Music in the Time of COVID: Ryan Alfred Steps Out on His Own

Ryan Alfred explores electronic soundscapes on his debut EP.
Ryan Alfred explores electronic soundscapes on his debut EP. Taylor Noel
Between the COVID-19 pandemic, a harrowing presidential election, and peak levels of social unrest, 2020 has been a year of strife and chaos. But we forget that amid all this negativity, local artists are still creating great work. Phoenix New Times touched base with musicians from across the musical spectrum to gauge how they're faring personally, the ways in which their work has been influenced, and what all this madness really means. Through these conversations, we might just find the spark to make it through 2020 after all.

Ryan Alfred has amassed quite the musical resume: former bassist in Calexico, leader of folk-tronica band Sweet Ghosts, production manager, sound engineer, and tour manager. But amid the pandemic, Alfred's added another new title: solo artist. The newly-released A Sudden Rush Of Noise EP sees Alfred exploring one of "his earliest loves," rich, organic electronic soundscapes (by way of Portishead and Robert Glasper). Sure, right now might be bad timing for new careers, but Alfred's tireless exploration is why he's been so prolific for so long.

Phoenix New Times: How do you think you're doing overall? How has your mood affected your creativity?
It has been an interesting time for me. I don't often have anywhere near this amount of time to be in the studio and just focus on composing. I'm on the road maybe four or five months a year, and when I'm home, I hold down the production manager gig at Hotel Congress and do a lot of other things. I still do write quite a bit, but I don't have the ability to take weeks at a time and just sit and focus all day long for weeks. So in that sense, [COVID] is a gift.

One of the things I've gathered from this series is people have more time to listen to music. What's been your listening habits as of late?
I've definitely been listening to what I would describe as larger music: lots of Beethoven symphonies, especially the quartets. Lots of larger and longer pieces, things that have a lot of different gestures. That's sort of always been my favorite throughout my life, and I think I'm going back to the woodshed like I'm in college again and trying to take the time to understand things I don't understand. Those are really rich things to look into.

Perhaps more than just extra free time, is there something, an emotion or idea, that made you want to jump into this project now?
Over the last two years, I've been trying to push myself to simply release more music and to share more music. Even if that's as simple as throwing it on SoundCloud and then a Facebook post and it's done.

I had also started sketching a lot more. I'll sit down and start playing with those chords on the piano and I'll start patching the modular synth up to use those chords. It's less about "I need to write this piece," and more that I got into a framework. To spend an hour, two hours, three hours — whatever I have, let me just knock something out. When COVID hit I was already in that habit. I think by May I had maybe 30 sketches done.

Another thing, I started taking [online] classes from CalArts, basically music tech [studies]. Those got me experimenting with other synth techniques, like granular stuff or types of sampling that I hadn't really used since college. I started making this whole new batch of sketches that was very different and much more exciting. I realized I needed to finish this first batch or I'm never going to come back. Making a record out of [these songs] wasn't a concept, and I didn't aim at that. It was just part of a process and recognizing that I wanted to put a period on that phase.

I've found that nowadays artists are more open or forgiving when they're making music and self-editing. Did you have that kind of experience?
I don't have a really strong sense of my "identity" as a musician. I'm always sort of just open to new things and new ideas like that.

But I have limited time to create in a normal year. My band, Sweet Ghosts, will eat a certain percentage of the studio time each year. Then I have professional projects that will eat [another] percentage. I've been making electronic music for 20 years, and I've never finished an album or even followed a thread of it far enough to have an album's worth of stuff because I've never felt like I could prioritize.

Springing off that, what else helped motivate you to finally make an electronic LP?
About eight years ago, I [started] worked with artists that wanted me to incorporate electronic stuff to varying degrees in their records. I had all these professional reasons to work those chops up again. Then, about three years ago, I realized I need to really pursue it. This period has allowed me to sort of coalesce those things.

But also to try and find out, at least on a release-by-release basis, my voice, even if that contradicts what I said earlier about identity. Maybe it's a case of multiple identities. Maybe that's the framework.

There's a lot of warmth and energy on this album. What's your elevator pitch?
Over the last couple of years, I've been trying to use synthesizers in more of an instrument-like way. I feel like I hear nowadays kind of two poles for analog synth use: very gridded, explicitly mechanical stuff, like the Stranger Things soundtrack. On the other hand, there's acts like Snarky Puppy or Robert Glasper: people that will use mini-Moogs and play it like they're in Weather Report, which is awesome, but not necessarily harnessing the depth of sound design available these days.

I wanted to do something where instead of using these humongous synth sounds, where you play basically one melody with one sound and it takes up the whole frequency spectrum, I wanted to design small sounds that were like the size of an electric guitar of a flute or a trumpet and then combine them like an ensemble.

Do you have some idea of how you'll feel about this album down the road? Will this be your "COVID record" now and forever?
Like I said earlier, I have no framework for anticipating what I will think in that way. I can say, though, that I liked this [album]. I liked this music sooner than any other record I've ever made. Meaning that I always hate every record I'm working on as [I'm] finishing. Maybe not hate, but I think about what I'm failing to do and how it doesn't sound as good as the last Chemical Brothers record.

Then, six or seven months later, I come back and I'm like, "I kind of do like this," because it is what I aimed for. And with this one, I will say it is the fastest that I have come back, maybe just a couple weeks after it was mastered, and was like that that, "Hey, this song isn't so bad. Actually, I like that."
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan