Q writer David Cavanagh died on December 27, 2018. He wrote for Q prolifically during in the 1990s and returned to the magazine in 2018. He was the greatest music writer of his era, universally admired by his peers and readers alike. This profile of former Coral guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones appeared in November, 2018, in Q393. It was to be his last piece for Q.
A well-thumbed copy of Aldous Huxley’s Music At Night sits next to an empty wine bottle in Bill Ryder-Jones’s large, book-strewn living-room. Russian and European novels line the wall behind the TV. Across the room are the history volumes, the studies of the Incan Empire and Predynastic Egypt. “There’s a growing theory,” Ryder-Jones says, “that the carbon-dating on the pyramids is wrong by some considerable distance. One of the leading geologists reckons the bedrock of the Sphinx must have endured rainforest conditions for at least 5000 years.”
Ryder-Jones is 35, but geologists could be forgiven for thinking him a lot younger. Tousle-haired and underslept, he looks like a student who’s been up all night revising. He wonders, semi-seriously, if he may be awakening from “stasis”; emerging from a numbing decade that somehow forgot to age him. He’s a friendly person to meet, but when he rolls a cigarette, that’s when you notice the self-harm scars on his arms. They’re fading. “Yeah, these ones are old,” he shrugs at them. Implying that he must have others.
Anyone who met Ryder-Jones between 1996 and 2008, when he played lead guitar with those fast-rising neo-psychedelicists The Coral, would be astonished to see him as he is today. Back then, unless they knew him well, they probably never heard him speak. “Sensitive, nice, strangely optimistic” is how he remembers his teenage self – but also “withdrawn, obsessive and frightened”. His problems, unfortunately, were just beginning.
He finishes his cigarette, picks up Music At Night from the table and leafs through it. Huxley’s 1931 collection of essays has been something of an inspiration to him lately. The opening chapter, a piece of literary criticism, is entitled Tragedy And The Whole Truth. The next essay, The Rest Is Silence, contains a celebrated line that goes as follows: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” For Ryder-Jones that line has a deep resonance, and not just because he’s a musician. Expressing the inexpressible – finding ways to articulate tragedies and truths – has been, you might say, the story of his adult life.
It’s a rainswept, choppy day in West Kirby and dishwater-coloured waves are slopping over the jetty at the marine lake. Agitated gulls patrol the skies. The beach opposite the sailing club is dotted with the pawprints of wet dogs on afternoon runs. In the distance, on the far shores of the River Dee, the North Wales coastline gazes back at us with a golden glint. We’re sheltering under umbrellas while Mostyn and Talacre are mockingly bathed in sunshine.
A small seaside town on the Wirral Peninsula about 12 miles from Liverpool city centre, West Kirby is where Ryder-Jones grew up, went to school, found sanctuary after The Coral, rebuilt himself, and now lives and works. His mother’s house is a short walk from the sea. His own flat is in a leafy cul-de-sac a bit further inland. Yawn Studios, a recording facility he co-manages, is run from a converted garage across town, where he produces local bands and makes his own albums for the Domino label. The latest of them, like the studio, is called Yawn. If you’re browsing through the new releases, it’s the one with the cheeky little boy on the front, sticking out his tongue and waggling his ears. The boy would have been four or five.
Strolling along the deserted promenade, Ryder-Jones points to a group of offshore islands and identifies them one by one: Little Eye, Middle Eye, Hilbre Island. As a schoolboy he was taken on field trips to Hilbre Island, where they have seals and a bird observatory. You can only get out there (and back again) at low tide. We know the name of Ryder-Jones’s school, because the album before Yawn was called West Kirby County Primary. He was naked on the cover, caught unawares while having a bath. And without stretching a metaphor too much, he was naked in the songs, too, displaying a disarming candour – verging on self-voyeurism – that had no qualms about selecting the most vulnerable areas of his life to expose.
West Kirby County Primary included a song called Daniel, written from the perspective of a family that has lost a child. “Daniel belongs to the ocean,” Ryder-Jones sang in a sleepy, eyes-closed voice, “one in a million tragedies.” The family was Ryder-Jones’s own. His elder brother Daniel died in 1991 on Ramsey Island in southwest Wales. He was nine. Bill was seven. “He fell off a cliff. It was quite a big story in the papers. My mother always told me he hit his head on a rock and that’s how he died. We were four families on holiday, and all us kids were allowed to mess about on the cliffs. Three families went home intact. Ours was unlucky.”
Daniel is the little boy in the photograph on Yawn. Ryder-Jones, who dedicated his 2013 album A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart to Daniel, has finally put him front and centre in his work. A posthumous cover star, exuberant and dazzlingly alive. The word DANNY is tattooed on Ryder-Jones’s left hand, sealing his permanence. “He’s kind of like the thing in my life. There’s not really much about him in the lyrics on the new record, but he’s an ever-presence. And a never-presence. He’s someone who is, and isn’t, there – always.”
Ryder-Jones can remember a beach, a hospital and a handshake he witnessed between his father and a man who was presumably a lifeboat crew member. That’s as far as his memory permits him to go. Growing up, he never talked about it, never went back to the place in his childhood where the trauma lived. He joined The Coral, a bunch of local lads, at the age of 13 and the others knew him well enough not to ask questions.
It was during the recording of The Coral’s third album, The Invisible Invasion, in 2004 that Ryder-Jones experienced his first panic attack. It may be significant, or it may just be a coincidence, but he was swimming in the sea off Wales at the time, not far from where Daniel died. Further panic attacks followed, along with night terrors and the onset of debilitating stage fright. He was 21 and had no idea what was happening to him.
“It’s the confusion,” he says, a lot more knowledgeable now. “The confusion of having lost someone so young. Then the shock. All my problems – my self-harming, my dissociative disorder, my episodes – are just an adult version of shock. My brain knows what to do when it gets too stressed or unhappy; it turns off. And that’s exactly what I did when Daniel died. It’s very common. It’s meant to allow you to grow up and get to a point where you can process it later in life. It’s just that circumstances meant that when that should have been happening to me, I was smoking loads of weed in The Coral.”
He gives a wry smile. What happened next was a temporary leave of absence, a chance to recuperate at his mother’s house, announced to the press in a statement that said The Coral expected him to be “fighting fit enough to resume live duties soon”. Ryder-Jones views that now as a grave misdiagnosis of the situation. He should have been sent to a specialist, he feels, not sent home. “I was paid,” he hastens to add. “It’s not like they threw me to the wolves. And my parents were great, and so were my friends, and in fairness I was a difficult person to deal with. I didn’t talk at all in those days. That got me into so much trouble. Not telling people what was going on, and expecting them to know.”
He rejoined The Coral after a year (“summoned back,” he puts it), but the problems flared up again and he left for good in 2008. He assumed his music career was over; he was in a dreadfully bad way. A 2016 documentary, A Light Went Out: A Short Film About Mental Health In The Music Industry, goes into detail about the morbid fears that plagued him – agoraphobia, monophobia – which necessitated that he and his mother slept in the same bed for a year. Even now, under stress, his dissociative disorder can be so alarming that he doesn’t see his face in the mirror.
The Coral, as fate would have it, have a gig in Liverpool tonight, but Ryder-Jones won’t be attending. These days he meets them at weddings, or bumps into them by chance while shopping. They’re no longer his close friends. At the end of A Light Went Out, he advises young people in bands: “Don’t buy into this romantic tortured artist bullshit. Find the strength to reach out for help.” He wishes the film-makers had said a bit more about the dangers of marijuana.
Ryder-Jones began writing songs at the age of 25, in a “very shaken, scared, lost” frame of mind. He found that encapsulating his feelings in words made his mood improve, so he kept writing. “It was a good way of boxing things up; taking the thoughts out of my mind and putting them somewhere else.” The songs, whose dawdling tempos and hushed vocals were influenced by Bill Callahan’s Smog and Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters, addressed mental health issues and the little epiphanies of life, as well as confronting the tragedy at the heart of the Ryder-Jones family. Domino got in touch after hearing a song on his MySpace page, Tonight A Knife, a frank analysis of his self-harming urges.
But then came a musical leap that nobody could have anticipated when The Coral burst on the scene in the early ’00s, amid dizzy headlines about “cosmic scallies” and “the great guitar revival”. If…, Ryder-Jones’s 2011 debut solo album, was a dark, deeply melancholy suite of orchestral pieces performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, with hardly a guitar to be heard. The album was an adaptation of an Italian novel, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino, which Ryder-Jones read while living in Parma in the Po Valley. There have been three meaningful relationships with women in his life, including an engagement to a girl named Liz, and that relationship took him from Cambridge (where Liz lived) to Oxford (where she went to university) and to Parma, where she taught at a school. Ryder-Jones, despite being “really unwell” for most of that period, smiles at the memory of their Italian adventure.
“We lived in the valley. The morning mist would stay till about two o’clock in the afternoon, then the evening fog would come along at four. So you had these two hours of daytime, and the rest was just this amazing filmic mist. I remember listening to loads of Joy Division and reading books and feeling a million miles away from The Coral. I didn’t even pick up a guitar. My only link to anything back home was going to Parma train station every two weeks to flick through the NME, which was crap as usual.”
All these years later, it’s still hard to believe that such a powerful orchestral work as If… could have been Ryder-Jones’s first full-length post-Coral release. What a dark horse the quiet boy turned out to be. He modestly brushes aside the compliment, claiming to have been so in awe of the orchestra that he hid from them in the toilets. But that’s just his hypercritical sense of humour. Equally impressive was his next album, Piggy Soundtrack, his haunting score to a 2012 film starring Paul Anderson (Peaky Blinders). Ryder-Jones is too self-effacing to compare himself to Jonny Greenwood or Clint Mansell, but there are people at Domino who definitely feel he’s sorely underrated as a film composer.
“I like music that doesn’t talk at you,” he says. “I wonder if people of my generation – the Oasis generation – have ever had the chance to interpret music that isn’t filled with words. Could they consider what’s being written, what’s being said, with no guidance? They might really like it. I hate the idea that people only have instrumental music on when their friends are over, because it doesn’t get in the way. You can get so much out of music when there isn’t someone talking at you.”
Two relationships have been and gone since the engagement to Liz ended. Ryder-Jones’s flat, like its tenant, is an open book. Ask him about the pen-and-pencil drawing of James Joyce that squints out from an easel behind the couch, and he explains it belongs to his ex-girlfriend, Meg, who moved out three months ago. Ask to use his loo and there, on the right as you go in, is the bath he’s sitting in on the cover of West Kirby County Primary. (Meg took the photo.)
He then talks, with complete openness, about the difficulties he has in maintaining long-term relationships, right down to the reduced sex drive that’s an inescapable side-effect of being prescribed “ridiculously high” doses of anti-depressants. It’s the subject of the opening song on Yawn (There’s Something On Your Mind), where the girl wants to have sex but the boy isn’t interested. It’s a song Ryder-Jones is proud of, and not just because it inverts a hoary old sexual-manners trope. “Whether people get that I’m singing about having a low sex drive doesn’t matter,” he insists. “What matters is that the lyrics don’t get in the way of the melody. [Sings] Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. They’re the three happiest chords you can use. They’re the chords in every Ramones song.”
Ryder-Jones, in the end, presents his life with no closed doors or private rooms, leaving it up to you to decide when you’ve seen enough. That moment arrives when he pulls down the neck of his T-shirt to reveal the words BILL WAS HERE carved into his chest with a razor blade. Like all his tattoos, it was self-administered. “I don’t like needles,” he explains. Then, seeing the look of horror on my face, he laughs. “It’s supposed to be funny, not scary,” he admonishes. “Picture it, though. Picture me on a slab and you’re the mortician. And it says ‘Bill Was Here’ on the body. You’d think, ‘Hey, that’s nice, he’s put in a joke just for me.’”
Who knows? Having carved his brother’s name into his body, it might make a sort of symmetrical sense that he would also carve his own. The brothers reunited in blood.
In the past few days, Domino have given Ryder-Jones the go-ahead to write and record an album based on Aldous Huxley’s Music At Night. Fans of the soul-baring slowcore of Yawn and West Kirby County Primary may find that his next record sounds nothing like them. Another orchestral work? Why not? Ryder-Jones is encouraged to learn that his most streamed song on Spotify is a track from If… with no singing or guitar-playing on it.
Once unable to make it as far as the bus stop without panicking, the former agoraphobic is preparing to go on a modest-sized UK tour in February. He’ll be fronting his own band, up there onstage, ticking off the next few landmarks in his recovery. After all he’s been through, he looks like he’s doing OK – or perhaps better than OK.
“Let’s leave it at OK,” he laughs. “I made the decision six months ago to come off my medication, to stop numbing myself. For 10 years I’d not really been part of the real world. Now I’m remembering what it was like to be 18 and scared of everything. I’m enjoying it. My brain’s running eternally. It’s good.”