Naomi Dryden-Smith whiled away some enjoyable lockdown time chatting with Rich Ragany, one of rock’s most likeable frontmen, about his formative years in Canada, his band’s imminent album release, the beautiful song he wrote in isolation following the sudden tragic loss of his brother, and his dream campfire posse.
You’re Canadian with Hungarian ancestry and grew up in Calgary. What was growing up like for you and how did you discover music? And who were your musical influences over there?
I started listening to music quite young. I had four older brothers and one older sister – the next youngest to me was George, about eight and a half years older than me, and then my other siblings were at least ten years older. They had tons of records: my sister had New York Dolls, Bay City Rollers, lots of Stones and Zepellin and stuff like that. Being the younger kid with older brothers, there was a kind of abusive relationship that at times wasn’t very nice. The people involved in it took up a lot of space sonically in the house and physically – bodybuilders and the like – so when I wasn’t hanging out with my sister or my brother George who were wonderful to me, or my parents who were wonderful too, at seven or eight years old I would go downstairs to the basement where we had a vinyl record player and I would just get lost down there.
Somehow you learn to become very small in that kind of situation so you don’t get in the way. I would listen to all these records and read all the liner notes and really get lost in these little worlds; people named Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain, and the Sweet. My brother George would come down and be with me, and say “oh you like this, you like that…”, and he got me into AC/DC – Bon Scott era – and he would listen with me and answer any questions I had. I found I liked this little world that I created for myself, I loved it and I wanted to be a musician. I thought “how do I become this, how do I make this transition” and the obvious thing was to get a guitar and learn. I begged for a guitar, but my parents thought it was a folly and I would probably break it. I had to wait and was patient – I got to 14 years old and was really tall, and I had that Eastern European almost moustache – I lied about my age and got a job at McDonalds, and bought my first $80 Telecaster.
My dad came home one day from work – he paved roads, he was a foreman and you could smell the asphalt and know he was home – he could hear the plunking around as he walked past my door, could hear the strings going “bing bong” and making all sorts of bad noises. He asked my mum “What’s he got in there?” and she said “Well, he got a job you know, and bought himself a guitar”. He came in the room – I could always tell when he was mad or when he was just playing with me a bit, he had that one raised thick Hungarian eyebrow – and he said “Where did you get this?” I told him and he said “Well, you’re too young to work kid, I don’t want you to start this early, but you got to plug this into something, don’t you Richie?”.
He would rather work in a cast in a wheelchair than ever take a day off work, he was that kind of guy, but he said he would take the morning off and he took me to a big music store downtown and bought me an amp. It was just beautiful, I’ll never forget that. And probably throughout my life what kept me going years later when I started touring in local bands, and then moved to Toronto, then New York City, then London, anytime I would feel the pressure of the life I was leading I always remember that and him saying “You know, you might not be Elvis Presley but you really are reaching people and you’re making a difference, it’s a wonderful way to live your life”. The thought of him buying that amp stops me from quitting and puts me back on track. He was a wonderful man.
My influences would be The Dolls and stuff like that at first. When I first saw the cover of The Replacements’ Let It Be when I was in High School I thought, wow these guys look just like me. I put the record on and was blown away – they’re one of my favourite bands, and Westerberg is one of my favourite songwriters. I loved a lot of power pop like The Plimsouls, plus local bands along the way, people you end up touring with. I was really into metal for a long time – Dead Kennedys, 80s hardcore punk – and I loved the Pistols and the Clash, and then early REM. I saw a picture of Peter Buck and saw a bit of myself in him – the big nose and the dark hair, tall and skinny with a black Rickenbacker, that kind of thing.
There was something really wonderful my brother said at my wedding. When I was a kid in that basement I remember picking up Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic vinyl, I turned it over and it had a picture of them sitting in an attic with a bunch of toys – funnily enough. But they weren’t like the Dolls all made up, or Kiss or even The Sweet, nor The Ramones with their look – they were just a bunch of dudes, pale skinny dudes. I said to my brother “What is it about these guys? They’re special – you can tell just by looking at them they’re special”. He remembered that years later – I had met my wife whilst touring, when I came over from New York and played the Barfly – and he said well “You know Rich, maybe you never even thought that you were one of those pale special people, but obviously you are; here we are in London, you’re getting married and music brought you here – maybe you have a little bit of that in your heart too.“
So you’re 14, you’ve got your guitar you’ve got your amp, then what happens, when do you start forming your own bands?
Almost immediately. Forest Lawn where I grew up in Calgary was a poor neighbourhood, renowned for its high crime rate. Role Models, my old band, has an album named Forest Lawn dedicated to it. There were a lot of great musicians there at that time, and a music store that was just down the street. There was a great drummer called Jason, this beautiful long-haired guy who at 14 was already hanging out with girls. I had a terrible bowl cut, and I couldn’t talk to a girl if you paid me a million dollars. He was a great drummer that every cool guitar player would want to be in a band with. I had learned to play power chords, two-finger chords, and I was already learning all the important stuff – a couple of Dolls songs, Kiss songs, the Ramones, a bit of Mottley Crue, Hanoi Rocks. We got together and that was it, we were brothers playing all the time in that basement of his.
So we started off with another guitar player named Rich and called ourselves Rat Salad, and we played an ill-fated lunch hour gig in the cafeteria which I almost got chucked out of school for because of the language and the volume. Afterwards the Principal took me aside – I was wearing eyeliner and tarted up, wearing a Cult Spiritwalker t-shirt with holes in it. It was straight out of a John Waters movie – he said “You know what, I’m going to hold you back, all your pals can go to class but you’re behind all this. You’re going to go into class late, dressed like the idiot you are right now, and everybody’s going to laugh at you.” So we sat in silence for a while, I grabbed my book, went into social class, the teacher said “Look who it is.” and I could hear people laughing under their breath. I walked with my head down thinking everyone thinks I’m a joke. And right in the back was this guy Randy – I’ll never forget that – he was wearing an AC/DC Fly On The Wall t-shirt – and Randy says “Rich, that was awesome!”. My shoulders went up, everyone looked shocked, and I strutted to my seat, banged my books on the desk and felt a million bucks. I realised that’s what it’s all about – that one kid in the back of the class, that’s who you’re playing for, not the cheerleaders who won’t talk to you anyway.
I started my first band Next In Line – I had a diary with over 100 gigs, I would play with anybody anywhere – that’s pretty good for a band at 18, walking around with cassette tapes, giving them to club owners. Then I got drafted into a band called Red Autumn Fall – that band really took off, we ended up selling out clubs all over Calgary and Edmonton, three hours north, and then we started touring. Before you knew it a couple of years went by, it was 1994 or so, we started getting shows with local big Canadian bands like 54-40. We got a tour to play with Oasis and we got on Much Music, Canada’s MTV – we did really well. But like a lot of bands the inspiration slowly drew us elsewhere.
I moved to New York City, started up a band called Madison Strays. Zane Lowe used to champion a lot of independent bands and had this show called Fresh Meat. One night I was literally leaning up against the Niagara on 7th and A in East Village where my singer was DJing, and the singer came outside and said “I’ve got a phone message, I think someone’s trying to fuck with us – he says he’s Zane Lowe and we’ve won this thing called Fresh Meat”. The message said “This is Zane Lowe and we want to have your babies!”. Within a month we were in England doing a bunch of shows, plus a live XFM thing. That was really great.
I met my wife to be on that tour, the band broke up and I moved to London in 2006 to start all over again in Denmark Street. I worked at The 12 Bar, a rehearsal place called Enterprise. I reconnected with an old friend Rich Jones, was in The Black Halos and is in Michael Monroe’s band now – he really is a brother to me – and also Neil Leyton, a great singer who I toured with through Europe when I first arrived, and I started the Role Models. I was never a singer before, but Rich Jones and all these guys on Denmark Street said “You’re writing all these songs, why don’t you sing ‘em?”. They gave me a lot of confidence. I was with this drummer Pat, and I’d come downstairs and say to the manager of 12 Bar “Hey, could we just play 15 minutes before the rest of the bands start?”. I’d grab my guitar and we’d play new songs we were working on in front of a smattering of people.
Charlie Harper from the UK Subs came running into the room one time, bought me a beer after the show and said “Wow, these songs are amazing. You sound like Cheap Trick and there’s only two of you!”. If you look at my trajectory over the years it’s up down up down, but I’ve loved that journey – and here I was starting somewhere again and feeling that old exhilaration of reaching somebody for the first time and the possibilities of what could happen. It was exciting and wonderful and I found myself in some great situations and places because of that.
What’s your song writing process, how does it happen for you?
I started singing, and then I had my first son. I was living a life where I was seeing a lot of people going to work as I was going to bed. There’s that thing of leaning up against a bar, thinking “I’m a songwriter, I’ll just write a song when the inspiration hits me”, which I found funny because as soon as I had structure and I had to take care of somebody and put those energies elsewhere, I realised that whole Leonard Cohen thing of get up, get to work – I had a window of opportunity of about an hour in the afternoon, and I would go with Garageband and a guitar to the bathroom where there’s good acoustics, lock myself in there and start singing along to some guitar parts. Or an idea might have popped into my head while I was changing a nappy or doing the dishes. And then I would go and work on that.
Role Models had three very strong albums in three years. And I put that down to not just being lazy and rock ’n’ roll and drinking too much. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having fun and stuff, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time there’s nothing wrong with a bit of structure and actually going to work. If you love something, don’t wait around for it to tap you on the shoulder – go invite it over, go to work and do something, get some time behind it. So that’s what happens – I go into the bathroom with my guitar now and just bang something out. That’s pretty much it really.
So is it the tune that comes to you first or do you have lyrics knocking around, how does that come together?
It’s almost always the song title first. I’ll be out with Kit or Gaff from the band, those two especially – we’ll be having a drink after rehearsal or recording or something, just hanging out. The conversation that happens, especially between Gaff and Kit, can be quite comical – I love the way that they take the piss out of each other, they love each other a ton and there’s a lot of warmth there. You can end up surrounded by interesting people in this life, people who are eloquent in the every day. The name of the new album, Beyond Nostalgia And Heartache, came from Kit listening to an Aerosmith song, sitting cross-legged on the floor in Gaff’s apartment. She said “I love this song, the feeling of it is beyond nostalgia and heartbreak”. I changed a consonant to make it sound better coming out of your throat, and I thought “That’s going to be a song”. And there I have my impetus to start something.
That gives you a colour in your head. Gaff works with colours, he always sees colours in music – for me it gives me a mood and then I go with that. One of my favourite songs is about my past, it’s called It Was Lonely At The Time. I was making a point to Gaff about how great a guitar player I think he is. We were sitting listening to Bon Jovi at his place and I said that people don’t realise that to be as good as somebody like Gaff, to be that versatile, takes a lot of time in that bedroom by yourself. And Gaff said, in that Liverpool accent of his, “Yeah yeah, I totally know what you mean”. I said “The payoff is pretty great though, you get a chance to play stages and play with people, if you’re focused” and he said “Yeah, but it was lonely at the time”. I said “That’s a song right there!”. And that’s what the song’s about.
I take my influence from literally everyone around me, because everyone around me constitutes my life in a sense. I see that and I think these lost late night conversations sometimes deserve a second time to be heard because you get these wonderful things, people don’t even realise just how smart and eloquent they are. Someone was living in the moment and said something amazing, and I commemorate it. I do that a lot with my songs. I’m looking outwardly, appreciating the fact that I’m involved in it too, and it makes me feel love that I’m with these people, that not only am I listening to them but they’re listening to my long-winded stories. There’s an acceptance there and a wonderful love between you and your friends and there’s a lot of those things that can come out in conversation, and definitely in songs.
How did Rich Ragany & The Digressions come about?
When we started this band I was in Role Models and was writing a bunch of songs that weren’t very Role Models-like. I had already done three albums plus a live thing and numerous little EPs and I started to feel the canvas wasn’t fitting the frame. I wanted to try something different, so I thought maybe a solo thing. I was always a huge fan of Gaff’s and we got a chance to meet and we just hit it off. He’s quite a bit younger than me but an old soul musically. The stuff he loves turned me on immediately, we ended up getting along, he’s a helluva fun guy full stop.
He started playing a little bit of guitar on these songs, we played under my name Rich Ragany. And then I thought let’s get Kit, she’s an amazing singer and could do some backing vocals, and Andy Brook who did all the Role Models albums was producing and did a bit of singing on it, and then we got Ricky McGuire, who I met through Tom Spencer who I was in a band called Loyalties with – he’s in The Professionals now. Tom introduced me to Ricky McGuire who was in The Men They Couldn’t Hang and UK Subs – he was also asked to be in The Waterboys which blows my mind. And then I thought I would ask Simon my old from Role Models because he’s the best, and he’s my buddy.
By the time we were in the studio for the third day it was apparent to me that everybody was getting along so well, Ricky was going home and telling people that this was his band now, so I said d’you know what, if you guys want to be a band let’s just do it. A friend of mine, Dave Longford-Kerr, who is doing the artwork for the new album and is a great musician himself, said to me “Jeez Rags, you certainly take people down the story highway sometimes, a lot of left turns” – and he once wrote to me in an email addressed to Rich Ragany & The Digressions. I brought that up to Gaff and he thought The Digressions was “a bloody great name”, it’s like you just don’t care, you’re going to say what you want. The artwork was already done, with Rich Ragany on the front and the Digressions in the middle, but I can just see the day, after the third or fourth record, it’ll be just the bloody Digressions.
You’ve been busy during lockdown and you’ve got some new releases coming, what can we look forward to?
Rich Ragany & The Digressions have been together since 2018, our first album was Like We’ll Never Make It with which we toured supporting shows like The Lemonheads. We were going to start work on another album but we had a Pledge campaign where unfortunately they stole a lot of money from us. We had a take a small break to reassess and re-budget our lives in order to be able to carry on – I have some people who follow my musical career, who pledge and pre-order our albums. It’s a modest but such a loyal following of people who have stood by me that whole time. I said let’s not quit, I kept writing and kept demoing stuff, and I’m very proud of that first album – it’s going to have a second life I guarantee it after this new one comes out. It’s not lost, it’s too good a record and will get its time in the sun again.
But for Beyond Nostalgia And Heartache, the pandemic hit but we’ve got this amazing band, and one of our band members, Andy Brook, happens to be our producer and our engineer and is amazing – so we decided to do preproduction just by doing demos. He would take my demos, just acoustic guitar and my voice, and he would build on those. These tracks sound fantastic, this album is going to be something else – it’s turned out better than I ever could have expected. Our plans for this year had been to finish that album a little bit earlier and we had a whole tour supporting Status Quo in places like Hammersmith Apollo and Birmingham Symphony Hall. The tour’s been postponed but we’ll have to wait and see, until the absolute right time to do something like that again.
So, our plans all fell apart, and we were all locked up, but we decided to do this in earnest and use this time. Doing the preproduction that way kept us in constant connection with each other and we were slowly getting more excited as Andy put the preproduction of the demos together. We were socially distancing, doing things the right way; I got a live feed from Andy and we recorded the album and now we have this great album ready to go. The pre-orders for the first single Marionette launched on 22 January, and the album will be out on vinyl and everything else at the end of April. But guess what, there were so many songs left over, plus some new songs now, here we are in another lockdown so I just called everyone and offered them to go round two, right now, let’s do it now. We’re going to go in hopefully in March, as soon as it’s safe.
I love hanging out with the band, we’re getting together and doing something positive for people who actually want to hear it. We can build upon this now, it’s the best way, to keep positive and keep constructive – and that’s where we’re at right now.
As I touched upon earlier, my sister was great and my parents were wonderful too. I don’t want to leave anyone out, but after my sister got married and moved away, George was almost like a protector to me. He never made it seem like that – when I was 8 years old he would have been 17 or so. He didn’t have to hang out with me, he was an amazing athlete and a really popular guy. We used to do the coat check for the Hungarian club, and when we did it once for Teenage Head, that Canadian punk band, everybody in that room knew George. He even got Frankie Venom from the band to sign a record for me. He always treated me like I was his friend, not his brother, and on the same level, not so much younger.
When he got sick – from diagnosis to when he died it was just over six weeks – Covid was a very big thing and travelling was hard. If I could get there, I didn’t know if I could even go see him, as I’d have to isolate for two weeks. In the end I got on a plane, I couldn’t wait any longer, and he died while I was on the way there – I landed and he’d passed away. One thing I had managed to do is that he used to love the Canadian rock band Triumph who were huge in the 80s, a big arena rock band, and in my travels I got to know the bassist so I got him to send a video message to George. George couldn’t speak but he could take things in – the nurse said that his eyes welled up and he held her hand and really squeezed. The message was like “Hey, your little brother said you used to listen to this record” and he held up the record “and I’m glad we were the soundtrack to such good times and great memories”. I feel that that was the last time I really got to reach him.
So when I got to Canada I was stuck in isolation for two weeks. I have an old friend, Reed Shimozawa (who was in Zuckerbaby) and when I was in Rat Salad way back then, me and the guitar player used to go and see Reed’s old band with our fake IDs and I used to borrow my brother George’s ID – this all kind of fits together in a weird way. Reed was the coolest guitar player, we worshipped him – he’s the best dude with a fantastic laugh. Reed found out I was in Canada and he said “Well you’re going to be sitting there a long time, I could drop off a guitar for you”. I said that would be amazing. And he said “Write me a song though”.
The first four days that guitar just sat there, I opened the case once and picked it up and I said “No fucking way” and put it down, drank a lot of wine. I then decided to stop drinking wine all day, and people dropped off some food for me. I made some spaghetti sauce. I was trying to do something to keep my head out of the fact that I was locked away alone and I never got a chance to say goodbye to my brother and see him, or have him see me. Dealing with that, I picked up the guitar and I had this beautiful little old guitar part. I got a message from my sister, and on her Messenger everybody has a different coloured emoji heart – her daughter is pink, her son is green, I am red and she said “George’s heart is blue”. So that’s a line in the song.
I wrote the whole song in about 15 minutes in the bathroom – I recorded it on my iPhone literally off the mic. Reed heard the song and said “Ah, this song is amazing. I know you need to go and take care of things with your mum now, but can you take one day – it’ll just be the two of us, we can come in and be safe, we can record this song. I’ll play, and we’ll do a fully realised production on it, with drums and everything.” I love to go to his place when I go to Calgary; he has the best collection of guitars I’ve ever seen – it makes me angry and happy at the same time. So I go over there and we do the song. Another old friend, Paddy McCallion, an Irish dude form the old days back in Calgary – when I first met him I went over to his place for a drink and he was playing Van Halen songs on the fucking mandolin! He has the voice of an angel, so he came over to sing the harmony. Within two days Reed had the whole thing mixed and ready to be mastered. We decided to put all the money towards The Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada. Man did that song hit a lot of people’s hearts.
So the amazing things were reconnecting with Reed, me using my brother’s ID to go and see him, this long friendship that we’ve had, him coming out and doing that – it just felt again like this is the world I’ve found myself in and those are the types of people that inhabit it. I’m so lucky. I guess I’m trying to get that across in the songs sometimes, because it’s definitely a vibrant weird world, and we can see some beauty in it somehow.
What collaborations have you done and who would you love to collaborate with?
I got a chance to collaborate with people like Steve Conte and Sami Yaffa from Hanoi Rocks who both played on my albums. But true collaboration – I don’t know how this would work but boy I would love to be part of a writing process with Paul Westerberg, or a close second would be Peter Case from The Plimsouls. And then I’ve played music on stage with him a bit but would love to write a song with Ginger Wildheart. He’s a good friend too but we’ve never written a song together, that would be a cool thing.
Do you have any favourite music-related anecdotes?
There’ve been a lot of crazy things, but one of my favourite little moments was when I played with David J from Bauhaus – I was drinking with him in the back room of this bar in New York, and after he’d been sitting with me for about half an hour he just looked at me and slapped the table, started laughing and put his arm around me and said “I’ve met some crazy, crazy bastards in this world and you are definitely one of them Rags!”. I was like “I used to have your poster on my wall!”.
Another was meeting Sami Yaffa for the very first time in New York after playing a show, I looked at him and we were both wearing blazers with red collar shirts sticking out. There was a band called Toilet Boys in New York who were quite big, and they got Sami to come by and check out this new guitar player in town – I was actually that guy for a moment. Sami came and he said “You sure know how to play that six stringer boy. What are you having to drink?”, and I said “Jagermeister”, he said “That’s a college boy drink” and I said “What are you going to do, have one of those $800 shots of whiskey?”, and he said “Yes!” and that’s exactly what he had, impossible whiskey. We had a shot together and I told him “I had the poster from Two Steps From The Move, my favourite album from you guys but it wouldn’t fit on my locker door in High School so I had to cut everyone out – I literally had room for just two faces and I had to pick the two coolest, so I picked you and Michael because you were right beside each other, it worked perfectly” and he said “Really, that’s great” and then he pulled me in closer, laughing, and said “You fucking tell anybody that you had my picture on your High School locker, I’ll kill ya!”.
If you could get 5 people round a camp fire, living or dead, who would they be?
Off the top of my head now – too much thought on this stuff ruins it, because everybody always comes up with Jesus and stuff… So my five people would be the Hungarian composer and writer Zoltan Kodaly – my mum got a chance to sing for him.H e’s very famous, he has a method of teaching people music and I’d just like to do that with him. Second, somebody who I came very close to meeting so many times but never got a chance to – I’m going to be working with someone produced and engineered a lot of work with and remixed stuff for David Bowie. Somebody who I have met, one of the best guys would be Lemmy who was such a wonderful person. I would probably like to get Mohammed Ali, and my favourite basketball player ever Julius Irving, Dr J – he used to be on the Philadelphia 76ers.
I used to box and also play basketball, that was one of my passions, I loved it and spent lots of nights with our hoop in the back alley. Dr J was my favourite player because he was such a superstar but he was such a great team player; he had everything and he was such a hard worker; I just loved him. I think it would be great conversation between the Hungarian composer and Lemmy, and Mohammed Ali and Julius Irving, and Bowie would probably be the mediator really, he’d be directing the conversation – and I would be roasting everybody’s hotdogs for them!
Publicity photo by Trudi Knight
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