Not All Music Will Last Forever
After proving he’s prolific, the young musician behind Ricky Eat Acid focuses on being great.
Things are starting to change for Sam Ray, in often confusing ways. This morning, the 23-year-old producer, composer, and frontman—who records as Ricky Eat Acid, among other things—woke up to a series of missed calls from the once-viral rapper Kitty.
"It started yesterday when I was driving to New York from Maryland, and I got a bunch of Twitter DMs from her," Ray says. Rather than hitting him up for beats for her long-gestating full-length debut, she was reaching out on behalf of a mutual fan. "She told me she was playing this girl's Sweet 16, and the girl wouldn't stop talking about me." Patient and growing accustomed to strange internet attention, Ray sent Kitty a "Happy Birthday" video to pass along. "Then I went to sleep," he laughs. "Kitty had gotten drunk and the girl took her phone and kept calling me over and over. It gets weird."
Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, Ray is temporarily staying in Ridgewood, Queens, and visiting him there, it's clear that a fair bit in his life is still up in the air. With hair still wet from a shower, he greets me at the front door of his girlfriend Emily's brownstone and apologizes for the state of the place, disheveled as it is from a recent move from Bushwick. Perpetually grinning, he shows me around the railroad apartment, noting its gigantic windows and Emily's spacious bedroom. Yet, despite his excitement about what appears to be his new home base, he's also keen to note that it's not exactly his. "The other day someone asked me where I kept my books because we were trying to figure out where I actually lived," he says with a pause. "I keep them in my car."
"It gets weird."
Any uncertainty about his living situation goes double for his music career. After nearly five years of quietly uploading what he describes as "low-stakes" ambient records and beat tapes to Bandcamp, working odd jobs and attending school off and on, Ray made Three Love Songs. Released under his Ricky Eat Acid alias in January, 2014, it retained the hallmarks of his previous work under that name: bleak, opiated keyboard drones, playful found-sound samples, and oblique, abstract nods to pop and dance music. On the standout "In Rural Virginia; Watching Glowing Lights Crawl From the Dark Corners of the Room," Ray uses a hellfire sermon from a radio preacher as an emotional impetus for seven minutes of carefully sculpted drones that ebb and flow with purpose.
Something about the album felt more momentous than all that preceded it. That's thanks in no small part to the format—the record was the first vinyl release both for Ricky Eat Acid and the up-and-coming Brooklyn label Orchid Tapes—but it was also more developed, structured, and fully realized than anything Ray was putting out at the time. And critics noticed. Though some of his other projects, like the lo-fi leaning indie pop outfit Julia Brown and Heathers-referencing noise-rock band Teen Suicide, had already garnered a sort of slow-boiling internet acclaim, Three Love Songs made for the first time that Ray drew more careful and comprehensive consideration from publications like Pitchfork, Interview, Red Bull Music Academy, and here at FADER.
Shuffling down the street from Emily's apartment to a neighborhood playground, he explains what made this record—produced on the same equipment, under the same transient circumstances—different. "I hadn't really been taking anything seriously with music before that," he says. "I had never written an album as an album. So I started planning it out and making all of these notes about how to make it exactly what I wanted."
The resulting process took a full year, a relative eternity for Ray. After taking Ricky Eat Acid public in 2010, he's released upwards of a dozen collections of distended drones under that name, plus two full albums as Julia Brown and three full-lengths and a host of smaller releases as Teen Suicide. Beyond those three main projects he's also made—deep breath—stripped-down folk songs as Starry Cat, more blunted ambient music as both Heroin Party and cumwolf, a one-off collagist pop record as Cute Boy Kissing Booth, distorted synth pop as Mad Dads, and tongue-in-cheek witch house as Dead Virgin. He's put together a cimmerian supergroup of sorts called Gremlins, with Elvis Depressedly's Mat Cothran and Toro Y Moi's Patrick Jeffords, and collaborated with R.L. Kelly's Rachel Levy in a duo called 16 and Pregnant. Everything else fell into a catchall project called Teen Mom Birthday Cake, though only a couple of songs still exist publicly, and he's sitting on a full-length of teeth-chattering, experimental guitar pop, curiously billed as Sonic Youth. In each of these projects, in band names and spirit, Ray has embraced a sort of "first thought, best thought" approach. "I want to push forward in a lot of directions," he says, in the understatement of the century. "I want to do everything and do it all better than everybody." All of which is to say: when Sam Ray decides to take a full 365 days to sit down and make a record, it's a momentous occasion.
At the park, he constantly fidgets with buttons on his green flannel shirt, tugs at the collar of a Jessy Lanza tee underneath, and runs his hands through his curly hair. It's clear that he's ruled by the copious amounts of coffee that he says he consumed just before meeting up, as well as the boundless nervous energy that's always sprung forth from his music. In conversation, like in his collected discography, Ray continually shifts his approach, backtracking and contradicting himself as he tries to say exactly what he means. He recounts starting writing on the family piano as a child after sneaking to the top of the stairs to listen to his mother play Chopin waltzes late at night; in middle school, he tried to convince the other tweens in his "shitty punk band" to weave serene piano interludes into their tracks. Then, somewhere in the midst of describing how his parents' diverse taste in music shaped his own varied interests (his mom played him No Wave records; his dad exposed him to classic rock, blues, and jazz), he stumbles upon what seems to be his ultimate motivation for working so tirelessly. "I feel like I'm going to die at any second," he says. "It's not even totally a health thing—I just feel constant anxiety in the world. Shit, I'm 23, but the world could end any minute. You just have to live with so much urgency."
Around the time of Three Love Songs' release, Ray was keeping all of his plates spinning. He was playing Teen Suicide reunion shows and dates with Julia Brown, and part of the album's charm was that it recalled his varying interests. He'd built a perfect storm of side-projects, and for critics who'd taken notice but not necessarily thrown in their hats, Three Love Songs offered an opportunity to acknowledge Ray's accumulated, disparate output. Now, as he moves forward, that acclaim is making things more muddled.
"I have this whole [Ricky Eat Acid] record that I've finished that isn't out," he says. We're parked in his car, and he comically shakes his fist at passing trucks that threaten to drown out the interview. "I don't know what to do with it. I don't think I'm going to put it out because I'm already trying to make another one." This first attempt was more ambient and abstract, marked by the subdued drones typical to the project. In the past, when fewer eyes were turned upon him, Ray would've been content to toss an unassuming record like that onto the internet with little to no hesitation. The Ricky Eat Acid discography is littered with that sort of release, but in the wake of Three Love Songs' success, he wants each release to have an impact in the world rather than just padding his already copious portfolio. The second attempt, which he's working on now and is calling Talk to You Soon, largely abandons the style in favor of an endearingly nauseating melange of his take on singer/songwriter tropes and distended dance-pop—eccentric, but with a greater likelihood of cracking a wider audience.
As much consideration as he's putting into the next Ricky Eat Acid album, he's already snuck out a followup of sorts in the form of an intentionally confrontational EP called Sun Over Hills. Released in July as a free download via Dropbox, it draws on footwork and noise to construct a head-splitting take on the beat work he's explored on occasion. By and large, it didn't draw the same sort of attention as the full-length that preceded it, but even if that bite-sized release doesn't end up advancing his career in any appreciable way, its boisterous and blown-out sonics represent a statement of intent for the Ray's newly focused headspace. "I'm not just going to put something out that just floats onto the internet and you can take it or leave it," he explains of the record's in-your-face nature. "I want to do anything that makes an impression, that forces you to have an opinion."
"I feel like I'm going to die at any second. It's not even totally a health thing… You just have to live with so much urgency."
Part of his changing approach is thanks to his friend Dexter Tortoriello, a Mad Decent-signed producer who records as both Dawn Golden and Houses. The two began emailing each other in 2010 when Tortoriello launched his Dawn Golden project, and they swiftly discovered a mutual admiration. It was a curious detail about a 2010 beat tape called Haunt U Forever that first let Tortoriello know that Ray was onto something special. "He had drawn a turtle on the cover," Tortoriello explains, "but if you look closer you can tell that he'd erased several shitty other drawings of turtles. The one that's actually on the cover is a shitty drawing, too, he just had to get it right." After Ray sent him "I Can Hear the Heart Breaking As One," Three Love Songs' Yo La Tengo-referencing eventual centerpiece, it was Tortoriello who advised him to slow down and conceptualize the album as a whole rather than just as a slapdash collection of songs—to construct an album "posthumously," as Ray puts it. Since they've partnered up, Tortoriello has done his best to exploit his EDM connections to further Ray's abstract undertakings. "I passed one of Sam's records to Diplo and Dillon Francis' manager," Tortoriello says over the phone. "[The manager] was freaking out about it, and they ended up emailing back and forth for a bit. It's a really funny thing. I can hand his records to everyone and they love them, even though they didn't know what to do with them from a business standpoint."
And so while Ray has won over a handful of relatively famous fans and friends—like Ryan Hemsworth (who put out "p u l l (may 15)," the first Ricky Eat Acid track to feature his voice in a starring role, on his Secret Songs pseudo-label), Porter Robinson (who placed "Untitled (Notes)" in a recent BBC mix), and even Jamie xx (who's been hyping Ray's tracks in mixes since 2011)—he's thus far struggled to parlay those cosigns into what he considers traditional markers for electronic producer success, say, a collaboration with Danny Brown or a big name festival slot.
Perhaps it's the awareness of these limits that occasionally drives Ray to career choices that both seem punkishly endearing and smack of self-sabotage. Six months after Three Love Songs, he quietly released a new Julia Brown album called An Abundance of Strawberries, which takes the scratchy twee inclinations of the band's boombox-recorded 2013 debut and blows them up to immense proportions—something like a Three Love Songs for Julia Brown. There are moments of heavily orchestrated, Elephant 6-indebted high drama, deconstructed drum & bass, mutilated synth-pop, and just about everything in between—what he self-deprecatingly calls a "spectacular failure" of stylistic cohesiveness. Ray says he was offered a substantial amount of money to release the record, so long as he didn't leak it. He then decided to pass it via email to anyone who asked him for it, at which point another label offered him $15,000 for its release, so long as he didn't put it on Twitter—which of course he did post-haste. He's at once upholding a philosophical conviction to release music for free and potentially undercutting the 16-hour days that he put into its construction. It's fairly evident that there is no grand design, but he doesn't seem particularly pressed about that either. "It doesn't matter," he says succinctly and directly, sipping a small coffee. "That's the whole point."
With Teen Suicide, he's also undercut his own successes. Just as buzz around that project began to finally swell in fall of 2012, Ray abandoned the project owing to a toxic interpersonal situation that developed between him and other members of the band, which had swelled from the original duo to a four-piece with bassist Alec Simke and multi-instrumentalist Caroline White. "The band had always been fun versus what else was going on in our lives," Ray says. "By the time that nothing else good was going on in our lives, [the band] became a way of goading each other into more self-destructive and nihilistic tendencies. When we realized that was going on we all agreed it was better to jump ship." But soon it became apparent that there was sufficient financial demand for a reunion, so he put together a new, more instrumentally tight version of the band to trot around the old songs, with Simke returning on bass, Julia Brown member John Toohey handling guitar duties, and Brian Sumner on drums; before long, Ray disbanded that iteration of the project, too, in favor of returning to the initial two-piece. Whenever things start to settle in or get too comfortable, he rips it all up and starts again, even to his detriment on occasion. There are new Teen Suicide songs written, he says, but no one who's been involved in the various incarnations of the project "is in a place record or do anything with them."
The next day, Ray suggests we reconvene outside a hip Ridgewood café. Wearing the same flannel and T-shirt from the day before, his speech is deliberately self-conscious, bordering on irony. "Okay, here's the part where you describe me as 'disheveled,'" he chuckles. Later, he'll tweet at me that if I need to describe his deliberately confounding and occasionally misanthropic Twitter account, he'd rather that I paint it as "'unhinged' or 'cry for help'" rather than "opinionated," as it was described in a FADER story about his friend and Orchid Tapes label-mate, Alex G. Indeed, throughout our conversation, it's clear that he's aware of the interview as an interview, and one of the most comprehensive that he's done to date. He's self-aware, and meta-self-aware, both about himself and his various projects. He occasionally jokes that some castoff phrase he stumbles upon is an important quote that he wants published—"I want to be the Kendrick Lamar of something" and "all art is gross narcissism," to note just a couple.
Between the Julia Brown leak, Teen Suicide's recurring dismantling, and his apparent anxiety over the future of Ricky Eat Acid, Ray finds himself in a number of strange spots. But he's also in a position a lot of people can relate to: with so many divergent paths to follow, choosing one means another might become closed off. After years of hedging his bets, diving wildly from one project or another, Ray is seemingly pouring everything he has into Talk to You Soon, regardless of what may come of it, because for the first time, he's putting together a record knowing for certain that it'll reach important ears. In a weird way, it reminds me of a moment, hours earlier, in Emily's bedroom when we were getting ready to head out for the day. Ray didn't feel like chatting there because the space wasn't his own, but couldn't leave until he managed to scrounge up a set of keys—which was nowhere to be found. As Emily dug around piles of clothes and unpacked boxes, Ray got fidgety, and despite the fact that he wasn't sure he'd make it back through the door later, he decided it wasn't worth waiting around, and we left without them.