What’s the difference between a drummer and a savings bond? One will mature and make money.
Drummers always get a bum rap. Why is that? Ever seen a good band with a shitty drummer? No. Know why? BECAUSE THEY DON’T EXIST.
Drummers rule! We hit stuff, get peoples’ butts shaking, and ultimately determine whether or not the band is going to perform well. You CANNOT have a solid band without a solid drummer, so this column is for the hitters.
I caught up with Reel Big Fish drummer Ryland Steen at Scion’s Bonzai Festival in Rochester, NY. I’m pretty sure the both of us were a few shades to the wind by the time we conducted the interview (I know I was,) but we managed to get a solid 30 minute interview in about drums and inspirations in between giggles and off-color jokes. Good stuff, great player! Check it out below.
(After reading the blurb into the interview,)
R- I always appreciate a good drummer joke!
G- Yeah there are plenty of them to go around. Too bad I keep recycling my favorites here.
R- I’m not sure if there are bleeps or anything here…
G- Nah we’re uncensored here at Live High Five.
R- My favorite one is “what does a stripper do with her asshole before she goes to work?”
G- Gives him money for drumsticks?
R- No, drops him off at band practice.
(both cracking up)
G- I like that one, too!
Well, first off, I’d like to say thank you very much for taking the time to speak with Live High Five today!
R- I’m just happy to be here! Should I be speaking right to you, or should I talk right into this device (ipad) over here? (To iPad) I’M SPEAKING TO YOU!
G- Either or. We’re good to go regardless.
R- I’ve noticed people get a little uncomfortable when you look them right in the eye when talking to them. They’re like ‘Uhh, ummm, uhhhh.’ All these devices…
G- Well, when the apocalypse comes, I’ll probably be staring into my iPhone, too.
R- Even though all the satellites are down and there’s no new updates, you know people are gonna be doing that thumb thing…
G- Tetris, motherfucker! We got Tetris on the phone!
R- I’m still rocking a pager, so I do my best.
G- Skyepager! He’s rocking it gangster style from 1992, folks! West Coast selling that rock!
R- I still have a burn phone in case cops get close. I can break it in half and throw it out the window real fast.
G- And this is why we call them Drive-By Interviews, because they’re very spontaneous and a lot of fun!
So, let’s talk about Ryalnd Steen, man. You’re playing drums with Reel Big Fish. Tell us… When did you start playing drums and get everything going?
R- Actually, I owe everything to a friend of mine, a junior high friend of mine named Tommy Cabela.
G- Nice Irish boy, I take it?
R- (laughing) He actually is part of the family that owns that sporting goods store, Cabela’s in the Midwest, so he’s kind of hunting royalty, I guess. Anyway, he was 2 years older than me, and he had a drum set. I went over to his house one day right when he got it, and I idolized him. When you’re 12 years old, and friends with someone who’s 14, you’re like ‘Oh man… Whatever they do, that’s the coolest thing in the world!’
So, when I went home, I said ‘Dad, I have to have a drum set. Luckily, my dad was a musician, so he understood. I tried piano, I tried guitar, but I just wasn’t interested, and somehow, I just sat down at drums and it made sense to me.
So, after a lot of poking and prodding and whining, after about 4-5 months, I convinced my dad to buy me a drum set. So we drove… I’m from Lincoln, Nebraska, so we drove to Omaha where there was Joe Vota’s Drum City, which no longer exists, sadly. That was where my first drum kit purchase was.
G- What was it?
R- It was a CB 700. A 5-piece kit.
G- 12”, 13”, 16”. 22”, 5.5X14 snare on balsawood, folks?
R- (laughing) You know, I had no idea what I was doing. I had one crash cymbal and hi hats, and luckily my dad knew just a few drum beats to get me started. So, everyday it was basically the 1/3 on the kick, 2/4 on the snare, and 1/8 notes on the bass, just the rock beat. So, everyday was a new adventure because I would find new ways to get a new kick pattern, and I’d be ‘Dad! I learned a new kick pattern today,’ just because I would change it up. For me, it was a very exciting instrument because every day, something new was happening. There was never a point where I lost interest in the drums. Everyday, I would skip school faking I was sick just so I could stay home and practice the drums because I was so obsessed with it and loved it so much.
It was weird, because I was never fascinated with drums. But one day, there were no drums, and then there was light, you know! God in the heavens, let there be light! One day, there were no drums, and then there were drums. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with it. I’m always trying to get better or trying to figure out the things from guys better than us. It’s crazy because, at the en of the day, if you want to get better at this instrument, you just have to put in the time.
R- You just have to put in the time, and it never felt lie a chore for me. It was ‘What do I get to do today?’ Some people have parents who are ‘You’re gonna learn piano’ and it’s ‘What do I have to do today?’ For me, it was ‘What do I GET to do today?!’ To this day, that excitement is still strong in me.
G- Awesome! So you’re playing with RBF now and we talked about your history with the drums… When did you start playing professionally? Is this your first real pro gig, or were you in others before this?
R- I actually started playing professionally right when I turned 18. Like I said, my father is a musician and my mother was a painter, so I grew up in a very bohemian household. There was a pretty good local scene in Lincoln, and people were very supportive of locals bands. They’d go out to shows and see bands. So, there was this band called Baby Jason and The Spankers, which was basically a Stevie Ray Vaughn kinda band. It was mostly original material, a lot of blues standards, and I was 17 at the time. This was a band that was legend around Lincoln, because it was ‘Oh… they go tour and play!’ It was one of the bands that broke out of Lincoln and did stuff.
So, the leader, Baby Jason, as the band was disbanding, was looking around for another band. Coincidentally, I met him and we just jammed one night and he goes ‘How would you feel about being in the band?’ He didn’t know how old I was at the time, and I was just ‘I’m still in high school.’ He said ‘Well, I really like your playing.’ And it was definitely a bar band, but it was one of those things where he liked my playing. And it’s not all about the playing, it’s about the hanging out, too. I think a lot of people forget that. For all of you drummers who audition and don’t get the gig and get upset about it, well, fortunately or unfortunately, drumming is only half the thing. You gotta be a cool hang… Not even a good hang, but sometimes just the vibing. Now that I’m a little older, I get it.
Fortunately for me, this guy Baby Jason really liked me and was like ‘Well, what do we have to do to get you in the band?’ I wanted to get on the road and was ready to go, and I met him senior year of high school. Luckily, I had all my required classes for high school, and I went to my mom and dad and said ‘Look, I got this offer and I want to do this’ and my parents were like…
G- GO! GO!
G- So few do that.
R- So literally a week before school started, I went to school with my parents and talked to the counselors and principal and said ‘I’m not coming back.’ And of course, they were ‘Are you sure?’ I said ‘I’m not gonna come back.’ So they said ‘Ok… Come back in 2 days and we’ll have your diploma printed out for you.”
(both laughing hysterically)
G- That is so awesome! An educated drummer!
R- I went back in 2 days and they said ‘Here’s your diploma.’ From there, I just went on the road, and it was a great experience for a young kid. I say that because, luckily, I was playing with a great bunch of guys who were super… There wasn’t a lot of hazing, there was a lot of mutual respect. And it’s funny because the guys I was playing with were 27-28 years old, and it was ‘You guys are so old!’ But it really set me up for loving the road life. If I didn’t have that experience, who knows how I’d have liked the road? I had some great guys to make me feel welcome and took care of me for those first few years.
Then, I moved to California with another band, and that band fell apart, but we made friends with Reel Big Fish. So from there, it was ‘Let’s hang out.’ I had filled in for previous drummers, and when Justin left, they said do you want to play with us full-time? Fast forward 8 years later to the drunkenness that we are now. That I am now! (laughing)
G- We’re not even that drunk yet. We have so many more beers to drink!
So, we’re all total nerds who love gear. It’s boobs, drums…
G- Tits, and drums. You started with a CB set, and you’re playing with some silver sparkle DW’s right now. Tell us about the rig! Composition, sizes, cymbals, and sticks.
R- I tell you what… I feel so lucky that all the products that I use I fully back and am behind. All the people I’m endorsed by I was using before I met anyone at these companies. So, I use DW drums…
G- They’re so dope!
R- I’m a big fan of the 18×22 kick drum, standard size. Lately, I’ve been rocking the 5×14 snare. I think it’s one of those crazy solid wood drums…
G- Like a Craviotto?
R- Yeah. With RBF, I love the sound of the drum because it just cuts right through. With other projects, I like using the 6.5×14 bronze snare. I love that… it’s heaven! Lately, I’ve been using the 10×12 and 16×16 toms, but yeah a 4-piece kit.
I use Sabian cymbals, the HHX evolutions. Usually, I use the 18” evolution on the left, and then an 18” Vault. I find the 2 of them together get nice tones. And I use the HHX 20” ride, and I love that ride because you can get the ping out of it, and a nice wash, with a great bell sound. The hi hats, I’ve been using the HHZ accelerators. They’re a little more high end and expensive, but I love the way they sound with this band. It’s a really simple set up. 2 cymbals, ride, 4-piece kit.
I basically mirrored Dave Grohl’s kits. You don’t need much more than that, but I will say this. One of the big guys that whipped me into shape is Josh Freese.
G- We LOVE Josh Freese! He’s the man, for The Vandals alone!
R- As far as Josh goes, I bought the Vandals ‘Live at the House of Blues…”
G- OMG THAT FUCKING DVD! SO INSANE!
R- With the Josh Freese cam. That was my bible for 5 years, just studying it. I realized, once I started playing with RBF, a lot of what The Vandals do I could apply to RBF. I found all these things he was doing that I could do with this band, too.
G- Except for that fill in “Behind The Music,” track 20.
R- Oh man!
(We both proceed to make machine gun sounds with our mouths to mimic it. Josh is ridonkulous.)
R- So, to this day, if I found out that Josh was gonna watch my set, I’d go nuts. So that shaped my approach to the playing. I’d like to think that I’ve built up my own style for the band and put my own character on it now. I don’t even know what the question was (laughing.)
R- I’ve gotten to meet Josh a few times…
R- And it’s crazy. Every time I see him, he remembers me and is like ‘Oh Ryland! How you doing?’ and I’m like ‘Hi!’ But it’s people like that that make me so inspired and happy. Thank goodness the guy I’ve been ogling over the past few years is cool. That is the best way to encounter people… like ‘What’s up?’ They’re people too and they stub their toes going to bed at night, and they’re people, too. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to meet some people along the way that have continued to inspire me to get better at the instrument.
G- Very cool.
R- And that’s where I’m at now. It’s ‘What can I offer to this instrument?’ Please try and figure out what you can offer to the instrument.
G- Nice! So now I’ll ask now is this. We’re all drummers, and we’ve all bled, cried, and sweat for our drums…
G- What is the worst injury you’ve sustained while playing drums? I took for stitches in my thumb from a damn bass player hitting my ride cymbal.
R- Ouch! Well, with RBF, we tour a lot!
G- You sure do.
R- And we do these tours where we’re playing 40 shows in a row. So, honestly, on this last European tour we did, I got Athletes Foot.
(I start dying hysterically)
R- Come on.
G- ATHLETE’S FOOT? What the fuck?!
R- It gets better. So, I got athlete’s foot, and one night it itched so bad, and I kept itching and itching and itching, and it felt so good.
G- Frickin’ athlete’s foot! Only a ska drummer.
R- But unfortunately, I must have had some bacteria under my nails, because both my feet got crazy infected and my feet swelled to the size of cantaloupes, and it started going up my leg.
(I stop laughing.)
So, for about 2 shows, it was pretty funny because it was bowling balls hitting the pedals until finally our tour manager said “Maybe you should go to the hospital
G- And who is your tour manager?
R- Our tour manager is Tom Ames.
G- Tom Ames, the coolest guy I’ve met in a long time.
R- He’s our lord and savior, father, son, and holy ghost. He is the man who makes sure we make sure we get to where we’re going and we are truly lucky to have this man.
G- Tom, before we continue with the athlete’s foot, you are awesome and we love you here at Live High Five.
Back to the athlete’s foot.
R- So, we went to a hospital in Stockholm, and if you have to go to a hospital, Sweden is the place to go. I was able to convey my problems to the people at the hospital and they said ‘Yeah, you’re feet are very infected.’ I can’t do the accent, but they gave me these giant fucking shots of some steroid, cortosone to something, and they gave me these horse pills and said take them for the next 10 weeks. I had 4 bottles of these pills I need to take, and luckily my feet cleared up. So, that was the worst.
I really try to take care of myself on the road. If my wrists, shoulders, or arms are hurting, I always try to bring ice pads with me. Ice the shoulders, wrists, elbows, whatever, because you gotta take care of yourself. The show MUST go on! This is not a job you can call in sick for. There are many gigs where I’ve had a puke bucket next to me and it’s been ‘You gotta play, man.’
So, this is not a job for the weak willed. There are times when you have to go ‘I have to do this and play the show’ even though you should be in bed. But there’s an exhilarating feeling knowing you did it.
G- I’ve been there before myself.
And to finish up today, you’ve worked really hard during your time in RBF and as a drummer… What advice would you give some of the kids out here that want to make it as a drummer and do what you do?
R- I would definitely say practice what you can actually apply to your playing. I know so many people that practice out of books. Practice what you can apply to your everyday playing. If you’re practicing jazz and trying out for a rock band, it doesn’t matter. They don’t care that you can play a jazz groove. They need someone who can give 1/3 and 2/4 and lay it down. Figure out what you want to do as a player. When you figure out what sort of band you want to play in, that’s what you should be practicing. If you practice that, they’ll look at you and say ‘That’s what we need.’
Don’t get bent out of shape if you don’t get a gig. You may have technically been the best drummer for the gig, but don’t get bent out of shape if you don’t get the gig, because it may just be that they weren’t vibing with you. It took me a long time to get it, but I get it now. You have to be in it for the right reasons, not to get rich. Anyone who wants to get rich, that shit doesn’t matter. If you want to get rich, go to school and be an accountant.
G- I hear crack and meth are very popular these days…
R- Yeah. Be a drug dealer, lawyer, whatever. Play music because you love to play music. If you get rich playing drums, it’s only because you were so passionate about playing the drums and someone picked up on that.
You gotta be passionate about playing your instrument. It can’t be about the money. You can’t have ulterior motives in this thing. I never decided I’m gonna play drums for a living, it just kinda happened. I loved playing, and I left high school early, I moved to California, and people would say ‘Come play for us.’ I was very fortunate to get the gig playing with RBF, and it’s just a group of guys who just love playing music, and that’s what it is. None of us are rich, none of us live in mansions, but we love this and this is what we do.
G- Well, you can work 8-4 M-F like I do, or you can hone your craft and maybe one day it’ll happen to you!
We just finished up with Ryland Steen from RBF and I just want to say thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today! We love RBF and ska is definitely not dead! Travel safe and play well, my friend.
R- Thanks for having me! It’s been great.