[This interview, conducted by Megan Liscomb, originally appeared on the TakeLessons blog.]
From going viral on YouTube to touring the world, Walk Off The Earth has made an impressive mark on the music scene, and from the looks of it they are just getting started. Their album Sing It All Away will be released this month, and the band has been touring heavily in anticipation of this release.
Singer and guitarist Ryan Marshall gave us a call this week to talk about his inspirations, life on the road, and his complicated relationship with country music.
How did you get started playing music? Was there anyone like a parent or teacher who really helped you along the way?
I come from a family where everyone has always played some sort of instrument. But for me in grade six, I started playing baritone, which is like a small tuba; some people call it a euphonium.
I had an amazing music teacher. I lived in a small town near Toronto and I had this teacher Sue Smith, who had been the trumpet in Canadian Brass. She actually came to my school and I started with her in grade six and then she came to my high school and continued teaching our class all the way through high school.
When you get a teacher like her it really changes the way you look at things and it makes you want to continue playing. I was the captain of the football team and the basketball team, and sometimes, when I was going to school anyway, the sports guys aren’t too keen on people playing in the jazz band or the concert band. But when you get the right teacher who explains things and helps you deal with peer pressure and all that junk, you can learn a lot.
Coming from that education, how did you form Walk Off The Earth?
I didn’t even start playing guitar until I was 20. I’m a really big Bob Dylan fan, so right away I did a lot of harmonica and guitar playing, and singing at the same time.
I hooked up with a couple of guys and we started a little reggae band that lasted a few years. When that band ended, I continued playing with my drummer, and we wanted to start recording a little two piece project.
He knew this guy Gianni who had his own studio, so we went there to record. Gianni started adding some bass and things into the stuff we were recording. We hadn’t even played a show yet and we didn’t have a bass player, so it just kind of turned into a three piece. We needed a name and Walk Off The Earth just kind of happened, and that was the beginning.
One thing that really stands out about Walk Off The Earth is your instrumentation and the really cool, kind of unusual choices that you make. Where do you get those ideas and what inspires you?
I think a lot of the inspiration comes from the different characters and influences that we have in the band. Having five people adding ideas and influences really allows us to use a lot of different instruments.
For Sarah and Gianni and I, it’s kinda like this: none of us are amazing guitar players and none of us are amazing ukulele players, or whatever it might be, but once you kind of understand the idea of the instrument, if you can shape a chord or something, as long as you have good rhythm you can get away with playing a couple songs on it here and there.
All of us are really interested in learning different instruments and finding things to add to the set. Sometimes it ends up being little kids instruments, and it’s fun to take something like that and say how can we sample it, or how can we record it. Then once you put it into a recording, you’re kinda stuck, and you have to figure out a way to do it live, so you end up bringing all these weird instruments live on stage.
Another thing that Walk Off The Earth is really famous for is that you “got a record deal on YouTube.” Was that something that you set out to do? What would your advice be to other artists who want to follow that same path?
We did the indie band thing, trying to get signed by a label in conventional ways, and it’s really tough. It finally got to a point where we all realized, we’re not going to get signed to a label, we’re going to have to do this on our own.
We had to find a way to reach a lot of people, and YouTube had just started up. Gianni said hey, why don’t we give this a shot? We put up some videos and all of a sudden we had 15,000 views on a video (editor’s note: that video now has over 160 million views). We’d never played to 15,000 people in our lives!
You also have to be lucky in the viral world. If people could figure out how to make a viral video, then everyone would. I don’t know what happens, something happens, and we got lucky with that one video.
We also had another 30 or 40 videos already on that channel, so when people saw the viral video, it wasn’t like a dog that was talking and all of a sudden there’s nothing else to watch. There was a whole catalog of songs, originals and covers, that people could watch next, and we noticed those all started blowing up at the same time.
That also was the thing that attracted the label. Labels want to see a body of work and a fanbase before they put money into a band these days. You have to develop your career yourself.
You’re currently on the road, and you’ve been out on tour for some weeks now. What are the best and worst things about being on the road?
I love playing for crowds. Honestly, the best feeling in the world for me is getting on stage and having people sing back songs to you that you wrote. To me, it’s the most rewarding feeling in the world. So that’s definitely the best. I have a family at home, and I have a little five-year-old, and I miss home when I’m away.
A couple of you in the band have families, and it’s got to be work sometimes to balance that with your careers as musicians. Recently, your bandmate Sarah even had an experience where she was asked to leave a flight because her toddler was fussy. How does that situation fit in with your overall experiences of balancing parenthood with being rockstars?
The Sarah situation was just insanity. I have no idea what the airline was thinking. I think that’s gonna get taken care of, and that aside, as far as balancing fatherhood and family when we’re on the road, it’s got its pros and cons.
For example, when we recorded our album it took us about three months, and we were at home in Burlington that whole time. So I was home for three months straight, every day. I could see my family every day. A lot of busy fathers are home every day but they work from 6 AM to 8 PM and their kids are in school and then they’re asleep. For me, I get to spend three months straight with my family and they see me whenever I want to see them, which is amazing.
But when you’re gone, you’re gone. When you’re on the road, you’re gone for months. Things like Facetime and Skype have really changed how we’re able to communicate with home. And you know, Sarah and Gianni, they’re both in the band, and they can travel with their son, and the second one coming along soon. I’ve brought my five-year-old Kingsley with me on a couple tours, not a bus tour, but a couple fly-ins, and it was really fun.
When you do get the chance to play music purely for fun, what do you like to practice and what do you like listening to?
I’m a big folk guy, I love listening to Tallest Man on Earth, a lot of Bon Iver. I listen to every type of music but I haven’t really gotten into any country yet. Everything else pretty much ends up on my phone. I have a pretty wide variety. When I’m playing, I usually just pick up my acoustic and I write a lot. I enjoy writing all different types of music. I will write a lot of country songs but I don’t really listen to country [laughs]. But I just love picking up my acoustic guitar and singing and doing singer-songwriter type stuff.
Is there anything musically that you hope to explore more in the future?
As a band, we really like trying to touch all aspects of the music world. On this album, we have a collaboration with Steve Aoki, which allowed us to kind of get into the EDM part of the music scene. We got to go and play with him at Ultra Music Fest in Miami. It was close to 200,000 people, and it’s a different scene for us, so it was great.
Our fans are such a large, eclectic group. We have three-year-olds at our shows, and last night we had an 89-year-old lady at our show. It really ranges and it’s really cool, and we’re able to collaborate with other artists that allow us to explore other types of music.
[Photo by Erin Blackwood.]