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Conversations with Newcomer Dylan Gardner, Funk Volume's Damien Ritter and Black Stone Cherry's Chris Robertson

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Introducing Popster Dylan Gardner

Mike Ragogna: Dylan, you have a new album Adventures In Real Time, and you had more than 100 songs to start with. How long did it take to write those 100 songs, and how did you whittle them down for this album?

Dylan Gardner: I started writing songs in 2010, and we finally picked a selection in 2012. So I had this giant arsenal of songs because I soon discovered I was prolific, which probably stemmed from the fact that since the day I was born, I kind of had this undying energy to always do something creative before I went to sleep, otherwise I felt like I didn't do my duty as a human that day. Which is kind of like how it is now, because I really can't sleep at night unless I've done something creative that day. It's just the way I'm wired. So I had all these ideas, and the nice thing about starting from scratch is there's nothing to be nervous about; every idea I have is the first idea I'm having at the time. I had to start somewhere, so the songs I was first writing didn't really sound like they are now, but they were slowly getting closer and closer. Around 2012 when I met my manager Geoffrey Weiss, we took a look what I had at that moment. We were looking at all the songs, and the funny thing is that people think that the first album is all the material you've had a long time to write, but most of the songs that are on it I wrote just a couple weeks before we picked the list; out of the 100 songs, "The Actor" and "With A Kiss" were a little bit old, but otherwise all the songs were right before we put out the album. The nice thing about picking out of all that material is that you get to have the best material - you don't just write twelve songs and put the album out and find out that four of them could have been better and one's of them terrible; it's the nice thing of being able to have a well-rounded album, and that's why every time I do the next batch of albums, I write 40 or 50 songs, so you always get that good selection. It's a trick I heard about - I know Matthew Sweet did it for his album Girlfriend, and that's always been like my secret.

MR: I imagine you had some help as far as advice from both your manager and the co-producer John Dragonetti, right?

DG: Totally, yeah. Geoffrey has a golden ear. He knows when he hears a hit, so I write the song, I record the song, I have my feelings about it, I send it to him. I could spend all day coming up with different songs I like at the moment, stuff that I just wrote, so I just say [to Geoffrey] "Send me an email and compile what you think will be good for the first album." So he sends me a list back and I agreed with all of them; he picked "The Actor" which was a song that was about a year old that no one said anything about because it was a pretty desolate song. I said to him, "Should we go with that?" He said yes and I trusted him, and so far he hasn't been wrong about a single thing. We took the songs over to Dragonetti while we were in the process of looking for producers, and Dragonetti kind of came in spontaneously. Geoffrey was calm all along, but this was my first album, so I was gunning for these kinds of producers that would cost millions of dollars. He introduced me to Dragonetti and immediately we took the song "I Think I'm Falling For Something" over to his house and he demoed it - did his sonic textures to it, the drums the bass and filled in all the "color" and everything on it - and I went over there the next day and he'd completely hit it out of the park and it sounds exactly like does on the record now. He got it pretty close, within about one day's work, so I thought "Okay, this is a no-brainer, he's obviously going to be the producer. He has that same inner-child-like spirit that I do in my music, and you can hear it, and it connects. He really helped bring out the greatness in a lot of those songs, too. He added so many little things that you only hear once in a song that really make it special, some stuff that I didn't even hear until it was being fixed. The album definitely couldn't have been what it is without them.

MR: What inspired you to celebrate The Beatles breakup anniversary?

DG: Well, we were all sitting around brainstorming with a marketing team about "What would be a good idea for some web content?" because we were starting this campaign of promoting the album and trying to get out there, so I told them that every day I sing about twenty Beatles songs and I like to practice albums in full length, and I can play any Beatles song, you name it. So they asked what was coming up with the Beatles, and I said "Well, they broke up in April," so we ended up picking side two of Abbey Road because that was the last thing that they did. "Let It Be" came out last, but the last Beatles album recorded was Abbey Road, so we decided on that. I went to work on it, and someone came up with the hashtag "Dylan breaks up The Beatles" which kind of made it a no-brainer that it was really something special. Originally I wasn't going to do it on all these different instruments, but as soon as that idea happened, I thought, "I have about ten or eleven instruments I could do it on." Because my parents were in the process of looking for a house in Los Angeles, which is where I am now - we were still in Arizona at the time - the entire house was empty and full of boxes, so I took a camera that they had, and set up all the shots, did two takes of each song and put them all together and hopefully it turned out cool - I was really proud of it. I enjoyed it very much, and it's not going to be the last time I do that.

MR: So introducing Dylan Gardner to the world, in the video and in the first line of the first song of the album, you're making that Beatles connection.

DG: It's a good thing. I love The Beatles!

MR: [laughs] How did Conan O'Brien's Team Coco come across your "Let's Get Started" video?

DG: I'm not sure, actually. I have a newly acquired marketing team that's helping me with promoting this album, and Team Coco came through with them. I was screaming around the house, I was super excited.

MR: Where'd you get your pop sensibility?

DG: I think it's a combination of growing up listening almost completely to '60s classic rock because my dad was in a cover band of oldies music, and mostly The Beatles. Then once I became a teenager and really got into the internet, the entire multiverse was at my fingertips and I could look anything I wanted, and I was able to completely binge on any musical genre there was. When I started writing, it was all pretty strictly '60s music, but after a couple months, this kind of "poppiness" came into it almost naturally. I don't remember having a certain goal of writing it, but pretty soon it started to form its own thing and become more and more unfiltered from me, and what I would do is stop trying to write songs and just let songs come to me, which is what I do now. Melodies enter my head that are unexpected, and I never know when I'm going to get them. Sometimes I bite my nails at night because I don't know if they're going to come again, but they always do. So the stuff that's coming, I'm not over-thinking it, and the nice thing is that Geoffrey always knows what's the right direction to steer in, and he has a giant record collection at his fingertips. I also don't like to insult people's intelligence; I don't like the pop songs that are "guilty pleasure" listening, where you finally accept that the song exists the fifth time you listen to it. I want a celebration of great music. I guess the pop sensibility came from the combination of the music that's coming out now that I've studied very hard, and respecting the music that was out before I was born.

MR: Do you have a goal on where you want to go with your music, beyond this first album?

DG: Well, I'm already working on the third album. One thing that not a lot of people know is that I'm constantly about an album-and-a-half ahead of what's actually out. Where do I want to go? I'd say [in the direction of] more mature; every time you write new stuff it gets more mature, kind of the way that The Beatles evolved this great arc in their music that ended in Abbey Road, but they started all the way at "Please Please Me." And it's almost like two different bands, but not really, and it's kind of like taking its audience on an adventure, and my main goal is to have this giant career that, at the end of my life, I can look back on this spanning discography of really great music, and hopefully we took every step the right way, and went out on a high note. If you've watched Breaking Bad, I'm sure everyone in that cast has a really good feeling that the show went out on a high note. So I don't know musically where it's going to go. I do know the next album's more mature and in my opinion even better, I'm pretty proud of it. And the third one I'm working on is even better than that!

MR: How disappointed is your father that you took a career in music, when he wanted you be a doctor, or a lawyer?

DG: [laughs] Actually he had the same ambition that I did. He was in a band in the '80s called The Kind, which was kind of a power-pop legend around the mid-west, but never expanded like Cheap Trick did. He had the same ambition I did; he left home when he was 18 and he wanted to do music. His problem was he started writing songs late, I don't know how old he was, but he definitely wasn't as young as I was. It's too bad his band didn't get bigger because I love his band. But he's supported me since day one, since the first song I wrote, and so has my mom. My brother's been playing drums for me since I first picked up a guitar.

MR: Is that your brother on the video?

DG: Yes it is.

MR: Dylan, what advice do you have for new artists?

DG: I studied like a college professor on how to make a second album. So many people put out a first album, and it has all this ambition and all this drive, and the second album is that minus the ambition and drive, and most of the time you can always hear it, and it never follows it up [the first album] in the right way. But the right way to do it is to study what made the first album special, and apply that kind of drive as if the next album is your first. You almost ignore that the first album exists - while keeping in mind that it does - and you can't alienate everyone, so you have to work on what makes it better. For new artists, I always think if they're really serious about an album discography and not just singles, it'd be like building your music as a story. You've introduced characters to people, the first time they're meeting them, and it's like "What are they gonna do next? Where are they gonna go?" They have to go somewhere. But the main thing is to have the same drive and focus that you had during the first album. The other thing was that I never stopped writing the entire time that the album was going on. Writing is like a muscle you have to work out, you can't stop for a long time and then start again, because it's going to take you a little while to get going again. I've been going nonstop since 2010, which is why I'm able to write so much. So my advice to artists would be just to have that energy and focus and determination, and the work will follow.

MR: So what does the immediate future look like for Dylan Gardner? Are you going to be touring and supporting the album in various ways?

DG: Hopefully I'm going to be doing everything. I'm pretty poorly-travelled - I'd like to see the entire world. Right now in a way it's sort of a social campaign to get us off the ground, to get people pre-ordering the album, and when it comes out, I'd love to tour, and I'd love to promote the album for the rest of my life because it's what I really want to do. Every day it seems like it's a little bit closer to doing that.

MR: I wish you all the luck with this album and your career. You've got a really solid debut album, and at seventeen, what a great job you did. This is probably the strongest debut album I've heard this year.

DG: Thank you.

Transcribed by Emily Fotis

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A Conversation with Funk Volume's Damien Ritter

Mike Ragogna: Damien, what is the state of rap these days?

Damien Ritter: Rap is actually in a great position. Now that artists have tons of tools to connect with their fans directly, they have the freedom to take risks, to make the music they want to make, distribute it to their fans and get a response. They no longer need to wait for a label to take a chance on them. I think this is helping bring diversity back to hip hop.

MR: The label you co-founded, Funk Volume, focuses on rap and Hip-Hop. How did it originate?

DR: Hopsin had always wanted to start his own label, but the label didn't actually start until 2008. At that time I had gotten laid off from Deloitte Consulting, and my brother, SwizZz, said that he wanted to drop out of UC Irvine and focus on music. He also told me that his friend from high school, Hopsin, was in a bad situation being signed to Ruthless Records because they weren't doing much to support his development. We all met up and Hop and I decided that I would handle the business side of things and he would handle the creative.

MR: What do you think your label is contributing to the genre and is there a mission statement?

DR: There is not an actual mission statement, but we are trying to contribute to bringing diversity back to hip hop. Every time we bring on an artist we ensure the artist is very good AND that we are capturing a new demographic and that the artist represents a new voice. We want to make sure that by the time we have 10 artists and I ask anyone if they like hip hop, if they say yes, then there is someone on the label that they are a fan of.

We are also constantly expressing the value of hard work. It has taken a lot of work to get to this point. Most times you see artists celebrate the fruits of the labor, but the journey is dismissed. When this happens young people can forget that it takes hard work to be successful.

MR: How does the label function on a daily basis?

DR: We don't yet have the need for an office so I work from home. Hopsin and SwizZz record at their homes. Dizzy and Jarren record in different studios in their respective cities. We have a weekly conference call every Tuesday to keep everyone up to speed on everything that is going on. All the guys are working on different things, but it's important that everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Besides myself I have an assistant, business manager, lawyer, website admin, and a company that does our fulfillment and distribution.

MR: You've been having some success with acts like Hopsin and Dizzy Wright. What was it about these acts and any others you want to mention that attracted you to get involved with them?

DR: I don't consider myself to be some great A&R person, but I feel like when artists have "it", then it stands out. All of the guys we have are extremely talented. It was not only my opinion, but I saw how fans reacted to them. They have been rapping for 10+ year, so they have taken the time to hone their craft. They have a great live show, good work ethic, and are able to check their egos at the door [most of the time=].

MR: What projects are coming down the pike?

DR: Dizzy Wright just released an EP called State of Mind. It held the #1 spot on the iTunes hip hop chart for the first week. Jarren Benton and SwizZz should have projects coming out, but they have yet to be titled.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

DR: Pay attention to the numbers! The fortunate thing about the Internet is that we can get instant and quantifiable feedback that will give you a REALISTIC picture of where you are. BUT you have to be willing to listen to them. If you release a video today and it gets 100 views, and you release a video next year and it still only gets 100 views, then you need to figure out what is wrong. Either 1) you aren't getting your music in front of the right people OR 2) your music just doesn't resonate with people. Those are the only two options. Use the numbers to help make decisions so that you don't spend your life going down a path that maybe wasn't meant for you.

MR: Is there anything you want to achieve creatively on a personal level, as Damien Ritter?

DR: In music, I just want to build the dopest team of artists possible and serve as a catalyst in helping them reach their life goals. Outside of music I have a lot I want to accomplish. Funk Volume Fitness is a health and wellness business that is in the works. We have a community service initiative called "Funk Volume in the Community" that I want to turn into an actual non-profit. I would also like to open up a school one day.

Want to go down the rabbit hole a bit more? Check these out...

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A Conversation with Black Stone Cherry's Chris Robertson

Mike Ragogna: Chris, you and the gang have been busy recording a new album and touring. What was it like sharing a bill with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company?

Chris Robertson: To be able to get up every morning and know that we would get to go play some songs and when we were finished Bad Company and Lynyrd Skynyrd would follow was absolutely amazing. Skynyrd is my favorite band ever and Paul Rodgers is one of my favorite singers ever. To be able to share the stage with living legends was The coolest thing ever for us!!

MR: How about a tour of the band's new album Magic Mountain?

CR: This new album is the most honest and truest representation of Black Stone Cherry to date. It encompasses every emotion we've felt over the years and has a little something for everyone.

MR: What's the creative route like these days--writing and recording--for you and the band, and were there any surprises along the way during the process?

CR: We've been doing this long enough now that there aren't many surprises when writing and recording. More than anything we really push each other to make everything the best it can possibly be from the performance to the songs!

MR: Is there anything happening internally with the band, any kind of interesting interpersonal dynamics that are changing or evolving as the band becomes more successful?

CR: Nothing because of success, but some of us are married now and have kids so that changes your outlook on everything. But we are still the same four dudes who started this band in high school.

MR: What are a couple of the biggest changes that have happened with the band since your self-titled album and the giant hit "Stay" you guys wrote that The Florida Georgia Line took to #1 for four weeks?

CR: The biggest change for us is that we are all not 20 years old anymore. Haha. We are still the same dudes like I said. We have been very fortunate though to have such great artists like FGL and Skynyrd record our songs and to have the success we have had. It's also cool to get paid to play music!

MR: What's the relationship between Skynyrd and Black Stone Cherry that they record and perform your songs?

CR: Those guys kind of embraced us as the next generation of southern rock which was the coolest thing ever for me considering they are my favorite band of all time! And the fact they did that song is amazing. Funny enough they didn't know that the song had anything to do with us when they first heard it!

MR: "Me And Mary Jane" is your latest single. What inspired it?

CR: Ben came in to practice with the intro riff and the song kind of fell into place from there. It was one of those fun songs that seem to write themselves.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

CR: Practice, play shows, always be grateful and repeat this process every single day!

MR: Is that the same advice you'd give BSC when they first started out?

CR: Yes and there are no truer words to live by. We were told to always have time for everyone because if you see them on the way up you will see them on the way down. In life in general I feel it is best to always treat everyone the way you would want to be treated!

MR: What's the future looking like for the band?

CR: Touring, touring, and more touring. That's what we do. We will be on the road for a long time!