When I was in high school, I had this good friend Gabe who would sometimes drive me home in his beat-up Honda Civic, blasting the Cramps and the Misfits through the streets of sleepy Tallahassee, Florida. We would talk at length about his obsession with Glenn Danzig, and I would natter on and on about Courtney Love, kinderwhore dresses, flannel, ‘Oh my God I can’t believe Kurt’s really dead!’ and of course, Live Through This.
As it turns out, so did Olympia, Washington native Ryann Donnelly, when she was 14, and newly in Schoolyard Heroes.
“We didn’t even have a PA, and I just wanted to sound like Courtney on Live Though This. I wanted to have that guttural scream. I just wanted to belt and scream. And I think that was sort of natural, because most of my life, I’d been singing really pretty, crafted songs. I just wanted to scream,” Donnelly tells me on a recent afternoon chat.
The “pretty, crafted” tunes she mentions are in reference to her younger days doing musical theater and taking voice lessons. Later, when performing in a school play in 9th grade, Donnelly was approached by a classmate who suggested she try opera.
“It was an amazing experience. I studied opera for about four years with a wonderful woman, and it totally changed my voice. Completely strengthened it, and changed my range, and changed how I sing,” she remembers.
Opera is not something you generally picture as an avenue a suburban Seattle teenager would take, but when I speak with her about the storied climate problems and its influence on local music, it somehow all makes sense. But, then, again, Donnelly wasn’t exactly sitting in a gilded performance hall belting Carmen, no, she was practicing with her bandmates – bassist Jonah Bergman, guitarist Steve Bonnell and drummer Brian Turner – in Bergman’s garage.
“It rains all the goddamn time! People are prone to shutting themselves in and working on music, for example. And I think they sit around, and all this energy gets pent up, and it has to be taken out on something and, in our case, it’s the stage. So I think the climate and the weather and the dreariness, sort of lends itself to this musical endeavor.”
For the members of Schoolyard Heroes (sorry, the name has no “phenomenal story” behind it), the music they gravitated towards that would eventually shape their horror-punk, dark-pop (whatever you want to call it is fine by them) aesthetic was indeed varied: Misfits, Guns N’ Roses, Queen, Rush, Tool, Hole, Blondie, Refused, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, and on. What everyone did agree upon was their love of horror movies.
“Like we all have a different band, we all have specialty horror obsessions. Mine happens to be old Vincent Price; vintage, haunted stuff, haunting stuff, I guess. I really love the aesthetic of old…the original House of Wax, The House on Haunted Hill, Theatre of Blood.. the really overly dramatic, cinematic horror. I just love Vincent Price so much. He’s class. Jonah’s more into 80s slasher movies, the Jason’s, the Freddy’s, and stuff like that.”
Now releasing their third record, Abominations, (Stolen Transmission) produced by John Goodmanson who certainly has experience working with powerful female voices (think Blondie, Blood Brothers and Bikini Kill), Schoolyard Heroes knocked everything out in 18 days, a period Donnelly considers “the most delightful, pleasurable recording experience.” “I got really sad when I realized I didn’t have anymore songs to sing. No more double vocals to layover, no more background noises, no more harmonies?”
Abominations, Donnelly states, takes place at the apocalypse, “and about what happens to relationships at the end of the world.” One of the most notable tunes to make it on the record is undoubtedly “Cemetary Girls,” which was inspired by Brian K. Vaughan’s comic book series The Last Man. The story line of the series centers on the premise that every male mammal on the planet has spontaneously died, for no discernible reason.
“We’ve literally written about horror movies, like straight from the screen kind of thing, but this one is about horrific human beings and human nature, and the dark side of things and there’s still a lot of beautiful ways sort of twist that and write about that. And ‘Cemetery Girls,’ is…about all of the men just dying, no apparent reason, and these women are rising up and taking over the world, and it’s sort of the mixture of emotion that comes with things ending. Particularly this apocalyptic setting where there’s a lot of death, but also strength that rises from it.”
When I suggest the obvious irony when looking out at the world today, and the violence and despair splashed across the nightly news crawl, Donnelly agrees.
“We never intended to make social or political commentary, like, we just have these really out there, fictional ideas, but it’s really weird, it’s true. When you look at the news, it’s really easy to get sucked into this mentality of ‘is the world coming to an end?’ But you know, you gotta dance through it, I guess. We’re trying.”
All of this talk of horror, death and destruction can make it appear that the 22-year-old Donnelly herself is gloom and doom, but rather quite the opposite. She laughs easily, is self-deprecating and loves fashion, because she was “just always attracted to the brighter, most eye-catching thing possible.” She recounts wearing “huge bell skirts with Converse All Stars” to school as a child, but Halloween gave her a chance to really go all out, culminating in her favorite costume of all time at age 11: Coco Chanel. Does the confines of a suitcase and tour bus cramp her style? Not at all, she says, likening the experience to being a “cartoon character,” always wearing the same thing. As for her performance ensembles, those will always be glamorous.
Speaking of touring, Schoolyard Heroes, by reputation, have one of the most exciting live sets around; just ask any of their devoted hometown fans. At their recent mainstage appearance at Bumbershoot, Donnelly climbed the scaffolding, something she plans to do more of, because she appreciates and practices the “element of surprise.”
“I feel like the stage is my own little playground where if I can find some weird nook, or someway of climbing up to the ceiling or hanging off of stuff, or messing with the audience…not messing with the audience intentionally, but just sort of adding the different levels and elements that I can play with and giving you something more to look at, and something that will enhance the experience and make it just fun, and I’ll go for it.”
When I ask her what the ultimate Schoolyard Heroes gig would be like, she wastes no time in the ether; this is a girl who knows what she wants, and what it will look like. Picture an old, decrepit theatre, candelabras, and preferably haunted with willing ghostly participants. Vincent Price would be so proud.
“I really like the idea of bringing certain spaces to life, and making them [creepier]. The more visceral a response the audience can have, the better. I don’t ever want to hide behind pyrotechnics, or too much show. I think that we are a really solid live band and really solid performers, and our music is the most important element of the equation. If your music isn’t there, it’s not going to matter; it’s just going to be a circus.”