Sam Ray and I decide to eat at Brooklyn’s Le Barricou because of their massive pancakes. The noisy Sunday brunch crowd isn’t exactly conducive to an intimate interview, but today the pancakes take precedence. After the advertised 45-minute cook time, our plates of heaven arrive, much to the envy of those seated around us. The waitress asks what makes Ray worthy of an interview. On cue, he replies that he’s the most famous cosplayer of all time.
Ray is actually the 22-year-old Baltimore-based musician behind Teen Suicide, Julia Brown, and Ricky Eat Acid. He’s never formally studied music, but he has such an impressive understanding of sound that his three main projects are drastically different: Teen Suicide, his melodramatic punk band, broke up in 2012 but recently reunited for a short tour that a posthumous rise in popularity made possible; his folky lo-fi group, Julia Brown, released a more-sweet-than-apathetic debut tape, To Be Close To You, in 2013; and since 2009 he’s recorded solo material as Ricky Eat Acid. Though the moniker has been around for five years, his debut full-length as Ricky Eat Acid, Three Love Songs, was only released this January. All 250 LPs and 100 cassettes sold out in less than 48 hours.
The laptop I’m using to record our interview feels obtrusive in the cramped restaurant. It doesn’t help that we’re sharing a table with two very animated girls. Ray and I are roughly the same size, and we both kind of resemble giants next to our tiny coffee mugs. Each time I check to make sure the recording is working, Ray checks his phone, which is constantly lighting up with Twitter notifications.
Twitter is the main outlet for Ray’s sense of humor. He rarely takes the site seriously, using it either as a place to post absurd statements or to praise an album he’s really into at the moment. While his blunt tweets may occasionally make him seem like a sarcastic asshole, he balances his more misanthropic moments with endless praise and support for his peers.
A little misanthropy is to be expected from the Baltimore native, though. Anyone familiar with Ray’s music knows that he can be unflinchingly dark and cynical. (Sample lyric: “If you still hate yourself / We’ll cut ourselves and swallow chunks of broken glass I don’t care about finishing college / I’ll buy the biggest TV that my credit card allows me we’ll watch the Food Network for the rest of our lives.”) His current persona is much more upbeat, but there could easily be an angsty LiveJournal account hidden within the depths of the Internet.
Ray describes his past self as “dead-eyed nihilistic,” and he still couldn’t care less about pleasing anyone. If his years of not caring taught him anything, it was how to not care in a less destructive way. “I can’t keep up with how bitter everyone on Twitter is,” he says. “I’m not bitter. I think I’ve been jaded too long to be jaded. You can only be angry at things for so long before you’re like, ‘Everything is really funny and enjoyable.’”
The January release of Three Love Songs shot Ray into new levels of the music stratosphere, meaning that he’s been getting a lot of publicity. While one would initially think Ray would appreciate this sort of attention, it makes him more nervous than anything. “Lately I’ve been really scared because everyone I like, both as a critic and bands I like, started following me on Twitter over a span of two days,” he says while checking his phone.
This surge in popularity doesn’t mean he’ll be changing his humor to please his new audience. Instead, he urges his followers to play along with him. “A lot of my sense of humor is just lying, [but] not because I want anyone to believe it,” he says. “I’ve struggled forever… like, when is a joke is funny to me but not also really off-putting? I don’t want to tweet anything that, even if it is taken seriously, won’t offend, it would just be weird and confusing.”
Earlier in the morning, while waiting to be seated, Ray tells me about something that happened before I arrived: “A group of women were lamenting the lack of Starbucks in Brooklyn and complaining about ‘selfie culture’ and then this dude in a Supreme hat literally just walks up to one of them, says, ‘Hey beautiful,’ and then they all leave together.” True to form, Ray is critical, sarcastically admiring the aplomb of the dude while also taking issue with the women who lamented selfie culture.
Though the majority may side with the selfie-hating women, Ray is unabashedly obsessed with some of the most painful aspects of pop culture (selfies, of course, being a prime example). He uses the words “basic” and “sus” more than any of the boys I go to college with, and, through mouthfuls of pancakes, freely name drops notable rap, hip-hop, and R&B talents. He tells me about how Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 3 is a favorite mixtape, how Drake is “a national treasure and he’s not even from this country,” and about Cam’ron’s 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper in which the rapper talks about how he wouldn’t turn in someone that shot at him (no snitching) and how if he lived next to a serial killer he would simply just move.
Ray’s voice tightens as if trying to prevent a huge burst of laughter. “That is my all-time favorite thing,” he proclaims, referencing Cam’ron’s mentality. “I’m obsessed with that, that’s how I want to approach my life.” One thing I notice throughout our conversation is Ray’s liberal use of the word “obsessed,” which he also uses to describe his relationship with Le Barricou’s pancakes (though this is understandable).
We are both finally awake thanks to two pleasingly-strong coffees. I ask him about rap misogony, objectification, and the complicated issue of enjoying morally problematic art, knowing that he will have very strong opinions on the subject. It’s an issue we both struggle with, and it’s an issue we feel lacks a concrete answer. “On one hand, I’m sort of into the separation and then I’m also not,” Ray says. “I think personal enjoyment is totally up to you as an audience.”
Inevitably, Tyler, the Creator is brought up, and we find that we shared a fascination with the Odd Future ring leader when he exploded onto the scene. “Here’s an angry kid making really weird music and is really upset about not knowing his dad,” says Ray.
Odd Future gained notoriety through their vulgarity at such a young age, but just because shock value was a large part of how their early success doesn’t mean they shouldn’t mature as they get older. When Earl Sweatshirt returned from Samoa after a mysterious hiatus, he seemed like a different person than the kid who shocked his listeners with homophobic slurs and casual mention of rape, assault, and murder (“It’s Earl, Mr. Lateshift, rapist in training”). He later admitted personal growth comes with age (“I’m an adult. I can’t be fucking talking about raping people and shit. That shit’s crazy. As an adult, if you want to talk about rape, there’s certain shit that comes along with it”), and that if his fans merely wanted obscenities, they should look elsewhere.
Though they exist on completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum, Ray realizes that Teen Suicide and Odd Future share some similarities. “As a personality, Tyler knows what he is doing,” he begins to say. “I would hate myself if I was in his position, like, here’s my crowd of angry teens.” But he falters off, realizing, “I guess that’s exactly what Teen Suicide has.”
Both groups have massive teen Tumblr fanbases, although Teen Suicide’s began after they broke up. “It was random funny shit, like Molly Soda got into us, and that’s how the Tumblr scene got into us,” Ray laughs. “No shade, but that’s one of the worst things that could have happened in a way.”
After the break up, Ray posted on Teen Suicide’s Facebook page, “If you liked Teen Suicide cause of pop songwriting and melody you’ll probably like the new band [Julia Brown] but if you just liked the really over-dramatic drug addict depression catharsis stuff you’ll be disappointed and I’m glad.”
Like the older, wiser Earl Sweatshirt, Ray urges his young audience to not take his past self-loathing too seriously: “We do everything not to alienate it intentionally, but to be like, ‘Hey everyone, grow up.’”
The night before our brunch, Ray played the fourth Orchid Tapes showcase at Shea Stadium as Ricky Eat Acid. His car has been amassing some pretty serious mileage as a result of the frequent drive from Maryland to New York, a place he detests. Although it’s raining and his car is having some problems, the trek is definitely worth it this time as he sings along to his pals in R.L. Kelly, ALex G, and Elvis Depressedly.
Considering the big names Ray has been playing with lately (Rhye, Jessy Lanza, How To Dress Well), the wrinkled-fitted sheet draped under his keyboard at Shea Stadium appeared casual. For his performance he’s joined on stage by Warren Hildebrand, Orchid Tapes co-founder. Hildebrand’s presence acts as a buffer for Ray, who is usually surrounded by bandmates.
Hildebrand has been an enormous help to Ray, acting as both a mentor and a pal. “It was a really natural, easy fit to do live Ricky stuff with Warren because he knows the technical side 100% and I know 0% about it,” Ray says. “He has taught me a ton. Also, I knew for a while that his live set involved a lot of samplers, instruments, pedals, effects, and mixing, but no computers, which is what I wanted to at least start with.”
As our stomachs reach peak pancake-fullness, I realize the most obvious question has yet to be asked: How does the experience of ambient, electronic Ricky Eat Acid differ from that of lo-fi projects like Teen Suicide and Julia Brown? The biggest difference, according to Ray, is his own vision: “I had a very defined idea for the first time, like what I wanted.”
Ray has been working on the second Julia Brown LP since 2012. As of now, the album has no clear release date, format, or label, but it promises to be different than 2013’s expansive To Be Close To You. In 2014 Julia Brown is less like a band and more like the “strange collective-y collaborative-y project” that its cast of rotating members always envisioned. At the moment, bandmates Alec Simke and John Toohey only appear on one song, while vocalist/viola player Caroline White plays on several.
His greatest goal for the album is to create a cool, unique way for people to listen to the album. “I’m just going to make a collection of burned CDs with homemade art, USB drives hidden inside things, download codes, and tapes with no labels but with flower petals inside in a way that doesn’t mess up the reel, which I’ve figured out how to do,” he says. “I’m making a lot of zines, a lot of other stuff. All the lyrics, explanations kind of, not like cut and dry, but definitely more of an explanation like ‘This is why it matters to me.’”
Maybe my head is clouded by all of the fluffy pancakes I just ate, but I can’t imagine anything more dreamy.