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Interview: Tyler Ramsey

14 February 2024

Twenty years into a solo career, which includes a decade as the lead guitarist in Band of Horses (2007 – 2017), Tyler Ramsey has a talent for delivering delicate vocals with a warm and full-bodied embrace. The songs on his fifth, and latest, album, New Lost Ages, sound intimately familiar, rooted in acoustic guitars and piano but fully fleshed out with a supporting collective of artists including bassist Morgan Henderson (Fleet Foxes) and drummer Sean Lane (Pedro the Lion, Heart).

Recorded in Seattle with producer Phil Ek, New Lost Ages traverses through worlds ranging from indie to folk to rock and is comfortable in any of those settings. This allows Ramsey many different live opportunities, whether it’s a full-band configuration at a folk festival or playing as a duo in a small club. All challenges are accepted.

Like his former bandmate Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses), Ramsey’s humble nature is endearing. He’s got a laidback and gentle attitude, never shying away from a question, and offering honest answers. This Zoom conversation took place with Ramsey calling in from his home studio in Ashville, North Carolina, seemingly the perfect setting for a musician who works best with space and solitude.

Do you think the title track, “New Lost Ages,” would have been written had we not gone through the pandemic?

TYLER: I think so but the only reason I think that is because I had the time to write it. It reflects a bigger span of time than just the pandemic but that definitely set it over the top to make it something I wanted to write.

There’s a lyric that really stands out in the song. You sing, “Do you think there will be a world to live in when these kids have kids?” Our parents, and their parents, probably wondered the same thing. Do you think things are more desperate than they were for our parents and grandparents?

TYLER: That’s the thing, man. It’s so hard. It certainly feels that way and I wonder that myself. It’s tough to say when you see your kids coming into a world that you’ve lost touch with. There are things that happen that make you feel like the world’s changing in a way that doesn’t seem right. We’re being inundated with information and we’re seeing things way more easily and quickly, and we’re seeing what’s happening all over the planet. It’s that kind of information that we’re getting that leads me to spiral out about it. But, it’s real information so it’s hard to ignore.

I’ve got a nine-and-a-half-year-old daughter and a two-and-a-half-year-old son and I really think about what kind of world I’m leaving them, what we’re handing down, and how we’re unable to fix what’s becoming more and more broken. I hate to say that it doesn’t seem like everyone’s going to get together and solve the problem, but it doesn’t really seem like that’s the direction we’re headed.

It’s great to have all this information at our fingertips but I sometimes wish we could go back to simpler times when we could seek out information rather than have it in the palm of our hands.

TYLER: I think you can go back, there’s ways to do that, but we’re so wrapped up in technology and our jobs require us to be involved in that way. As a musician trying to connect with audiences, it requires me to be on my device. Maybe if I didn’t have that as a requirement, I might be able to shut it off and not play that game and, instead, pay attention to what’s right in my face. I think it’s healthier to live the way that people used to live when it didn’t feel quite as end-of-days-ish.

When I started writing, there was no internet and, at least where I lived, not a lot of music ‘zines so it made it pretty easy to interview bands since they weren’t getting requests from everyone with an internet connection and social media account or YouTube channel or podcast. How do you figure out what’s going to best help your career?

TYLER: My expectations have always been pretty modest. I never really had some fantasy that I was going to be some big rock guy. Playing for tons of people is something I didn’t even really necessarily want. The world that I enjoy, and I think I’m good at, is not the main stage at Bonnaroo. That’s not what I do. My music wouldn’t play on that kind of thing. The opportunities I got in Band of Horses, the ride that we took together, went from like small venues to playing Bonnaroo. I saw what that’s like and I got to do those big things.

If I can fill a nice room in the towns that I travel to, that’s what I want to do. I don’t need something huge. If I’m traveling around and I’m slowly building a fan base that’s really solidly connected in a personal way, I feel like that’s all I really want. I don’t think I need to cast this huge net and try to capture the world’s attention, I just like playing music for people that are sitting there listening. It’s always been that way for me. My heroes were people I saw in smaller venues and clubs so that’s what I always thought was cool.

In the song “Where Were You,” are you asking that in an accusatory tone or are you asking that as more of a desperate plea, like, “I needed you and you weren’t there. Where were you?”?

TYLER: Maybe the second one. That line has been around for quite a while. It had been drifting around and then it all came together. It doesn’t always happen that way. I can hold on to pieces of songs forever. For this song, I’d written the rest of the song then added the “Where were you” line because it just made sense. I think it’s more reaching out for somebody that you needed to be there a little more than they were.

Was “Flare (For Neal Casal)” already written or did you write it after hearing about his passing?

TYLER: It was written in reaction to hearing how he decided to go. I was in this condo on the coast to write songs and I’d heard the news about Neal and everything just came together. I didn’t have the song, none of it had existed prior. There might have been a guitar riff that I’d been hoping to use on something, but those events lined up.

I was sitting out on the deck of this condo and the sun was going down. I thought that I’d seen a flare out in the way and I was like, “Was that what I think it was? I should probably let someone know that I think I saw something out there.” I called some local police number and they connected me to some local fire rescue place. I was getting passed around to different people and by the time I finally talked to the right person, the sun was pretty much down. They said they’d come and check it out but they didn’t find anyone in trouble on the water.

I’ve lost a couple of friends to suicide and I’ve lost a couple of friends to overdoses. The flare that I thought I saw made me think of someone sending a signal that maybe nobody saw or the idea that somebody is reaching out for help but the recipient of that request doesn’t know what to do with that information.,That’s how that song came into place. It was looking for signs from people that may be reaching out and needing something.

I don’t know the whole story behind what Neal was dealing with and what pushed him to suicide. I don’t know if he reached out to anybody. I really didn’t know him that well. We spent five days playing shows together on tour and having fun and joking and connecting in a way that I wasn’t aware of whether or not he was in a real bad place. It seemed like he wasn’t in a bad place. He had just played some concert and went back and had some sort of downward spiral that pushed him to make the decision he made.

I’ve asked about specific songs and lyrics. I want to take a lyric out of context. On “You Should Come Over,” there’s a lyric that goes, “I guess everything reminds you of something.” I’m curious if there’s a song, album or artist that reminds you of being a teenager?

TYLER: I’m thinking about one that reminds me of skipping school to go try and buy beer when I was in high schoo. I lived outside of Nashville. I went to Brentwood High School, and we would duck out and to Nashville. I was laying in the back of my friend’s car in a parking lot while he was in a grocery store trying to get beer or something. I think it was “Too Far Down” or one of those Husker Du songs playing and I can picture that. I remember that really intense feeling that went along with it.

The first thing I thought of though was R.E.M.’s Reckoning album. When I first moved to the Nashville area, I was pretty lost. It was right before I started high school. I didn’t know anybody and it felt like the end of the world. The first friend I met was really into R.E.M. and he introduced me to them. I remember connecting with that whole album. I can remember an R.E.M. song, it might have been “7 Chinese Bros,” playing and being in a car and rain was pouring down. It’s something that has stuck with me.

Your publicist sent me the lyrics and I noticed there were lyrics for two songs that didn’t make it onto the album – “Song Out of My Head” and “Paper Hearts.” What happened?

TYLER: I fully intend to put them out. I think we were thinking of a 10-song album. Mostly I was thinking about a vinyl release and how I didn’t want to sell a record that didn’t have all the material on it. Trying to fit all that music onto one record was going to be a challenge. I don’t know what we’re going to do with those two songs, but I’m really proud of those songs. I was bummed to let them slip into the “down the road” place.

Because the album came out earlier this month, it might be a good idea to hang onto those two until much later in the year to remind people you had a new release at the start of 2024.

TYLER: I think that’s generally the way it can work. It was hard to let them go and, in the studio, we had another song that I was fighting for. We recorded it but we didn’t dive into overdubs because, at one point Phil Ek, who produced the record, was like, “We agreed that we were going to do 12 complete songs and this was the 13th song.” He was like, “We need to let one of them go and this is the one that needs to go.” I totally fought for it for a while but then I realized that this one needs to be molded and shaped into something. I really loved the song, but it definitely was not in the place where it was ready to be documented. The other two that aren’t on the album are fully realized and good. They’ll come out eventually.

When you’re writing songs, do you write on an acoustic guitar?

TYLER: A lot of times I write on piano or I write on an acoustic guitar. I’ve got some little cheap keyboards that have sounds or beats that I can put on and pace around. I use some little gadgets but mostly it’s acoustic guitar or piano.

Do you write with the idea that you’re going to have other people play instruments and back you or do you write with the idea that you can take these songs and play them anywhere by yourself, whether it be on tour or stopping at a radio station to perform on-air?

TYLER: I really try to make a song that stands on its own with an acoustic guitar. That’s what I want out of the songs I write. I’ve written a few that don’t necessarily do that right away, but I can work with them after the fact.

“You Should Come Over” was a song I was working on for these upcoming shows and realized that there’s a cool way to play it. In the form that it is on the record, I was like, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this solo. It’s not going to come across.” It’s always been important to me that the lyrics and the guitar part or the piano part stand on their own. That’s when you know you’ve got a decent song. Otherwise you’re hiding behind production tricks or sound. I like that kind of music as well but what I always want to do is have a real solid foundation that can stand on its own.

On this upcoming tour, will you have a band with you or will you be performing by yourself?

TYLER: So far I’ve got one of the guys from my band that is going to be traveling with me. We’re going to be doing some duo shows and we’re making a lot of noise. We’re trying to figure out a way to make it pretty band-like. That’s the plan so far.

You live in Ashville, North Carolina. Is it the kind of place where you can keep to yourself and have some land or do you live in the hustle and bustle of the city?

TYLER: We’re out in Candler, maybe 15 or 20 miles from town. We’ve been out here for seven years but we had a house that was on the west side of Asheville. You could keep to yourself, but I always wanted to be out where I had more space. At that time, I was touring so much in Band of Horses that when I got home, I didn’t really want to be around people other than my family. Now we’re in a place that’s pretty far out. I’m sitting and talking to you in this music room that I built and it’s in a field. My house is right up the hill.

We’re kind of in our own little world out here, but Asheville is pretty busy these days. It’s gotten very, very touristy and there’s a lot of breweries and hotels popping up. If you go downtown, you’re going to be bumping into a bunch of people. It used to be going down there, I knew pretty much everybody. Now I don’t know anybody down there. It’s wild. It’s cool to be out here and be able to be a tourist when I go to town and pretend like we’re on a trip or something.

This is none of my business and I hate to ask but do you ever talk to Ben from Band of Horses?

TYLER: I don’t, unfortunately. I tried really hard, but yeah, we don’t. It still bums me out. I love those guys. We spent 10 years of our lives living together and pursuing the same thing, trying to make good music. I honestly still really can’t wrap my head around what happened, but I wish Ben the best.