When the Straight calls up former Age of Electric and Limblifter member Ryan Dahle to chat about his debut solo album, Irrational Anthems, the musical jack-of-all-trades (singer, songwriter, guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, banjo player, producer, mixer, mastering engineer) is hanging at his buddy Steven Shearer’s Vancouver studio. Shearer’s the visual artist who created the seven-foot-by-seven-foot cube sculpture made of PVC piping that graces the cover of Dahle’s new CD, and is currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada. He rigged the device with bass shakers and high-end drivers, and asked Dahle to help him figure out a way to make music with it—or at least get it to rumble and shake.
“He’s made all this crazy music with these vintage synths that I have and made this thing come alive,” explains Dahle, who’s pictured climbing the monkey bar–like structure with his girlfriend and musical associate Megan Bradfield (the Salteens, A.C. Newman). The two have been making music together, on and off, for eight years now, and on Dahle’s latest she cowrote three tracks and handles bass, double bass, vocals, cello, and clarinet.
The other main contributor to Irrational Anthems is Dahle’s brother Kurt, who played in both of his previous bands before taking on the drumming role for local indie idols the New Pornographers. It’s the first time the Dahles have recorded together since Limblifter’s Bellaclava album of 2000, as Vancouver drum great Pat Steward assumed the kit for Limblifter’s last release, 2004’s I/O.
“Both of those drummers could fill in for the best people in the world,” raves Dahle, whose sibling’s potent skin-bashing enlivens power-pop standouts like the exhilarating opener “Chop Chop” and the Dahle/Bradfield-penned “Awfulizing”. The latter tune spun from a word concocted by Dahle’s friend Sarah Lapsley, leader of local act Vancouver Nights. “Solve your sunshine problem,” croons Dahle in the uplifting ditty, “mute the awfulizing.”
“Usually I make the titles up myself,” he says, “but I just thought that ”˜awfulizing’ was so brilliant. It’s basically just the idea that you make anything horrible come to fruition if you think about the worst possible scenario. So writing that song was kind of a reminder to me to try to be positive.”
For the cello-driven “Agoraphobe”, which was inspired by the anxiety disorder an ex-girlfriend battled with, Dahle hooked up with Matthew Good, who himself suffers from bipolar disorder. The two had previously collaborated on “The Devil’s in Your Details”, a single off Good’s 2007 CD Hospital Music.
“We’ve probably written a couple of albums worth of material together,” reports Dahle. “Some of it we’ve put on the Internet, and some of it just kinda ends up on our records here and there. I think we’re both people who can go to each other if we ever have writer’s block and need a kick start.”
When he’s not composing music for himself or others, Dahle can often be found mixing and mastering at the RecRoom, the recording facility he built in the 12-studio Song City complex, which includes the fabled Greenhouse Studios. The RecRoom came in handy when Steve Bays and Paul Hawley of Vancouver-based indie-rock sensations Hot Hot Heat, after hearing advance music from Irrational Anthems, asked him to mix their next CD.
“Considering that they’ve only worked with the best people in the world,” says Dahle, “I was pretty blown away that they chose somebody local, and that the person they chose was me.”
Dahle describes the finished Hot Hot Heat album—which is currently being shopped around to labels by the same L.A. management team that handles No Doubt and Nine Inch Nails—as a “classic”. He’s also chipper about the recently released, self-titled disc by local guitar-rockers the Manvils, which he produced, recorded, and mixed.
“Having all those roles is a bit stressful,” says Dahle, “but I really wanted to make a rock record, and they’re just wonderful guys in that band. They really wanted to work hard to make something amazing, so I was happy.”
While the roles of producer, mixer, and mastering engineer keep him busy these days, the launch of his solo career is Dahle’s top priority right now. With the encouragement of those closest to him, he decided it was time to move beyond Limblifter.
“I could have easily called this [project] Limblifter,” he points out, “but by getting away from the Limblifter name I felt like I was kinda limitless as to what I could do. And Megan really promoted the idea of it being a Ryan Dahle record. She said, ”˜If you’re ever gonna put your name on a record, then now’s the time.’
“Putting my name on a record is just something I’ve never imagined,” he adds. “But I always feel most comfortable doing things that I feel uncomfortable doing.”
Ryan Dahle plays the Biltmore Cabaret next Thursday (September 10).