photo by Rebecca Blissett
By Steve Newton
You know that stereotype of the lazy rock musician who sleeps till noon, then sits around the rest of the day waiting to play a gig at night?
Well, it sure as hell doesn’t fit Ryan Dahle.
For most of his 44 years, the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer has been working his butt off in the music biz, starting with the formation of Age of Electric—with his brother Kurt Dahle and siblings Todd and John Kerns—when he was still a teen. Before that band broke up he had already formed Limblifter, which became one of the most acclaimed Canadian alt-pop acts ever. More recently, he hooked up with singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman and Hot Hot Heat member Steve Bays to form Canuck indie-rock supergroup Mounties, which won raves for its Thrash Rock Legacy debut last year.
Apart from all that band action, Dahle has kept busy as a producer, helming discs by Hot Hot Heat, k-os, Dustin Bentall, the Matinée, and Prairie Cat, among others. He’s also mastered hundreds of albums under various names. Toss in the fact that he’s been running his own recording studio, recRoom, and it becomes clear that Dahle is about as far from lazy as you can get. You might even call him a workaholic.
“Yeah, I guess, by definition, I am,” he says, taking a break to chat at the Georgia Straight office. “I do an average of 12 hours a day. I try to take time off whenever Megan’s got time, but she’s kind of a workaholic as well.”
Megan Bradfield is Dahle’s girlfriend of 12 years, with whom he’s been making music for as long as they’ve been together. She played bass and sang on the 2004 Limblifter album I/O and is a member of the current lineup, which includes new skin-basher Eric Breitenbach and guitarist-keyboardist Gregory Macdonald. Limblifter releases its fourth album, Pacific Milk, on April 7.
Apart from “Key of Karavana”, which he cowrote with Bradfield, Dahle penned all 13 songs on the new album. He also produced, engineered, mixed, and mastered it. If he sounds like a DIY control freak as well as a workaholic, he has his reasons.
“The skill set that I’ve kind of developed has been out of survival,” he states, “like wanting to be part of music in any regard. So I always try to fit in wherever there’s a spot for me to fit in. You know, I’ve worked as a guitar tech for Billy Talent on the first two records, which was a good experience. It’s good to see how other people are doing things.”
Pacific Milk was mainly recorded at recRoom, which—along with Greenhouse Studio—is part of the Song City recording complex just off Commercial Drive. “I’ve been sequestered away in there for about 10 years,” Dahle says, “and I’ve been kind of collecting old junk all my life, so now that old junk has become vintage gear. I never stop spending all my money on new technology and old collectible things that make great sounds.”
One of those sounds is the millisecond of castanet that opens Pacific Milk’s leadoff track, “Cast a Net”. So does that mean we have to add Master of the Castanet to Dahle’s list of skills?
“Yeah, I guess so,” he says with a chuckle. “And then I thought of this ridiculous line, which is, ‘She cast a net, and caught a casted net.’ I don’t know what it means, but it’s some sort of meta thing—like an ‘everybody’s already done it before’ kind of an idea.”
Off-the-wall lyrics and mysterious meanings have always been part of Limblifter’s attraction, of course—along with its utterly infectious pop melodies. That quirky vibe continues to flavour Pacific Milk straight on through to the freaky, 46-second closer, “I Deleted You”.
“I have this old, crazy-sounding Mellotron in my studio,” Dahle explains, “which is a very rare instrument, you know, used on ‘Strawberry Fields’. It’s basically the first sampler in some ways, because it’s essentially tapes that last for about eight seconds when you press a key. It’s the sound on ‘Stairway to Heaven’ as well.
“Anyways, I had this old, crazy-sounding Mellotron, and so I married it with this modern concept of just social media accidentally deleting somebody or whatever. And then that carries over, hopefully, into other ways of thinking about it, you know. Like sometimes people come and go in your life.”
The reality of people entering and exiting is especially true for those in rock, as Dahle attests.
“You know, when you separate from your brothers in a band—and I consider Todd and John [Kerns] as my brothers too—you’re sort of worrying about them, like, ‘Is he gonna be all right?’ And luckily, Kurt left Limblifter to be in [the New] Pornographers, so he was okay during those years. And Todd just excelled. So I’m just stuck here worryin’ about myself, I guess.”
Ryan Dahle sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.
On whether he was pissed off when he wrote the lyrics in “Palomino”, “ruled by the dicks/blocked by the pricks”: “If you’re not just a little bit angry sometimes, then it’s difficult to make rock music. But I definitely have to dig down to find the anger that I used to have as a 20-year-old. I had a temper when I was a young kid, but I don’t know where it went to. It literally disappeared.”
On the first album he ever bought, T-Rex’s Electric Warrior : “The thing was that I opened it, and there was another record inside it, so I had to take it back and wait for another copy to come. It was sealed, but it had a different album from somebody on the same label.”
On whether he ever hears from his old Age of Electric bandmates: “I do, yeah. In fact, I was on an email thread today with Todd. Once in a while he’ll come to the studio, and so between Kurt and Todd and I, we’ve put together a few songs, and then we had John come out as well, and we recorded four or five songs. It’s been quite a while, but they’re just kinda sitting there.”
On the success of his other band, Mounties: “I think we all feel more inspired right now because of Mounties, and we feel like we’ve got a little bit of wind in our sails.”