Ryan O’Neal: As organic as it gets

January 9, 2012
by GForce Software

We’ve said it before but we never pay for endorsements and although we regularly get requests from bands and artists, rarely do we get past the opening sentence before consigning most to the reject bin.

“Your competitors gimme me all their stuff and you should too” is one phrase that’s guaranteed to evoke a swift and predictable response. Thankfully though there are enquiries that stand out and make us take notice in a more positive way.

For example in March 2011 we received an email from Ryan O’Neal commenting “I’ve been in love with my M-Tron plug-in for over 5 years now and have grown ever more infatuated with it as time moves on. I’ve used it in countless songs on several of my band’s records and consider it second to none. Thank you very much for creating such a simple, but incredibly musical and gorgeous piece of software.”

Accompanied by an impressive biog of highlights for his band Sleeping At Last we immediately headed off to

To say that we were captivated is an understatement. As we listened to one finely crafted song after another, each with beautifully considered musical arrangements, it took all of 30 seconds for us to realize this was someone with enormous talent.

At the time Ryan was working on his ambitious Yearbook project in which he challenged himself to write and record a 3 track EP a month. In a perfect piece of synchronicity, this coincided with the wrapping up of our ChamberTron M-Tron Pro Chamberlin Expansion Pack, so, excited to see what he could do with these beautiful vintage American recordings, we asked him to add it to his M-Tron Pro arsenal, let us know his opinion and, if he had time, to do us a small demo.

We were blown away by what Ryan sent us in return. Not for him a simple quote or 8 bar demo tune. Instead, he used it to create the entire track, Pacific Blues, on the May 2011 EP, with a result that clearly indicates what’s possible when you combine truly special sounds with extraordinary musicianship. In fact, this track was so sublime we insisted it become the featured Chambertron demo tune on our website.

Now, with the 36 track Yearbook complete it makes sense to take advantage of Ryan’s momentary free time and talk about his 13 year journey and why 2012 is tipped to be a big year for him.

Tell us about your background and how you got signed to the Interscope label.

Way back when, I had a chance meeting with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. I saw him at a local music venue and as he walked by I shyly gave him a cd (very first full length.) he apparently listened to it when he got home that night and then called me the next day and said he wanted to work together! It was a fun day to say the least. So fast forward a year or two later, a deal with Interscope was signed. I made a record called “Ghosts” for them! my first “real” record, I’d say. I call the one before that, a practice run in my book. 🙂

 I feel very grateful to have never been placed in a corner to make my music a specific way, other than how i want to.

This Ghosts album seems a lot more rock based than any subsequent releases. Was this an enforced or natural change?

I’m proud to say that I’ve never had to enforce any stylistic decisions into my music… everything I’ve ever written has been the natural result of whatever happens to fall out of my instruments. so for each record I have just written what felt right at the time. I feel very grateful to have never been placed in a corner to make my music a specific way, other than how i want to.

As for a more rock sound back then on Ghosts, yes, I was definitely a bigger fan of more rock oriented songs, but I’m getting old these days and softening up in my musical tastes! kidding of course… well sort of… the truth is that I’ve just always loved gentler songs. The soft songs on a record, the ballads would nearly always be my favorite even as a kid, so I think I’m tapping into that a bit more these last couple years. I’m also a huge fan of film score music, so that definitely plays a role in the gradual softening of sound in the songs I write.

2006’s Keep No Score album wasn’t released on the Interscope label. What happened?

Shorty after signing with Interscope, I realised that I really enjoyed being hands-on in every aspect of my career – from designing posters to updating my website, to designing the artwork layout for my records… so my manager recommended that I stay independent and ever since, it’s been an incredibly busy and exciting time for Sleeping At Last! My deal with Interscope was right around the same time that the record industry was beginning to face some tough times – lots of folks that were my assigned Interscope team had been shuffled around to other jobs or just lost their jobs due to cut backs. So although Interscope was great to me and my music, it just made sense to move forward independently. I have my manager to thank for pioneering that!

At what point did Sleeping At Last become a solo project?

In early 2011. I’ve had the privilege of playing with my brother and my best friend for several years prior, but i am very grateful that the path to Sleeping At Last as a solo project has been a very smooth and natural one. The switch from band to solo project are practically the same – it’s only different in wording, really. I still play full band shows with friends of mine that are fantastic and I’ve always written the songs for Sleeping At Last, so when it came time for my previous band mates to pursue other things in life, it was a very organic transition to continuing on this path.

To us, 2009’s Storyboards seems to be where Sleeping At Last found the sound that’s stayed the course thus far. True or false?

I’d say that’s fair! I feel like on Storyboards, it was the first time where the original vision for the record was followed through to the end. Whereas on previous records, a lot of time was spent trying to figure out where things were going – a lot of experimenting to figure it out… “Storyboards” felt more orchestrated from the beginning. A lot of that comes from just feeling more and more comfortable making records, I think, but yes, Storyboards is probably the most intentional record I’ve released to date.

There’s a sophistication to tracks like Clockwork that never ceases to amaze. Is it true that the orchestration arrangement was by Van Dyke Parks? If so, how did that come about?

Firstly, thank you so much! And yes, Mr. Van Dyke Parks did indeed collaborate with me on Clockwork! I wrote a simple fan letter to Mr. Parks a couple years ago now and he replied very warmly. In my next note I think I said something to the effect of “one day it would be amazing to work with you” to which he replied “why one day?”, which of course blew my mind. I had been just about finished writing all of “Storyboards” but the song Clockwork was still being born, so I finished up writing the song, recorded my piano and vocal and asked if he would be at all interested in writing a string arrangement for it – for a quartet perhaps, I remember saying… and he agreed to do it and a few days later I had charts for a near-full orchestra arrangement! it was amazing. I hired a bunch of players (strings, wind, etc) who did an incredible job performing his arrangement and a little while later, Clockwork completed the Storyboards album.

At what point did the M-Tron first appear in your work?

Actually, M-Tron has been in my arsenal since my ghosts record back in 2003! Being such a huge fan of the hardware tron and M-Tron’s faithfulness in sampling, I’ve been addicted ever since! It has appeared on every record I’ve made to date. and I’m certain it will find its way into much of the music I have yet to write!

What are your favourite M-Tron sounds and can you give us an example of any tracks where they appear?

I have been, and always will be, obsessed with the classic flutes sounds! I’ve used variations in many, many of my songs.. too many to count, actually. and I’ve been recently falling in love with each of the electric guitar patches from M-Tron Pro and the ChamberTron Pack. And of course, the cello patches are absolutely gorgeous and will always have a home in my songs… press shuffle on my collection and the tron cello will be there. On Yearbook, I explored a bit further outside of the classic tron sounds and fell in love with a lot of the brass – trombones, french horn… really wonderful textures. Clarinet is a recent favorite as well. I also love, love, love a patch called “ARP Fuzz”

October 2010 saw the start of what seems your most ambitious project to-date, the Yearbook series of EPs. What was the thinking behind this idea?

…the idea for writing 3 new songs every month for a whole year felt like just the right amount of crazy difficult and doable.

Well, right at the beginning of 2010, my manager and I had lunch and were talking about what’s next for Sleeping At Last. A very simple question came up – what is the one thing I love most about being a musician? The answer was extremely clear – writing songs. So with that in mind, the idea of Yearbook starting to take shape. I have always been a relatively slow writer and I never really liked that fact. So the idea of really pushing myself and challenging what I know about my creative process, the idea for writing 3 new songs every month for a whole year felt like just the right amount of crazy difficult and doable. I also was very attracted to the idea of exploring new models of releasing music which is one of the huge benefits of being independent – you can travel down the road less traveled without at your own risk!

So after discussing the logistics and possibilities with my manager, the schedule and idea was solidified. 3 new songs each month, 12 EPs, 36 new songs in one year’s time. I figured it was a win/win situation… if I failed part way through yearbook, I would be a better writer for having tried. if I made it through, I’d be a better writer for having made it through all 36 songs! I feel very, very proud and thankful to have made it through!

Three tracks per month is no mean feat, particularly when the songwriting and production bar was set so high. Were there any points where you thought you were going to run out of ideas or be unable to maintain such a high standard?

Thank you for your kind words!! And yes, it was absolutely a challenge to remain inspired throughout the entire project… but a challenge that was welcome and inspiring. There were many moments where I felt like there wasn’t much left in me… and the yearbook project certainly taught me that in spite of feeling empty sometimes, there is still something there, waiting to develop. the deadlines in yearbook had no interest in waiting for the muse to come along… which taught me a lot about diligence and most of all, patience.

The first EP October has a track called Watermark features a sublime string arrangement as does one of our favourite tracks from June – Atlantic. Were these orchestrated by you and who played on these tracks?

Yes, for Watermark I wrote the string arrangement and had a few fantastic players perform it – Joanna Hui, Jessica Hui and Alex Kruser.Tthe strings on watermark were actually recorded in a hotel room – always proud of that. I like makeshift studio setups! Atlantic, and several other songs, the strings were put together in collaboration with the very talented Laura Musten (of Owl City) who would take some rough sketches of what I wanted for the strings and would turn them into the gorgeous, realized arrangements they are! She performed them as well, using GarageBand in all sorts of different locations, even while touring! The fun of technology these days is that you can make music with someone miles and miles away from each other! Bizarre but amazing.

We understand that Watermark was picked up for use on Private Practice. What effect has this exposure had, if any?

Yes, I’ve been fortunate to have had 4 songs from Yearbook now placed in ABC’s Private Practice TV show! So privileged to have such a great opportunity! As for the effect it’s had, it’s always hard to measure precisely, but there are definitely jumps in numbers on all of my social sites, YouTube, iTunes, etc. I feel so very grateful and fortunate to have such great opportunities!

One recent opportunity that I’m super excited about as well is the new Twilight film, “Breaking Dawn – Part 1” which features a new song I wrote for the film! My very first movie placement… I couldn’t be more thrilled! so that has had incredible impact in exposure as well!

May 2011’s Yearbook track Pacific Blues uses the Chamberlin Expansion Pack For M-Tron Pro almost exclusively. Did this pose a particular challenge or was it a case of everything falling into place when you heard those sounds?

I’d say I ‘posed the challenge’, but writing with such gorgeous sounds is anything but a challenge! But yes, I set out to write and record the song entirely using the gorgeous Chambertron Expansion pack and had such a fun time working on that one! Such amazing sounds to work with – it was a very inspired process!

There’s a very organic quality to your music that makes it seem far removed from the rigidity of computers and sequencing. Can you give us some insight into your process of creating a track?

Thank you! I generally gravitate towards more organic, natural sounding instruments, so I tend to write in that stream. My recording setup is very minimalist. I have a few mics I like and a preamp/compressor combo… all running to Pro Tools LE, Digi02 rack… that’s pretty much my setup. Not a long of bells and whistles, but it allows me to create in a simple environment.

After experimenting with a bunch with mic-ing positions and such, I’ve discovered ways to record my instruments in ways that I like… so when I write a song, the recording process is pretty basic and already dialed in, unless the song calls for something different entirely.

I’m not really a gear-obsessed person… I gravitate towards simple systems that sound the way I want them to. which is why M-Tron Pro is so perfect for what I do… it has a very intuitive, and yet complex when you need it to be, type of system that can be used right away without the hold ups often associated with digital music software. So to me, I consider M-Tron Pro as organic as it gets and it fits in beautifully with everything I’ve tried it on.

What five instruments could you not live without?

Good question! 1. M-Tron Pro of course!!! 2. Piano 3. Ukulele 4. Acoustic Guitar 5. Cello…

With the Yearbook now complete, when you look back how much of a diary have these tracks been?

Music has a funny way of embedding time into your mind when you listen, which was another reason I was excited to embark on Yearbook. I loved the idea of being able to document one entire year through writing, since those time stamps are so present in songs.. and having completed it, it’s so fun to look back and remember all of those moments throughout the year… when I wrote a particular lyric, or recorded a particular part… Yearbook will definitely be a very tangible journal of the year I spent, which is really special to me! It’s like a great big musical scrapbook!

What’s next?

I’ve got a few projects lined up, some involving work with others, some involving new recordings (already) and sprinkled throughout, I’ll be playing some live shows in 2012, doing a bit of touring, writing for film and TV (which is something I absolutely love!) and then perusing a few other Sleeping At Last projects I’ve got developing in my head! Excited!!

Yearbook has definitely given me the itch to keep writing, so I’m certain that it won’t be long before my next release!

For more information about Sleeping At Last visit;

Yearbook art: Geoff Benzing
Pics: Jeremy Cowart