Skinny Living will play a short run of UK and EU shows for September 2019. The 7-date tour includes dates at Button Factory – Dublin, The Garage – London, Academy 3 – Manchester and Paradiso – Amsterdam, to name a few. Mark Millar caught with frontman Ryan Johnston to talk about the story of the band and upcoming shows.
Hi, Ryan so who were your musical influences growing up?
It was my parents – what they listened to got me into music, to begin with, so it was all soul and funk and blues and all that stuff that they listened to. I would have been listening to Bill Withers, who is probably still my biggest inspiration and Gill Scott Heron, who my Dad used to listen to. I then evolved into listening to Tupac and Eminem, then R & B that my sisters were playing around the house. Then I liked Paolo Nutini and James Morrison – I loved the style of their voices. So that was it for me, and I started singing along to their music.
I have always loved lyrics because of people like Tupac and Gill Scott Heron, and the feeling of the records that Bill Withers had made – his words were so simple. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come, from you can relate to what he is saying with his music. When I was growing up in Bangor, I never ran about with anybody who was into music or was artistic in any way whatsoever. You would have got the piss taken out of you among my friends if you were into music, so I never got stuck into it until I left Bangor and moved to England. But I had always been writing poems and ideas for songs since I was about 12-13 years old.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue music as a career?
Even from I was very young I knew that it was something I always wanted to do. I had fourteen jobs in the space of about three years – my Dad was infuriated about it at the time, but he takes the piss out of me now. I could never settle in anything, and I always, from I was no age, had the feeling that music is what I was going to do eventually. I was in England for two years when my son was born – he was the reason I moved to England. When he was born, I was working in sales jobs – I hated the jobs, but It was the only thing I was good at apart from making music. So I was banging away at that trying to make enough money to keep the three of us afloat. While I was at work I had enough time to sit and write while I was working – I was selling furniture at the time, and people were coming in and out, and sometimes there wouldn’t be anyone there for a few hours so I would spend the time writing songs in between.
I met the boys from the band at an open mic night, and we started jamming together. Then after about 6-7 weeks, we began writing songs together. That happened quite quickly because I had a lot of songs written for years that I had never put music to – it was just melodies and lyrics. When that happened, I saw an opportunity with Facebook. I saw the reaction from people watching us at the open mics. I realised if we put stuff on Facebook and Instagram or wherever maybe we can do something with this. So I started doing that and playing gigs every weekend, which then began to pay for itself and I didn’t need to work anymore. I wasn’t putting effort into work anyway, and it was telling, so I decided to pack it in and focus on music. That was about six years ago now.
What happened at the open mic night that made the rest of the band approach you to join?
A couple of months before I went to the open mic night, I met a producer from Dewsbury who was a proper mad character crazy genius kind of guy. He was the first friend that I found in Wakefield – he was a good laugh, and we were working away writing songs together then he said, “Ryan, we can do this until the cows come home, but you need to go and find a band.” So he took me down to the open mic night, I don’t play any instruments, but I got up, and I sang the Bill Withers song “Just the Two of Us,” and the rest of the boys were there. I realized my singing had caused an atmosphere in the room – it was a proper hard pub with everyone out for a beer, but the whole place was silent. It had a knock-on effect from there – the boys were really into it.
They are great writing songs and singing themselves, but there was chemistry between us all once we started working together. The chemistry between us is real – we are best mates, we hang about with each other all the time, but sometimes we do each other’s heads in because we spend so much time together as a band – we do have our tiffs. When I speak to other groups, they always talk about how much they hate each other, but we aren’t like that. That’s one of the main things for me that makes being in Skinny Living so enjoyable, and I think it makes it enjoyable for people to watch as well.
You recently released your latest single My Blood, what’s the story behind the song?
I’m from a big family at home, and we would all talk that talk, and I think that’s how everybody feels about their family. You may not be the person who is always up for a fight or whatever, but if someone hurts your family, you will defend them. My mum is the worst for that – she’s just a nice saintly woman, but if you cross her kids, she goes mental. (Laughs) It was ‘My Blood’ – the statement was what I had in my head, and I wanted to write something about family based on that ‘My Blood’ sentiment. We got into the studio and started rolling with that, and the song came together in no time – the best ones usually do.
It’s one of my favourite songs that we’ve done, for the sentiment and the feeling, because we have a lot of songs that feel emotional and moody, but they don’t get your blood pumping, and that does. It’s good for us to have stuff like that – especially for live gigs. Once we finished the song I sent it to my mum, and she said, “I love that it’s got a 1920’s kind of vibe – it feels a bit gangster and sinister. I was dancing around doing the dishes listening to it.”
Skinny Living plays the Button Factory, Dublin on 7th September. Are you looking forward to coming back to play to the Irish crowd?
Dublin is exceptional. It’s brilliant every time. I think we have played Whelans three or four times now, but this tour is the first time we have played outside of Whelans, but I’m sure the atmosphere will be the same. Dublin is a great place to start the tour, and the crowd is amazing to play to. They are relatively forgiving if you fuck up, because they see it as banter rather than scrutinizing you. You have to expect that on the first few gigs of a tour.
Skinny Living recently played to a 20,000+ crowd at Elland Road alongside The Vaccines and Kaiser Chiefs. What was that like?
It was unbelievable, but it sounds more glamorous than it is because we were second on stage. At that time there were around 6000 people there, but when there are 6000 people in a stadium, it looks like 400. It was a mad experience for us to be on a stage that size and support bands like that. Kaiser Chiefs are unbelievable performers – I have seen a lot of bands, but I’ve never seen anybody perform like that. Ricky Wilson was jumping off the stage and appearing in other places – it was mad. We loved it, it was great to have the opportunity to be there, and to look back at the videos where our faces are on these massive screens at the side of the stage – that’s stuff you look at when you are a kid and think I would love to be doing that. The most we ever played to was 15000 supporting Jake Bugg – that was surreal but just surreal as that last gig.
I like the creation of music – I love making it, and I like putting it into a record and giving it to people, and I don’t mind doing the little videos we put on Facebook, but when it comes to performing, I’m not naturally the type of guy to stand there showing off. It’s just how I was brought up, and the people I ran about within Bangor weren’t really like that, so it takes a bit more for me to do that. Sometimes if I am feeling comfortable, I will come out of my shell a bit more because I’m certainly not quiet. Performing is a different thing to making music, and making music is where my heart lies. It’s about the story and the message and trying to do something for people.
Skinny Living has released a string of singles and eps – when will you be putting an album out?
About a year ago I had a real urge to get an album out because everybody wants a record from us and I felt we were doing wrong by not putting an album out, because we have enough music, but we find it hard to get the production right for our songs. When you see us live or if you see the little videos we put up online – that’s where the magic is with what we do, and trying to get that over on record has been tough for us, so it’s just going to be a case of continually recording and putting things out until something clicks. For the rest of this year, we will definitely be putting out more music, with videos online and a couple of official releases. We need to continue to release stuff until it catches fire properly, and then we can look at trying to get an album together, but I think people will be happy enough if we are putting a song out every month.
The acoustic thing is where our strength is, and we have got to find something that does enough of the acoustic element and enough of the big record thing that can take us to the next level. It’s a weird thing because on the surface we look like an indie band, and in some respect we are, but in a lot of respects, we are nothing like other people. We are nothing like the Vaccines or the Kaiser Chiefs or anything of those bands. There is a real stripped back thing about us that we haven’t been able to get our head around yet when it comes to production, and no one we have worked with has captured it right yet in my opinion. There have been a couple of demos that I feel are on the button, but it’s just the process is going to take time.
I feel harsh saying that, because it’s hard on the producers that we have worked with before, but it’s not on them, it’s on them and us. It’s how it’s understood by us, our management the A&R we are working with or the producer. Something has to happen, and I don’t think there is a template of what somebody has done before that we can follow. It’s going to have to be something unique.
What are you most grateful for about being able to be a musician every day?
I am grateful for the connection with other people and being able to make music that makes a difference to people, because it makes a difference for me.
See Skinny Living live:
7 Sep – Button Factory – Dublin
10 Sep – The Garage – London
11 Sep – Academy 3 – Manchester
13 Sep – Brudenell Social Club – Leeds
16 Sep – Paradiso – Amsterdam
17 Sep – Cologne – Blue Shell
19 Sep – Berlin – Badehaus
Tickets for the September tour on sale this Friday, December tickets on sale now – SkinnyLivingUK.com