Q + A with Slow Hands

With the upcoming release of his newest album Bye, Slow Hands, a.k.a. Ryan Cavanagh, is trying to find the sound he grew up on. Originally from Vermont, Cavanagh grew up with parents who fed his musical appetite with people like Peter Gabriel and Bowie. This eventually led to a pursuit of music and an enrollment in Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. Now years later, as a DJ based in New York, Cavanagh is finding his way by mixing genres. 

McKenzie Price: First thing’s first, we’ve got to know the meaning behind the name Slow Hands.

Ryan Cavanagh: Eric Clapton was/is one of my favorite musicians of all time. One of my closest friends and I were going on a tour supporting Donavon Frankenreiter years and years ago. The night before we left to meet them on the West Coast, their management team called and said I needed a name. I didn’t know what to go by, so my friend used Slow Hand, as that was Clapton’s nickname when he was a part of the Yardbirds. Over the years it evolved so much that it became plural.

MP: Do you remember the first moment that you found yourself falling in love with music?

RC: I don’t remember it, but my mom said she ran through two copies of Peter Gabriel’s So because I listened to it so many times as a child. She also claims that I was so obsessed with Bowie at around three to four years old that she refused to take me into the record store in Ann Arbor, Mich. because I would throw epically intense temper tantrums if she wouldn’t buy me a new Bowie record. It was to the point that the owners mentioned it might be better not to bring me when she went record shopping. So the obsession began pretty early from what I’ve been told. I still throw temper tantrums, but I own everything Bowie and Gabriel have ever done, so now it’s mainly over my iTunes not downloading Bieber fast enough.

MP: Who or what was a big musical influence?

RC: I had a music teacher when I was in high school named James Dalton. He shaped my perspective on playing and creating music more than any other teacher I have ever had. Dalton approached music of all genres as a student, and his approach to teaching was very nurturing. I don’t know many 16-year-old kids that obsessed over Ralph Towner, Bill Evans, pre Beuna Vista Social Club Ry Cooder, and Ravi Shankar in quite the same way that I did. Dalton opened my eyes to all possibilities very early on.

From a totally different side, I left high school to go to university and study under Jimmy Bruno. He made me cry during our second lesson, and it shaped how intensely I practiced for the rest of my life. To put this into perspective; the movie “Whiplash” is about a really intense music teacher obsessed with Buddy Rich and how good he is. Jimmy Bruno started playing guitar for Rich out of high school. He made J.K. Simmons character in that film look like a weenie. I dropped out of college getting an A from him, and at the time I thought it was because of that intensity that I no longer wanted to pursue jazz. But, upon reflection, I don’t think any of what I’ve done musically would have happened without that experience. I still practice according to his teaching on a daily basis.

MP: How have those influences changed over time?

RC: They have become greater I would say. Music changes with every generation. Elements become greater, and elements become worse. But the ability to hear originality and greatness within music, despite what the musical abilities of the creator might be, that was shaped by my influences.

At the end of the day, music is one of the few art mediums consumed by humans on a daily basis. So everyone has an opinion. The influences cited in the previous question taught me how to digest the good in Taylor Swift as much as the good in a Berghain resident DJ and what they play. I think that when you learn to look past the social scene that surrounds and consumes these musical genres, it opens your mind to limitless possibilities of what can happen.

MP: What do you consider to be the definition of “making it” in music?

RC: Money. Sounds terrible, but it’s true. If you aren’t eating canned beans and Velveeta out of the bag you ripped open with your teeth you’re doing pretty good as an artist. Money is the definition of making it in any career path.

Any artist that tells you it doesn’t matter either has money, or their family does. Trust me, I’ve lived in NYC for 15 years. You’ll never meet a struggling artist, or anyone for that matter wearing pants made of duct tape and Trader Joe’s bags who claims to be satisfied doing it for the love of it. People that do it for the love of it are lawyers and doctors that come home every night and practice for hours after an already long day.

MP: Can you compare and contrast this new release with your previous ones?

RC: The new release was written and recorded while I was mixing and finalizing my first record. So a lot of it was experimenting in the studio, ‘How can I make a guitar sound like Dire Straits? How did they make the piano sound on Ashes To Ashes?’, and these experiments naturally turned into songs.

I spent so many years trying to figure out electronic and dance music, this album was very much an experiment in getting back to the sounds I grew up on.

MP: Are there any specific events in your life that inspired these new songs?

RC: My dad received a kidney transplant this past year after being on the waiting list for two years. Watching that had a profound impact on me, as it would anyone. It made me assess my family, and especially its history, a sort of, ‘How did I get here?’ A lot of the lyrics are about that. Some of them are incredibly sad, but every family has a history. I think I said a lot of things in the lyrics that I wish my dad had said, especially to the people that hurt him through the course of his life.

There are positives in that. My dad busted his ass to give me the opportunities I have had. A lot of the lyrics are a nod to that, the fact that it takes a pretty amazing person to put the negatives of their own upbringing behind them in an effort to make their children’s lives better.

MP: Do you have any future plans for this release (touring, music videos, etc.)?

RC: I will be touring, but not a proper ‘album tour’ where I travel around and play the record from start to finish. I have designed a live setup where I improvise music on the fly. It’s really fun and engaging with the audience. I will incorporate bits of my original songs in there, and perform improvised variations of them through the course of the performance. I have also been giving away a song a week for the last month leading up to the release. Most of the songs were written the week before we gave them away. That will be compiled into another album that will come out shortly after the release of Bye.

MP: What is currently on your playlist right now?

RC: Bill Evans Live at the Village Vanguard, Hamilton Leithauser/Rostam I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, Jazz Cartier, The Raveonettes, Francis and the Lights, Whitney, Sohn, Cameron Avery, Blawan, Jamie Lidell, Warpaint, Gosto, Two Gallants . . . . this could go on forever.


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