Pitch down dance music's tempo from the manic 140 beats per minute favored by candy ravers -- pitch it way down -- and you begin to approximate the languid, sensual, baby-making rhythms of Slow Hands, AKA Ryan Cavanagh.
Of course these days, tempo is less a concern for Slow Hands than the musician's craft itself. And as a classically trained multi-instrumentalist and singer, weaned on jazz, blues, and soul, he's bringing a lush, baroquely melodic quality to his production sound.
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Crossfade: How did you get into making music? Was it dance stuff from the start or did you initially explore other musical avenues?
Ryan Cavanagh: I saw Jonny Lang play with B.B. King about a month before my 15th birthday. As sort of a joke, I said to my mom, who took me to the show, "Pshhh, I could do that." A month later, she got me a guitar for my birthday and said, "Prove it." Good thing she did, otherwise I would probably never have gone to college!
I worked as a dishwasher and busboy all through middle school and high school. The kitchen that I worked in at a restaurant called Mistral's, just outside of Manchester, Vermont, was and is owned by a gentleman by the name of Dana Markey. Music was played in the kitchen constantly, and the playlists leaned heavily on Clapton, the Allman Brothers, Steely Dan, a bit of Grateful Dead (unavoidable when you grow up in Vermont), and just general blues, blues, blues, and rock.
At home, my Mom raised me on a pretty healthy diet of similar music: The Band, Bonnie Raitt, Delaney & Bonnie, Dr. John. But she was also really into jazz fusion a lot: Chick Corea, Return to Forever, Weather Report, Jaco Pastorius, fusion Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin -- pretty much anyone that played on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew.
Aside from similar taste, Dana and my Mom were record collectors, which was a trait they both handed down to me. So every Friday, I would run to the restaurant, get my check, and run to the record store and buy anything I could get my hands on, to the point that I would hide the CDs and lie about how much I made to my parents to avoid getting in trouble. Then I would run back to the restaurant for my shift and just sit in the dish pit and listen to everything I could.
I bought Paul Oakenfold's NYC Global Underground because I loved the cover and was obsessed with NYC. That was the first time I heard dance music. I think that was around '97. So to a certain extent, dance music has been in my life almost as long as jazz and blues. But it never really hit me till I heard "Heaven Scent" by Bedrock.
My jumping into making dance music and DJing came out of my frustration with the formalities of studying traditional forms of music in university. Now, as I get older, it's going very much the other way.
You're hailed as one of the house scene's great "slo-mo" exponents. What is the appeal of keeping a slower dance music tempo for you?
It used to be a big deal to me six or seven years ago. Now, that affiliation leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Sure, tempo has a lot to do with the feel of music, absolutely. But it has so little to do with how the electronic dance community perceives it. Dance music is really the only music that stays at one tempo, or pretty consistently within 10 to 20 beats per minute. If you drop below 120 or go above 130, sure, you'll anger everyone in Room 2 at Fabric, or the main room at DC10, but that stuff doesn't matter anywhere else in the musical world.
Rock music floats freely between 65 and 180 BPMs, and that's totally acceptable. Hip-hop, pop, all of it. Some people may argue with me on hip-hop -- it does tend to roll slow -- but Outkast and Kanye are two of my favorite hip-hop acts, and those guys go all over the place with tempo. I guess what I am saying is I just want to make music now. Be it fast, slow, upbeat, sad, fun, country, blues, pop, whatever -- I don't care. Depends on the day. I don't want to be pegged so much for tempo, or "slow house," "waltz tech," "happy gabber goth-core" -- whatever genre is cool in Ibiza right now.
So why the name Slow Hands? Was it a reference to your music's tempo? Or is there another meaning for you?
It's a nod to the Eric Clapton album Slow Hand. It was probably my favorite album growing up. Still is.
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You've released your fair share of singles and remixes in the past, but you just dropped your first proper EP, Everything We Are. What can you tell us about the creative process while working on the new EP?
Everything has changed in the last year, working on the album and EP. Firstly, I work almost entirely with Dave Robertson, AKA Cameo Culture, who acts as a producer, in the more traditional sense, on all my music. Secondly, what used to be the complete process of creating a song: me composing, writing, recording, and mixing in my room, has now become just the first draft. Dave and I then take the projects into a proper studio, rerecord everything that needs to be on proper mics, through proper preamps, and A/D convertors, in treated rooms.
Another big musical shift over the past year is working with our dear friends and music phenomenons: Tim Farrell on percussion and Andrew Lynch on bass. Having a locked rhythm section like this is amazing, not to mention their countless other talents: Tim is an amazing accordion and keyboard player, and changes the entire dimension of how my music sounds now. We conclude by Dave doing all the mix-downs, and after 10 years as a professional audio mixer, well, he ain't half bad.
You've had a longstanding relationship with Wolf + Lamb. You've grown alongside the label and crew. How did you first hook up with them? And what glues you together creatively?
I met them when Sam Valenti from Ghostly [International] was kind enough to pass along some of my work to Gadi [Mizrahi] and Zev [Eisenberg] years ago. I think their accepting and understanding that I did things in a different way, right from the start, is what has maintained our creative relationship over the years. They let me do my thing. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don't. But ultimately, we've known each other long enough now that our professional relationship has little to do with our personal relationship, and if they don't like it, that's okay -- we go have dinner and focus on what they do like.
We hear you have an LP in the works with Tanner Ross. So what's the scoop on the album?
[Laughs] Yeah, that's been in the works for a couple years now -- yikes! We were attacking it pretty hard, and then looked at each other one day and thought maybe we need a break. It's pretty great to have that kind of a friendship and respect for one another to be able to do that. It didn't stem from a fight or anything; we just found ourselves creating our own bags of tricks that we kept reaching into, and it became uninspiring to us at that moment in time. We felt we needed to go off and explore our own music, and come back to our album later when we had a a fresh bag of individual tricks that would culminate into new ones as a duo.
I would say, aside from a fondness for plaid and alcohol, the one thing Tanner and I have in common is that constant journey to find something new in ourselves musically. We don't like too many presets, if that makes any sense. Hopefully that can be heard in our music. At the time, when we were working on our album heavily, Tanner had his synth sound that was so synonymous with "B Side," and I had my guitar and voice, and those came together amazingly.
But it got to a point where I would create a synth part, and Tanner a vocal, and we would go to shows, and people would say, "Oh, man, Tanner, you on that synth!" and he would say, "That was Ryan," and the fan would just ignore him. Tanner doesn't want to be "The Synth Guy," he just wants to make music, as do I. So we needed to forge new ground in our solo careers before we could finish this body of work and be happy with it. All that said, we did just start working again for the first time in over a year a couple weeks ago!
What's been going on with your Worst Friends and Male Madame side projects? Any forthcoming material we can look forward to?
Worst Friends' work is very sporadic. John [Paul Jones], AKA Tom Croose and Dukes of Chutney, is a father, so he is a pretty busy dude outside of music. And I tour a lot. Not to mention, we live on opposite coasts. So it makes working together difficult. It's great when it happens, though! Male Madame had a release out just a little while back, and we're planning on another in the near future with Tigers on a Leash again!
Last time we saw you play in Miami was at the Electric Pickle on New Year's Eve, and locals are still buzzing about your performance. What can we expect during your return to the venue this Saturday?
Yeah, man, jeez! That night took me three days of solid sleep to get out of my system! Well, lots of new music this weekend, and working on some new things this week that I hope to have ready by Saturday. I am also playing ukulele now in my live sets. That sounds a little strange, but it is basically the upper register of a classical guitar, which is my playing guitar of choice. My electric, which I do love, is just more durable. Classical and acoustics are really hard to transport safely. Fortunately, a ukulele is very easy to carry, and sounds amazing!
Crossfade's Top Blogs
Slow Hands. With Andrew Ward. Saturday, July 26. Electric Pickle, 2826 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 11 p.m. and tickets cost $15 to $20 plus fees via residentadvisor.net. Ages 21 and up. Call 305-456-5613 or visit electricpicklemiami.com.
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