Ryan Holweger is the singer and principal songwriter for the alt-country band Western Fifth. In this interview, Holweger talks about developing an ear for the country side of rock, his songwriting process, and recording the band’s new CD Stand Like a Thief.
Tell me about your musical background—when you started playing, early influences, etc.
Although I had always been interested in it, I didn’t start playing guitar until college. Around that same time, I also really got into Neil Young—who remains my all-time favorite—Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, etc. Before that, it was a lot of AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, CCR, and what not. That’s how I learned guitar, playing mostly classic rock songs. Growing up in pre-Internet North Dakota, there wasn’t much to listen to except classic rock and mainstream country, and I never got into mainstream country. It wasn’t until after I moved to Minneapolis when I was 23 that I started listening to Americana/alt-country type bands—in fact, I’d never even really heard of them before. Luckily, I had a co-worker at the time who was a big fan of music and former DJ. He brought me up to speed on bands like the Jayhawks, Wilco, Golden Smog, Ike Reilly, etc. I’d say that just moving to Minneapolis broadened my musical tastes more than anything.
What is attractive about Minneapolis that makes you want to live and make
I guess I’ll give the same answer that a lot of artists and musicians give, and that is that there is such a great community of people who support local arts in the Twin Cities, whether or not they participate in creating them. There are lots of great bands, artists, and what-have-you, but also a lot of people that really enjoy going out and watching these bands, or seeing exhibits, or participating in the art crawls. Another important thing for me is that it’s relatively close to my family. When I moved here almost eight years ago, my brothers were still in junior high. If I would have moved to anywhere else, I would have missed out on a lot of things, and I’m really glad I didn’t. I also have a niece and two nephews who live in northwest Minnesota, and I don’t want to be that uncle they see once a year at Christmas. I like to be able to get back there pretty much whenever I want. Even though I love living in the city, I really do enjoy visiting small towns, so it’s important for me to be able to get there rather conveniently.
How did the line-up for your band come about?
Ryan Jacobson and I have known each other pretty much our entire lives. We grew up in the same small town: Hatton, North Dakota, with a population of 800. When he first moved to Minneapolis about two years after me, we started working on some songs, and took things pretty slowly. We’d work on stuff for a while, then not touch it for months, since we were both busy playing in other bands at the time. Eventually Jon Wurm, who was a co-worker and bandmate of Ryan, started playing drums with us. After short stints at bass by a couple different friends, we found Josh Christianson, and he’s been with us for about a year and a half. We found Thomas Case when we recorded our EP at his Silver Ant Studio. After we learned that he played a bunch of instruments, we asked Thomas to start playing with us—mostly lap steel guitar, but also some Wurlitzer, mandolin, and electric guitar.
Take me through your writing and recording process, from the first inkling of a song to the final product.
Although it varies from song to song, there are two processes that seem to be the most common. [In the first process,] I’ll start out with a chord progression and a melody, and a phrase or two for lyrics. I’ll play around with these for several weeks or months. Then I’ll come up with another chord progression and melody, add a few lyrics to that, and play around with that for a while. Eventually, I’ll realize that they go well together, and put them together for a complete song. I have a few notebooks full of lost or unused songs, so if I need another verse or two and can’t come up with anything, I’ll go through those and see if I can find something that fits. [In the second process,] I’ll sit down with a guitar, notebook, and pen. Twenty minutes later, I have a complete song. After I think a song is finished, whether by process A or B, I’ll play it for the rest of the band at practice. If they like it, we’ll work on it for a while at each practice until it’s ready to play live. If they don’t like it, we drop it. I used to record a lot of demos by myself and give the other guys CD-Rs with the songs on them. They’d sort through them, and we’d figure out which ones we wanted to keep and which ones were getting scrapped. As much as I enjoyed doing that, I don’t really do it at all any more. I guess sometimes my ambition is handicapped by my laziness.
Stand Like a Thief is your first full-length CD. What is the biggest difference between this CD and your self-titled EP?
Time. When we recorded our EP, we hadn’t really spent too much time playing together. The three of us—myself, Ryan Jacobson, and Jon Wurm—had probably only practiced a total of a dozen times spread out over a year, and I don’t think we had a single practice in the month leading up the recording. Jon hadn’t even heard a couple of the songs before, and we didn’t have a bass player yet—we took turns recording the unrehearsed bass parts. We got a great deal on booking the studio for a weekend, so we basically did it just for fun, which it was. We had a blast, but we were really sloppy. For the new record, we spent a lot of time on most of the songs. A few of them we’ve been playing live pretty much since the beginning, a little over two years. And instead of recording them all in one long 36-hour session, we spent five days in the studio to record all of the basic tracks. Then we let them sit for a few months before we went back in to add a few things and fix some others. We had Dave Boquist come in a couple times—he played fiddle on a bunch of songs, and also a bit of banjo, lap steel, acoustic guitar and electric guitar. John Dehaven also came in and played trumpet on three songs and piano on another.
What song off of Stand Like a Thief do you think is the cornerstone to the album?
That’s a real tough question. I think if you asked everyone in the band what their favorite song on the record was, you’d get five different answers, which would all change if you asked again the following week. I guess I’ll go with “I Will Keep You Warm.” It kind of encompasses the entire feel of the band, both lyrically and musically. I think it’s the song that best “describes” the band as a whole.