Ryan Gustafson shares half of a hulking gray Durham house with his girlfriend, at least through the end of the month. When their lease expires at the close of February, Gustafson won't re-sign or, at least not immediately, scour Craigslist and classified ads for a new apartment: He's going to live in his bus.
On a chilly Monday morning, Gustafson is behind the house, dressed in multiple layers as he works within the surprisingly spacious interior of a 1998 Ford E-350 bus—a bulky, brown-and-beige mass with several large doors and the sort of intimidating shape you'd expect from a military vehicle. Gustafson has stripped the interior and built an apartment complete with a bed frame and storage shelves, lounging space and room for musical equipment; the bus will soon run in part on vegetable oil. In a matter of weeks, this will become his roving home, and he'll push from town to town, perhaps picking up gigs and recording new songs, but mostly just driving and living.
"I should be able to find some shows on the road, but I don't have a booking agent," he explains, walking down the long driveway that leads toward the city's Ninth Street hub. "That's not the point."
But it could be the point: Gustafson is one of the best songwriters to emerge from the Triangle in the last decade. His 2009 album, Donkey LP, eased out country-rock sadness with casual grace and welcome insouciance, earning him both a local buzz and auspicious comparisons to several very famous songwriters.
But rather than churn out another record to capitalize on the momentum, Gustafson took a furlough from his growing reputation, instead playing live with the breezy pop group Max Indian and joining the dramatic rock act The Light Pines. When both of those bands broke up, Gustafson simply found new projects, including producing an album for local garage rock trio Flesh Wounds and mentoring new Carrboro group The Human Eyes, with whom he also plays. He launched a new project, The Daughter Is Ambiguous, to experiment with electronic beats and malfunctioning keyboards and veered toward bluegrass while moonlighting with friends in Mandolin Orange. He was more interested in exploring music than exploiting his possibilities as a professional musician.
On his new album, Desert, and under the name The Dead Tongues, Gustafson has finally returned to the sad-eyed observations and gorgeous moans of the Donkey LP. There are no grand improvements from the first album, no big steps worth purple prose. Instead, Desert simply reaffirms what was apparent four years ago: Gustafson could make the alphabet sound bittersweet.
When the 27-year-old performer leaves Durham soon, it will be the end of his third extended stay in the city. He's peripatetic by nature, it seems, or perhaps simply devoted to the experiential delight of trying something new and—just maybe—trying it again.
INDY WEEK: It's been four years since your first record, and that album led a lot of folks to have large expectations for you and a career. They compared you to Ryan Adams and My Morning Jacket and imagined you as one of the Triangle's breakout singer-songwriters. Did those claims have anything to do with you taking a break?
RYAN GUSTAFSON: A little bit of it was a conscious decision: I didn't want to get stuck in a groove or genre. I did some weird psychoanalyzation about writing songs and people expecting things from you. It led me to try other things I wanted to do, because I wanted to, and to make sure I was doing them for myself. I was pretty productive within that time period, too.
It was strange to have an identity put on me, for sure; the break was from being that person. It was nice to get to a place where I felt comfortable with any music that I was making. Oftentimes, you start falling in love with these different bands that make music that is nothing like you do. "Well, I really like this music, so why am I making that music?" I needed to find a place where I felt OK to do that.
I don't think I was aware until after I stopped making that music that there were people interested in it. I still don't think there are that many people. [Laughs.] But people would ask about it. The shows were never that big, so when I stopped playing, I was surprised by how many I had never seen had listened to the record. It felt like more people learned about me after I stopped playing.
What kind of music have you explored that doesn't have anything to do with what you make as Ryan Gustafson or, now, The Dead Tongues?
I've learned more about not playing music but just the music world in general. My music knowledge is extremely larger than it was when I made that first record. There were all these things I didn't know about—Philip Glass, Steve Reich, any minimalist music in general. It's music as experience instead of music as nostalgia or relating to some words. I've been listening to a lot of garage-based stuff. I go to a lot of house shows and see more grunge/noise/dance shit, and it's tempting to want to do that as well. But it's not what I do when I sit down to make music.
Do you imagine those interests ever bleeding over, though? Since the last record, you started The Daughter Is Ambiguous, which seems like an outlet for any experimental impulses.
Maybe. That was the idea for the band name The Dead Tongues, too, to have it be an identity of myself rather than solely myself. That's what was good about The Daughter Is Ambiguous: I can enter that part of myself when I make that music. I don't want to have boundaries, but directions. I have these places I go in my mind.
If I'm helping someone with their record or their songs, I tell them, "You're never as weird or all over the place as you think you are." Most of your favorite bands probably have these pretty big parallels. I try not to worry about it too much, just to let it happen.
When did you decide it was time to sit down and start writing songs that sounded somewhat like the previous record and became Desert?
At some point, I had told myself that I wasn't going to write a song until I felt like it—well, a song with words, similar to the Donkey record. I sat down one day and wrote a song that didn't actually make it on this record. From there, I just started writing a bunch. You try and not force it and, at some point, writing lyrics starts to come easy.
When you released Donkey, there were a lot of young, eager bands in the area trying to find labels and become full-time touring acts. It's worked for some of them, but it also imploded or stalled for a lot of them, too. You were in two of those bands, The Light Pines and Max Indian, and both broke up. You're self-releasing Desert; are you trying to avoid that professionalism pratfall?
I'm not sure of all the reasons I have stayed away from labels. I'm always in a sway back and forth of wanting to do that, debating if I have it in me to be on the phone or emailing all the time. That shit drives me crazy, but I can go through periods where I say, "Yeah, this is easy! All you have to do is wake up, spend an hour and a half working, and then get yourself moving." But most of the time I just want to make music, because most of that stuff doesn't get you anywhere. You can spend so much time and energy attempting to break into the business somehow, and it doesn't really work.
I've come to this conclusion: What do I want to do with my life, as opposed to what do I want to do with my music career? I decided I want to travel and make records. That's what I like doing. Hopefully, someday, maybe I can get the records I am making re-released—or not.
But that was pretty exciting, seeing friends get deals. They're working really hard to get that. Maybe someday someone will want to do that work for me. If I can put out good records continually and travel as much as possible and try and experience as much as I can out of those parts of my life, I think there has to be something at the end of that. If not, that will be OK, too.
Between records, you spent some time in The Light Pines, a band that had a great deal of music industry and record label interest before splitting up somewhat acrimoniously. What did that process do to you as a musician?
That was everyone in the band living in one house and recording every day, making music that we finally deleted. I learned a lot from that process. After a year of working, that really got me in a spot where I wanted to create things and then let them go.
That wasn't very liberating as far as in The Light Pines. I think our idea was that it would be. But with The Daughter Is Ambiguous, it was very liberating. I don't really strive to make music for perfection or an aesthetic, but with The Light Pines, we were trying to create something that would do well. That didn't work, but it helped to learn that for me.
What exactly did you learn?
It was a little too serious. It was always better when it was unconscious, as it usually is. [That experience] made me want to only do things that you wouldn't regret. The expectations are at zero. I'm only going to be doing this if I really don't care what happens.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rambled out one evening."