The Melody Inn
It’s Friday night and the temperature is below freezing. A large red van with more miles than any dignified “lady” would care to admit pulls up in front of The Melody Inn, cargo trailer in tow. From the van exits four cold and weary musicians. They are The Melismatics: Ryan Smith (lead guitar, vocals), Kathie “Pony” Hixon-Smith (guitar, keyboard, vocals), Mark Wade (bass, vocals), and Ron Caron (drums). Their outfits are a mix of long coats and skinny jeans, leather boots and even one bright red miniskirt.
On the street they seem somewhat out of place but, as they slip into the Melody, they are home amongst friends and “family” at a location they have frequented more than most local bands. The door man greets them with smiles and hugs, more like relatives coming in for the holidays then a band that spends over half the year on the road touring.
The Melismatics have been featured on MTV, played the likes of Lollapalooza, and recorded with some of the biggest names in the pop/indie scene. They answered a few questions about life, their new upcoming album, and life as a traveling would-be rock stars for NUVO
NUVO: So how did you come up with the name the Melismatics?
Ryan: I was a freshman in college and the band had a gig scheduled. We needed a band name and the members of the band couldn’t come up with anything. At the time I was taking a music theory class and just picked a word at random from my vocab list. The word was Melisma. It was supposed to be a temporary fix and we would change it later but it stuck. After ten years I guess it stuck pretty well.
NUVO: The name of your new album MANIA! is rather unique, as well. How do you come up with your album names?
Ryan: Song lyrics, random thoughts, themes?
Ron: We tend to make a list and collectively agree on one. We vote.
Ryan: We wanted simple on this record also. MANIA! just fit the idea of what we needed. The excitement we felt about the album and the overall energy we brought to it, MANIA! just fit.
NUVO: How does the music on MANIA! differ from your previous albums?
Ryan: It’s more complex, layered. We had a lot of time to record this album so it allowed us to develop the sound more. Also on this album Pony was more comfortable in her role as a vocalist. On “The Acid Test”, Pony singing was experimental and a new direction for us. On this album she had the experience and confidence that comes with time. It really shows in the album.
Pony: I had always wanted to sing in a band. I always wanted to be out front and when John (Fields) mentioned that we should consider it, exploit that aspect of our band that we hadn’t tapped into, I was all for it. That being said, it took some time for me to feel comfortable in that role. After we decided to give that a try, me and Ryan spent time writing at home more. Instead of adapting parts of songs for my voice and giving me parts in already written songs, we were writing with both our voices in mind. It opened up new possibilities that we had yet to explore.
NUVO: Where did you find the time to write MANIA! and how do you write your songs?
Ryan: It’s a process. We are on the road for almost half the year, so we write when we are home. Music is our lives. It’s not a hobby, it is what we love and that means you write when you’re not on tour. Usually the music comes first, an idea or a melody that is a seed. Sometimes it’s a hook that I just get into my head and I flesh it out. Writing at home with Pony has really sped up the process also. Being married and living under the same roof, when I get an idea for a song, weather its in the middle of the night, I can pick her brain, I can bounce ideas off of her and can hear her voice actually sing the parts I envision for her.
NUVO: Talk about the songwriting and recording process for MANIA and what makes this record different.
Ryan: I think the biggest difference was we had already recorded demos for the songs before we went into the studio with John and Ed. With previous albums we have went into the studio with ideas and written songs but the actual composition and arrangements were still fluid. In contrast from this album where the producers added minor tweaks to the record, layers if you will, when we were in the earlier works we actually relied on Ed quite a bit more. For MANIA! This complete ideas were there and we had the overall structure mapped out.
Ron: The other big difference was we know what were doing in the studio now. We are experienced with the recording process, we know the shortcuts, and we didn’t make the little mistakes like we might have in the past. Over all the whole thing was just faster and less painful.
Ryan: Another major difference was we recorded MANIA! over the course of a year. We staggered it out and that really helped. Each song was fresh and polished and we had the ability to take our time with the album.
NUVO: Is MANIA! a build off of The Acid Test or a step in a different direction?
Pony: A bit of both. The music always grows as the music industry grows. There are influences in our music from current music but there are still elements that our fans will recognize.
Ryan: Any time a band has been together for as long as we have, the music will sound different as popular music changes. If we sounded exactly the same as we did a decade ago, I doubt we would still have people interested in our music. You have people who come to our shows expecting all our songs to sound like “Digging Deep” and you see the looks on their faces when we play some of our new stuff, so we try to make a good balance of our old an new material when making our sets. This way we target everyone.
NUVO: You bring up a good point when you mention some of your set has songs from ten years ago mixed in, how do you bring the same energy and intensity to your music that has become a trademark of your band after playing the same songs for literally thousands of times?
Ron: For me, it’s about just focusing on my parts and trying to get them as tight as possible. Our new album has I think more actual drumming than any record we have put out before. I am playing more drums then ever and part of that is that I as a musician have learned new experiences and techniques. My progression as a drummer has allowed me to look back at our earlier songs as a challenge almost. To see how good I can make my drumming. I like my parts to be perfect so that obsession makes each time we play those “older” songs, fresh, challenging, exciting. When you nail a performance it floors you, regardless of how many times you have played the song before.
Mark: The other aspect of it is that some people at our shows are hearing our music for the first time. We as a band are trying to get our music out there to as many people as possible. Maybe they aren’t big on the direction we took The Acid Test, or maybe they are not into what we just recorded. Presenting our music as a whole allows us to reach more people than we could ever if we only played our new stuff. The best method is a good mix of old and new and playing it like it’s a brand new song. Like Ron said, no matter how many times you play a song well, it always drives you when you play it just a bit better the next time.
NUVO: If you weren’t playing music with The Melismatics, what job would you be doing?
Ron: I don’t know, I have always wanted to play music. It’s always been the plan even as a kid I wanted to be a rockstar.
Mark: Classical musician. I actual was a symphony upright bassist when I was younger. In fact, that was my “when I grow up” job. It just wasn’t meant to be though.
NUVO: You have experienced moderate success as a band, playing Lollapalooza, touring internationally, being featured on TV shows with millions of viewers. Do you ever think this will be a full time job? What’s your definition of “making it”?
Ryan: You know we have experienced some pretty amazing things. I would love to do this full time. It is the goal but in all honesty as long as we are progressing towards adding more fans and playing larger venues, getting our music out there, I am happy. People always talk about “Making It”. To some people with what we have accomplished, we have “Made It”. To me I am not ready to settle for what we have done so far. To each person it is a different set of goals that govern their drive and desire to accomplish their “dreams”. For me I don’t think were there yet. I don’t know if I ever will be satisfied because I think you can always be better, have more people hear your songs, put on a bigger show.
Ron: It’s like the kid who sees the band with a van and trailer, getting paid to play and to him that’s making it. To the guy in the van, it’s the band with the bus. The band in the bus see’s the band with the Learjet…so on and so forth. Its all what you want from life. To some its money, to others its about the music. That’s the funny thing about it, you’re the only one who can decide that. Its what you want. So you find a group of people who have the same idea and goal and collectively you go for it.
A few hours, after the end of our interview, I see them take the stage. This is not an exaggeration, they literally own the stage. This was one of the most electric live shows I have had the privilege to see, including national acts with multiple gold albums. They turned a local bar, albeit nice, whose stage is a bit small, into a stadium sized performance. Whether it's Ryan’s high energy guitar playing paired with his raw, yet trained, voice, Mark’s innovative and effects-laden bass with equally impressive backing vocals, Ron’s powerful and unique drumming, to the sultry and mesmerizing Pony who shifts between playing guitar, piano, and vocals as if it were breathing. The performance exceeded what I expected, what I thought possible, by a relatively underground band.
They have the talent and the committed fans, most of whom views them as family. A vested interest in the success of their friends, willing to travel large distances to see them play, willing to make arrangements for the baby sitters, blow off work a bit early, travel through the cold and drive downtown on a Friday and sit for hours till they close the stage.
The reason I am sure The Melismatics will be a name you will know is because they are a band who genuinely loves their fans. They care about them. They keep in touch. They come “home for the holidays” and don’t care how many make the trip. This is not a gig to them, this is a their dream. After meeting with this band and having the pleasure to hear them play, I am sure they will “make it” and fulfill that dream. Whatever that may mean to them.