I hope you have been as blessed I have been from all of the conversations I have had with my musical peers the last several months. The purpose of this blog is to tell our stories…stories of men, guys, dudes, who are far from perfected but who are trying to live out faith in a way that (hopefully) inspires and influences. Here is my latest conversation, which has been a long time in coming, mostly due to the quantity of quality in the text.
Ryan Clark is the front man for Demon Hunter, and a graphic designer for Tooth and Nail records, as well as Invisible Creature (which is the company he co-owns with his brother, Don). I first met Ryan when his previous band, Training for Utopia, played shows with Project 86 back in the late 90’s. Ryan is one of my favorite graphic designers as well as one of the most iconic front men I have come across in heavy music. We had a lengthy conversation about faith, art, music, and Christian culture that was so packed full of great thought and insight that I had to break it up into two parts. Here is part one:
Schwab: Walk me through your career journey…from your teen days, to the inception of Demon Hunter, to becoming an accomplished graphic artist.
Clark: Since I was young, I always wanted to draw more than anything else. My grandfather was an artist his whole life. For twenty-eight years he illustrated for AMES research and NASA. He did renderings of space modules, spaceships… anything NASA would put in front of him. He also did political cartoons and illustrations for school books, brochures, manuals, and things of that nature. My dad was a woodworker…he is very patient and good with hands. He also has a great eye. He did everything from cabinetry to toys…the older I get the more I realize his work ethic and his creativity definitely influenced me. Now he makes acoustic guitars that are incredibly detailed. He was never a fine artist, but he is definitely an artist. In addition, my mom was a very good singer. She would put on records and find all these crazy harmonies. She definitely instilled that ability in me as well. I get musical abilities from her, especially in the realm of songwriting. So, you could definitely say art was in my blood.
In high school I got into graffiti. For me, it was kind of a perfect blend of art and teen rebellion. I did murals, both legal and illegal-on trains, buildings, friends bedrooms, legal sanctioned walls. I even did my math teacher’s entire living room. Right around the same time I dove into music and skateboarding.
I started garage bands with friends as early as 8th grade. It was pre-internet so we had a DIY ethic…recording on a cassette player and dubbing tapes to peddle to our friends. I was 16 when I signed my first record deal with Tooth and Nail (with my band Focal Point), and we had to have our parents sign the contract! I didn’t know if it would be a career, but I was very passionate about it. Focal Point did one record and one tour. Then, my brother started another band…a noisier thing. Their singer quit right when I came back from tour with Focal Point. So I jumped right into that spot…the band was called Training for Utopia. We did two records and two EPs on Tooth and Nail.
Around 2000 we were on pause as a band. My bro and I were living in Sacramento and he got a job as a designer in Seattle doing graphics. I hadn’t even thought about design at that point. I was working at a record store at the time. I didn’t think I had much of a future in Sacramento, so I moved with him to Seattle (I was 21 at the time) on a whim. I thought it would be fun…that was about it. At that point I knew everyone at Tooth and Nail from being in bands on the label. They lost a designer, and a friend of mine who was working there asked me to come intern. I didn’t know ANYTHING about computers or design…it was daunting and I was lost. But, I was determined to learn it all, though, because that was my ticket to earning a living doing art. It seemed to me to be more stable than music, more fruitful, and my band was taking a break from touring…so it all made sense. I got hired on as a designer shortly after that. I have overseen the Tooth and Nail art department for about ten years since then.
Two years into my career at Tooth and Nail my brother and I got the itch to do music again. It was a very natural, organic start to the band that would become Demon Hunter. We had a band name that we liked, but no big plans, to be honest. In our spare time we wrote and recorded the first album in the basement of the label, where there was a studio. The response was good so we decided to tour on it-which is something we never planned on. And each step we took as a band led to bigger things, which is also something we never expected.
My brother and another friend of ours then started Asterik studio, which eventually became Invisible Creature, which is our company. Through meeting guys in bands we got work…guys in local bands that ended up on major labels who hired us to do their packaging. It all came back to relationships which really got the ball rolling for us.
Schwab: What about your journey of faith? How does that intersect with your story as an artist?
Clark: I was raised in the church. Our dad was a pastor growing up. My parents were strict, but in a realistic way. We had a lot of friends who weren’t even allowed to watch TV, and whose parents were over the top. I look back now at some of my friends who had free reign when they were teenagers and they are very lost people now. There is a time in your adolescence, where if you are given too much freedom it can be a very dangerous thing for you, and affect you for the rest of your life in a very detrimental way.
I accepted Christ and was baptized when I was young-when I was old enough to make a decision for myself-which was at 13. Honestly, when you are a teen it’s so uncool to be a Christian. But the one thing that did make it cool was the music. I started finding bands like Tourniquet and Mortification-bands that were good at what they did and who weren’t wrapped in a corny package. It felt like it was something I could get behind. And that was hugely instrumental in me being ok with the faith that I had and wanted to have; it gave it me reason to feel like I was cool regardless of what I believed. We had a little bookstore at my church and I started ordering CDs from bands like Focused, Overcome, and Unashamed. It really helped me solidify my faith during those fragile ten years.
Schwab: I can see how, like most of us, your parents and even their parents influenced the person you would become…how your gifts, passions, and overall direction started with them. That’s one reason why men who are fathers have to be keenly aware of their influence. But for some of us…we didn’t have such a clear “influence.” One of my observations from my travels in recent years is that a) most guys can’t articulate their gifting and b) don’t put in ample time and work to develop said gifting. How can you encourage guys who are in this position, and what role has the slow burn of hard work played in where you are at today both as a graphic artist and as a musician?
Clark: Just looking back at my journey, I was good at drawing in the beginning, but knew absolutely nothing about commercial design. And I could strum a few chords and play guitar (which I am still not very good at, btw), but that wasn’t necessarily my calling. I weeded different things out by trying something and finding out I wasn’t good at it. Now I see those “failures” were hints at things I was to do in the future. It’s hard to put into words, but I could have easily threw in the towel at different points in that journey. Not all points did I do designs for bands who were successful, and not all of the endeavors were lucrative. I could have easily given up and tried something else besides music and design, but I stuck with it because I simply loved it.
Schwab: Would you say that was one key for you-the fact that there was no end game in it, that drawing with all your heart was an end in and of itself? It seems like you were just being true to yourself by sticking to your passion no matter what…
Clark: Absolutely. Absolutely. I would be doing music or art in some capacity even if I was a janitor or working on a fishing boat. I can’t deny that part of me.
Schwab: Do you think you would be less fulfilled if that was the case? What if you were at the same level of talent but the doors didn’t open? Be honest.
Clark: That’s a hard one to answer, but to be honest, I have these things I call “blue collar fantasies” sometimes. That’s where sometimes I fantasize about having a job where I could just show up, clock in, and leave my work at work and not even think about it when the day is finished. There is something to be said for that, for sure. Because then you can invest yourself in other things. As blessed as I am, there is definitely a double-edged sword to being paid to do something that you love. The reason I say that is because you end up investing yourself so much into your work when it’s a work and passion at the same time. So much so, that there are other aspects of your life that suffer as a consequence.
Schwab: I think that’s really important for people to hear. Because I think there is a fantasy out there among guys, that “if I could just play music full time or if I could just be a successful artist, then my life will be so much more fulfilling than it is now.”
Clark: There’s a handful of guys who find that perfect middle ground between doing something they love/are passionate about, and are still able to be a good husband and father, etc. But I have seen more guys FALL as husbands and fathers because of the pursuit of their passions, as a direct result of not being able to loosen their grips on said passions. It can definitely be destructive in some ways…you can get all of this fulfillment out of your work life, but you compromise the other aspects of your life. If you are a single guy, that’s one thing. You can work 15-16 hour days, tour year round, travel all you want. But as soon as you introduce any family aspect, whether it’s just a wife or a wife and kids, that’s when you have to make conscious decisions to work hard equally at all those things. That might mean working less on your career, even if that might be a difficult decision to make.
Schwab: On a similar note, I find that many guys out there are genuinely and sincerely trying to accomplish things that they are not finding success in. For some it’s a gifting issue, for others it may be work ethic. Still others have yet to simply have the correct doors open. Any encouraging words or wisdom for guys who feel confused because they are not seeing success in a particular area? Have you experienced a roadblock in your creative career? If so, how did you deal with it?
When I felt like music wasn’t working out, I would jump over to visual art. When I got tired or frustrated with that I would jump back to music. The lesson I learned is not to put all your eggs in one basket. Diversify a little bit. What is your second favorite thing in the world? If it’s cooking…maybe put some effort into learning how to cook really well. Whatever that alternate thing is, put some effort into that. It’s beneficial to have something you can jump to and put effort into if that first thing isn’t working out. I’ve known a lot of people who try to do music desperately. Music is an easy analogy for this. It’s such a landmine-laden walk, because it’s so pass or fail. You can do great for 3 years, then find yourself at the very bottom of the employment food chain. Or you can put 10 years of hard work into a band, seem to go nowhere, then all of a sudden blow up to be super successful. It’s really hard to put your finger on what makes a successful band. For example, say you love ska. If you were to start a band playing ska right now, chances are you won’t be very successful with it. But 15 years ago it would have been a different story, and who knows what will happen again in another 10 years maybe it will come back around and if you stick with it you might be a frontrunner in the scene.
I would say if you are adamant about being a musician first, be hyper-realistic with yourself about it, about the fact that it might not be a viable option for the long run. And try to find something else you like…working on cars, writing, working with kids. Tap into that other thing. Because even if you do great with music for 8-10 years, there is a good chance you are going to need to fall back on something else…
To be continued…
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