Following his 2017 solo album 21st Century Riffology, Jimmy Ryan is back in action with a new album that some long-time fans are calling his greatest musical achievement to date. Released in 2021, the 13-track Astral Café finds the guitar legend behind the Flyin’ Ryan Brothers sound in stellar form. As the co-founder of The Flyin’ Ryan Brothers, Jimmy Ryan and his brother Johnny Ryan released seven well-received albums between 1999 and 2011. Jimmy is well renowned for his instrumental guitar prowess and Astral Café brings his sound back alive and well in the roaring ‘20s.
Another side of Jimmy revealed on Astral Café displays his skills as a rock vocalist. Several vocal tracks here are new and exciting in their own right. Another major influence running through the lifeblood of Astral Café is the Flyin’ Ryan Brothers sound itself and a track here, also spotlights Jimmy’s younger guitar-playing brother and co-founder of the band they took to soaring heights, through till what turned out to be their final album Under The Influence, going back to 2011.
Although Jimmy Ryan released his solo album, 21st Century Riffology to favorable critical acclaim in 2017, the 2021 release of Astral Café proves to be a most auspicious musical release. No rock guitar genre is overlooked on Astral Café - from new takes on the soaring rock instrumental sound to inspired symphonic fusion instrumentals coupled with the vocal tracks featuring Jimmy’s vocals. Every track here has something to offer long time Flyin’ Ryan Brothers fans. Astral Café is so well recorded, with its strategic lineup of tracks, that newer fans will get turned on to a pinnacle moment in Jimmy Ryan’s newest music.
It’s nearly impossible to pick and choose best tracks on Astral Café. Every track has its own sonic blueprint but if you’re pressed to pick and choose several highlights look no further than track 8 here called “Dulcinea” with its sweeping prog-fusion arrangement and near flawless melodic design. The lead-off track “Starlord” and its follow up, “Shatterbrain” will attest to Jimmy’s hard-rock instrumental prowess. An instro-prog flavored gem, “Skydance” may be the most memorable track here. Jimmy totally lets his hair down for electrifying Astral Café covers of the timeless rock classics “I’m Ready” (the Willie Dixon classic) and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” with Jimmy’s mighty vocals lighting a direct route for these reinventions of two songs most rock fans know by heart. An original vocal-based rock track here comes to life on an eight-minute track called “Celestial Voice” with its Rush-inspired orchestral rock melodies and a dreamy vocal with lyrics that are haunting and atmospheric at the same time.
Adding to the roaring ‘20s instro rock sound of Astral Café is drummer and album co-producer Dan Van Schindel, whose style combines both power-rock combined with a jazz-fusion dexterity that worked wonderfully well on Jimmy’s 2017 album 21st Century Riffology. In fact, FRB fans that miss the guitar interplay between Jimmy and brother Johnny will note the appearance of Johnny Ryan on the album’s eight-minute closer “Quiet Flight”. After seven albums with the Flyin’ Ryan Brothers, and now with Astral Café four solo albums, Jimmy Ryan has earned the musical acclaim he so rightly deserves.
When it comes to the classic instro-rock sound you would be pressed to find a more talented composer and a more gifted guitarist than Jimmy Ryan. Hard rock, instrumental rockers and fans of the classic Flyin’ Ryan Brothers sound must not miss the totally famous vibe of Astral Café.
mwe3.com presents a new interview with
mwe3: What was the initial idea or story behind your 2021 album Astral Café? The album sounds very inspired by your earlier albums with The Flyin’ Ryan Brothers. When were the songs on Astral Café written and recorded?
Jimmy Ryan: I wanted to do another full-length CD release before they went the way of 8 tracks and cassettes. I worked with Dan on recording some new music in between the TV work we were doing, and that’s where it all started, back in late 2018. Ironically, almost all the tracks were pretty much done when the pandemic hit. I originally expected to release it back in early 2020. We didn’t see each other for over a year, and threw it all back into gear in mid-2021.
mwe3: Also tell us about the excellent album cover art for Astral Café. Dave Snoble at PMMG did a great job on the cover art. It looks like something straight out of the future. Maybe the clubs of the future!
Jimmy Ryan: I’ve always been a fan of the “future retro” visual vibe, sort of a cross between a neon-lit ‘50s drive-in and The Jetsons, and Dave’s artwork and layout captures that combination perfectly. He’s my son-in-law, and a genius at what he does. I didn’t even think of going to anyone else but him.
mwe3: Tell us about working with Dan Van Schindel on the Astral Café album. I was also happy to see you hook up with your brother Johnny on one Astral Café track. How are Dan and Johnny doing these days?
Jimmy Ryan: Well, what can I say about Dan? He’s not only my musical brother, but an amazing drummer, a great collaborator, confidante, sounding board and a very dear friend. His attention to detail is mind-boggling, and having him engineer and record everything – not to mention him playing drums – freed me up to be able to create without distractions and not have to worry about the technical end of things. This release would’ve never happened if not for his efforts.
Johnny’s doing great; we had lunch last week. He’s doing his own thing, playing and working with other people on other projects, and he’s quite happy and content in that. I’m glad he was able to contribute his talents on “Quiet Flight”. He played his ass off and that’s what he does best.
mwe3: “Starlord” is a great way to kick off the Astral Café album. It sounds like a theme song to a TV spy show. Did you want to blow us away with one of the heaviest songs you’ve ever made?
Jimmy Ryan: Well, I’m a Knaggs guitar endorser and when I got my guitar from them, built to my specs, I was blown away. I was inspired and wrote “Starlord” right after I received it, and used it for all the guitar parts. It’s a Swiss army knife, man, and I couldn’t be happier with the guitar and the track.
It definitely rocks hard; it’s got a lot of syncopated kicks and has a pretty riffy structure. It sort of came out all at once, and the dynamic shift in the middle solo section gives the track some real swagger. Man, I’d love for it to end up as a theme song somewhere! I guess my TV work is showing through on that one.
mwe3: “Shatterbrain” is another killer track. You get some awesome tones on that track. Tell us about “Shatterbrain” and the guitars you played on that one. There are some incredible mood changes on that track. Did you layer different guitars on “Shatterbrain” as well as on other Astral Café tracks?
Jimmy Ryan: Thanks for those kind words. That one’s special. I used a Fano RB6 for the heavy rhythm, a ‘partscaster’ Strat I built for the clean rhythms and Hendrixy leads, and an ’82 Epiphone Spirit with a Bill Harden pickup for the melodies, harmonies and main solo section.
I love the juxtaposition between the very heavy and the crystal clean, and that’s how I approach layering the soundbed on pretty much everything in a studio environment. It’s a specialized skill I continue to work on and refine. The resultant three-dimensionality in the arrangements is big part of my writing style, and hopefully contributes to the signature sound I’m going for.
mwe3: Another powerful aspect of your sound comes alive on the vocal blues-rock tracks on the Astral Café CD. Why did you choose “Crossroads” and “I’m Ready”? What’s your take on those tracks and what’s your history with those songs? Do you have favorite versions that might have inspired your own versions and how were both Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon inspiring to your own music and guitarists that you grew up listening to including Clapton, Page and Beck?
Jimmy Ryan: That’s a mouthful! Like many aspiring guitar-playing kids coming of age in the late ‘60s, “Crossroads” from Cream’s Wheels of Fire was a watershed moment for me. So was “I’m Ready” from Humble Pie’s Rockin’ The Fillmore.
It wasn’t until much later I discovered they were written decades earlier by Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon, respectively. What we call rock ‘n’ roll originally came to us from the grand old bluesmen like them, as well as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Guitar Slim, Buddy Guy and the 3 Kings, just to name a few. Those old school ‘Brit’ guitar heroes you mentioned all copped their licks from them… and so did the rest of us.
I decided to reinvent both tracks completely, much like Cream and the Pie did – if you listen to the original versions, they’re nothing like them. I wanted to interpret them in my own way just like they did, and I think I accomplished that. I’ve never understood why that whenever a band records a cover of someone else’s song, they do a tribute band version. Bring something new to the party, man… add your own twist and make it your own.
Thanks for the props on the vocals; I don’t consider myself a lead vocalist by any stretch – I have a limited range. That said, I can throw down a rockin’ bluesy vocal with some grit and did my best to deliver a legit performance on both these tunes, keeping it rough and real.
mwe3: The sonic atmospheres on Astral Café are quite impressive and you can really hear that on “Earthrise”. Did you want to create an other-worldly kind of track on “Earthrise”? What guitars, amps and effects are you using on that track?
Jimmy Ryan: I’m not sure it was a conscious thing; that said, the track does have an atmospheric vibe to it. The main melody’s shift from minor to major does lend itself to creating a memorable, uplifting passage, and I think that resonates with the title. I also used a pad program to create that lush, symphonic thickness in the background, and that helped set that mood.
mwe3: Tell us about the guitars you used on Astral Café and are you recording live or overdubbing and using amps and also using some special sonic effects?
Jimmy Ryan: Every sound I used on Astral Café was created through a Fractal Audio AxeFX Ultra, so everything on this release was recorded direct, both guitars and bass. No mics, no amps, no cabinets. That unit does it all, from molten scream to crystal clean and everything in between. I pretty much defaulted to the stock programs, and just rolled off the effects on most of them… Dan added them in post-production.
As far as guitars, I used my Knaggs Kenai DR, a Fano RB6, a partscaster Strat I built, my ’82 Epiphone Spirit and my ’79 BC Rich Bich. For bass, I used 2 Birdsong short scale basses, a 4 and a 5 string.
For outboard effects, I used a Roger Mayer Vision Wah for the wah stuff, a Foxrox Captain Coconut 2 for the Hendrixy tones, an Electro Harmonix Synth 9 for some of the synthy embellishments and a Boss Dimension C here and there for thickening. I also used a ClinchFX EP-Pre into the front end of the AxeFX on pretty much everything for a little analog warmth to take the edge off.
mwe3: Tell us how you worked with Dan Van Schindel on recording and mastering Astral Café. You recorded it at his studio. How did you hook up with Mastermind Productions on the mastering of the album?
Jimmy Ryan: Well, Dan and I are attached at the hip. We did Astral Café, 21st Century Riffology, all my TV sync licensing work and outside session work together in his home studio, so after several years and 150+ tracks we’ve developed quite a unique synergy between us on both the creative and recording sides. I’m so grateful for that. I’ve known him for over 45 years, and he’s my musical brother and one of the best drummers on the planet.
I first worked with Trevor Sadler when he mastered The Flyin’ Ryan Brothers Blue Marble release back in 2005. Looking back, I think it’s our best sounding release to date, so I contacted him and he was able to do the mastering on Astral Café. I’m very happy with the sonic sheen of the finished product; Trevor’s a GRAMMY winner and he really knows his stuff.
mwe3: “Dulcinea” is one of the best tracks on Astral Café. Any story behind that track and title? Is it connected to the fictional character from Don Quixote, or is it used as a term of affection?
Jimmy Ryan: Thanks so much! It’s got a neat time signature pendulum thing happening, swinging between sections of 5/4 and 7/4. I often refer to my wife Katie as my Dulcinea, so it’s a term of affection, for sure… we just celebrated our 42nd anniversary in October.
Other than the alternating time signatures, it’s unique in regards to the solo section. I usually work things out loosely, knowing where I want to start and where I need to end up, leaving enough space to improvise and play through the changes. On “Dulcinea”, I ended up writing the solo and multing it, hard-panning the two passes left and right. In headphones, the solo surrounds the track. I also embraced my inner Brian May for the chordal long tone triad leads that embellish the 5/4 sections. There’s a lot going on in that one.
mwe3: “Skydance” is upbeat and radio-friendly. I swear this track is like a Deja-vu flashback to a kinder gentler time in music history! It’s like a musical suite. It’s my current favorite track on Astral Café.
Jimmy Ryan: “Skydance” was the last track we did. It’s got this happy, lilting cadence reminiscent of a waltz but with a progressive slant to the arrangement in that there are multiple variations of each part… nothing ever repeats itself twice. It’s definitely different, like Strauss meets Zappa. It’s got its own thing happening.
mwe3: Is “Black Ice” the heaviest track on Astral Café? The sound seems very heavy metal influenced. Would you call it heavy metal or hard rock?
Jimmy Ryan: I think the fact the rhythm track was recorded on a baritone guitar increases the heaviness quotient for sure… that low B tuning definitely has that effect. I’d say it’s more hard rock than metal; I was listening to some Djent-style tracks, and I really dug the heaviness, but overall, the tempos were a bit frantic for me and the math metal arrangements were somewhat over the top. I thought it would be cool to slow the tempo down and open up the feel to let it breathe more, so that’s what I did. The middle solo section is a real rip; Dan really dug that one as well, and his playing is absolutely stellar.
mwe3: “Berserker” is heavy metal fusion. Was that track a good way for you to just cut loose and display your chops? Did you double the guitar tracks on that cut and how many guitars are you layering on “Berserker”?
Jimmy Ryan: This one was in drop D tuning, with a pulsing pedal tone groove anchoring the bottom with trippy chord inversions framing the melody line on top. I multed the heavy rhythm with a hard pan left and right, put the clean chords on top and laid down the melodies and harmonies. The solo section modulates up through three key changes (E, F#, G#) and then back down. It’s just drums, bass and lead guitar in that part; a real power trio vibe. It was a head to head solo take, so I was flying from the seat of my pants a bit on that one. I’m not a highly technical player, but whatever chops I do have were laid out on that one.
mwe3: Tell us about “Plectrumelectrum”. The CD says that track was written by Donna Grantis. Tell us about Donna. It’s a fun track, very Hendrix-inspired with that great wah-wah sound! Dan really shines on this track!
Jimmy Ryan: Donna played guitar with Ida Nielson on bass and Hannah Welton on drums in 3RDEYEGIRL, Prince’s backing band until his passing in 2016. When I first heard this track, it totally knocked me out. I just wanted to play it, so I recorded it without really thinking that I’d ever include it on a release. It turned out so well that I decided to add it. And you’re right… Dan absolutely killed it on this track!
mwe3: “Dreadhulk” is another killer cut. Is there any connection to the character The Hulk? It’s also the shortest track on the album.
Jimmy Ryan: This was a leftover from the 21st Century Riffology sessions, hence the shorter running time. Like “Black Ice”, it’s in low B so it’s got that drop tune heaviness. The title refers to an ancient anti-matter pulse weapon, a Dreadhulk, which appeared in Tour of the Universe, a great science fiction graphic novel from the early ‘80s that’s one of my favorites.
mwe3: Tell us about “Celestial Voice” and its connection to the memory of Neal Peart. That track was co-written with Dan Van Schindel. How did you work on that with Dan? Tell us about the lyrics and did you write the words or did Dan? Tell us about the influence of Neal Peart on your music and on Dan and the music scene overall. It’s easily one of the best orchestrated tracks on Astral Café. It’s another track that is like a suite of music. It would sound great with strings attached!
Jimmy Ryan: This was a total collaboration with Dan, start to finish. As a preface, Dan played drums in Animation, the premier Rush tribute band, for over 15 years, so he’s very adept at their music and that intense style of drumming. He’s one of the best drummers on the planet in my opinion.
After Neil’s passing, I started loosely compiling ideas for a sort of 2112-style opus that I never thought would see the light of day; just fooling around with different grooves, different progressions, different keys and different tempos. I ended up with a mish mash of disjointed parts inspired by that iconic Rush sonic blueprint: out-of-the-ordinary progressions, killer grooves, inventive twists & turns and tons of cool syncopated parts.
I presented some of those ideas to Dan, and from there it took on a life of its own. We built it together from the ground up. This goes there, that goes here, this tempo change, that time signature change, on and on like a sonic puzzle. Dan has great instincts, and when in doubt I’ll defer to him, which I did a lot on this piece. It all went together pretty smoothly and we ended up with a great instrumental. Dan, in deadpan fashion, said he thought vocals would be a good idea and that I’d better get started on writing some lyrics.
So… I read about Neil, his life, his losses and his words. I let it sit for a while, and then started writing from a perspective of the impact the words he wrote and the music he played had on the rest of us. I wanted it to be reverent and heartfelt. I presented what I came up with to Dan; we fine-tuned it and I laid down all the vocals in one session, harmonies and all. That one was a gift.
mwe3: How did you and Johnny structure the guitars on “Quiet Flight”? It’s so original sounding I can’t even compare it to anything I’ve heard before. Is there a meaning behind the title? It’s the longest track on the album and right up there with the best of them!
Jimmy Ryan: “Quiet Flight” was a compositional departure for me, much like “Cranberry Golden Green” was from the Truth Squad sessions. I try not to think too much and go where the music takes me, and this one was quite the journey. It combines a symphonic structure with a jazz influence in the progressions that’s really different… and it works. It’s got some chord parts that incorporate voicings I’ve never used before, and it’s got sort of a be-bop swing to it in some sections.
In my mind’s eye, the opening movement evokes a feeling of drifting upward and outward, beyond the reach of gravity. Then, a 1st transition leads into the second movement that moves out even further, weaving through interplanetary space, followed by a 2nd transition leading into the final movement - an extended solo section - that moves out into the infinite expanse of interstellar space. The final section features me and Johnny trading solos over a modulating chord progression.
I wrote the piece and asked Johnny to play on the solo section; I start the section off and we pass the torch back and forth, crescendoing into a soaring harmony twin lead solo that codas into a restatement of the opening theme. It’s really an inspired piece of music, and that applies to the solos as well. I’m particularly proud of that one.
mwe3: You were talking about the fact that you just turned 66 and might not be able to release another solo album. How do you see the aging process? I saw Segovia do a concert in NYC when he was in his 80s, so there’s hope for the rest of us, too!
Jimmy Ryan: Great question. Looking back, when I was in my early 20s I was on the road for 3 years back in the 1970’s and barely made a living wage. I realized back then that I would not be able to make a comfortable living playing music alone. My life aspirations were not only musical; I wanted to be financially independent, create a full and satisfying life for myself and my family and aspire to follow my creative aspirations as well.
So... I fell in love, got married, started a career with some other like-minded people, had two daughters, worked very hard and built my life... and always played. My career provided stability, and over the next 35 years I was able to start my own label, release 11 records - garnering multiple GRAMMY nominations - appear on dozens of others, transitioned into soundtrack work, winning a Telly Award in the process, TV sync work as well as contemplative "spa" music. I just signed a publishing deal for my first children’s book. I write and play every day; it’s who I am and the need to create is becoming more intense as I’ve gotten older, probably because I intuitively realize that I have less time in front of me than I have behind me.
Today, I’ve got two married daughters, four grandchildren, been married for 42 years and have a wonderful life in the truest George Bailey-esque sense. I never want to get to a point when I look back retrospectively and say something like “the older I get, the better I was.” I need to create. Always have. It’s hard to find people my own age who are of like mind, interested in creating something. They’d rather consume, and that’s OK for them. Not me.
Even though I’m older now and quite removed from the current popular music scene, I really feel I’m just hitting my stride, so I’ll just keep doing what I’ve always done. I’ll continue to do my music my own way, going wherever it takes me, writing stuff that I would want to hear myself. That’s the lens I look through when I’m writing a piece of music, and I’ll do that as long as I am able to.
mwe3: So, after the last year and a half I thought I’d seen everything, and it’s been a real eye-opener. I must say that Astral Café has given me new hope for instrumental rock and instro hard rock. What are you planning next? I know millions of guitar fans need to hear Astral Café and get a new lease on life again!
Jimmy Ryan: Well, nobody would like millions of guitar fans to hear this project more than me! I have no illusions about that ever happening, though. Considering that over 500 hours of content is added to YouTube every minute and Spotify uploads 60,000 songs per day… 22 million tracks per year… you could never even attempt to catalog them, much less listen to them. And that’s OK.
I’m not concerned about creating a “brand” or anything calculated like that. I’m 66 years old and pretty set in my ways, so as far as “flavor of the month” popularity or the “big time” or whatever label you choose to put on it, I’m not interested. At all. My self-worth is not dependent on external validation.
Looking into the future, I’m hoping to be able to drop a new track every now and then onto the streaming services, but this CD is the last physical CD I’ll ever do. It’s a new world out there, and music is consumed so much differently today than when I was growing up. I’m glad I grew up when I did, with the music of that era; it shaped me into the player I am now. I’ve left a legacy through my work for my family and for my memory… and if somebody digs it, great. For me, music – in and of itself – is its own reward.