Ryan Allen says that the idea of Extra Arms was that "it was never 'a band' until it became a band."
Sometime last year, the local singer and guitarist shortened the name of the band formerly known as "Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms." What had once been a true solo project had transformed into the typical conception of a "band." It was no longer a small revolving cast of live contributors around Allen's first three jangly indie rock albums, but steadied, now, by permanent members: Sean Sommer on drums, Michael Gallacher on guitar, and Ryan Marshall on bass. Allen says he sketched out the lyrics and skeletons of the newest songs captured on the forthcoming LP Headacher (out Friday on Get Party Records), with each new member adding their own musical two cents.
Headacher's noticeable distinctions are the sharper edges, its louder dynamics, its more aggressive riffs, and punchier drums. The vocals have more of a snarl and the lyrical substance moves from the personal to more of the political and ponderous. "If you ask for my input, then I'm always going to default to bigger, louder music," Gallacher says. "I'm always going to default to bombastic shit. But I'm still down to play some sweet, softer ballads."
"Our practice is the loudest band practice I've ever been part of," says Marshall, one-half of local shoegaze duo Palaces. "I've typically never worn ear plugs, but after my first few practices (with Extra Arms) I was getting sick to my stomach an hour in, and didn't realize it was just from the loudness. Every member's kind of playing on 10 at all times."
But Gallacher and Marshall both praise Allen's efficient process. "(Allen)'s definitely prolific and when we rehearse — there's no 'jamming,'" Marshall says, adding that Allen's "music is cohesive" and "has a super-clear vision."
While each member has been playing music all of their respective lives and is tenured with previous bands, Allen's been front (and mostly center) with bands that attained a high profile locally (and even snagged the praise of national tastemakers like Pitchfork), like Thunderbirds Are Now!, Friendly Foes, and Destroy This Place.
Destroy This Place still plans to churn out vigorous hybrids of indie, punk, and metal, but Friendly Foes disbanded and Thunderbirds Are Now! are essentially dormant. So for the past three years, Extra Arms served as Allen's outlet for something he'd never tried before: the memoir-esque, heart-on-the-sleeve musical blueprint of a solo singer-songwriter, albeit in the vein of the ruffled-up, post-hardcore troubadors like Ted Leo, Mac McCaughan, or Bob Mould. But it's a new phase entirely now — Extra Arms is a band with a capital B.
"My goal was to write a song that might be personal to me, but that the other guys could find at least something in it that they related to," said Allen. "There are songs about addiction, or about how people don't care as much about music, or just considering how fucked up the world is right now. I feel motivated to write these kind of songs now for our generation, as we're all going through this (point in our lives) — we're not old, we're not young, but we're in this limbo period."
On that note, Allen's been around the scene long enough (Thunderbirds formed in 2002) that we can call him a "fixture" or a "mainstay," but he's still too young, just yet, to indulge that loftier, age-suggestive ranking of "veteran." The weird thing about aging as a musician, is that "in other vocations, the older you get — the better you get," he says. "Yet there's this notion that the older (musicians) get, the softer they get, or lamer, or shittier, but I don't feel that way at all," he continues. "I feel this is the best record I've been a part of. You just keep doing it, you figure out what you like, and you hone that and then surround yourself with people who can challenge you and make you better."
"I keep waiting to feel 'embarrassed' that I'm 'in a band,'" Gallacher says. "We're part of a weird contingent of people that 'still do this stuff.' I'm waiting to feel like I'm over (playing music) but I never am. When you get older, if you're not making a better record, then you're not doing your job."
Sommer says he also grapples with this, but he draws a more nuanced motivation than Gallacher or Marshall might, since he's been the closest and most consistent collaborator of Allen's these past few years. (Sommer was in Friendly Foes and is in Destroy This Place). "One reason I continue to want to be in a band and work with (Allen) is that it's always just really good," he says. "The second we got bad I'd let (the band) know (that) we suck and we got to stop. We all have a good internal gauge for that."
He turns to Allen. "We're never afraid to tell you something sucks," he says.
"And that's the reason the record sounds the way it sounds!" Allen says, after a knowing grin recedes. "It's a result of all four of us coming together. When I work on songs, I'm still alone at the beginning with melody and lyrics, but I'm now thinking of these guys and what each of them can do with their parts."
One constant Headacher keeps with previous Extra Arms records are ruminative lyrics referencing the unique experience of being part of a band. "It's fun to be in a band," Allen says. "It's also fun to make your own records, too. But when you're working in a vacuum or a bubble, you don't have anyone to give you direction. And (they) give me that direction, I can see where (a song) can go, knowing that these other guys are helping me get there."
Extra Arms has a release party for Headacher with Touch the Clouds and Reuther on Saturday, Oct. 13 at Cellarmen's, 24310 John R. Rd., Hazel Park; 586-413-4206; cellarmens.com; Doors at 9 p.m.; Tickets are $5.
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