Interview: Ryan Guay of Street Pharmacy

Street Pharmacy are a reggae rock band from Welland, Ontario – a small town near Niagara Falls. Their songs tell stories about their hometown and take influence from the 90s. They’ve been releasing music for over a decade. We are lucky to have singer, main songwriter, and guitarist Ryan Guay here with us on the blog to talk about the band’s latest release, “In This Town”. The song has a long history for the band – first appearing in the 2006 Peter Guzda film, MsC: The Movie and it’s the last track on the band’s album Self-Prescribed Feelgood. In fact, it’s the first song he wrote for his band.

This song is considered an anthem for anyone from a small town because it describes life in a small town so perfectly – as if this song was written about their hometown. Look in the comments and you’ll see comments from people from small towns all over the place who find the lyrics resonate with them.

They are proud to remake it and give it a fresh sound for the new decade. The original is more acoustic and the new version, which you can find embedded below, has a moody reggae sound with a bit of alternative mixed in – and it’s a lot more evolved and complex – much better production value. In their newest releases, you’ll hear samples from 90s songs.

The band were formed in 2006 by Métis lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ryan Guay. The biggest influences on his band’s sound are 90s alternative music, ska, and reggae. Since then, they have played hundreds of shows and festivals across Canada. Some of their biggest achievements include winning the MuchMusic reality show DisBAND, being played on radio stations across their home country, and they have gotten millions of views on YouTube through collaborations with other artists.

If you’re a fan of ska-punk and the music from the Tony Hawk games and the music of Sublime, Street Pharmacy’s music might be something that’s up your alley. I personally like the songs “Sober State of Fame”, “Crazy Gunner”, and “It’s Better That Way” from their 2008 sophomore album Free Delivery. The songs make you feel like you’re at the beach and what place would you rather be right now?

If you want to learn more about Ryan and Street Pharmacy, keep on reading! His story from how he came up with the band name to his life and his music is really interesting.

Angie Moon: How did Street Pharmacy get started?

Ryan Guay: In 2005 when I was 19 years old, my brain swelled from the chicken pox. I was misdiagnosed with a plethora of mental illnesses and given medication for them. I didn’t need any of the meds since I had a physical illness called encephalitis, and not a mental one. It was during this confusing period of my life that I came up with the name Street Pharmacy as a cheeky way of calling the psychiatrists prescribing me these so-called medications drug dealers.

It was after this period and during my recovery that I became a better songwriter. For the first time in my life I could hear the whole band in my head probably as the result of some sort of minor brain damage caused by the encephalitis. It wasn’t too soon after that that I met my friend and filmmaker Peter Guzda who needed some songs for his independent movie about growing up bored in Welland, Ontario. After some dialogue and an acoustic jam session in his parent’s basement, Street Pharmacy’s first song ‘In This Town’ was born. His movie became very successful locally. I contributed a few more songs to his movie and formed a live band to meet the demand. That was the beginning and we’ve been going hard ever since.

Angie: What musicians are your biggest inspirations?

Ryan: I get inspiration for Street Pharmacy from three main genres; the first is second/third-wave ska/reggae music. My biggest influences in that genre are Sublime, No Doubt, The Specials, Pepper, Yellowman, and Barrington Levy.

The second genre of music that I draw from for Street Pharmacy material is 90s golden-age hip-hop. Much of my lyrical flow is borrowed from that genre. My influences include the The Pharcyde, Souls of Mischief, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, and early Nas. Illmatic had a profound effect on me in particular.

The last genre and probably the most influential to the guitar-driven side of Street Pharmacy is that of early 90s alternative rock. I enjoy bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Blind Melon, Soundgarden, Nirvana and so on. Siamese Dream is my favourite album of all time. Anyway, Street Pharmacy’s spirit and its formula lies somewhere in between these genres and influences.

Angie: What do you like about the 90s?

Ryan: I feel that from a production standpoint, the 90s sees bands at their tightest, recording albums in studios onto 2-inch tape, with analog practices at their pinnacle, combined with  just a little bit of help from advancements in digital technology. The records from this period are therefore exceptional since the band wasn’t completely automated by a computer yet, there is a live vibe and a realness to a lot of those records that I feel makes that period in musical history special. The song writing, whether it be the quiet-loud formula of alternative rock or the socially-conscious lyricism and sampling of jazz records by hip-hop groups, was fantastic. I wish I was a little bit older so that I could experience what it must’ve been like to experience that music coming out in its heyday.

Angie: How did you get into reggae?

Ryan: Like many of my contemporaries, Sublime and their infused punk-rock reggae-ska sound with hip-hop elements was my first real introduction to that reggae upchuck sound. It was from listening to Sublime records that I discovered the other artists that Sublime were influenced by, such as Yellowman, Barrington Levy, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and so on.

Sublime was sort of like an intro into reggae, punk and hip-hop for me since many of their songs are covers or derivatives, with so many references paying homage to the music they loved. I’d also like to mention that listening to Sublime at an early age helped me to discover hip-hop groups as well such as Mobb Deep and rappers like KRS-One. They are a great encyclopedia. 

Angie: What was it like to perform “In This Town” for MsC: The Movie?

Ryan: It was a lot of fun. It was like two kids in a basement making something out of nothing. It felt like important work too. I don’t think either of us anticipated how much the song would become embraced even after all these years by people in our community.

Angie: What’s different about the new version of “In This Town”?

Ryan: The new version is recorded with the full band and is full of extra production. I snuck a few audible easter eggs in there for more fun as well. If you listen to this record backwards at the end of it, you can even hear a hidden message or two. The original was just one vocal and an acoustic guitar. The new version of In This Town is much more reflective of who we are production-wise and what we sound like as a live band in this current decade.

Angie: How was the movie and song received at the time?

Ryan: People from our hometown treated it like it was some sort of national anthem for Wellanders. The song struck a chord because it identifies the lack of things to do in Welland or any small town for that matter for the younger population.

Peter and I were both surprised to find out that local politicians and people of influence were moved by the song as well. Some really cool initiatives were started and funded due to Peter’s MsC The Movie and In This Town. An example of one of those is the Welland band compilation disk that was completely funded by the City of Welland as a way to stimulate interest in the scene.

Angie: How was it recovering from encephalitis?

Ryan: It sucked. I had a difficult time, but once it was all said and done, it turned out to be one of the best things that could’ve happened to me.

Angie: What differences do you notice in your music before and after you fell ill?

Ryan: My music before encephalitis wasn’t really remarkable at all. I didn’t have much life experience or anything to write about. I also didn’t have much of an ear for how to arrange. After encephalitis however, everything clicked. I could hear the whole band in my head for the first time and had something important to say. It was also very cathartic for me. Nothing really difficult had happened to me in my life before that moment. Writing music became my refuge in the way I worked things out with that whole experience. I hope that my music has helped other people as much as it helped me when I wrote it.

Angie: What was it like growing up in Welland?

Ryan: There wasn’t a whole lot of things to do in Welland when I was a teenager. We spent a lot of time hanging out in parks, throwing bush parties, and doing mostly indoor activities in someone else’s house, which would eventually lead to a full-on house party. Welland had an exceptional minor hockey program. A few Wellanders from my generation went on to play in the NHL.

But if you weren’t much interested in hockey, that didn’t leave you with many options. You had to make your own fun. I clung to my guitar like a life preserver. I didn’t want to drown in eternal boredom or participate in drug and alcohol-induced escapism. I was always that sober guy at parties that sang the songs people wanted to hear with an acoustic guitar in hand. I am grateful for the experience though. Welland taught me boredom and from boredom, comes creativity. Thank you, Welland. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Angie: What changes do you think need to happen in small towns to make them better places for young people to grow up in?

Ryan: I think that younger populations shouldn’t be neglected by politicians simply because they are not of voting age or do not vote. It is from this neglect in activity-based infrastructure for young people that many younger folks go down the wrong path. I hope that in the future, small towns invest more money into programs and youth-centred public works that provide many of these teens and young adults with an outlet. The Internet was pretty slow in my day, so things may have changed now, but back then, that’s what I would have said. Now, the new generation is a lot different and it would probably be important for municipalities to ask them directly what they would like to see, just like I was asked after In This Town came out in Peter’s movie.

Angie: What things have you learnt over the years about being a musician?

Ryan: Music has the ability to change someone’s emotions, influence someone’s decisions, and communicate on behalf of those who have trouble articulating exactly what they think or feel. I am truly lucky to have both been influenced by, and now influence others for positive and progressive change both inward and outward as a result of music. No matter how difficult it can get on the road, or how uninspired one feels as a musician from time to time, music and its magical qualities seem to pull all of us through. Every. Single. Time.

Angie: Any advice for aspiring musicians?

Ryan: Trust your gut. It never lies. If you believe in something, don’t be afraid to stand up and practice that belief. And always remember: music is subjective. Just because somebody doesn’t like your music, doesn’t mean that its bad. All that matters is that you love what you do and you would be doing it regardless of money, sustenance, and shelter. Being disciplined in honing your craft is also crucial. But before discipline, there needs to be self-belief. If you lose that, it’s a hard spark to reignite. Always remember why you chose to be a musician or rather, why being a musician chose you.

You can follow Street Pharmacy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and their official website.

Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!

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