Q&A: Ricky Eat Acid on COVID-19 creativity and his new album

Ricky Eat Acid

Ricky Eat Acid, the solo project of Baltimore-based musician Sam Ray, has risen to prominence in in the DIY electronic scene since its debut in 2011, churning out tunes that Ray describes as “beautiful escapist death-art.” Mixed Mantra recently sat down with Ray to discuss the project’s origins, his new album and the impacts of a global pandemic on creativity. Also, ghost stories.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MIXED MANTRA: Who is Ricky and does he eat acid?

RICKY EAT ACID: That’s a tough one to answer because I don’t want to jeopardize anything in his life at this point, but he’s a very close friend of mine to this day. I gave the project its name over 10 years ago. We’d just gotten out of high school and Ricky and some other friends came into a bunch of acid one night. Some of them had done it, some wanted to do it. I’m not a fan of psychedelics. I’ve never done acid. That’s very amusing to a lot of people. They were really stoked, and seeing as it’s not my thing, I told them that I’d be the designated driver for the night. So we left some dumb party and I drove everyone around while they tripped and smoked some blunts in the suburbs outside of Baltimore.

We’d gone over to my mom’s house, who has a very liberal parenting style. You know, “You can smoke weed in the house, just don’t drive drunk, don’t drive high and don’t get arrested.” Ricky, while tripping, left her a note on the counter to let her know we’re all safe and why we’re not home. The next day, when I got back, she was laughing. He’d written, “Ricky eat acid.” He didn’t even conjugate it right. She thought that was hysterical, which speaks to her and how much she loves Ricky. It stuck. A while later, I needed a name for the music I’d been making for so long, and we narrowed it down and got to that eventually. I asked him how he felt about it and he loved it. He thought it was hilarious. I wasn’t thinking at the time about the fact that I was cementing it as what anyone I met through music would call me, but I’m fine with it. A lot of people think my real name, Sam Ray, is made up, and that my real name is Ricky. But yeah, Ricky’s real. He still gets such a kick out of it.

MM: How did you first get into producing?

REA: I’ve been messing with music my whole life. Not in a Mozart prodigy sense at all. I was no good at anything, really. We had a piano growing up and I loved sitting there with it. I taught myself how to read music and play it from a weird little religious Christmas book my grandma gave me that had a playable electric piano built into it. It sounds super weird. Only the white notes worked if you pushed really hard on them and it made a horrible, buzzing calculator synth sound. I used that as a jumping off point. I never got good at playing piano or reading music, but it started there. Over the years, it’s always been a thing in the background of whatever I was doing.

Most of the Ricky Eat Acid piano songs are not me playing. There are a couple that are, and you can usually tell. They’re really simple and slow. They’re not really technical or pristine and they sound really badly recorded. I love that and I can do that. I can do a “mood.” When I was younger, I wanted to compose, maybe to prove that I could. As a teen, I got really into stuff like Aphex Twin and artists like that. More than any other electronic music I knew at the time, I was mind-blown that he could [put together] such beautiful compositions on top of the technical wizardry he was doing. I started trying to teach myself Fruity Loops because I could download it for free on my mom’s piece-of-junk computer. That started teaching me about sampling and instrument building. Being a youth, I wanted to use those programs to make the most horrific noises I could. “Can I make crazy drum and bass?” I couldn’t, but I tried and I tried. I got super sucked into it. I started devoting tons of time to it in between school, smoking weed and doing whatever. Eventually, I got decent enough at it that I felt like I didn’t have to treat it as a joke. My friends all played guitar and skated, so I had to find a way to smuggle the interest in so it wasn’t lame, which sounds ridiculous now. We’d film and edit skate videos and I couldn’t skate, so I’d film and edit them. I was like, “Hey, now I can make beats and music for this stuff. We don’t have to just steal stuff from YouTube.”

Eventually, that turned into a real thing. At first, I just burned CDs and gave them out to friends. I found Bandcamp in 2010 and it was mind-blowing. Like, “Oh my god, I can upload full albums.” Back then, it was cool because it could be free forever. Without Spotify and with no one using YouTube to really listen to music, it was so cool to be able to share something.

MM: Was there an “oh shit” moment when your music started really picking up traction online, or was it more of a slow progression?

REA: Kind of both. I still have trouble feeling any type of way about it. I make music because I like to and I’m lucky if anyone hears it at all. I know it’s a little different now than it was when it started, and it’s hard for me to accept it, I guess. I’m not trying to be humble about it. There are a lot of times I should own that. Like recently, because of COVID-19, every job we’ve had this year has been squashed for the most part. Almost all of them were things that required travel and in-person collaboration. I’m very lucky to still make some money from the music I’ve released already.

There are a ton of small “oh shit” moments. Iggy Pop played some of my Ricky Eat Acid songs on BBC. In an interview, he listed me as one of the most exciting electronic artists he’d come across, and that was really cool. It gave me something to send to my “cool uncles” growing up to blow their minds. Jamie xx put one of my earliest songs in a mix that he did. It was a remix of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In The World).” I got home from community college and had like 10 people texting me about it. That was the first one that was super mind-blowing. I’d loved his music for so long. We ended up in communication over it for a while. The xx came to town and invited me to the show. Not to play it, but to see it. It was so cool. There have been a lot of those now. I’ve been able to meet the people who inspired me to start making music or have shaped the music I do make. That’s the coolest thing in the world to me.

I especially love when people hit me up and tell me something meaningful one of my songs or albums did for them. I had someone talk to me recently who’d just gotten out of rehab. They’d listened to a couple albums of mine on a loop to stay sane during that period. That kind of thing is so meaningful.

MM: How have you been able to translate your dreamy production style into a live performance?

REA: I’m glad you asked that. That’s been my biggest challenge. I’m so proud of how I’ve figured out a way to do it. There’s some stuff that I’ll never be able to replicate live, unless I literally hit a button and play the song. That’s kind of a thing that a lot of people do but no one wants to admit it. That’s great if people enjoy seeing it, but I hate doing it. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve had to, but I tried making it more fun by not using laptops and only using a sampler. I grew up with an idea that’s now outdated of what a live performance is. I know a lot of people go to shows to enjoy hearing something they already know and bounce around to it. For me, as someone playing it, I want to be doing everything. Over the years, I’ve stitched a show together that I’m really proud of that avoids that. Sometimes I use a laptop, but I use it as a sampler. Mostly, I don’t even use one at all.

I use a bunch of different combinations of stuff depending on the show. The most involved version is the one I used in a live stream over the summer. I have a bunch of stuff all around me. I’ve played some festivals and shows this way. It’s almost on the ground, like Dan Deacon does with his gear around him in a circle instead of on a keyboard stand or whatever. It’s a mellow version of that. I’ll go into a show with a basic idea of what I want to play and how I want to fill the time so it all transitions. I’ll have my sampler, and tons of things are loaded on it. I usually have a cheat sheet because it’s really hard to memorize and I don’t want to hit the wrong thing. I’ll have a couple of keyboards that have different functions. I have one that does this awesome, deep-as-shit sub-base. Sometimes I’ll have a guitar and pedals so I can loop and have stuff reverb out to hell. The biggest things are these two tape players I use for shows all of the time. I make tapes of piano loops and put one in each. I’ll have them in different keys, and when you fade them in together, they’ll sync up at first and then they’ll de-align themselves and create this weird chorus delay of two pianos playing the same thing, slightly out of sync and slightly out of tune. You can create all of these crazy ambient pieces. It’s like live pitch manipulation. It’s all about creating a bed of sound to put samples and notes on top of. If you know the song already, you’ll recognize it, but it’ll be a new version of it.

MM: What can you tell us about your new album?

REA: It’s coming out this fall. It’s an album I wrote mostly in 2015 and 2016, but it went into limbo due to a billion reasons out of my control. No one I worked with wanted to put it out, which is fine, because it’s… unique. It sat in the background while I worked on a bunch of other stuff.

In the past year and a half or so, I went back to it and tried to make it better in every way. I don’t know if you’ve ever played old JRPGs like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy, but it’s basically based on the music from those games, like how Stardew Valley and Undertale do it now. It started because I was up to do a job making music for a retro, throwback game like that. I created some stuff to show for it, and by the time stuff really rolled around, it had crashed and burned for various reasons. They ended up saying, “Yeah, you can take those ideas and do what you want with them.” It got me thinking about taking that style and making an album out of it. It’s like this weird netherworld soundtrack for a game, but the game doesn’t exist. It’s new music. It’s very much a Ricky Eat Acid album in the truest sense, which I’m really proud of.

MM: How has quarantine impacted your creative process?

REA: It’s been a super weird year. I thought it’d be really easy to fully focus on all of these projects I wanted to work on. I had all of this time I wanted to spend doing this and that. It totally hasn’t worked out that way. I completely underestimated how stressful living through a pandemic with a pre-existing lung condition would be. The first few months were spent kind of living in terror but trying not to. It made it really hard to do anything, and we had all of these other stressful things going on at the same time. Recently, stuff’s been great, though. We moved into a new house, which was very badly needed. It’s made us feel good about working and being creative again. It’s like a light switch; when it’s off, you can’t do anything. It’s like walking through the Swamp of Sadness in “The Neverending Story.” When you flip it on, it’s like, “Oh, I can do this again.” You have ideas either way, but you’re happy with the ideas and you want to see where they go. It’s still tough balancing a normal life of stressful responsibilities with the pandemic. Everything is stranger and harder to do during this, but it’s definitely been easier to find a balance lately.

MM: We love “Haunt U Forever.” Do you have any fun ghost stories?

REA: Oh man, yeah. I love ghosts. I mean, I don’t love ghosts. I don’t want to be haunted. When I have nothing to do, I’ll try to find forums and subreddits about people’s scariest experiences, and thousands of people will be telling these stories about horrific, unexplainable events. You have to decide whether or not to believe them, but who cares? It’s so fun.

I’m not going to go on the record and say, “I’ve seen a ghost.” I feel like I might’ve, though. I had a girlfriend in high school — shoutout to her; she’s really nice — and her house was really haunted. They had a normal house, and then they had an extension put onto it, and apparently that made it haunted? I didn’t buy it and that was my mistake. I went over there and she was like, “Hey, can you go down to the basement and see if the cat’s in there?” We were the only two people in the house. I went to the basement, and it had this big metal door, like a vault. I literally saw it slam in my face. She came and got me after five minutes of banging on it when it wouldn’t open. She was like, “Oh, yeah, I should’ve said that happens.” Another time, when we were the only people home, we were doing laundry, and we stopped to make food in the kitchen. Her mom came home and went upstairs, and she was like, “What the fuck did you do?” We went up, and all of the laundry had been dragged out of the drawers and thrown everywhere.

Another incident: Back in the day, I only had a flip phone. My mom, who I was living with, was like, “Hey, can you go to the grocery store?” So I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I left my phone plugged in on a stool because it was basically dead. I went to the store, came home and there was no phone. I was like, “What the fuck? Where’s my phone?” I looked everywhere. No one else was home but her and she didn’t move it. I was like, “Maybe my brain is broken and I took it to the store.” I went back to the store — no phone. I retraced my steps — no phone. I asked the people there. Nope, no one turned it in. I went home again and it still wasn’t there. I drove back to the store. The sun was setting at this point. I was like, “What do I do?” I don’t know why, but I thought to walk from where I’d parked — I’d parked in the same spot every time — across the parking lot to this little divider strip of grass that I hadn’t gone to at any point. I walked over to it, and my phone was sitting on it, and it was ringing with the ringer on. I never had my ringer on. I picked it up and it was a restricted number calling me. It died as soon as I answered it. What the fuck was that? I have no idea to this day. The only likely explanation is some sort of mental illness that I was not privy to that only showed up that one time, and that’s terrifying on its own.

Another time, I stayed in a haunted hotel on tour. I was travelling the country alone for some reason. One night, I had enough money to stay in a Super 8 in Madison. I sat down and Skyped with my girlfriend at the time. When we were Skyping, the power would go out in the whole room. It was super weird and I got this horrible vibe. I don’t know if you believe in demons or ghosts, but if you do, you know what I’m talking about. I got the vibe. Something was bad there. I’d spent all of my money to stay in this hotel, so I was like, “I’m not leaving.” I was prescribed Xanax at the time and I never took it, but I was like, “I’m going to take some Xanax and ride this out.” Stupid. A horror movie mistake. The power kept going out, and I was like, “Fuck this, I’m going to bed.” I realized once when it went out that I heard water rushing. The power came back on, and the sink had filled with liquid that was dark, dirty and sludgy. I’d used the sink and the shower, and it wasn’t like that any time before. I took some more Xanax to knock myself out. I could do that and sleep forever if I could, but that time, it didn’t work. I woke up at 6 a.m. and still had that vibe. I packed everything in a backpack and got the fuck out of there. I don’t think I even checked out. I threw my keys in the hall. I went to a coffee shop and looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, and my whole body was covered with bruises like someone took a sack of nickels and just started wailing on me. It wasn’t like one big bruise. They were on my whole body. I have no idea what the fuck any of that was. I don’t have an answer. So, don’t ignore the “I need to get out of here” feeling.