During a prolonged Minnesota winter in early 2013, Scene Point Blank chatted with Off With Their Heads’ Ryan Young about their (at the time) upcoming record Home. Getting some earlier spins of the record, which was released in March, we discussed the record’s origins, the ever-changing line-ups, and dealing with fans when you write personal lyrics.
Scene Point Blank: Where are you living now?
Ryan Young: I currently live in Los Angeles. I've been here for almost 2 years. Before that, I was in San Diego for about a year and a half, and prior to San Diego, I was in Chicago for about a year. It’s been a while since I've had a place in Minneapolis but I go back for extended trips pretty regularly.
Scene Point Blank: Any specific reason you moved to Cali? You just missed out on a week of subzero temperatures.
Ryan Young: My long time girlfriend (who used to live in Chicago) got the itch to see what life would be like in California. I wasn't really opposed to the idea, as I'm on the road at least 9 months a year anyway. It didn't bother me to spend my off time in one of my favorite places.
Scene Point Blank: I’ve got a lot of line-up questions. My general impression of Off With Their Heads is that’s it’s your band as far as songwriting and identity go. Would you agree with that summary? Not a solo project or anything, but that you’re the guy behind it.
Ryan Young: The reason I started this band was because I didn't want to have to be in anyone else's. I tried that a couple times and it didn't work out. I quickly realized that I have the personality that needs to lead. Whether or not I'm good at it is a different question, but that doesn't make much of a difference. At least I am directly responsible for anything good or bad that happens based on my decisions.
I don't really think of it as a solo project. Everyone that has ever played in the band has had an impact on it in a big way. They have helped get it to where it is now and I'm grateful to them. I guess it just never made sense to me to start a new band that would essentially sound the same.
Scene Point Blank: From my observation, Jesse Thorson [of Pretty Boy Thorson & the Falling Angels and The Slow Death] may be following a similar path with The Slow Death.
Ryan Young: I think I sat with him at a bar one time and told him to stop doing five different bands with essentially one new member each. It’s pretty much all the same thing. He thought that the songs sounded too different to all fit under one flag. I told him that shouldn't be looked at as a bad thing. Nobody wants a band’s songs to sound exactly the same.
Scene Point Blank: How does playing with so many different musicians in your history affect band dynamics? Are there songs that don’t get played because of the line-up you’re currently touring with?
Ryan Young: We usually try to go out knowing everything that I want to play. I don't like playing all of it, but we make sure to have a pretty solid mix of songs to keep ourselves interested. Some guys play certain songs better than others, and I keep that in mind when writing a setlist.
Scene Point Blank: Do you think you’ve learned more about music by playing with so many different people?
Ryan Young: I've learned that people have their own strengths and weaknesses. I mean that less musically and more personally. To play in a band like this takes less talent, but more mental strength than your average bear. It’s not always the sugary rainbow slide that some people think it is.
Scene Point Blank: How does your voice hold up through so much touring?
Ryan Young: I have to make sure that I take it easy. I used to lose it all the time. Now I'm on a regiment of a gallon of water every day. I try to not drink hard alcohol unless we have a day off. When I lose my voice, I lose it pretty hard. It usually takes a few days to get it back to normal.
Scene Point Blank: How have things changed for Off With Their Heads since joining Epitaph? Are you playing different venues or opening more shows for established bands?
Ryan Young: I would say that the biggest change was having someone like Brett Gurewitz in our corner. If I ever need something, or need him to talk to someone for me, he does it. He's really cool to me and has given me tons of opportunities. He got us on a Bad Religion tour right out of the gate and that was a pretty great learning experience. It’s also pretty awesome to be paid for the records you actually sell. That would be the 2nd best thing about Epitaph. They don't make me do anything I don't want to and offer up tons of opportunity. Seems pretty rad to me.
Scene Point Blank: Do you work closely with the label or are they pretty hands off?
Ryan Young: I live right around the corner from the office, so I can walk in any time and deal with things face to face. That’s pretty awesome. The three people that I deal with the most are long-time employees of the label that I get along with really well. The two guys that run the merch/webstore side of things are both friends from Minneapolis. Karl Hensel from Holding On/Martyr AD supervises everything, and Andrew Clover from 27 Shots (a band Robbie [Swartwood, bass] played in as well) is the warehouse manager. It’s nice to get packages from them with gifts while we are out on the road, like emo band booty shorts.
Scene Point Blank: Have you had a chance to meet many of the artists that you grew up listening to on Epitaph?
Ryan Young: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. I've met almost everyone that I've ever wanted to from being in this band. I think I've only bummed out a few of them. I know Chuck Ragan likes to keep me at arms-length distance!
Scene Point Blank: Do you know, off the top of your head, how many releases you have?
Ryan Young: I lost track of how many 7"s, singles, and LP 4-way comps we have done after we hit 25. We still do them. Epitaph is cool about us doing split 7"s and comp tracks with friends' labels. Most recently we did a split 7" with Discharge from the UK. That one was pretty cool; Mike Watt (Minutemen/Iggy and the Stooges) played bass on it. That was a pretty cool thing to happen to ol' Off With Their Heads. [Home is] our 3rd full-length though.
Scene Point Blank: Do you have a day job when you’re not touring?
Ryan Young: I usually take my time off to relax. If we have an extended amount of time, I do production work in LA. I like that kind of stuff. I get to see tons of "behind the scenes" showbiz things. I had to get Lil' Wayne a bottle opener. In return, I got his shoe laces and a pack of Philly blunts. Still have them.
Scene Point Blank: Your songwriting has a very personal tone to it. Do you write your songs with clear personal meanings for you, or do you prefer to let the listener interpret/give it their own meaning?
Ryan Young: All the songs are about me and what I'm going through at that time. It’s completely personal to me. One thing that’s great about music is that, if you can relate to it, you as a listener can adapt it to some kind of personal experience and then it becomes yours. That’s why people say "Hey grrrrrrl! This is my song!" Know what I mean?
Scene Point Blank: Does that personal angle lead to awkward conversations where fans think they know you? I’ve read statements to this effect from Atmosphere (to keep the Minneapolis theme running).
Back when Hospitals came out, someone summarized the record to me by saying “Do you think he has a drug problem?”
Ryan Young: Haha. I still get that. "Fuck those guys! They are junkies!" No we aren't. I never said that in a song. You have to go back and listen to the stuff again and realize that nothing I have ever written glorifies doing drugs. If anything, it’s a deterrent. I'm not singing about how rad it is to be out on a Saturday night doing blow in a bathroom waiting to be adored by 10 adoring beautiful girls when I finish up. I'm singing about how certain decisions and problems (mental or drug) have ruined a lot for me. I think that gets lost in the poppiness of the music.
"Nothing I have ever written glorifies doing drugs. If anything, it’s a deterrent."
But, yes, people do feel like they know me from the songs. That may be a small thing they can relate to, but you can't really get the whole picture based on a few songs that were written when I was at a low point. I try to help people out as much as I can when they ask for advice or for help, but I also tell them that I'm not one to give advice. Hence the song "Seek Advice Elsewhere" on the new record.
Scene Point Blank: Did you write the new album with the theme in mind or was it something you saw come together afterward?
Ryan Young: I always wait until the last possible second to write my lyrics. I'll have something in mind, like a theme or a few lines in place, but I try to hold out. That keeps the pressure on and makes it really personal to me. The only song I had completely finished for the new record was "Don't Make Me Go." I wrote that in Savage, MN. Ha! It was the most pressing thing on my mind at the time, but I didn't realize at the time that it was going to lay the foundation for the rest of the record.
Scene Point Blank: Home seems like a theme that has been prevalent in your other albums too, but really comes to a focused point with this record. Were you looking for closure on the topic so you can explore something different with the next album?
Ryan Young: I never think that far ahead. I'm not really sure if I will get any closure on anything, but hopefully. If any good comes from this record, I wouldn't mind having a little come my way!