By now you should know that life is anything but a smooth ride. It’s a bumpy road with unexpected twists and turns, sometimes also dead ends. Musical careers tend to function the same way. Although countless labels, A&R’s and promotion experts try to tell you a different story – it’s impossible to fully outline a career in the music business with a successful result. Especially in these modern times where making money out of your music comes close to winning the lottery. There is never any guarantee and even if you manage to reach a certain level in your career it’s quite hard to stay there or reach the next level. Many great and midsized indie bands of the past decade suddenly vanished after having a certain momentum and it almost felt like synthpop duo Man Without Country would face a similar fate but thank god mastermind Ryan James isn’t willing to give up any time soon. Even better: he’s facing the third album by his project with new confidence and an even stronger artistic independency.
There’s a history and strong love I share for the music of Man Without Country ever since I saw them for the first time live around seven years ago, supporting M83 at an way too overcrowded show in Berlin. I immediately fell in love with the sonic soundscapes of their 2011 debut EP King Complex and actually the first piece of editorial work I did for NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION was a review of the duo’s debut album Foe back in June 2012. Shortly after that I spent an evening with Ryan and bandmate Tomas Greenhalf as they played a really small club show in Leipzig, shortly before getting back on the road with Anthony Gonzalez’ acclaimed dream pop outfit. ‘Those M83 support shows were timed pretty well’, Ryan James explains to me at a recent E-Mail exchange. ‘We shared the same management team, which obviously helped, and it was just before Midnight City became a huge hit that we were offered the first run of dates.’ Man Without Country were in the right place at the right time, also delivering a remix for Midnight City, a song which turned out to be one of 2011’s biggest indie smash hits.
‘We were basically just a polite bunch of guys who were always on time and didn’t complain or interfere with anything to do with Anthony’s show. I feel like that was just as, if not more important to him than the support act itself and the main reason we were asked back, and I totally respect that.’
Unspoken pressure to be successful
Riding on the wave of the M83 support Man Without Country suddenly had their momentum, that carried them through their debut album Foe, the following EP as well as remixes for acclaimed artists like Moby, Susanne Sundfør and School Of Seven Bells. Ryan James also lend his vocals to Sordid Affair, a really lovely single from Röyksopp‘s final studio album but somehow it wasn’t enough as James reflects in our exchange: ‘In a way it’s more frustrating when opportunities such as the remixes and the Röyksopp collaboration arise, but then other things don’t quite line up as everyone had hoped and you still don’t get that break that’s needed.’
By the time their strong second full-length Maximum Entropy arrived in 2015 there was – according to James – ‘an unspoken pressure’. Whether they wanted it or not but the band had to gain some traction on the second album ‘to sustain what we had’ as he describes it. Personally I think Maximum Entropy had everything it needed for that success – powerful, cinematic synthpop anthems and a really catchy cover of the old 90s pop classic Sweet Harmony from The Beloved. Still, like mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to plan these things and Maximum Entropy didn’t result the big breakthrough (or at least a certain shift) the band had hoped for. And then one thing leads to another as the musician explains:
‘I began to notice a decline in morale among everyone involved, and eventually realised that I was the only person left holding on to MWC. The moment I decided to let go was the moment it completely fell into a coma.’
That ‘coma’ was one of Ryan James’ biggest regrets as he confirms to me. Somewhere in the haze of that decline him and Tomas part ways, something that still feels very delicate to address for him: ‘I have my view of the situation and he has one of his own, and for now I’ll leave it at that,’ he explains it in a diplomatic way. Ryan wanted to carry on as quickly as possible. ‘So when things started to head south I didn’t hesitate to initiate my contingency plan, perhaps a little too hastily, which was to begin releasing my own music under a different name,’ he explains. The ambient-like side-project called Secular Ghost released on EP in 2016, which in many ways felt like it was one of the most satisfying things James has ever done musically.
‘Secular Ghost gave me a platform to experiment and develop my craft, figure out how to perform solo, learn how to release music without a record label and how to manage my own business independently.’
The songwriter could have carried on under the new moniker and nobody would have blamed him but for two years he had felt uneasy about how Man Without Country was left dormant so unceremoniously. ‘It felt like a mess that needed cleaning up, so I decided it was time to do something about it,’ he sums it up. At a point where many other musicians would have abandoned their band he decided to simply carry on – under his own rules, independently and carried by the already gained fanbase of the band. Giving up was no option here.
Confidence and independency
In 2018 Man Without Country surely is a different band than it used to be all those years ago. In James’ understanding the project can now work as an open door for creative fans and collaborators, although it has to happen organically as he mentions. ‘I do envisage a new live line-up at some point in the future and there’s already a few collaborators featured on the new album, but I can only depend on myself;’ James confirms. He continues: ‘I’m more about sole-responsibility than sole-credit, but the deeper I’m getting into the process of making this album the more personal it feels, and the more I’m getting over my reluctance to call it a solo project.’ The album itself will arrive this summer under the name Infinity Mirror and to get it realized James started a project on PledgeMusic to found its release and keep the loyal Man Without Country fanbase updated on what’s going on. For him, PledgeMusic just seemed like the obvious choice, partly because he needed a kick to get things started:
‘I wanted to set a time-frame to work on the album, and I didn’t want to do it in total isolation. I knew that once the page was launched there was no turning back and I had to make an album no matter what. Knowing that you are a little bit out of your depth and are about to undertake a mammoth task is a great push for an artist.’
The artist benefits financially and also gets a closer connection to its audience and that’s something James likes about the other perspective on PledgeMusic. ‘From a fan’s point of view I think it gives them a more intimate experience that is unattainable elsewhere;’ he explains. ‘I feel more comfortable talking openly in the updates I post on the page than I normally would on social media, as I know that the only people able to read them are those who support what I do.’ And maybe that’s what makes a platform like PledgeMusic a more sustainable platform for fan communication, simply because you know that the people that signed up for your project are already dedicated supporters and not just random followers that suddenly jump on the bandwagon. And in the case of Man Without Country it proved to be the right choice because as I’m writing these lines the Infinity Mirror campaign already reached 106% of its original goal.
That success was not a matter of course for the artist and he was indeed very anxious prior to the launch. ‘You are counting on people’s belief in you, many of whom are complete strangers;’ James says to me. Before launching his own campaign he observed a few other ones, witnessing both – devastating failures as well as astronomical successes. So, a bit patience was indeed helpful and in the end it’s nice to see that there’s still such a thing like honest support for art these days. Something Ryan James also finds very rewarding: ‘With all the major problems we are facing in this world today the likelihood that not many people will give a shit about your hypothetical new album is something you should take into consideration.’ Fans already got first music from the album and plenty of material to look forward to. In an age of declining record sales and increasing difficulty to make your money from touring (since you pretty much have to tour all the time) a platform like PledgeMusic can indeed make a difference and help to connect you with your fans and create a sustainable relationship for your projects. ‘It’s not for everyone’, the musician also states as some people just want the finished product.
The past two years have been a rollercoaster ride for Ryan James but now it feels as if all the single pieces are lining up to one big picture. Man Without Country will be releasing a new single and EP called Remember The Bad Things on March 27th via Killing Moon Records. A bunch of UK dates have already been announced and James is hopeful that he’ll get to perform further afield again. ‘Anything else is a bonus’, he confesses. For him growth is impossible without failure ahead of it. He explains: ‘There’s nothing interesting about instant success’ and that’s the lesson he is probably still learning when it comes to Man Without Country. In an age that often calls for immediate reactions and doesn’t worship patience anymore it’s important to just keep persevering and developing your craft until you reach a state that you feel comfortable in. Ryan James sums it up via this simple yet important advice: ‘You’ll never stop improving, and eventually you will get over whatever it is that’s compelling you to want to give up, until it no longer remains an option.’ He is indeed a perfect example of being driven by nothing but hope and passion and I’m surely interested to follow this ongoing journey a bit longer.