entertaining ourselves and trying to entertain other people while doing so."
Letting loose is the furthest thing from Ryan Avery's mind on a Sunday morning as he leaves for church, where he holds the position of elder. Gone is his usual outfit of a wacky tee shirt and polyester pants. Instead, he's clothed in the more conservative attire of a dark suit, white dress shirt, and black tie.
Avery wasn't always eager to fit in. As he sits pensively on a beat-up couch inside the vintage Garfield Neighborhood home he shares with a few artists and a local DJ, Avery remembers how he "thought it was important to be an individual" in church when he was 14. It meant wearing baggier or different colored clothes, a chain wallet, and even a Mohawk. (He pulled it back into a ponytail for church.)
Unfortunately, Matt says, Mormonism is a religion where conformity is heavily encouraged, causing fellow churchgoers to ostracize his brother.
At 16, Ryan realized his appearance was causing "more harm than good," he says, and, even though the members of his old ward were being "stupid and shallow," he shaved off the Mohawk and eventually began dressing less flashy. He began taking his faith so seriously that, later that year when his mother gave him the option of not going anymore, he decided to stick with it.
"What really helped me a lot with getting into Mormonism was knowing I didn't have to do this, but I really wanted to," he says.
Although his parents praise their son's artistic interests, Ryan suspects they'd like him to be "more of a regular Mormon," including going to Brigham Young University and starting a family when he returns from his mission.
"All those things would be great, but it's not really appealing to me right now," Avery says. "Maybe they will someday."
Family members have occasionally turned out at his shows in support. Matt admits he's a big fan, and Douglas was even a guest on Grand Avenue Tonight! earlier this year. The elder Avery, however, says he's only concerned about Ryan's activities "if it involves doing or encouraging drugs, premarital sex, or drinking, or anything else immoral or outside God's teachings."
He needn't worry. Avery says he vociferously abstains from tobacco, alcohol, drugs and caffeine. In fact, he's quite the ideal Mormon, in most respects. He prays daily, attends church every Sunday (except when he can't get a ride), wants a temple wedding, and tithes out of his meager income as a cashier at Zoës Kitchen in central Phoenix (including chipping in any scratch made from gigs). He's even abstinent by choice.
Avery's beliefs also extend to his performances. He avoids cursing, though the occasional "fuck" or "shit" slips out, and refrains from joking about or referencing any religious matter in his acts.
"I can appreciate all forms of humor . . . but jokes about any kind of religion make me cringe," Avery says.
God's even a fan of his work, he claims, and hasn't taken offense at anything he's done onstage.
"It sounds weird to say, but I get this overall feeling of, 'I'm proud of you,'" Avery says. "Like He's saying, 'You're making yourself happy and you're not hurting anyone, so this is good.'"
Normally, steadfast religious convictions such as these might grate against the fast and loose atmosphere of Grand Avenue, but Avery's buddies respect his beliefs. He believes his twin passions can co-exist and provide the best of both worlds.
"Though if my art scene friends fought with church members or my family, it would be brutal," he quips. "And hilarious."
JRC and Carrico, both avowed agnostics, say their friend has never proselytized or been judgmental.
"It's implied a lot of times if you're Christian that you're not supposed to walk among the lepers," JRC says. "But he realizes that's crap and doesn't separate himself from what he wants to do and who he wants to hang with."
Besides, he adds, they're far more worried he'll return from his mission a completely different person.
Avery is gung-ho about going on his mission. So much so that in 2005 he got into a confrontation with Todd Farnworth, the bishop of his old ward in Ahwatukee.
The spat stemmed from the church leader's unwillingness to approve Avery's mission since he wasn't living with his parents and didn't have his GED. (Neither is required, but the candidacy decisions are at the discretion of the bishop.) Farnworth declined to comment on the issue.
"That wasn't my smartest move ever," says Avery. "I remember thinking to myself, 'Ryan, you're yelling at a bishop. Stop it or you'll never get to go.'"
Eventually, Avery relocated to his current ward in central Phoenix where he says his new bishop, Zach Robertson, enthusiastically endorsed his missionary intentions.
Surprisingly enough, Avery says his extracurricular activities factored very little, if at all, into the decision. He claims Robertson and other ward members are aware of his performances, but it doesn't seem to faze them. (Robertson declined an interview request.)
"I've gotten a few bad vibes from people," Avery says. "But most people just say, 'Oh, that's interesting,' which really means, 'We don't care.' Mormons are very polite."
The only opinion Avery's really interested in is the Lord's. In fact, he believes "without a doubt" that sending him on a mission to Portland is the Heavenly Father's way of testing his faith.
It's easy to see why.
Given the Rose City's ultra-hip art and music scenes, Avery will undoubtedly be tempted to stray from his restrictive two-year task of intensely focusing on his beliefs, studying Mormon doctrine, and preaching the word of Joseph Smith for upward of 14 hours a day.
"Sending Ryan to Portland is like sending a gambling addict on an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas," says Carrico. "You'd think Jesus himself told the church to put him there."
Turns out, Jesus did just that, if you believe that sorta thing.
The location where each missionary serves is decided on by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a cadre of the Mormon Church's hierarchy in Salt Lake City. Each week the council gathers to look over missionary applications and uses a combination of prayer, discussion, and divine revelation to make its choices.
It's not a burning bush or anything, but it's enough for Avery, who's certain he'll be able to stay on the straight and narrow instead of turning up at such infamous Portland performance spaces as the Clown House or at the city's First Thursday art walk.
"That's something I've been thinking about lately, what it would take for me to be a bad missionary over," Avery says. "But I know I'll be a good boy."
He probably won't have much time for shenanigans anyway. After reporting to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on August 23, Avery's in for three packed weeks of classes, where the subjects include proselytizing methods and materials, proper etiquette, and code of conduct.
The latter might give him the most trouble. As a member of "God's Army," he'll be expected to follow more than a hundred different rules set out by the Missionary Handbook governing when he sleeps, with whom he associates, what he wears, and practically everything else.
Avery will be forbidden from any number of activities that might distract him from his duties or his faith, such as watching television, phoning friends or family, or even swimming. Avery says the president of each mission will occasionally allow some rules to be bent, though it isn't commonplace.
He can only listen to music that's "uplifting and heightens spiritual activity," such as hymns or choir music, but plans to mail home any off-limits CDs he comes across so he can listen to them two years from now.
If the mission president permits it, Avery's also hoping to use his one free day a week where he's expected to handle personal business like laundry and writing letters to borrow a video camera and create performance videos to send to the Trunk Space. It's bending the rules, he admits, but his brother Matt learned to play the guitar on his mission, so he should be fine.
"I don't think they'll mind, because I'm not going to dress like a Nazi or anything," he says. "I hope the mission president will think it's cool."
But even if these communiqués get through, his friends fear that when Avery returns to the Valley in 2008 he'll "be some Stepford-like Mormon robot" (as JRC puts it) who won't be interested in any of his previous artistic endeavors.
Some, like Amy Carpenter, have joked about "sabotaging his mission" in order to keep Avery in the Valley.
"We thought about planting porn at his house, or whatever," Carpenter says. "I don't know if that would work. It's a selfish thing, totally."
Avery feels he'll be "different, but not a completely different person," citing superstar Latter-day Saints like the MC Bat Commander (né Christian Richard Jacobs, the 34-year-old lead singer of The Aquabats) as a Mormon who's gone on a mission but still remained hip.
Jacobs says he, like Avery, "wasn't the typical Mormon" growing up, having been heavily involved with the SoCal skate punk scene prior to his mission to Japan in 1991. Upon returning home in 1993, however, he didn't swear off his former habits, but rather embraced them, and started The Aquabats a year later.
"My mission didn't make me get rid of those things that I liked," Jacobs says. "But it made me realize to take certain things a lot more seriously than I did before, like my church and family."
Just like Jacobs, Avery expects when he returns home from his mission he'll pick up right where he left off.
"Performing and art are the only things that I know I'm good at," Avery says. "And it's so insanely hard for me to imagine myself doing anything else."
While some of his characters will be written out from their respective projects such as Douglas Patton going to prison, and Caspar the Kid being hauled off to reform school Avery will continue performing until he leaves.
"When I'm on my mission, I'm gonna be living for the Lord," Avery says. "But right now I live for performing."
Ryan Avery will make his final Grand Avenue Tonight! appearance at 8 p.m. Thursday, August 3, at the Trunk Space, 1506 Grand Avenue, 602-256-6006, www.thetrunkspace.com. See www.myspace.com/himynameisryan2 for any additional upcoming appearances.
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