Analogue Music | Strays Don't Sleep

Strays Don't Sleep

By Matt Conner

This wasn't a nostalgic turn.

When Matthew Ryan and Neilson Hubbard decided to return to their collaboration as Strays Don't Sleep after a 15-year absence, the sole focus was on what could be rather than what had been. In fact, it was a fear of rehashing the past that kept them from picking things up before now; any new musical expression required a beauty rooted in the present.

Fortunately the chemistry that worked so well on the duo's self-titled release (2005) was just as moving the second time around. A Short Film for a Long Story is the new four-song release from Strays Don't Sleep, an earnest and hopeful EP that sets an immediate introspective mood. Longtime fans of both artists will be enamored with the new songs, and fortunately there's (potentially) more to come in the near future.

We recently asked Ryan to tell us more about the reunion, the connective tissue formed by the Blue Nile, and what the pandemic is yielding for him creatively.

Analogue: Before we get to the present, I wanted to ask what it was like to make music together with Neilson in the first place?

Matthew Ryan: It was something that was so easy that it was easy to take for granted, you know? We come from slightly different school of music but they're very complementary. When I say what I'm about to say, in no way do I mean that we're equals to these people, but with Lennon and McCartney or even Strummer and Mick Jones, there's the grit and the sweetness. That's hard for one person to achieve that's so complementary.

A Short Film for a Long Story
A Short Film for a Long Story

Because we shared a lot of the same bones of what we felt to be important in music, it was instantly complementary at that time but easy to take for granted. It was something that was really apparent the minute we started working on the first Strays music.

Really what it was, man, was a shared love for The Blue Nile. He was the only person I knew in Nashville, in my friend group, who was as much of a fan as I am.

Analogue: How did you discover that mutual love?

Matthew: My longtime friend, Brian Bequette, who I've played with for 20 years now, was playing with Neilson a bit in the early 2000s and somehow the conversation came up between Neilson and Brian. He started laughing saying, 'There's only one other person here who loves The Blue Nile.' Then he acted as matchmaker and said, 'You guys should talk.'

Analogue: Obviously I want to talk about the new record, but what's your favorite Blue Nile song?

Matthew: This is really gonna show my geekdom, because I absolutely love all the records, but there's an unreleased song on YouTube called "Meanwhile". If Paul Buchanan does not release this band's song, my life will be incomplete. It was written for The Blue Nile, but unfortunately they've fallen into some disarray. I don't know the story but there's a song on YouTube. It was recorded live in a hall and apparently they only played it one time—one of those situations. [Laughs] Anyway, it is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard from them.

The thing is, I'm a romantic but I don't easily succumb to romance. This isn't just because it's unattainable that I find it gorgeous. It's the melody and it has that kind of abstract realism that he's so effortless at. So honestly at this point in my life, it would be that song you can only find on YouTube. But they released so many beautiful songs. I love The Blue Nile.

Analogue: Have you and Neilson always known you'd boomerang back around to another release?

Matthew: It was one of those things that if we were lucky and the time had allowed certain travel, we would come back to it. I think we both felt that way. Neilson was there sooner than I was. I have a certain governor when it comes to implosions where... y'know, it's the stuff of life. I have a hard time revisiting things that imploded, so I had to put everything regarding my own culpability and what had happened with us, I had to put all of that to bed.

But I think in the back of both of our minds, it was something we were interested in, but one of the things we discussed early on before we sat down to write and started entertaining this was that I have no interest in inhabiting something that had previously happened. If we were going to do it, the goal was to employ who we were now without real consideration for what we had done.

Art is a funny thing. Regardless of its life outside of ourselves, these are profound experiences as humans when you are creative. They can become mile markers. You can't drive in circles. You have to keep moving, and that was one of our goals was that we weren't going to revisit any sort of nostalgia for ourselves.

Analogue: You said Neilson was there first, so did he call you? What sparked the movement?

Matthew: It's kind of hard to explain. I'd moved to the Pittsburgh area for about seven years and Neilson and I had kept in touch. It was more of a friendship with every once in a while we would discuss something. There was a song we'd worked on that I felt was a little too beholden to things we'd previously done. That kept me pausing any kind of notion of digging in with it. There would be moments where I liked it and moments where it felt like some sort of useless time travel.

"You can't drive in circles. You have to keep moving, and that was one of our goals was that we weren't going to revisit any sort of nostalgia for ourselves."

But when I moved back to Nashville, Neilson and I ran into each other at a Mexican restaurant. It was almost one of things on 20/20 where lost brothers get reunited, with the smell of salsa and burritos. [Laughs] Genuinely, it was just so good to see him. You know how you can feel that from another person, too, when they feel the same way? Those are the kind of things you want in your life, those kinds of feelings.

Analogue: Was the creative connection right there again, too? Beyond the brotherhood?

Matthew: Absolutely. On the previous record, we'd separately written the songs with the concept in mind. The only song on the previous record we'd written together was "Cars and History," I think. The insistence, and we both agreed it was important, this time was not to contribute to each other's instinct in an ethereal way but to get into a room and see what the songs were organically together.

Again, these are profound experiences that as humans that are creative, we get to have. Anything you say is not to kind of impose some import beyond what it is to experience that when you're sitting with somebody and a song goes from something that you would do that you know quite well to something that surprises you and has a certain ignition about it. Humans are at their best when collaborating. I really believe that. I guess painters are kind of singular, but everything else is collaborating with the environment or others.

Analogue: I want to go back real fast. When you first released the self-titled, what did you think was actually going to happen with that?

Matthew: [Laughs] We thought it was beautiful. And it was honest. We wanted it to inhabit people's lives—as many people as it could, with no notions of success or failure. There's a romantic notion that something that is beautiful makes life more beautiful, and that's always the engine.

Analogue: That's certainly what has driven you over the years.

Matthew: It is. Those kinds of romantic notions have to have a kind of amnesia because the world often has different plans. But the hope was that it would imbue some beauty into people's lives and that would be meaningful. And that was the goal with this, too.

Analogue: Does Neilson share that same romantic amnesia?

Matthew: Absolutely. Neilson is now a cross-creative, if that's what you call it, in that he does photography and film and music and production and his own records. It's the act of creativity that should be the reason that we do it. This is something Neilson and I talk a lot about in that it's the only reason to do it, the sensation of doing that.

Analogue: Was it real clear to you as you got back together how Neilson's other experiences or disciplines had helped him grow or change as a songwriter?

Matthew: I think in some ways when you have that kind of intimacy of a deep friendship with somebody, you don't think about those things. But we both felt our experiences of all that's happened in the last 15 years would contribute to something beautiful. You go at these kind of things with a cocky humbleness. First you sit and write something and you're moved by it. You've recorded it on your notes or whatever and you play it back and you can hear what needs to happen. That's what compels you and pulls you forward.

Analogue: What's on the horizon for you after this, Strays or otherwise?

Matthew: We're really in such a strange time. A lot of the rituals that we've known are on pause, and they should be. We have a responsibility to not encourage a bunch of people to get into a room right now. So I have a record of my own written. I have to wait to make a record with a bunch of people in a room, so I'm waiting on that. I've been learning piano in more detail in this time, which I know is a tremendous privilege. But I am grateful for the time because I don't know that I would have sat at the piano if not. So I've written an EP of songs I wrote on the piano I'm about to mix.

To be honest, I want our old lives back with a new commitment to them. But I don't know that I would have ever had the time or patience to ease into my creative life in this way without this horrible thing we're going through. I don't by any means suggest I'm grateful for what we're going through, but I guess I'm relieved with what I've chosen to do with the time made available. So there's the piano EP and then I would assume that Neilson and I will also hunker down in the early part of next year and write some more and see where that leads.

VISIT: Strays Don't Sleep