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"I'm not a private masochist, just a public one. It's an externalization of whatever's going on with you, not a grim thing." — Ryan Martin

With a new album out on a chic British label, intimate experimental artist Secret Boyfriend cautiously probes a broader audience 

Ryan Martin of Secret Boyfriend

Photo by Justin Cook

Ryan Martin of Secret Boyfriend

"As a kid, I was always kind of freaked out," says Ryan Martin. The 31-year-old Carrboro resident and musician issues eclectic outsider music on his Hot Releases label and creates his own as Secret Boyfriend. Right now, sitting under an oak tree outside the Looking Glass Cafe, he's trying to explain its origins and the childhood of paranormal experiences that have shaped his aesthetic.

"I forgot all about that stuff until I was about 22, and I was alone at a place I worked after hours, playing music," he remembers. "I looked up and saw, if you can imagine, an invisible man walking with black paint splashed on his upper abdomen and thighs. I've never experienced anything malevolent, only weird things. I'm not sure if I believe in intelligent entities or if it's just a weird lingering energy, like the memory of a place."

Martin has a soft, boyish look and a sweet smile that lingers at the edge of unnerving, as though he were always about to unleash a wild laugh rather than his frequent low-key chuckle. He's articulate in a cautious way, often beginning sentences several times before choosing a path through a hedge maze of "maybes," "kindas" and "I guesses." But his music is insular, intuitive and decisive, a harrowing transmission from a space unseen.

"When I make music," he explains, "I go into—I don't want to say a dream state, but maybe a world that exists in my own mind where it's a little bit creepy, I guess."

This is self-evident and unequivocal on the new This Is Always Where You've Lived. Despite a dozen previous releases in just three years, this is the first full-length Secret Boyfriend album to be issued by someone other than himself and the first to be available on a label with proper distribution and public relations. It is a widely varied but subtly cohesive collection of whispery folk songs and warped synth-pop, radiant noise sculptures and melodic electronic moods. The record moves like a comprehensive tour of the many wings Martin has added onto Secret Boyfriend's haunted mansion since the project began in 2005 as a practical joke to razz area singer-songwriter nights.

Martin records all of his music on an 8-track cassette recorder, jamming with whatever is around, from cheap synthesizers to old drum machines run through effects pedals, letting the songs take shape slowly from the multi-tracked chaos. "Summer Wheels" begins with a strident feint toward Martin's confrontational origins before petering out into a naïve keyboard melody sutured together with quiet electronic interference and murmuring voices. The pretty "Silvering the Wing" sounds roughly like indie rock as interpreted by someone indifferent to traditional recording and structuring. The modes keep unspooling, from the full and idyllic drone of "Flashback" to the disco-pop of "Beyond the Darkness."

"I don't want to have a different project for all the things I do," explains Martin. "It works for some people, but I like hearing things that are all over the place, which to me makes them more personal."

In fact, while spiraling into diversity, Martin's music has also developed a stronger personal thumbprint over the years, thanks to the increased clarity of his uniquely introverted charisma. His frequently gentle and gauzy recordings publicly express private fixations—think of Xiu Xiu at his most inward. That vulnerable interior clashes with extreme performance antics, where Martin might get cut while manipulating miked sheets of metal or bruised by hitting his face with an amplified cymbal.

"I like the physical aspect of performing—it creates a feedback loop where you're choking on something and the more uncomfortable you get, the more it influences the sounds. Ideally, I'm getting sort of personal and raw," he says. "I'm not a private masochist, just a public one. It's an externalization of whatever's going on with you, not a grim thing."

He won't be coaxed into categorizing or generalizing about any aspect of his music: Everything is instinctual. Yet his recordings, a spatter of small-run cassettes and vinyl splits, are slaved over according to secret metrics of flow and mood. It needs to, as he puts it, "feel right." For Martin, music that feels right is music that represents the particular state of mind he enters when he makes it.

"There's a hollowness," he says, "or maybe like an apocalyptic kind of mood, where you go outside and things aren't quite right, kind of desolate. Maybe it seems like it's daylight and 3 a.m. There are people with maybe no faces creeping in your periphery."

He looks cheerful and serene as he offers the summary with offhanded vividness. The images hang strangely against this sunny fall day. An acorn plummets and bounces crazily on the wooden table, a missing exclamation appearing.

A native of Southern Pines, a small town 60 miles south of Chapel Hill, Martin gradually became a key figure in the local noise and experimental music scene over the last decade. For the first few years of the 2000s, he booked and later co-owned the Nightlight, helping it become the hub of musical outliers in North Carolina. He subsequently founded the improvisation collective Boyzone, which sought to eradicate any vestige of continuity from harsh noise and strained at the limits of rational performance.

"Boyzone had a loose idea of membership, with musicians or folks from around town playing for a single show," says Jeff Rehnlund, now the other half of Boyzone and Martin's longtime collaborator. "The ability to play live music without a song or an instrument commanding the performance permitted us to interact with the dancers, the crowd and the venue in an immediate and intuitive way. A few times people fell into trances."

Through sheer diligence, Martin consolidated his status as the Triangle's point-person for the national noise scene. He performed in projects with more established experimental musicians such as Irene Moon and Chuck Johnson. He founded his Hot Releases label to put out the music of his peers, renamed his home "Meadows of Dan" so as to host plentiful house shows and started the Savage Weekend festival, an annual two-day blitz of local and touring outsider acts at Nightlight. A year after Boyzone began, Martin started Secret Boyfriend, too.

"I'd sat through a lot of singer-songwriter nights," he says, "which you have to do if you're booking a venue. I perversely got into open mics, seeing people's crude self-expression and how it's revealing about where they're coming from."

So he put himself on a singer-songwriter bill as a joke. He made a leather mask, the inside trimmed with fur taken from a friend's vest. Mumbling over loose acoustic guitar strums, he broke down in coughing fits from breathing in the fur. "I wanted to make it awkward," Martin says, laughing.

He abandoned the gimmick, though, and Secret Boyfriend became his vehicle for solo harsh noise sometimes mixed with rudimentary songs for acoustic guitar or keyboard. "Those years feel kind of like a weird wash," he admits. "I would decide what to do the day of the show and it would be really loose. I was recording, but didn't really show anybody until 2009."

That pivotal year propelled Martin toward This Is Always Where You've Lived. He embarked on his first solo tour with Russian Tsarlag, a cult-beloved experimental performer whose records Martin has issued on Hot Releases. He released Savage Weekend, his first cassette to feature songs—however melted and smudged—among the noise.

"I sent Savage Weekend to [Russian Tsarlag] and a few other people," Martin says, "and the positive responses from people who weren't my longtime friends encouraged me to keep making tapes. It's a real satisfying feeling, that whole underground experience of trading music and getting feedback."

Early this year, Secret Boyfriend and Russian Tsarlag released a split LP that found its way to the London label Blackest Ever Black, headed by FACT magazine editor Kiran Sande. Sande asked Martin if he wanted to make a cassette for Blackest Ever Black's smaller sub-label, Krokodilo Tapes. Martin had labored over a tape for a 2012 tour, though he didn't expect many to hear it. He sent it, anyway.

"At first I was like, 'Oh, maybe I should give him something better.' It's a mix of older and newer material because I just have a vault of recordings that I don't know how to fit together yet. But he really liked it and believed in it," he says. "It's important for me for a release to flow and make sense, even if it's something I'm only going to dub 20 copies of and give to friends."

Upon hearing the music, Sande bumped the release to a full-length vinyl record on the main imprint. Like Martin's own Hot Releases, Blackest Ever Black seems defined by its proprietor's eclectic tastes, ranging from dark ambient and techno to metal and industrial. But Blackest Ever Black has wider distribution than Hot Releases; in fact, the English label has considerable prestige, having released music by the likes of Prurient, Raspberry Bulbs and Cut Hands, the solo project of power electronics legend William Bennett.

Martin, though, inhabits a cultural niche where self-releasing or working within small, socially connected labels often seems de rigueur. This record is a step into the unknown. He has a publicist, for instance.

"There's a few people I know who've gotten on labels that do publicity," he says, "like Pharmakon on Sacred Bones. I was kind of freaked out about the idea of someone doing publicity for my record at first, and that this might be the first thing people who don't know me will hear from me. I wonder how it's going to come across. But it's not like it's going to blow up; it's going to be totally fine."

There are other understandable reasons for Martin to feel a little anxious about his music reaching a wider, unknown audience: Intimacy is part of its very nature. While not precisely about Martin's private moods and dreams, the songs do spring from them. Besides paranormal encounters, Martin draws musical inspiration from his nightmares, which he also recounts with unsettling good cheer.

"All these horrific monkey creatures with human faces crawling down from the trees, overpowering everything," he says, by way of example. "Or being in this room full of invisible people sleeping, where you can see the dust rise off their bodies when they breathe. I recognize them as nightmares, but I'm also like, 'That's so fucked. That makes me feel so weird. I love it.'"

This article appeared in print with the headline "Public masochist."

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The previous comment has been deleted because it could be considered defamatory. No armchair mental health diagnoses, please.

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