Over the course of the past decade, local musician Ryan Malott has kept himself pretty busy with his band 500 Miles to Memphis (a reference to how long it is from Cincinnati to Graceland). He’s released three cowpunk or Green Day-inspired country punk records, seen a bevy of musicians come and go from his band with him being the lone consistent member, and has played about 200 shows a year, making 500MTM Cincinnati’s most prolific band.
2010’s “We’ve Built Up to Nothing” features catchy songs like “It’s Alright,” where Malott sings cynical laments like, “Don’t give your heart to anyone / You’ll get nothing back in return,” and “Barfly,” where he spouts, “Whiskey has made me strong.”
When we caught up with Malott he was in the midst of recording demos for a fourth album, something he said will be drastically different than the last one, with the drinking and negativity diminished.
How’s the new album coming along?
It’s almost done. Right now we’re working on the writing end of it. Just getting all of the kinks worked out. I still probably need to write three or four more songs. It’s shaping up to be, I want to say, stripped down, but our last album we way produced. There’s a full orchestra on it. So this next album we’re pulling it back a little bit and doing a little more of what we do live, so it’s going to be a little more guitar driven, and just less production behind it.
What was the impetus to do it that way?
I guess because some of the songs on our last album were a little tough to pull off live, so we kind of had to rearrange it for the live show. I feel like we were experimenting a little bit with our sound on our last album and I feel like we got things figured out a little bit. We wanted to make it easier for us live, pretty much. We don’t want to have to hire a whole orchestra to make our songs sound the right way. What people know us for is like the country punk, fiddle, guitar, steel, drums, that thing. It’s kind of what people know us for and I kind of don’t want to get too far away from what we are.
Is there a theme on the new album?
I think this album is going to be a little more upbeat. It’s not going to be as depressing as the last couple of albums. It’s just a little more positive.
What are your influences for the record?
A lot of Kentucky bluegrass, like a lot of Bill Monroe, just a little more regional of a sound. We’re trying to infuse the bluegrass of our band and make it a little more present in our sound so it’s going to be a little more of a local sound. Most of our band is from Kentucky, anyway. So we’re just trying to infuse a little more of that Kentucky/Cincinnati bluegrass sound into our music. There’s going to be a lot of banjo and fiddle on our new album.
Are your songs written from personal experiences?
Yeah, it’s all personal. It’s all pretty much my life in a song.
I was wondering if all of the drinking references were true.
Well, you know, that’s something that I’ve gotten away from in the past couple of years. I actually quit drinking. It was getting a little out of hand. That’s one thing I don’t like about our older stuff. I feel like it’s a little too much bar room, whiskey, cocaine; it’s a little too cliché. I feel that’s really bad to say about your own music but we’re trying to get away from the bar band, bar scene kind of band. We have so much more to offer than just singing about whiskey.
Your music gets classified as “cowpunk.” Do you think that’s accurate?
I guess. A little bit but the whole cowpunk thing is a little contrived. That sound is -- I don’t know. If people want to call us cowpunk that’s fine, but to me it’s just rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll clearly has its roots in country so for me it’s not really a big stretch to include country music in the punk thing that we do. For me it goes hand to hand. Really, we’re playing bluegrass beats with throw in a drum set and just order an electric guitar and that’s pretty much what we are. Even aside from that, we draw influences from all over the map. Just a lot of pop music in general. Our last album was pretty Beatles influenced. Ben Folds. I’m a huge Ben Folds fan.
Do you like to tour?
Love touring. We’ve been going strong for a long time. When we released our last album we toured for about two years straight promoting it. So we’re kind of right now pulling the reins back a little bit. We’re not touring as much because we promoted the last album as much as we could, so now we’re looking toward the future, toward a new album and then we’ll see where that’ll take us.
You played at the Southgate House a lot and even recorded a live album there. What did you think about it closing?
It’s a bummer. I don’t know what else to say other than that. I don’t want to piss anyone off. It’s a shame. It was such a great venue. It may never be the same. I hope that is, I hope that they’re successful, of course. That was just such a time in my life and in the band’s life. That’s was our home venue. If you wanted to see us play that was where you would see us play as far as Cincinnati went.
You’ve had a lot of band members.
When we first started, we went through members all of the time. We haven’t changed band members…it’s probably been two or three years since we’ve changed. We changed bass players. OMG, yeah, I guess we have gone through a lot of members. The past few years have been pretty consistent. Our bass player left and so our guitar player moved to bass and then we added a guitar player. The lineup that we have now has been the lineup for a while.
What’s the dynamic of the band like?
It’s good. All of the guys that are in the band are my best friends. Kevin, the drummer, he’s been in for probably five or six years. The bass player Noah, who was the guitar player, he’s been in off and on for probably five or six years, and David, my steel player, he’s been in for six or seven years. Aside from those guys, it’s been a revolving door. I make demos on my computer and email them to the guys and we’ll go through all of the songs and produce it together. We’re all best friends. We never argue. There’s never any big issues. We get along really well which is amazing for being stuck in van with guys for years on end.
What do you bring to your live shows that is different than your recordings?
Actually, live, we try to make it sound as good, if not better, than the album. So we’re really particular about every single note that’s played. We do improv sometimes, but as far as the song goes we try not to embellish too much from the album. Because when you go hear a band live and they’re playing one of your favorite songs, and they start changing stuff around, it gets kind of annoying so we try to remember that. We try to stick to what people want as far as what it sounds like on the album, especially the more popular songs. We just try to bring more energy to it. We try to do a lot of vocal harmonies. We’ve had a lot of people say they prefer us live to our albums, so I will take it as a compliment.
You’ve been doing this band for a long time now. Do you ever reflect about it?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot more recently, actually. We’ll be coming up on our 10-year anniversary before too long. It’s changed a lot since we started. I’ll go back and listen to some old demos and they are terrible. I’ll probably post one of Facebook before too long so people can hear what we used to sound like. It was a lot of hard work trying to make a name for ourselves, trying to get an album out, trying to get on the road, trying to come up with the money to record an album, which is actually still difficult but was even harder back then. I feel fortunate we draw the crowds that we do and people respond as well as they do. It’s a good feeling. I’m very appreciative because I remember playing to the bartender at Sudsy Malone’s and that wasn’t too terribly long ago.
Do you have any long-term goals for the band?
No matter how much this band ever tours, no matter how active we are, we will always be putting out albums. I guarantee that, especially with technology the way it is. I can record in the sanctity of my own house, send the track over to my drummer and he can lay his stuff down and we can record an album from our living room couch. My long-term goal honestly is to just keep putting out good music no matter how much we’re ever touring, no matter how successful we are. It doesn’t really matter how successful or unsuccessful we may be, we just like playing music and writing songs and we’ll continue to do that.