By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Sean Vize.
Ryne Ziemba, a self-taught Brooklyn-based musician, has finally achieved one of his longtime dreams—crafting his most comprehensive LP. It took nearly two years of production and personal experience—both conscious or otherwise—for the album to come to fruition, but the wait was worth it. After drafting material from dreams and ruminative reverie, he enlisted two of his favorite musicians to form Michi Kusa and fully realize his vision. We Was Here may be Ziemba’s first foray into poppier waters, but the songwriter is a strong swimmer with a keen sense of balance. Throughout the album, swirling vocal harmonies tumble with wild abandon, yet still manage to belie premeditation and careful sculpting. Rhythms come out of the woodwork from the most unlikely of places, and everything treads a fine line between the organic and synthetic. BTR tunes in with the young artist as he shares some of the “a-ha!” moments that made We Was Here possible.
Tell me a little bit about your backgrounds as musicians.
We Was Here was basically a solo endeavor, but I’ve since grown Michi Kusa into a three-piece band, which was my plan from the beginning of the project. The other musicians that are in Michi Kusa now are Ai Isshiki, an amazing pianist/keyboardist that studied at Berklee and plays piano everyday for a living, and Josh Riepe, who is the most amazing drummer I’ve ever played music with. He used to play in Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk. I’m really excited for our next album because they are both way better at their instruments than I am at piano or drums.
I am mostly self taught, and have previously been in a few bands ranging from punk to country, indie rock, and the least technically-skilled jazz band ever. I did take some classical guitar lessons in college and learned a few piano things from internet videos, but most of my music experience has been in making rap beats and ambient electronic music.
We Was Here is the band’s debut album. How long have you been working on the material, and are you happy with the finished product?
The album took just over a year and a half to complete. Some would say too long, but it’s also the first attempt I’ve ever made at making music with a more pop structure, so there was a lot of learning in the process. Plus, I was learning how to be more of a perfectionist in the recording process, so I tried to make myself more comfortable with the album taking longer and not trying to rush things just to get it done.
I’m really happy with the finished product. It was one of the top three things I’ve wanted to do in my life, and I never thought I would have been able to write songs with vocal parts like these. It came out way better than I could have ever hoped.
How would you describe your music to an alien from another planet?
Weird, fucked-up pop music to do your old lady to. Just kidding. Hopefully, I would have better things to talk about with an alien than my own music.
We Was Here album art.
A lot of the songs, like the opener “Break These Walls,” have a very dreamy and atmospheric vibe. What kind of headspace do you find yourself in when you write?
I actually usually do two things when I write songs; I either have a dream of a melody or sometimes a whole song and then try my best to figure it out and recreate it, or I go into this weird trance state for a day or two and act really strange and then a song pops out and everything is back to normal. Kind of like an odd psychic birth or something. But I guess that’s only the initial seed of the song. Then there’s a lot of training I had to do to learn how to bring the things I was hearing into the real world and take the time to properly craft them; that’s probably a good 70 percent of the process.
I noticed that the album treads a middle ground of both the organic and the synthetic – steady drums and piano mixed with swirling electronic flourishes. Was it a conscious effort to play with this notion of balance?
A lot of the album was the result of me having an “Aha!” moment in my life and realizing I could incorporate these two parts of my personality, one that likes more traditional bands and pop music and one that likes crazy electronic stuff like Jeff Mills and Boards of Canada. It felt great to realize that I didn’t have to write songs on a guitar necessarily, but could write them the way I was used to writing rap beats or write them on an instrument I wasn’t so comfortable with, like the piano.
What is your level of involvement in the songwriting process? Your bandcamp credits the third track, “Call You On Your Birthday”, to Rhys Ziemba. What’s your creative relationship like?
I wrote, played, and sang pretty much everything on the album. The band started out as a solo project. But “Call You On Your Birthday” is me covering a song by my brother, Rhys’s old band, You Win Instantly!. They were amazing, but their version of the song sounds almost like motown or something. Very different. I wanted to do one of my brother’s songs on the album, because he really helped me learn a lot about music when we were growing up, so I will always feel indebted to the influence he’s had on my life as a musician. I didn’t really know how to approach doing this cover, but I had a dream that told me to make a dancier version of the song. Rhys is not in Michi Kusa, but his current band, Luscious Skin, is really great.
Who writes the lyrics? Are there any tropes or emotions that the band consistently gravitates towards?
Since the album was a solo endeavor, I wrote all the lyrics. Most of the lyrics are me trying to provide some kind of catharsis from tough situations and sharing experiences that I’ve learned lessons from. To be cliche, several parts of the lyrics on the album are coded ways of trying to show this girl I was so in love at the time how much I cared about her, even though by the time the songs were done we had completely stopped talking to each other.
Some of your songs remind me a little of Animal Collective’s old sound. Do you draw on any inspiration from those guys?
Yeah, tons. I hope it doesn’t sound like the album is biting their style, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that they are a band I greatly admire. Mostly because of the way their music emphasizes rhythm in a way that didn’t used to be the norm in more indie rock stuff; playing with rhythm and vocal stuff as the basis of the songs, not guitar riffs. That’s pretty eye-opening to me.
What influences inspire you to create?
I’m really inspired by anyone who challenges me to push my boundaries of what I conceive of as possible for a person to do. Whether it’s some author I’m reading or some homeless person I have a cool conversation with — that’s what inspires me to create. To be a big part of that giant, natural process. Currently, I’m really obsessed with Phillippe Petit and Alan Watts. And I really like the Voina art collective from Russia.
Where did you record the album and what was the process like?
The album was recorded in the amazing home studio of my roommate Mike Aleksa, in two different apartments in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. Mike builds his own studio equipment and is a young, budding production genius, so I managed to talk him into helping me produce these songs. He wanted to learn how to produce more seriously and I wanted to get these songs out into world, so it just made sense to work on the album together. I wrote the songs late at night and then we would record all the live instruments later, usually song by song. Though at one point we realized we had to go back and re-record all the drums and vocals, so we did those in chunks. But I played all the instruments except two keyboard parts and the background vocals on a couple of songs. He also did a great job of coaching me to sing better.
Do you have plans to tour in the months ahead?
Yes, we’re trying to book a tour in the late Summer/early Fall. Probably mostly in the Northeast since that’s where we live.
What do you love most about making music?
I personally really love the feeling when music kind of overtakes you and you feel like you get swallowed by some energy that is way bigger than you and unites you with other people and things. I don’t really listen to dubstep, but when I watch kids flip out when the drop hits on those songs I really understand it, because, to me, those are the ultimate experiences in music. What I love about making music is that I might somehow be able to be a part of that experience for others. And perhaps something I make might help someone else to feel a little bit more excited about life.