The Long Ryders Ride Home To SoCal

Whether you call their country-punk hybrid sound Paisley Underground, Alternative Country, or even Cowpunk, there’s no denying that LA band The Long Ryders were there at the start of it. Formed out of the remnants of the Laurel Canyon scene—country-tinged acts like The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers—and the punk wave that washed up on both sides of the Atlantic, The Long Ryders inflected songs like “Looking For Lewis And Clark” and “Tell It To The Judge On Sunday” with more cowboy boots and suede vests than their Paisley Underground peers—The Three O’Clock, The Dream Syndicate, or The Bangles—giving them a special place at the beginning of modern Americana music.

After breaking up in 1987, The Long Ryders are returning to SoCal for their first proper US tour in 30 years, playing The Constellation Room Apr 28, The Roxy Apr 29, and Stagecoach festival Apr 30. In anticipation of their return, Concert Guide Live caught up with drummer and co-founder Greg Sowders to talk breakups, reunions, and new Long Ryders music.

CGL: Let’s go back a bit. What first got you into music?

GS: When I was in elementary school—my older brother was already out in the world. When he went to college he left me his Rolling Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys, and Chuck Berry records, and I started listening to this stuff. As I got older—in the late 60’s, early 70’s—I started listening to all that British rock and roll music.

When I was a little kid my parents took me to my first concert, and it was Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and The Everly Brothers. When I heard that beat, I knew I wanted to play the drums. So many of us—especially the record generation—there were always records around the house, so you found them and played them. Either music is just something that you like that’s in the background—everybody likes music—or it becomes an obsession. It picks you.

CGL: How did you meet Sid Griffin [Sowders’ Long Ryders co-founder]?

GS: Sid was in a group called The Unclaimed, which was kind of a 60’s, psychedelic, punk band. I was in a ska band called The Box Boys. We were playing a club, and Sid’s band was on the bill with us and we got to talking. My band broke up, and I heard from a mutual friend of ours that he was forming a new band. It was all the stuff I liked: country-western, punk rock like The Ramones and X, 60’s psychedelic stuff like The Byrds, and of course Gram Parsons. It was like, ‘Oh, somebody’s starting a band that likes all this stuff? I’m in.’

CGL: Explain to me what this Paisley Underground scene was born out of.

GS: The Paisley Underground was a loose amalgamation of new bands that were starting up in LA. It was certainly a reaction to the late 70’s, huge arena rock bands like Peter Frampton, The Eagles, Rolling Stones that had become so big and bloated.


THE LONG RYDERS play The Constellation Room Apr. 28, The Roxy Apr. 29 and Stagecoach Festival Apr. 30; photo Paul Slattery

Then the post-punk thing happened, so in England you start getting bands like The Fall, The Smiths. We all started playing shows together, and like any live music scene, you start seeing the same kids at the shows, the bands hang out. We didn’t sound alike, but we all had a DIY thing. Let’s put on our own shows, let’s put out our own records, let’s support each other. Let’s not compete—you always want to compete creatively—but let’s not compete commercially. It was an underground scene, and it stuck.

CGL: The Long Ryders are often referred to as “The right band at the wrong time.” Why was it the wrong time?

GS: [laughs] That’s true! We were actually pretty popular outside the US and chugging along here, but we also were like The Band or Buffalo Springfield where we had multiple lead singers, which was kind of confusing for the MTV generation, and kind of confusing for people that wanted hits on the radio.

And every band needs money to keep going. It’s the oil that keeps the whole thing running and you have to make a decision at some point if you’re going to be able to get this thing to the next level or are we running out of steam? Keeping a band together is very challenging. You have what makes you good: four different personalities, four strong opinions, and four strong egos, but sometimes that can wear you down. So you get to that moment where you’re sort of out of money, you’re unsure if your fan base is growing, and you’re really getting on each others nerves, and one guy says, ‘Hey, I can’t do this anymore.’ And if you pull one wheel off the wagon it falls over. We all kind of said, ‘Well, the big record company machine has beaten us.’ We didn’t play together for 12 or 13 years.

CGL: How did the reunion come about?

GS: I think after fast-forwarding some years, you start to realize that all these fights we had about creative control and whose songs are on the record, and the hundreds of dollars we thought we should make, not even thousands, hundreds, and you realize we are really brothers. What brought us together was a love of music and a love of playing together, and life is short, let’s see what we can do together. So we started playing together maybe 10-12 years ago. Just dipping our toe in the water. After 30 years what’s the fucking rush [laughs].

It is great to get out there and sweat a little bit, throw it down. I still work in the music business, I’ve been doing it for 25 years, but there’s still greater joy for me in sitting behind the drum kit and playing a backbeat for those other three Long Ryders. Money is nice, fame, success—these are all things that sometimes come to a band, but not always. To me, what’s more special, and fragile, and fleeting is that artistic connection—that special thing that people exchange when they play music together. That is very unusual and I think we’ve always had that.

CGL: Does working within the business side of the industry [Sowders works for Warner/Chappell publishing] make it even more annoying for you, the way you guys were mishandled?

GS: When you really see how the industry actually works, it can be a little depressing. The other side of that coin is there are some genuinely cool people that are there for the right reasons. I always say I’m a drummer with a day job. Being a musician helped me in my publishing career because I’ve learned to be bilingual—I speak business and creative—but thank God I have a thick creative accent. When we were in the band we were crusaders. We knew the deck was stacked against us so let’s just try and disrupt a little bit wherever we can. That’s how I’ve always felt in my job as a publisher. I want to be an advocate for the writers and the artists. While my job is to find hits, and I work for a very big, mainstream company, I still try to display respect for the artist and respect for the creative process, with some dignity, some elegance around the edges.

CGL: You guys are working on new studio recordings. What can you tell us about that?

GS: For our friends, our fans, anybody out there that wants to hear it, we have a new song that we’re gonna put out. It’s a song that our bass player, Tom Stevens, wrote and we’re really excited about it. It’s a good-old, rock and roll, Long Ryders song, and I think we surprised each other with how much fun it was. Depending on how everybody feels and timing, we’ll hopefully have some other new music available by the end of the year.

CGL: What is your favorite thing about playing shows specifically now, as opposed to thirty years ago?

GS: I have more gratitude. When I get on stage, I know that it’s not a given that I’m going to do this forever. It’s the highlight of my day instead of, ‘Oh my God I can’t believe I have to play another show.’ I think that as an older musician, you have more self-confidence. When we were young, if somebody made a mistake on stage, God help ‘em after the show. There would be an argument, maybe a fistfight, because everything is so intense. That’s part of being young. As older musicians, you don’t take yourself too seriously, so if somebody makes a mistake on stage, well, that’s just part of the show. Each night is different, each night is unique, and each night is a gift to be able to play music for people.