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Dead End Career Club

Apr 27, 2020

By Melissa Rodwell

Interview by Jules Ross

Photos By: Ryan Kennedy

It was a quiet, spring Saturday morning in 2018, and I had just unlocked the front door of the local Williamsburg dive bar where I worked at the time. It was looking like it might be a slow, boring day when suddenly, “Black in Black” started blasting from the speakers. A smoke machine appeared from nowhere and began spraying its vapors towards the door. A fire-breathing aerialist, wearing a jeweled thong and pasties swung down from the ceiling, performing air splits. The door opened and invisible fans started blowing Ryan Kennedy’s wild, bleached blonde hair. His shirt flew open in the wind as he walked through the door (in slow motion), and tore off his sunglasses.

Okay, so maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But when I look back on that day, that’s how I see it in my mind. It’s not often that I meet someone with so much rock n’ roll panache in Brooklyn these days. It was even more surprising to find that Ryan is so refreshingly humble and genuine. 

Kennedy was one half of the now-defunct clothing line No Name Saint and is currently the brains behind Dead End Career Club, a hybrid of music and clothing. I was awed by Kennedy’s ability to expertly dye and distress the hell out of clothing for No Name Saint, and continue to be inspired, amused, and even comforted by the cheeky, quiet rants he creates for the music and clothing for Dead End Career Club. 

Quarantined in the small town he lives in an hour and a half from Toronto, Ryan talked to me on Zoom about social media, ministers, music, and middle-age.

Jules: How far back in your history do we need to go, in order to explain how you came to be who you are now. What was growing up like for you?  

RK: My father was a Pentecostal minister, so I grew up in a strict Christian home. I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music and I didn’t have cable, we didn’t have a computer, we didn’t have a VCR…I read books. My dad had a guitar and I picked that up when I was thirteen or fourteen, and that was sort of game over for me. I wanted to learn how to write songs and, like so many kids, I was in a series of teenage bands that were fun, but weren’t that good. (laughs) 

Jules: How did your dad feel about that?

 RK: He was fine and supportive of me making the music. He was still “iffy” about the kind of music I made and where I played. I started out playing in church, and then there were some bridges to cross when I wanted to start playing in bars…that didn’t go over that great. But at this point in my life, my parents are very supportive. And they’re very different people than they were twenty years ago. My dad’s not a minister anymore. Not to say that faith isn’t there, it still is, but his attitudes towards certain things have changed, and so have mine. 

Jules: Do you think you had anything to do with them coming around, in terms of having to accept your differences?

 RK: Well I can’t take credit for it solely. But, I have a brother and two sisters as well. And I think it’s safe to say that none of his kids turned out the way he thought they would. And I understand. I mean, my dad was a minister and his parents were Christians, my grandfather was a minister. And you have kids and expect them to grow up in the church, and you have a picture of how their life may turn out, and none of our lives have turned out like they thought. So then you have a choice. You can either consistently compare your kids to the expectations you had for them, or you can accept who they’ve become, and love them for who they’ve become. And my parents have done a great job of doing that. 

Jules: Did you stop going to church eventually?

RK: Yeah, I haven’t attended church regularly in probably twenty years. It’s a very complex subject to talk about. I mean, just because I haven’t gone and sat down in a church doesn’t mean that I don’t have faith, or that I don’t have a relationship with God, or that I don’t believe in certain things. I do. But when you grow up in church, and I went like four or five times a week…you sometimes see the worst of it, and it can sort of scar you in ways that you wouldn’t think it would. And there was just something about going to church that I didn’t enjoy anymore. 

Jules: So when you stopped going to church, then what? Were you playing in bands? 

RK: Yeah, so when I was about twenty, I started to take it (music) more seriously, and I didn’t go to church or play in churches anymore, I played in bars. And my first serious band, when I was in my early twenties, got a record deal in Canada, and that was it for me. For the next fifteen years, over the series of three different bands, music was my full-time thing. In that fifteen-year period, I also opened a vintage clothing store since, you know, rock n’ roll doesn’t pay that well. So yeah, starting in my early twenties, I was in a series of bands that were supposed to be big, and (laughs)…weren’t. 

Jules: If you weren’t listening to secular music growing up, how did you come to rock?

RK: I mean, that’s the interesting thing. When I started this first serious band, my brother was in it, so he’s a pastor’s son. The other two guys in the band were also pastors’ sons, and then the guitar player was an ordained minister. So we were all a bunch of Christian kids, playing trashy, garage-y, rock n’ roll in bars. We got signed and hooked up with a producer in Montreal, and we went to Montreal for two months to make a record. We went into the studio with this producer, and we’d play the song and he’d say, “Oh man, that sounds like ‘Wire,’” or “That sounds like ‘Television,’” or that sounds like ‘The Hellacopters.’” And we were like, “I don’t even know those bands.” (Laughs) So I’ve gone back over the last twenty years and learned a whole bunch of stuff that I should’ve learned when I was fourteen. And this was 2004, so this was the tail end of record labels handing out big record deals, so there were advances and that sort of stuff…and we just blew our advances on records. 

Jules: I was listening to your new EP, and I really like how you modernize rock music by talking about things like Soundcloud and social media, but you keep that raw rock sound as well. I feel like your music is something that I can relate to as a 40-year old, but also something that a 20-year old could relate to as well.

RK: At this point in my life, the only thing I have to offer is myself. And that means that I can’t hide that I’m forty. I’ve had label people tell me when I was in my early 30s, not to put my face on the (album) cover, because they didn’t want people to prejudge the music by seeing that I wasn’t nineteen. And that’s from well-meaning people that care about me and my success. But that’s the advice I’m getting, “You need to hide who you are.” And I don’t see any point in that now, and I also don’t see any point in being some sort of, like, stuck-in-twenty-years-ago guy, that’s not willing to acknowledge that Soundcloud exists. I mean, I am trying to navigate my way through 2020’s music industry, and 2020’s digital world. And I struggle with that, and it filters into my writing. So I am sort of an “old” guy talking about new stuff. But that’s all I can be, and I have no interest in being anything else. I don’t know where that leaves me in terms of a target audience, but I don’t really care. 

Jules: I wonder all the time, why the decision makers who determine what music gets heard by the masses, seem to feel that musicians can’t become more marketable as they get older. I mean, the thirty and above market is huge, and they have money. Older artists still have issues that so many people can relate to, probably in our current times more than ever. Do you ever think there could be a movement of thirty and up “rockstars” making more of a mark than they have in past decades?

RK: Well in my optimistic moments, I do believe that. Because I see it in television and film. I see it in books. Why is it the music industry is like “No, no…we only make stuff for kids?” Or “We only make stuff for a 35-plus audience with already established artists?” There’s a lot of wonderful music being made for my age demographic, it’s just the stuff that rises to the surface is made by artists that have been famous for ten or fifteen years. It’s not very often that you come across a brand new artist that’s forty. But there are television shows and movies that are absolutely targeted to my demographic, and not targeted to nineteen-year-olds. It’s kind of fucked that the music industry is so behind on that. 

Jules: That’s a really great observation. I watch new TV shows all the time that make references to things that only someone in our generation would know about. How is that not happening with music?

RK: Yeah, they’re based on relatable experiences to people of my age group. Not to say that nineteen-year-olds can’t enjoy it or take something from it. But the people that made it are my age, the actors, the storyline is based on people my age, going through experiences that I go through. I know it’s made for me. But music is far behind on that. 

Jules: We seem to be in an abusive relationship with social media…we come back to it even though it hurts us in a variety of ways. Has your art and music changed since social media came into existence?

RK: Yeah, I think social media is so overwhelming and so pervasive in our lives that it filters into my work, in a way that the same sort of metrics didn’t twenty years ago. So the same sort of feelings I have about posting something on Instagram and not many people liking it, or not having a lot of followers…are the same feelings that I had fifteen years ago when I made a record. I was checking sales charts and I was checking radio charts. And I was wondering why my music video got added to MTV in light rotation, and not heavy rotation. Why did this band get this tour, and I didn’t get this tour? Same feelings…why does this person have so many social media followers and I don’t? But there was, like, four or five metrics to use before, and you could hide them pretty well. It’s like, if you don’t send me the radio charts, I can’t check ‘em. Now I cannot hide from those metrics. So I have to choose to see the metrics and to absorb them in a different way. And I think that because I’m human, and I’m willing to be honest about it, I openly talk about how those metrics make me feel. Some days I hide them better than others, and some days they hit me and I think, “What the fuck?” 

Jules: So you toured for fifteen years and had a clothing shop…was that No Name Saint?

RK: No I had a vintage clothing shop called Sympathy for the Rebel. It was just a traditional vintage clothing shop. I had to close that because I was touring a lot, and I started No Name Saint after that. When I started with NNS, it was basically an extension of my vintage shop…picking vintage band shirts, bleaching them, and distressing them or painting on them. And then I realized that was not terribly original, and there were other people doing that, and doing it better. And a friend of mine gave me a heat press, and I started to figure out how to use that and how to do something different with that. I figured out how to make my own prints, and I started putting words on t-shirts. And the whole idea is that they were one offs. What I don’t like about fashion is you pick this crazy cool shirt that’s supposed to make you stand out, and you go to a bar and someone else is wearing it. (laughs) So, that’s never been me. If I’m gonna wear something, I’m gonna alter it, or paint it, or rip it up so that I’m the only one that has it. That’s just a personal thing, but I wanted the brand to be an extension of that. So I made hundreds and hundreds of shirts and jackets because they were all one offs. 

Jules: So after No Name Saint, just based on what I saw on your social media, it seemed like you were a bit broken up about that ending. Was it hard starting over on something new?

RK: Yeah, No Name Saint was just me and my partner Kurt. Kurt was also the drummer in two of my bands, so we’re great friends and tight, and he just wanted to move on with his life in a more financially solid way. I’m one of the last guys standing saying, “Hey I still wanna do this.” So I’m pretty used to people saying, “I’ve aged out of this” or “I love this, but I can’t do it for a career.” So I would never begrudge somebody their choice to move on. But I also felt like No Name Saint had run its course and that was something I had started with him, and if I was gonna do something else I needed it to be a fresh start. And that also coincided with the end of my last band, so it was kind of this period of endings, and I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do. So yeah, it was a little bit of a down period. But not with anger, just with you know…okay, endings.

Jules: What do you think it is that makes you not age out of things?

RK: I’ve asked myself that question a lot, and I’ve wished that I could age out of it, or phase out of it many times. But pretty much since the moment that I picked up the guitar and wrote my first song, I’ve lived every day just wanting to do that. Every time I’ve tried to convince myself I should want something else, it feels like a betrayal. So I don’t know why I’m wired this way. And I think what I’ve come to accept is that I am wired this way, and I need to find a way to keep doing this, whatever that looks like. I mean, it’s called Dead End Career Club for a reason. I know the prospects aren’t great. (laughs)

Jules: Yeah, I assumed the name had something to do with that. How did you arrive at that name? 

RK: Well, there are a lot of well-meaning people who love me, that have, over the years gently told me, “You might want to find something else to do.” (laughs) You try something and it doesn’t work, and by the end of the third time you’re like, “Okay, if I willingly choose to go down this road again, I have to know exactly what road I’m going down, and that is a dead-end path commercially.” But artistically and emotionally I don’t believe in dead ends, so…

Jules: I saw a shirt or a jacket on your IG that says 1-800-NOT-PUNK. How do you describe what is “not punk?”

RK: (Laughs) I put that on a lot of stuff, actually, but sometimes it’s hidden. I was on this 1-800 number kick. (laughs) I was making up these fake 1-800 numbers and 1-800-NOT-PUNK was one of them. I don’t know what punk is (laughs). I think punk is something that gets co-opted a lot, and I think that there would be people out there that say I’m co-opting it…that this style of jackets that I make and the ripped t-shirts and stuff speaks to a punk world that I don’t actually like. I mean, “The Clash” is one of my favorite bands ever. Are they punk? I don’t know. According to Johnny Lydon they’re not punk! But I don’t like the Sex Pistols either! (laughs) It’s just one of those things that you could ask ten different people and get ten different answers as to what is punk or what is not punk. 

When I put 1-800-NOT-PUNK on a jacket if you tell me “That’s not punk,” or “That’s fake punk,” I can say, “Yeah, I fuckin’ told you! It says right there it’s not punk!” (Laughing) I didn’t call it punk, I’m not telling you that it’s punk, I’m not telling you that I’m punk…I’m just telling you that this is what I like. 

Jules: I think it comes down to authenticity. You don’t have to be squatting on the Lower East Side or something to be punk. It’s more about intention.

RK: I agree. I think people that make really hard decisions in life, both creatively and just like, lifestyle decisions, relationship decisions that are counter to the decisions that most people would make, that have the guts to do that…I think that’s punk. I think standing up for things is punk. Having opinions and sticking by them, no matter what they are, I think that’s punk. So yeah, I don’t think you have to have a mohawk and spikes on your jacket and like Rancid, but I’m not saying you can’t! So yeah, it’s just a play on the lack of an overall definition of punk. 

Jules: So your clothing line is Dead End Career Club and your band is Dead End Career Club…

RK: Well, it’s not really a clothing line. I mean, you can’t go online and buy it. There’s only one store in Nashville that sells my stuff. So that’s the only place you can go in and buy Dead End Career Club clothing. I’ve spent too much of my life thinking, “How am I gonna make money from this?” and then that impacts what I do. I think it’s just natural. You ask yourself, “How am I gonna make money from this?” Well, find the audience and cater to them. But what if what you actually wanna do isn’t built to cater to anybody? It’s built to be an expression of who you are, and your good days and your bad days and all that stuff. That’s not gonna cater very well to a target audience. So, it’s not much of a business, it’s an art project. It’s an extension of me and all the things that I do, all the things that I find interesting. And the canvases happen to be songs and clothing. 

Jules: Your EP is five songs. How do they all relate to each other so that you decided to release them as an album, rather than singles? And where did the title “Skim Milk” come from?

RK: The title refers to the trimming of the fat. I’ve gone from being in a five-piece rock band…then a three-piece band, then a two-piece band, and then playing to a track, and now it’s just me playing with one string and singing. It’s as bare as I can get. If you take the one string away then I’m just acapella, which you’re not gonna hear that (laughs). 

As to how the songs relate to each other…it’s not a concept album. They relate to each other the same way all my work does in that they’re these little snapshots of how I feel about myself on any given day. And I think that I do look for this overall arc between the clothing work and the music to be speaking the same language. And I feel there’s enough consistency there that I wanted to batch them together. I also feel like my music is not one that easily fits onto a playlist. Like, it’s a good mood ruin-er if you put it on the wrong playlist (laughs). And so the idea of just piecing out these singles one at a time…that’s not enough to get you actually into what I’m doing. I think for me, I wanted to put a bunch of songs together so you could sit down and at least spend twenty minutes listening to my vibe, instead of just one song at a time. I think it’s a bit more vibe music than playlist or single stuff. 

You said on your Spotify bio that you were “featured in Elle and Vogue, and other publications that mattered to you when.” 

RK: (Laughs…hard) Who reads bios, right? 

Jules: When did they matter to you and when did they stop?

RK: I mean, I’ll be honest with you, if Vogue wanted to write about me now, that would matter to me. But, it mattered to me a lot when we started No Name Saint. We hired a publicist, and they actually posted some of our pieces, and I have those framed in my house. That did matter to me…in the same way that having a record label mattered to me. As these sort of barometers of success. They matter to me less now. Whether “Vogue” writes about me or not, it’s not gonna impact how I work. But you know, when you do get in “Elle” and they like something, it’s like, “Oh, well I’ll just do more of that.” In the same way that if you have a song that gets on the radio, you say, “Well, why don’t I just write another version of that?” And so it gets in your head. It’s not in my head now. But I would be lying to you if I said, “Yeah if Vogue called and said they wanted to talk to me, I would say no.” I wouldn’t fuckin’ say no! But it doesn’t matter to me like it used to.  

Find Dead End Career Club:

Website | Instagram | Spotify

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