Ryan J Downey is best known for… well it depends on what era you first became aware of him. I admit sticking my head in the sand around 2001 when it came to hardcore. The last “new bands” show I can remember going to in the 2000’s was Kill The Slavemaster and Since By Man (don’t look for either of those bands to tour anywhere, anytime soon.) Around 2008, I started getting interested again, and I noticed that some of the people who used to hang at local and regional shows were now major faces on the national scene. Ryan Downey is one of those people. Outside of perhaps Andy Hurley, there’s not a more recognizable animal liberation advocating straight edge dude from the Midwest. So, whether you remember him from as a pretty rad front man for Burn It Down, Time in Malta, or his HUGE gigs as a reporter, I hope you’ll be able to get something new and enjoyable from this interview.
Name: Ryan J. Downey
Location: Orange County, CA
Profession: Writer, Reporter, Editor, manager
Number and Ages of Children: two children, ages 8 and 3.
Warm Up: You recently wrote one of the most profound statements ever made by anyone in hardcore: “The Force Awakens is the Death Magnetic of Star Wars.” I am absolutely in the demographic to be terribly jealous that you came up with a line so brilliant. Let’s stay on that theme to start off. What are the best/worst Star Wars episodes, the best/worst Metallica albums, and just for fun, the best/worst North American professional sports franchises.
Thank you! Let’s see. When it comes to Star Wars, the first thing I have to mention is the excellent Clone Wars cartoon, the television series that ran for several seasons (not the animated films). The series, even post-Disney purchase of LucasFilm, is considered canon alongside the theatrical movies and the similarly excellent Rebels. The Clone Wars is set between Episodes II and III and manages to tell multiple stories focusing on various characters without compromising the larger established narrative. In fact, it really strengthens and supports much of what was missing from the prequels, in terms of character development, motivations and themes. If you want to give the show a try for the first time, I would recommend the Season 1 episode “Lair of Grievous” as a jumping off point. It’s a fairly self-contained episode with a nice look at one aspect of what the show was able to accomplish. I’m happy to see that some of the strongest characters from the show, such as clone trooper Captain Rex, have survived to Rebels, which is set between Episodes III and IV. Yes, the Clone Wars series was so great, it gave expert attention to individual clones. Commander Cody is someone with a few lines in Episode III. Those lines and those moments between Cody and Obi Wan are given tremendous weight by the series.
Clearly I’m in line with conventional wisdom when I rank The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope at the top, followed by Return of the Jedi. My orthodoxy in opinion continues with the prequels: Revenge of the Sith is the clear winner, with Attack of the Clones behind it, and The Phantom Menace coming in last. I’m by no means a prequel “hater” while at the same time, I’m not in denial about their problems. I haven’t included The Force Awakens in my ranking because I have yet to settle upon where it fits for me. It’s certainly not as good as the original trilogy (nor did it have to be). Where it fits in amongst the prequels is a harder question for me to answer at the moment. The consideration in terms of “ranking” involves this big question for me: what’s more worthy of praise? A creative move forward from a place of purity with questionable results, or a safe effort driven solely by previously proven ingredients?
This segues nicely into your Metallica question. I have never faulted the band for being true to themselves in the 90s. They were listening to Alice In Chains, Corrosion Of Conformity. Lars was fascinated by Oasis. They were rock giants in middle age making music reminiscent of stuff they grew up on, like Thin Lizzy, while cognizant of the changing times and their own newer influences as well. The results were sometimes mixed. Death Magnetic was great, because it relies solely on proven strengths without any artistic chances. Which is better? I love all of it for what it is and listen to it with some context, in terms of the artist’s overall career arc and my own experience and relationship to it.
The Metallica ranking question is tough for me, and regularly changes, but here’s what it is right now:
- Ride the Lightning
- Master of Puppets
- Kill ‘Em All
- …And Justice for All
- Death Magnetic
I don’t follow professional or college sports, so here are some lists for the rest of the Big 4 instead.
- Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?
- Rust in Peace
- Killing is My Business… And Business is Good
- Countdown to Extinction
- So Far, So Good… So What!
- Cryptic Writings
- The System Has Failed
- United Abominations
- The World Needs a Hero
- Super Collider
- Reign in Blood
- South of Heaven
- Seasons in the Abyss
- Hell Awaits
- Show No Mercy
- World Painted Blood
- Christ Illusion
- Divine Intervention
- God Hates Us All
- Diabolus in Musica
- Sound of White Noise
- Among the Living
- Spreading the Disease
- We’ve Come for You All
- State of Euphoria
- Persistence of Time
- Stomp 442
- Fistful of Metal
- Worship Music
- For All Kings
- Volume 8: The Threat is Real
In case there is anyone left who was not offended by your responses to the first question, let’s talk 2016 presidential politics. Bernie Sanders seems to be the punk/hardcore politician of choice. He’s taken strong stances on LGBT rights, environmental protection, and even independent music. This has been a contentious year, maybe more so than usual. What are your thoughts and hopes for the 2016 election cycle, and for our country’s next presidential term?
First and foremost, I have to say this: #NeverTrump. That should be the most important position for progressives, conservatives, Libertarians – basically, any sane person. I certainly have a more nuanced view beyond that, but as November inches closer, that is the single most important position: Never Trump. In 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader. This was a well-thought out decision. I lived in Indiana at the time, which was far from a battleground state. Had I lived in a battleground state, I would have voted Democrat. But I was certainly moved by the prevailing thinking of many progressives at the time. What was that Rage Against The Machine lyric? “More for Gore or the son of a drug lord? None of the above, cut the cord!” One could certainly argue that the George W. Bush administration certainly proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the two parties were, in fact, very distinct in terms of their approach to governance. The errant, flippant, incoherent, contradictory babble of professional charlatan Donald Trump would make the neocons look like saints by comparison. Never Trump!
I don’t identify explicitly as progressive or Libertarian, ‘though if I had to choose a reductive political affiliation, it’d be some sort of mix of those two designations. I’m certainly fascinated by the idea of Libertarian Socialism (yes, an actual thing) just as I lean theologically toward the emerging idea of Christian Agnosticism. But I’m reminded of the Dead Kennedys lyric: “anarchy sounds good to me then someone asks, ‘who’d fix the sewers?’… Every theory has its holes when real life steps in.”
I’ve found things to admire in different political candidates, but I have yet to suspend my disbelief about any particular politician and their inherent, you know, politricks. As I have pointed out to my friends who are feeling the Bern, Bernie Sanders is hardly an outsider. He’s held political office since 1981! I’ve noted the same to my friends who love Ron Paul, a man who first held public office in the seventies. Principled, maverick, abrasive, no-nonsense – whatever we want to assign to these guys, they are still career politicians. I’m not placing a value judgment on that necessarily, I just can’t regard any of them as savior. It’s a statist position I could never get behind even when I’ve felt compelled to “back” a particular politician. As I said, I have a more nuanced view, but the important broad strokes here? NEVER TRUMP.
You share stories for a living, and I can only imagine how incredible and enriching that must be. Your career has brought you into some close encounters with very famous, very inspirational people. What are some of your favorite memories of interviews you’ve done?
I have always felt blessed (and not in the “#blessed” way) with the opportunities I’ve had to interact with so many of the people whose work in music, film, television, literature, and other mediums of the creative arts has meant so much to me throughout so many different stages of my development as a person and in my adult life. I was a child of divorce, raised on the Southside of Indianapolis by a single parent who worked as a secretary till I was 11 and my father (a mailroom worker at the local paper) from then until my teenage years. To find myself sitting in the same room with Morrissey, Noel Gallagher, Quentin Tarantino, Tina Fey, Ron Funches…? I do my best to never, ever take it for granted.
My favorite interview experience was the time I flew to Salt Lake City to interview James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett for MTV News. I had a small local crew and we setup in the band’s “jam room” at the local venue. Kurt Loder had just conducted what turned out to be one of Johnny Cash’s final interviews, for a special we were running during the MTV News pre-show for that year’s VMAs. I had been tasked with doing a few interviews about Cash with notable musicians he’d inspired, which included Chris Cornell and Tom Morello. So, getting to interview two guys from my favorite band of all-time was already incredible, but the fact that I’d be speaking with them for 30 minutes (!) about an artist they loved, well, it was nothing short of magical and certainly unforgettable. This wasn’t long after Hetfield had become sober; my own father became sober through a 12-step program. Like Hetfield, I had lost a parent. He was very straightforward and even vulnerable in talking about Cash’s influence on him. I had the opportunity afterward to tell him how much Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets had meant to me at a very important age, how discovering that as an outlet helped to save my own life. He was silent, only nodding gently, in a way that any Metallica fan will recognize as, well, fucking incredible.
Kirk was an absolute sweetheart, inviting me to stay and watch the show from the stage. Unfortunately I had to be back in the office in Santa Monica and wasn’t able to accept his invitation, but I have had the chance to interview him multiple times in the years since and the simple fact that’s something “common” for me is just, dare I say, indescribable? Like I said, I try not to take any of it for granted.
Backing up to your time in Indy, can you describe that scene in the late 90’s? As an outsider (who was pretty proud of my long-since lost Catalyst Records t-shirt), I saw it as an intriguing hotbed of militant vegan straight edge and Hardline. As someone who once lived in Bloomington for a year, I saw nightly news reports of murder and poverty-related issues going on in Indianapolis. I don’t know how accurate any of my perception really was. What was it like living there at the time when Indy was a prominent location in the American hardcore scene?
My first concerts were metal ones – Dio and Megadeth at Market Square Arena in 1987, Megadeth with Warlock and Sanctuary at the Arlington Theater in 1988. I discovered hardcore when my late friend, Alex Givens, gave me a copy of Revelation Records’ New York City Hardcore: The Way It Is compilation on cassette, which he had purchased at the mall. Alex was a kid with punk hair and a leather jacket talking about the Misfits in 1985 when we were in fifth grade.
On the Southside of Indy, we weren’t aware of any “scene” that existed then. It wasn’t till around 1989 when my friends Matt Reece, John Johnson and I started posting in the classifieds section of Maximum Rock N’ Roll fanzine that we met other kids in town who were into hardcore and radical socio-political issues. We weren’t the first straight edge kids, but John and I actually started Indianapolis’s first straight edge band. Clear Sight only lasted for one show, but it’s the band that developed into Hardball.
The newer band was a reaction to the outright hatred, derision and bullying we received from punks and metalheads over our positive straight edge message. I had read about bands like Confront and Die Hard in MRR and then when I heard Judge, I was quick to adopt a more militant attitude of self-defense and outspoken pride. The metal, goth rock and darker punk I had been into before hardcore sort of came back to the fore for me when Dwid Hellion sent me the first Integrity demo. I realized there was a way to have my cake and eat it too with all of that. I saw the first ad for Hardline Records in MRR and struck up a friendship via snail mail and long distance phone calls with Sean Muttaqi, aka Sean Vegan Reich. Dwid and Sean remain two of my oldest friends and each had a significant influence on me in different ways.
By the mid-90s, most of the straight edge kids had moved on in terms of personal politics, musical style, fashion and whatever else. I tried one beer and a wine cooler around 1994, which reaffirmed it wasn’t for me, and have been straight edge ever since. It was around this time that a more militant brand of vegan straight edge kids started to emerge in Indy, inspired more by Earth Crisis, who had initially reached out to Sean and I about joining the Hardline Records roster. By that point I was pretty divorced from all of it, though still both vegan and straight edge. These kids were much younger than my peer group. Most of them had loud mouths and then fell twice as hard into drugs and alcohol in much quicker succession. Some of these people even became full-on rednecks, going hunting and fishing and whatnot.
With that being said, I built a lot of close relationships within that original generation of straight edge kids in Indy, followed by a couple of the successive generations. Most of these friends aren’t straight edge in 2016, but certainly almost all of them identify with some aspect of the subculture and its values that we all shared.
Moving to the main focus of this site, drug-free parenthood, what are some of your favorite activities to do with your kids?
The arts have given me so much that one of my favorite things to do is to share them with my kids. Movies, television shows, comic books, books, toys, music. It’s a dream. My three year old raps along to KRS-One’s “Sound of da’ Police” and plays with a mixture of toys that warm my heart. My daughter and I are watching the Star Wars movies together. She was noticeably more impressed by Episode III than the first two prequels, which made me proud. Going outside is fun, playing together is fun, but I think the thing I’m enjoying most at this stage of parenthood is the conversation. I love talking with my kids.
What are your personal drug-free recreational outlets? You stay heavily involved in the music and entertainment world. You also stay connected to the underground, as evidenced by a cool little video you did for One Life One Chance. What music, literature, cinema, and other forms of art inspire you at this stage in your life?
I’m very blessed (#blessed!) to have built a career that involves so many things I’m passionate about, from movies to music to television et al. I love going to film screenings and related events.
I’ve been doing more of in the past year is going to stand-up comedy shows. Los Angeles is the place to be for that! There are some great, intimate venues where the top standups will go to work out their new material. I’ve seen Anthony Jeselnik, for example, four times in the past year. Getting a chance to see his material evolve, to watch the changing rhythms of the set, is wondrous. I’ve seen Sarah Silverman, Larry David, Ron Funches – lots of great comedians I admire in recent months. And I got a chance to see my favorite stand-up comedian ever, Norm MacDonald. Fantastic!
I started training pretty heavily in Krav Maga a few years ago, even going through instructor certification training with Krav Maga Worldwide. I need to get back into training regularly. I’ve also enjoying doing Muay Thai.
I enjoy getting great food and/or coffee with friends, too.
How do your experiences as a son influence your choices as a father when it comes to drugs and alcohol?
My father’s alcoholism helped destroy two marriages and caused him to lose a lot of important time with his children. Certainly that’s something that has shaped me. But this isn’t the “a-ha!” moment so many people seem to think it is, whenever I tell them my dad was an alcoholic who got sober through AA. It’s patronizing and reductive to attribute a lifetime of drug-free living to that alone. I recognize that I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. My compulsions have found ways to fuck with me outside of drugs and drink, whether that’s in my workaholic tendencies or other aspects of life and relationships. But I’m an adult. I have knowledge of self. I could handle drinking responsibly, if I tried. But why roll the dice? I’m no means a prohibitionist, far from it. I’m pro legalization and regulation of marijuana. I mean, I think you should have the right to chop your own arm off so long as it didn’t impact anyone else, to say nothing of the obvious medicinal benefits of marijuana. For me personally I tend to measure things in terms of risk vs. reward. What are the potential benefits of deciding to start drinking or doing drugs at age 42 vs. the potential risks? To me, whatever potential benefits aren’t worth the risk.
How do/will you address the topic of drugs and alcohol with your children? How will you address drug and alcohol use among the friends of your kids? How do religion, political ideology, or other philosophies play a part in your choices as a father?
When it comes to life’s big choices, be they religious views, political views, attitudes and behaviors toward drinking, drugs, money, good and evil – these are all things where I hope to lead by example, to present all of the arguments and philosophical foundations for what I personally believe and to create an atmosphere of trust and respect within which my children can (safely) discover their own convictions for themselves, as appropriate for their respective ages as they get older and mature.
If you drank or used drugs in the past, how will you address your past with your children?
I will let them know I experimented, however briefly, with marijuana and alcohol.
What does being a good father mean to you? What are your greatest hopes for your children?
This is probably the most difficult question to answer because it’s so multifaceted and arguably the most important question you’ve asked! So I’ll attempt to keep it brief. First and foremost, being a good father means being present. And by present I mean both physically and mentally. I didn’t see my dad from ages 4 to 11. My mother passed away when I was young. So the first thing for me has always been making sure my kids spend time with me. And on top of that, more and more, I’m working to ensure they are really getting all of me or at least as much of me as possible when we are together.
There are a lot of distractions for working parents, professionally. It’s even trickier when you have a career that involves so many overlaps into every part of your life. It’s hard to strike the right balance and separate things. It’s a process and one that I’m constantly working at, like a lot of people.
The next thing I’d say in terms of being a good father is that it’s important to raise good people who will contribute to the world in meaningful ways. Teaching them to think critically, to be fair, to be kind, to have empathy, to be bold, to be cooperative, to be independent. It’s a very heady task if you let yourself become overwhelmed by it. This is another area where it’s important to be “present” for me. Too much of a focus on the past or on the future creates a melancholy and an anxiety, respectively, neither of which will benefit them. So doing the “next right thing” each step of the way as best as you can, that’s good parenting, to me.
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