The Long Ryders is a band that was at the forefront of the Americana rock movement. Earlier this year, the band released Psychedelic Country Soul, its first album of new material in more than 30 years. By phone, drummer Greg Sowders discussed the new album, the band’s longevity, and the best thing about the L.A. music scene in the early 80s, when the band started.
Americana Highways: Psychedelic Country Soul is the first new album in more than 30 years. What was the inspiration behind it?
Greg Sowders: In 1987 the band split up. It was one of those things where we felt like we hit a brick wall. We were young then. You get hot-headed and sick of each other. We did nothing in the 90s other than Sid Griffin kept putting out live records and reissues on his label Prima. He kept the spirit of the band going. In the early 2000s we started playing shows here and there to test the waters. We missed each others’ company and musicianship. We kept playing more and more until we got to a year and a half ago where we said, “If we’re going to keep doing this – whether it’s Glastonbury or Stagecoach or these mini-tours – we should have some new material to play.” We had left some unfinished business with each other.
We got together and wrote some songs and treated it kind of like a love letter to each other. Here’s what we really think The Long Ryders should be about. It came out great. We used it to finish that thought and to give us something to tour on.
AH: What do you think is the key to the longevity of your music?
GS: Great question. Part of it is that The Long Ryders – for better or worse sometimes had to eat it – but we never compromised the music and the vision of taking what we believe were the classic roots of rock and roll, country, blues, even punk to some degree, which we thought was an honest medium, and folk music, and put it in a blender. It was our vision as 20-year-old kids. I think that in the age where everything comes at you and there’s always something different and new, that we were able to present something that was really traditional. It represents an era and a time. I think people appreciate that. I think it’s really worn well.
AH: You’ve certainly inspired a lot of bands along the way. What does it mean to you that you’ve inspired so many bands?
GS: It’s a great honor especially when you realize you’re not going to have the record sales or the radio so that you’ll never have to work again, which very few artists in any genre ever get to. The highest compliment is for a fellow musician to pick up a guitar, write songs, or get behind a drum kit because you lit that spark, that flame. When people come up to us and say, “We started a band because we love what you were up to.” To me that’s the greatest honor, and a little embarrassing and humbling.
AH: What’s the biggest difference between touring now and when you first started out?
GS: (laughs) When we started, there were no cell phones. There was no internet or computers. You had to advance a show on a fax machine, or a pay phone, or at a hotel. It was like an underground railroad. It was not the modern touring business that we have today. We would have to advance a show from the side of the road. If you wanted to send a note home to somebody, you wrote a postcard. It was like pioneer days. Not like Beatles and Stones pioneer days, but it was for what we know as modern touring. When people showed up, it was word of mouth. People had to call and tell their friends about it. It was fanzines, not blogs. Word went from town to town. It was like a covered wagon moving from one place to another.
AH: What was the best thing about the L.A. music scene when you started?
GS: All were welcome. You would have a Circle Jerks show, a Bangs – which then became The Bangles – show. You would have X and The Blasters, Los Lobos coming out of east L.A. You’d have a reggae band playing, and we all went to each others shows. There was a lot less of music being put into silos. You could identify someone and what they were into by their clothes, the bands they played in. Ultimately it was a brotherhood and sisterhood of musicians. We were as influenced by Los Lobos, The Blasters, X, and Steve Wynn’s band as we were by The Byrds and Gram Parsons. To us it was all the same.
AH: A lot of that comes through in More Fun in the New World – how everybody supported each other.
GS: Agreed. That book is a nice snapshot of that time and how everybody came together. The way people digest music, and of course the vehicle in which music is delivered from CD to digital. Of course the internet and the way people find new music. Even though it’s a broader base of things to listen to, it’s a little isolating to be in your room alone. With YouTube and Spotify you can get more music, but you don’t have the experience of discovering it together.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
GS: I’m really lucky. I’ve spent 40 years in the music business as a drummer or music publisher. I found a way to do something around music as a living. If I had nothing at all to do with music, man, I’d do something with motorcycles. I’ve ridden motorcycles my whole life. I’d probably work in a motorcycle shop or something. I never had to have a Plan B, and I certainly didn’t prepare for one.
AH: That’s kind of the way you have to do it though. You can’t really have a Plan B or else you end up as an accountant playing in a band on weekends.
GS: You are so right. Plan B means you’re really not committed to Plan A.
AH: Anything else?
GS: I just want to say thank you to guys like you and the people that read your stuff. The young people and our older fans that have been with us right along. There’s no reason to do this thing if nobody wanted to hear it. Sometimes it’s for 50 people, and sometimes it’s for a thousand people. We’re so grateful to rock and roll and the whole notion of making music for each other and other people and to still be here. We lost a lot of friends along the way. Some natural causes, some unnatural. Just to be here and do what we love, we are super grateful.
The Long Ryders are currently touring. Check the band’s website for tour dates.