“We don’t have triple A radio anymore, like indie rock. It’s eliminated. We have active rock and modern rock, and Hot AC, which is like soccer mom stuff, and top 40. But is there a place for guitar-driven music to live in the mainstream anymore, or is guitar going the way of the saxophone and jazz? What’s happening?”
This is Ryan Guay, the brainchild behind Welland, Ontario’s Street Pharmacy. A fast-talking, multitasking anti-hero 90’s kid. Street Pharmacy will be dropping their latest LP Delusional Discourse in 2018. Blending reggae with rock, punk, and hip-hop, Street Pharmacy is part of the third wave reggae world, but markedly different in their approach. For over a decade, and now with Jesse Robitaille (bass), and Isaac Thompson (drums), Ryan is on a mission.
We’re both 31, so our conversation easily spiraled into a critique of music and meditation on our forefathers:
I feel that the sounds you picked out are quintessential to the music we grew up with.
Oh yeah, for sure! I try and blend 90’s golden age hip-hop lyrical flow in the verses with early 90’s to early 2000’s guitars- alt-rock- with reggae elements borrowed from Sublime, Pepper, Tribal Seeds, and people like that. Sublime is clearly a big influence.
We record everything digitally and the topics might be a bit more modernized, but I want it to feel like that era. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily in right now, but…
I find that you come up with interesting melodies.
I grew up on 90’s alt-rock, so I’m always looking at that. Shannon Hoon from Blind Melon is a huge influence. And Layne Staley from Alice In Chains, with all those vocal harmonies; I always liked that! If I could find a way to make that happen, those happy harmony sounds, like a major third instead or minor third, or a perfect fifth… That’s stuff that I learned from listening to a lot of Alice In Chains records, and before that Simon and Garfunkel. They have layers there, counterpoints. Brandon Boyd from Incubus is probably the most modern influence.
I heard your cover of Blind Melon (“Change”). I think they’re one of the most underrated bands from that era.
I discovered Blind Melon when I was fairly young, through “No Rain”, and then I listened to the album Soup when I was in grade nine, so maybe 14 years old. There are some songs on there that blew my mind, just better constructed songs and sounds than Blind Melon, like “2 X 4” and “Galaxie”… Those songs inspired my songwriting. Shannon Hoon was a very tortured soul, which made the music and melody sound happy, while the lyrics were meaningful and about a personal struggle with addiction, or being a father. I found that dichotomy between happy-sounding music and introspective and self-deprecating lyrics… I found a home there as a writer myself.
I have a strong love for emo pop-punk and a huge love for reggae, and I find that they both have upbeat melodies and hooks and dark content, or, at least, it’s a social commentary.
A social commentary, for sure. I remember when that band Thursday came out when I was in grade 10, and thinking, “Wow, what an upbeat song!” And then I read the lyrics and, “Oh, this isn’t happy.” And Dashboard Confessional is another great example. And the post-hardcore sound too, like Poison The Well from Florida. I loved that band growing up. It’s just the opposite: it’s heavy and then, “That’s actually a song about liking a girl!” [Laughs]
When I was a kid I used to cry over “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” because it’s so sad, but it’s not a sad-sounding song melodically. When I listen to it today it still makes me upset. Maybe I’m just wired backwards. I think a lot of people from our generation are. We were five years old when Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, so we had at least a decade of radio play hearing a sour-sounding Beatles! With the reggae/rock/hip-hop thing I’m doing, I’m trying to take some of those twangy, melancholic ideas and match them with lyrics that might not be conducive to pop-reggae. We don’t talk about things that other pop-reggae bands talk about in their material. I’m a straight-edge dude, so I just document what I see around me in my everyday life. It’s a commentary, like you said.
There are many modern reggae bands I love, and follow, and adore, and yet their content can be narrow. You even have some rootsy tracks, but the lyrical content breaks that grind that others are talking about.
Wow. Well, thank you. I really appreciate that. Anything stand out?
Well, I’m just learning your music, and you have about five albums.
Full-lengths, yeah. And maybe more because we have some EP’s that are longer than they were supposed to be.
I did this pop-rock record called Divorce. That one… I don’t know what happened there. I was on this TV show in Canada, and pulled in a lot of directions, and I didn’t like that, so I don’t know if I was trying to self-sabotage my reggae band, or something, but that’s what I wrote: the darkest, strangest record that had nothing to do with what we’d done before.
It was a defense mechanism, to be honest. Things were happening too fast and I thought, “I need to pull back.” There’s a lot of really great material [on Divorce], but it’s not material that people really enjoy, off from what we normally do. The album that came out after that was called Alimony, and that was full reggae songs. Divorce was 90’s alt. We don’t even play songs from it anymore. That was a lesson in branding, if nothing else. It was a hard lesson for me to learn. I think I could’ve put that out as a solo record.
The strange thing about today is that everything is so compartmentalized. Bands can’t reinvent themselves without getting scrutinized. Look at a band like U2, for example: they have so many different sounds over many records, and yet they have a following that supports them through that. I can’t think of many bands that have evolved like that. And I went out too far. I didn’t get away with it. [Laughs]
Well, I think you just have a lot of integrity.
Great word. In the first three years of the band we got a lot of attention from the upper echelons of the Canadian music industry. “Why are you doing this?” “You should be doing this instead.” “You should become this.” And I was saying, “So why are you talking to us?” I had a real problem. I didn’t like the authoritarian approach, a dinosaur-like ideology that some of the labels here practice, at a time when we were young, fresh, and coming up. At the time, I was 20 years old, and it didn’t feel right.
And that’s why, when we were on this reality TV show Disband on Much Music, Canada’s version of MTV, they were trying to split us up from the moment we got there. They were saying, “Ryan writes all the songs. It’s very clear he’s the driver. Let’s get rid of the band.” That alienated a lot of my original line-up. That’s not what I wanted out of that show, and I kept to my guns. In a lot of ways, that’s why I think I’m still here. Other bands on that show, they’re not bands after that. Doing reality TV, it was an appeal to be able to play our own songs. And I’m grateful to Much Music for putting us on TV, but creative control was a big issue.
This is an important topic because everyone thinks that music is all indie now, but there’s still a lot of industry out there and musicians do sell out and lose their integrity.
Yeah! I felt manipulated, like they wanted me to work with 60 different writers. And no, that wasn’t going to be me. My punk/rock ethos wouldn’t let me do it. My inner Kurt Cobain. You have to believe in the music you’re making. If you don’t believe it, no one else will believe it.
And many people find music these days where they can connect from a place of knowing who you are.
That was something about the 90’s I liked, reading magazines that were specific. I love Smashing Pumpkins and remember reading a magazine once where I learned what kind of guitars Billy Corgan played. Siamese Dream is art. I don’t know what he did to make that happen, but trying to tap into that was part of the fun, as a fan of music. That was the first time I thought about music in that way: “How can I do that, but from my own perspective?”
You might have to stick it out. Everyone’s in the 80’s now, so in 10 years they’ll be in the 90’s.
I don’t get this decade.
When you grow a fan base, there’s a delicate balance between not writing the same song you’ve written before and not going too far away from it.
Exactly. I went too far from the formula. And there were some singles from that record, and a music video that went to number one in Canada, but that one song is the formula: reggae-rock. I think if I’d put out Pharmanomics after The Legacy of Rudy, there’s more reggae…
But Divorce was essential for that lesson. People might not like it, but…
Every once in a while we have a kid come to a show, someone who’s kind of metal, and they’ll say, “My favorite record is Divorce! It’s the only record I listen to!” It boggles my mind. I get that kid, in over-sized flannel and Doc Martens. So, it kind of worked. I end up having a great conversation with that person. They’re always interested in what I was doing when I wrote it.
The new record is called Delusional Discourse, and it follows in the line of Pharmanomics. It’s a concept record, like The Legacy of Rudy was. Without giving too much away, there will be 90’s vocal samples of people I grew up listening to. It’s a journey through the subconscious of someone who’s in a coma, everything that you accumulate, all that your brain tries to sort out in a dream. The protagonist, the lyrical content, leads back to one central theme: Home, what is it? Is it a significant other? Are you looking for home in the wrong places?
And the world is so delusionally discoursed right now. With all that stuff going on in the world, it’s a split. And that’s what this reflects, the greater sense, the zeitgeist of the moment. It’s not a political record, by any means, but using symbolism, the main character is trying to sort out how to make sense of the world we live in now, which is polarized.
Like I said, there’s going to be a quote from 90’s vocalists in each song, an ode to them. In one track there’s a line from “Cherub Rock”. Did you know that Billy Corgan sang, “Hipsters unite” in “Cherub Rock”? That’s a lyric! I didn’t even know “hipster” was popularized before the last decade.
I’ve always been curious how Canada supports the music scene.
We’re very close to Niagara Falls, close to Buffalo. That’s why I sound like I’m from western New York. I grew up listening to American rock music. The scene in Canada is small. There’s 28 million or so people here. There’s a tight knit reggae-rock community, like IllScarlett, who are our friends, and they were on Warped Tour. And MAGIC! is from Canada. He wrote Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me”. That’s how he got his start.
I’ve found that, in this day and age, that touring is how you get your name out there.
We don’t have that reach here. We’ll be touring the Ontario area with the new record, in the middle of winter and remember what that’s like. We haven’t done that for a while.
Canada is all I’ve ever known, but I don’t sound like other Canadian bands! [Laughs] I don’t get it! I grew up so close to the boarder and listened to Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. I don’t think a lot of Canadian radio stations were playing Sublime in 1996. But I remember where I was when I first heard Sublime. I was over the border, in Buffalo. I heard “Santeria”. I was 10 years old. Maybe I’m just stuck in the 90’s, but it works for me.