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An Interview with Chick Quest

Chick Quest
27 July 2015

Bang bang shoot shoot: Chick Quest, a Vienna-born band, parallels their music to the world of spaghetti westerns – a European, more so Italian, film culture that recreated the so-called “Wild West” through anti-heroes and troubling trumpets. I talked with the band’s front man, Ryan White, about his perception on their “spaghetti western” music.

So I know this band gets labeled as “spaghetti western punk”. What was it about spaghetti westerns that inspired you?

Chick Quest: I think I’ve always been drawn to the music from my father raising me on those films. It seems that no matter how many times he’s seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he’ll give up on whatever he wanted to watch on TV while flipping through the channels for that film. I’m actually not as big of a fan of the genre as he is though. It’s not like I sat down and tried to glue my songwriting to a film genre I adore. Although, I appreciate them as films, and I certainly do love the music. Regardless of how anybody feels about the genre, you cannot ignore the fact that the music is almost always masterfully written and beautifully played.

I think it’s sad that whenever other films allude to “westerns” or pay homage to the music, they caricaturize it with goofy faux-Native American “wah-ah-ah-ah-ah’s” and jew harp noises, when in actuality, Ennio Morricone broke ground with the multitude of sounds he incorporated simply because there wasn’t too much of a budget at the time to afford a full symphony. His use of leitmotif with these different sounds really pushed the boundaries of what a movie soundtrack should be and became a massive influence to movie composers like John Williams. And yet, whenever people try to replicate the music, it sadly comes off as cheap and cheesy.

But when you look past the memorable whip cracking sounds and whistling and take a good, solid look at the written music itself, nearly everything there is a masterpiece. It’s glorious sounding and moving. It’s like you could watch the whole film just by listening to the music. And so, even if you are impartial to the music at a glance because you’ve never seen a western film, and perhaps only familiar with the cheap homages, it’s very likely your ears are going to perk right up when it appears in a Tarantino film or anything else. It’s just breathtaking music regardless of the context it sits in or the film genre it’s associated with. And for that reason I thought it would be cool to see if I could mold a bit of its essence to something dance-y and opposite.

What’s your favorite spaghetti western?

I suppose my father will disown me if I don’t just say the Dollars Trilogy, although The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is a wee bit too long and padded for me.

I read you formed the idea of the band in a bar. How did that come about? And exactly after how many drinks?

Oh probably far too many, as Vienna’s brought my beer tolerance up quite a lot. My drummer, Iris, and I often hang out at a bar called Rhiz, and I just spontaneously brought up the idea of making a band. I hadn’t done anything with my last band, Russian Spy Camera, for years and so I was getting the itch to play live again. Vienna is a weird place to me because people here love seeing live music and the city itself is famous for its massive classical music contribution, but not everyone here is bold enough to make something happen themselves. It’s like people here are generally afraid to put themselves out there unless they’re convinced by others they’re exceptional and brilliant at something.

This is in stark contrast to where I cut my musical teeth – Athens, Georgia – where everyone thinks they can be in a band. And so what you get is a tiny college town with an oversaturation of musicians and bands no matter how amateur they are. So I always thought it would be fun to start something here because Vienna is like a blank canvas in some ways. It’s not like Athens where it’s easy to get lost in the clutter no matter how good you are.

When we were in Rhiz that night, I clearly remember the DJ was playing a Go! Team song really loudly over the speakers. I was recalling a story I read about the main guy recording the drums in his kitchen or something, and how that album just sounds like Saturday morning cartoons and 80’s daytime cop show reruns, etc. I just wanted to make something fun like that: dancey, dirty, and distinguishable. So I just blurted out how we should make a band because why not? Iris was like, “But I don’t play an instrument, what would I do in the band?” And I said she should buy a drum set (because the hardest thing to find for a band is a drummer), and I could write some songs based on very simple, repetitive drum beats for her. She actually bought the set about a week later, and we got to work.

I know you’re an expat living in Austria. Where are you from originally, and what brought you to Austria?

I’m from Athens, Georgia, USA. Born in Connecticut, moved to the south as a kid with all the other late 80’s/early 90’s families whose parents got job relocations and transfers. I lived in Athens for ten years because I went to college there and stayed after graduation to make music. I kind of went through a confusing late-20’s and ended up traveling quite a bit through Europe. (Initially backpacking from Istanbul to Berlin in 2008, and then eventually moving here in 2010 after I nearly died in a car accident in 2009.) Originally, I moved to Barcelona but didn’t enjoy it very much, so I ended up in Vienna to visit some friends I made years before on my backpacking trip. One thing led to another and I eventually got a web development job here and figured I’d live abroad while I had the chance.

Your music has some pretty clear punk influences, did you grow up with it?

I did not. I grew up on my father’s music, which is mainly classic rock. Although I have a brother who’s ten years older, so I also got all that 80’s Van Halen and MTV influence from an early start. It wasn’t until I was 18 when I shifted towards bands like Talking Heads and discovered the local Athens music scene, which pretty much reshaped my musical landscape. But I didn’t properly get into punk – and I don’t mean faux punk like Green Day or something – I mean the proper mid/late 70’s movement known as punk – until about the mid 2000’s when people told me how much my voice reminded them of Joe Strummer. Ironically, I think my voice sounds more like Mick Jones, but whatever – both are great.

Actually though, I don’t really consider our music to be punk all that much. I mean, sure, there’s a trace of it, but I’d say there’s as much of a trace of it as there is in Violent Femmes’ first album. It’s more of a hint in the feeling than it is in the sound. (As a side note: I really appreciated Chris Bell going into great detail about what punk originally was and what it should still mean when he reviewed our album. He was absolutely dead on and I think a lot of people, especially here, kind of miss that point because punk, to a lot of people, still sadly means “bad and loud”.)

In any case, I greatly appreciate those late 70’s/early 80’s bands regardless if they’re punk, post-punk, new wave, whatever you want to call them, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t grow up with it. While I was trying to reproduce David Gilmour solos at age 15 back in the 90’s, all of my friends were out listening to Dookie or Smash, but only a small fraction of them ever went on to buy Never Mind the Bullocks… or a Dead Kennedys album. I was fortunately able to approach the genre at a time when I wasn’t searching to latch onto something that was merely opposite of what my parent’s liked, and instead got to it at a point when it was right for me.

Judging by the punk sound, how much do you think punk and spaghetti westerns go in hand?

Hmm, I don’t think they directly go hand in hand, to be honest. I think a lot of the “spaghetti western” in our album is merely by suggestion, but not really through direct reference. I doubt Ennio Morricone would enjoy our music. I know he would be absolutely offended by us calling his music “spaghetti western” or even see his influence in it. It’s like you put a trumpet on a song and you can tell someone it’s “spaghetti western”, and they go, “Yeah, I hear what you mean.” A lot of those chord changes are also used in surf rock too. So you could theoretically take a song like “Miserlou” and say it’s “spaghetti western” because there’s a trumpet on it. But if you take the trumpet off, then people probably would just call it surf rock. However, with that being said, I’d definitely argue there’s an often overlooked, direct connection between surf rock and punk, which a lot of great punk bands certainly put to great use. So by that argument, you could maybe make a roundabout connection between punk and “spaghetti western”, but honestly I just think it’s suggesting one thing while leaning heavily on another.

When you produced this album, what were you trying to capture? Any kind of idea or story?

I wanted a raw live sound. In my mind these songs should be played in some small, dirty, sweaty club where 60 people are jammed into a tiny, dark space to dance in front of a band that’s no more than a couple of feet away from them. And they’re dancing – like they’re there to dance, not to watch the band. That’s my ideal show for a band like this. It reminds me of those really humid summer nights in Athens when someone would throw a house party and a living room full of people would go absolutely nuts to a band nobody’s ever heard of before. So I wanted to capture that dirty, rawness and keep mistakes that remind you that there are human beings playing instruments behind those microphones.

What was the most challenging part of making this record?

Honestly, from my experience, this was a pretty smooth album to make. There were a couple bumps in the road due to commitment issues regarding some people involved, but every decision made was the right one. However, to answer the question, the most challenging part was trying to record quickly in a short time frame for the sake of capturing the newness and excitement of the songs. And also because I only had about a three-week Christmas break between a ton of work at my job. I basically worked on this album – pre-production, tracking, and editing – every hour of the day for three weeks straight, not even stopping for Christmas.

Every Russian Spy Camera album I made was more or less recorded, mixed, and mastered over the course of a year or more. I read a story a few years back about how The Beatles recorded Please Please Me, their very first album, all within a 13-hour day in Abbey Road Studios. We’re talking the entire band tracked, plus vocal harmonies and loose ends like harmonicas, everything finished and ready for mixing in 1 day. John Lennon famously lost his voice after singing only one single take of “Twist and Shout”, the last song to be tracked that day, because he had been singing all day and went crazy with his voice for the last song. What you hear on that song is pretty much what you would have heard at the time if you were there in the studio, and there’s only one take of it. I mean, that’s really incredible. A band making an entire record in one day, and pretty much what you get is what you got, so you better hope you’re ready.

And so, as a musician, the question I asked myself is: Why does it take me and so many other musicians and bands so long to make an album? Why do I need to take so long to get everything perfectly right? Should an album not show some trace of representation of a live performance, and more importantly, could I not perform the songs I wanted to record? It was more or less that mentality: If The Beatles can make a full-length debut album in the span of one day on a tape machine without the luxury of multitracking, then I don’t really have an excuse why I can’t make one within three weeks with a computer. So at some point I realized we could be ready by the end of 2014 if we worked for it. And I nagged the band to get their shit ready for the studio, worked around the clock through my holidays to produce it, and in the end, we got something we think was totally worth it and exciting.

Likewise, what was the most fun part of making this record?

Perhaps the most fun was doing vocals in Iris’ living room at strange hours like 3am. I mean, when you’re shrieking and screaming things like “I’m tired of pretty girls around my man,” and “It’s like a talking bat,” over and over and over again, you have to wonder what the neighbors think. But they never pounded on the walls or complained. (Thanks, neighbors.)

I’d also say my single favorite memory of making the album was the one day we were in Listencareful Studios. We were tracking the main rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and drums (pretty much 70% of what you hear on the album) all live in the studio within an 8-hour period – 10 AM to 6 PM. First of all, I’m never up until noon, and I didn’t get any sleep that night. Iris was hungover from a birthday party or something the night before. We were rushed getting to the studio so no one had a chance to eat anything all day. I was worried I was throwing money out the window.

These takes were going to be the main bulk of the album that would lay the groundwork for everything else like vocals, trumpet, overdubs, etc, which I planned on recording myself with my own gear. Plus, when you have a drummer who’s been playing drums for less than a year, and the one thing you absolutely can’t record very well on your own is the drums. Plus, you’re paying a lot of money, and she’s hungover. It can be a bit stressful when you’re the person in charge.

I figured, whatever, we have to do to get the drums right, let’s just do it. And if we’re lucky, then maybe the bass and guitar tracks would not only be good, but also groove right with whatever Frankenstein drum take we had to glue together to get through the thing. But (thankfully) none of that happened. I greatly underestimated how well-practiced we were, as was the original point of making this record in the first place. We got the right take – all three instruments – in less than three tries for each song. We were all in a state of delirium, and we might have well just been on drugs. But it happened to be one of our good days, and we played possibly far better than we would have if we were well rested.