Interview with Lyle Hysen of The Royal Arctic Institute

Lyle Hysen talks about his current band The Royal Arctic Institute, working with Arthur Lee of Love, the decline of the Hoboken music scene and career in music licensing.

Having initially played noisy rock with The Misguided and Das Damen, drummer Lyle Hysen has strived to challenge himself by adopting a more low-key playing style with The Royal Arctic Institute. The instrumental quintet fuses post-punk with influences such as cinematic, psychedelia and orchestrated jazz. All the members have extensive musical resumes, with the lineup featuring guitarists John Leon (Roky Erickson, Summer Wardrobe, Abra Moore) and Lynn Wright (And The Wiremen, Bee And Flower, Shilpa Ray), bassist David Motamed (Das Damen, The Misguided, Two Dollar Guitar, Townes Van Zandt), and keyboardist Carl Baggaley (Headbrain, Gramercy Arms). Hysen and Motamed had also worked together backing Arthur Lee of Love on tours from 1992-1994.

The Royal Arctic Institute began in 2016 with a different three-piece configuration consisting of Leon, Hysen, and original bassist Gerard Smith. After releasing two albums, the project petered out before being reinvigorated with a new line-up at the outset of the pandemic. They put out an EP, Sodium Light, in 2021, and have now followed it up with another EP, From Catnap To Coma. The new release was recorded and produced by James McNew of Yo La Tengo in the historic Neumann Leather Factory in Hoboken, NJ.

Beyond his work as a musician, Hysen has had a successful career in music licensing for TV and film. He initially got into the industry working at Matador Records and now runs his own company, Band Robber Music.

How did this incarnation of The Royal Arctic Institute come about?

Lyle Hysen: Well, Das Damen did some recording a few years ago, and I got to play again with my buddy David Motamed. He was in Damen and Misguided and all that stuff. It was very exciting to play with him again. He’s been my friend since. He was at my bar mitzvah. So we decided to reboot a little bit and bring in Mo. We were also jamming with this keyboard player, Carl Baggaley, and then John Leon, the leader, the guitarist of the band. He brought in Lynn Wright, so we decided to do The Royal Arctic Institute 2.0 and reboot it as a five-piece. We did the first EP, Sodium Light, and that came out on cassette on Rhythm & Reason. It was recorded as a four-piece with Lynn guest-starring on three songs. And then the new record—we all worked on it as a five-piece, everybody contributing and making this the true quintet recording.

Tell me about the reason to go with the cassette format. Did that have any impact on our approach to making it?

Lyle Hysen: Well, obviously, we would love to do vinyl, but it is a big headache and a time suck and a financial commitment. We are not a full-time touring band, so ordering a lot of vinyl could just end up in my storage space. So the cassettes came about because my buddy AJ recommended it. We could sell the download codes at the gig and be able to make artwork as well. Scott Bookman, who is John’s friend and lives in Pennsylvania somewhere, does a lot of our artwork [create the cassette artwork]. The cassette format is more financially viable to do those. They’re cheap.

I like records. I like people having something to look at. So, I’m really happy when people buy the cassettes; at least they get to see some artwork. I think when you’re downloading a thing, you’re not really getting it. And also, with the new EP, we wanted the five songs to be listened to as one. You can’t do that with all the streaming services; you can’t upload as just one glip-glop of a track. So with the cassette, we were actually able to make it so you have to listen to it like an album, like one side. Ideally, I wanted to put “Sodium Light” and the new record on one album. That was my plan. But I had to put that on hold.

Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew produced the EP. How did that come about, and what do you feel he brought to it?

Lyle Hysen: First, to be clear, he likes to say he recorded it. So, I have to put that asterisk in there. I’ve known James for a long time. I store my drums in their practice space. I know the last couple of their records have been recorded there. Previously, we worked with Tom Beaujour a lot. He’s been our main producer guy; he was in Hoboken and is up in Union City right now. But this time, honestly, there was a financial component as well. I talked to McNew to see if he was into it. I love how the last Yo La Tengo records have sounded.

So it just came about. I asked him if he had the time to record us, and he did. It was a fascinating process. We cut everything live, with a few mics, in kind of an old-school, jazzy style. There were a couple of overdubs, but overall, it was recorded live. We did it quickly as the five-piece, and McNew mixed it with at least one or two of us; we were tagging in and out on who mixes. We hadn’t figured out which tracks worked better with the person mixing them, so we all tapped in and tapped out.

Being still based in Hoboken, could you comment on the music scene there, and how it has changed over the years?

Lyle Hysen: Hoboken was jumping when I moved there in 1988. There were bands, there were practice spaces, there was a record store, there was a club. You had all the things to have an epicenter for creative artists to move here, and they were living here because it is still close to Manhattan – they haven’t fucked that up. But it was cheaper, and Brooklyn wasn’t really an option at that point. Everyone was moving here. There were several practice spaces. Das Damen was in a space we called Rock and Roll Hell. That was over on Grand Street. All the bands were in that building – Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Sleepy Head, just everybody. It was a beautiful dump. We all practiced there, and the scene was very exciting. There were recording studios here as well. There was Water Music. It had everything you needed. I remember when I was living here, at that time, you barely had to leave. Everything was here. All the great bands were playing here. I practiced here, had a part-time job here. I worked at Pier Platters at one point, the legendary Hoboken record store. That was where you would see everybody—everybody would be hanging there. They would have all the great new records, and talk about and push them. You’d hear about all new bands there. God, I miss record stores like that. Actually, Tunes in Hoboken has done a pretty good job. I think they’ve picked up the mantle all right. Iris in Jersey City is okay. But it was different. You’d just run into people, and now there aren’t many people in the music scene left. I ended up staying. It’s weird. It’s definitely not why I moved here. But like I said, it’s still close to the city, and I do have a practice space here, so I have a couple things going. But it’s been rough. I have to say, it’s a bummer. There’s nowhere to play. I think there’s only five to eight musicians that I’m friends with who are still here. They keep rolling out one by one, and it’s a drag. I have a core group of friends who have stayed, including Bill from Pier Platters who lives across the street from me. There are some great people still here, but I’m not getting a lot of new bands or new energy.

Was it a gradual shift, or did anything in particular lead to the change, such as the closure of Pier Platters or Maxwell’s?

Lyle Hysen: It was all happening. Pier Platters closed, Maxwell’s closed, rents were going up. Wall Street bros were moving in, Wall Street families were moving in. Artists couldn’t afford it. Artists moved out, more rich people moved in—more people who were not artists or creative types. If you’ve been to where Maxwell’s was, the parking lot that sometimes served for it became a whole new development called Maxwell Place. It’s just crazy high rises. It just became more desirable … I once read that people from Wall Street like living there because they can look at their offices on the other side. So, there’s definitely a few good peeps left, but like I said, eventually just everyone bailed. Everyone moved for various reasons. Some people moved out after Sandy, the big storm, because that really freaked out a lot of people.

But now, the infrastructure’s not here. Now we have to figure out if I’m going to go to a show in Brooklyn, am I driving, am I going to take the late-night subway and PATH train? To see new bands, we’ve got a couple of things [in neighboring Jersey City]. White Eagle Hall is nice, and Fox & Crow, but to see a lot of the newer bands, you got to schlep. New York City isn’t even a viable place for bands to play, it seems. So to see a lot of these new bands, it’s a drag.

Photo by Charlotte Hysen

Since you’ve all been involved with different projects, what do you feel are the influences behind what you do as The Royal Arctic Institute?

Lyle Hysen: Well, when I met John Leon the guitar player, through our original bass player, Gerry, we just jammed. And I’d never heard anyone play like John before. I’m coming from more the punk and the grungy/pre-grunge era of guitar players. I played with some amazing musicians, but John’s whole thing was a different set of influences and a different sound. And immediately as we practiced once, I said, “Oh, we’re going to do an instrumental band. Everyone needs to hear what you’re doing, and let’s build around that.” So that was kind of the call. He was really into Bill Frisell and he still is, but I was not in that world. I was hearing more of the Tom Verlaine instrumental albums, you know, warm and cool and things like that.

And I was like, let’s go in that direction. It’s in between, I’d say. We’re not as improvy as those Tom Verlaine albums. And there’s a lot of different elements that were not just a straight Bill Frisell thing. There were a lot of different textures and elements. Especially the last couple of records, I think just playing through what the world was. Not even a COVID thing, just the way the environment was. I think there was a big emphasis on us to kind of chill, to kind of just bring it down and try to put people in a good place if they were listening. Because there was so much noise going on—a bad, bad noise. I definitely, as the drummer, made a very conscious effort to play brushes and small drum kit, trying to really moderate our sound.

Also at this age, especially playing again with Mo, at least for me there was a big conscious effort not to rock. We have our rocking moments, but now I kind of look at Dave once in a while … are we going too Damen on this little section here? Because, I mean, God bless everyone who is still rocking, but I felt it was interesting to make it a challenge at this point in my life.  It sounds really pretentious, but I was just like, okay, I really want to learn how to play this different genre of music. How do I approach this unlike anything else I’ve ever played before? I was trying to work my way around, figuring out how to play this kind of stuff. So that was all part of what helped sculpt what we have become.

How did you come to work with Arthur Lee, and what was that experience like?

Lyle Hysen: Das Damen recorded “Stand Out” for the Arthur Lee tribute compilation. And then the manager, Mark Linn, contacted us. We had disbanded at that point, but he contacted us about trying to put together a backup band. Arthur had Baby Lemonade in LA and it was really his band, but he couldn’t afford to fly them out. I put together three-fourths of Das Damen, and I kind of regret not having Jim [Walters] involved. The first couple of rounds included Alex, Dave Motamed and me as the backing band. The reason we didn’t have a second guitar player is I thought Arthur Lee was going to play more guitar. But we didn’t know. It wasn’t like we were watching YouTube clips of his live show then; we were just reading and hearing about it.

So, it was one guitar. It had to be Alex. I got Mo and tried to play the drums for this thing. It was fascinating. It was amazing to be able to play those songs. I remember doing soundcheck, playing the gig, and hearing his voice coming through the monitor. It was unbelievable. It was crazy. I have to say, to credit Arthur, he wasn’t trying to exactly replicate the records. Those three tours we did with him, he let us play the songs like we played them. The first time he came and heard us, he’d just gotten off the plane from Newark,. He somehow got to our practice space at Rock and Roll Hell. We were not in a nice practice space. He said, “I wanna hear you guys.” We were just the Das Damen trio—we didn’t really have a set. We played “Stand Out” as a three-piece and maybe a couple of his other songs. That was it. And he bounced. And then, maybe it was the next day, we played a show. We sound checked, but didn’t play those songs all the way through until we were performing them live. We were rehearsing as we were playing them.

We didn’t get to run through the set with him until the show. Everyone was hearing it for the first time. He didn’t give us a lot of notes. It was just … a couple of funny things. Alex was heavily into the wah wah, and we really liked “Black Beauty.” That was the Jimi Hendrix / Arthur Lee album that only came out after he passed. We had a bootleg tape that was released. He never wanted that out, but once he passed, his estate put it out. It’s a great record. So, he turned to Alex at one point and said, “‘Lay off that wah wah. That’s for Jimi.”

On the third tour, Alan Licht played guitar, and Dave Motamed. Alan Licht is a great experimental guitar player and we would just jam. I mean, they were out there. We would go on and on, and Arthur was down for it. It was great. We got to ride in the van with him. He took our van, and we went down to DC, I think to play Black Cat or 9:30 Club, or both, on each tour. He just sat there, eating his crackers, drinking whiskey, and reading Rolling Stone.

He was pretty bitter, you know. He definitely had a cross to bear. I don’t think he was too happy to be riding in the van, playing the 9:30 Club. And he was definitely a wild card. I think at one of those DC shows, we were playing “Little Red Book.” “Little Red Book” is just two chords, and he took a tambourine and ran off the stage, leaving us vamping on these two chords. We later found out he had a go to the bathroom, and it was a very inopportune time. Because that was not a song made for jamming! We had to vamp on those two chords for a few good minutes. But he was amazing. The sad end of the tale is that we had two sold-out shows at the Bottom Line. They were flying him in to do the shows. That would’ve been our fourth run with him. At that point, he was getting arrested a bunch for guns and stuff. He called me at the venue. We were all at the venue. He called and said, “I can’t make it. They’re after me. They’re coming after me. They’re following me into the plane. I can’t get on the plane. I have to leave.” That was the last I ever heard from him. That was it.

And I regret, obviously, not seeing him when he did another tour, I think that was with The Zombies. I didn’t go. I know it was more of rehash of how he sounded [in the past.] I wasn’t interested in hearing that, but I should have gone. I wish I would have reached out after that, but the last phone call was so weird. I didn’t know how that landed—did  he still want to talk to us? You know, that was it. It’s a horrible story, which I’m sure they’ll make into a horrible movie at some point. There’s not a happy ending, so I don’t know how they would make it into the movie. But he had new songs. We even practiced a couple. I can’t remember the names of them, but he talked about recording and things like that. I know he put out a single of one of those songs. But yeah, it was amazing. I got to play some really big shows, got to play some really great songs, and I wish the social media and the internet had been more active then as it is now. Because there’d be more proof. I have a bunch of bootlegs, but I don’t even have a photo of us together. Talk about a missed selfie. Wasn’t even a thing then, no selfies.

What was going through your mind when the opportunity first came up? Was there any hesitation in being his backing band, having been doing your own music previously?

Lyle Hysen: We should have been more scared, but we still had some swagger to make us believe we could do it. I listen to those records all the time and think, “How the hell did I even play that part?” You know, the Hal Blaine drum sessions off Forever Changes and even the stuff on For Sail, those guys are killing it. I think there was a little blind ambition. I thought, “We’re just going to play them like we play them.” In hindsight, if he would’ve come in and been super pro, he might have said, “No, I think the verse should be on this. And the chorus is over there and you gotta bring this down and bring that up.” But he didn’t say anything. We played them like we play.

It’s funny, as years go on, I feel more anxious and intimidated by the concept of doing that. I’ve trolled through the internet looking for people’s comments, and only one comment was that the band was too punk rock. But it seemed that people enjoyed it, and to his credit, it wasn’t an oldies show. He wanted to play it the way he sounded right now. He wasn’t trying to replicate anything. There were some things he couldn’t do, like the guitar part in “Alone Again.” Nobody really could except maybe Alan Licht, but that’s already like three tours in. It was pretty impressive on his part, but maybe he was just lazy. I don’t know. But I think he enjoyed it. He sat back and just let us have at it, which was awesome.

Was there any kind of back and forth in terms of the original preparation for the tour? Was it really just a case of you rehearsing the material on your own, then he showed up and you went on tour?

Lyle Hysen: After we threw ourselves under the bus and said, “We’ll do it,” if I remember correctly, Mark Linn sent us a set of songs. The three of us hashed our way through it and learned them to the best of our abilities. I don’t remember him changing the set much with each tour. We played the same stuff. Maybe there was one different song or we might have said we loved playing “Stand Out.” I don’t think he was playing much then, but it was something we always wanted to play.

It was just “learn these songs and go.” We didn’t have any idea what the structure was like. So then it would be like, okay, you do five songs, then he’s going to do acoustic. And then you would come back and play the last few songs. That’s kind of how it went. For a couple of shows, we just did all eight, nine or ten songs, without the acoustic break. He usually did the acoustic break and he would do “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” That was his big acoustic number, so we didn’t get to play on that one.

Could you talk more about Bank Robber Music? How did you get into licensing? How has it changed over the years?

Lyle Hysen: With Bank Robber, I was very blessed to be starting it at the height of when independent music was starting to get licensed for such shows as the Gilmore Girls and The OC. I was working with a lot of great bands and labels that I met through my years as a drummer and scene guy. I was working at Matador for a bunch of years, starting to build that part of the job up over there. They didn’t have a licensing coordinator; most labels still don’t. So at the point when Bank Robber started, I had been at Matador for a long time. A bunch of other labels and bands were asking if I could represent their music to film and TV.

And I couldn’t do that, obviously, because I was a Matador employee. So I was like, okay, I’m just going to try to see if I can pay the mortgage by putting songs in the film and TV shows and commercials. And back then, everything paid better. Even though we were independent music, a lot of the shows paid better. Like everything else, it’s not as glamorous a headline, but music licensing, the fees have generally gone down a lot, and music has been devalued a lot. There are still plenty of placements, and there are still plenty that do pay pretty well. But it’s much harder. Especially the past two years, it’s been miserable. I feel terrible for the bands that aren’t making money because they can’t tour.

For the bands, even if they do get a license, it’s not going to make them a lot of donuts. It’s going to make them a few dozen, but it’s not what it used to be. But it’s awesome, still. You’re still making a difference. That’s part of the gig. I feel like I can help bands as well as make a living. And if I can help a band go into the studio and make another record or buy a van or get some drumsticks even, that’s awesome. That feels great. I’m not Peter Pan; it is my job and I do make a living from doing this as well. I want to be clear about that. But smaller bands are just so pumped when you get them their first license, even if it’s for chump change. It’s so hard to be a band right now. So, if I can help a couple of bands stick it out and make a few more records, that makes it all worth it.

How has the rise of streaming, and the need for original content there, affected licensing?

Lyle Hysen: Well, the good news is all that content has created more opportunities for placements. The bad news is fees, in general, have been declining over the last few years. But the streaming services alone aren’t to blame. Just like in every other aspect of life, no one REALLY wants to pay for music. I’m looking at you, music streaming services. Especially music that isn’t “recognizable” – no matter how important that song is to your favorite show with the doctors that cry in the rain. Please send me to the multiverse where streaming services are excited to showcase new music on TV shows and suddenly bands get paid more! I can only dream….

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