No Knife will go down as one of those San Diego bands remembered by most hardcore local music fans, a few radio listeners and nearly every musician. They were, for better or worse, musicians' musicians.
Though pop elements underpinned albums like Fire in the City of Automatons and especially their last release, Riot for Romance, the criss-crossing guitars and tempo shifts ensured their songs couldn't be digested by the same GI tract as Green Day or even Rocket From the Crypt.
So in late 2004, when a friend of the band was about to play me the first few solo demos from guitarist-singer Ryan Ferguson, he said, in an almost warning tone, "This is very pop."
"I'm a big fan of melody, period. That's what has always drawn me to music, no matter what genre it is," Ferguson says of the acoustic-based pop songs on his debut EP, Three, Four. "I guess I was exposed to pop at a young age and it must've stuck. I know my mom used to play Devo, Buddy Holly, Wham and-holy shit, I'm about to say [it]-Anne Murray in the car when she picked me up from elementary school. There's a pop element in nearly every song-you just have to accept it. If you go back and listen to the No Knife songs that I sang, you would realize they're not that far off from the tunes I still continue to write."
It's pop enough for 91X, which has added Ferguson's song "Suddenly" into regular rotation. It's a song that Ferguson wrote in less time than it takes to say wedding vows, which is what he was contemplating at the time.
"I wrote "Suddenly' in about 15 minutes," he admits, explaining that the A-minor chord structure and simple melody reminded him of something a pirate might sing out at sea ("seriously, sing it with a pirate's accent and you'll see what I mean").
"I was right smack in the middle of planning my wedding at the time, so I had a lot on my mind. I just started writing about the added pressures I was facing, all the shit I still had to do, anxiety I was experiencing, promises I had made, and the fact that everything was all happening so fast."
He recorded a demo of the song the following day, and it immediately became the favorite among his friends. And now, radio programmers.
Without a doubt, Ferguson has it easier now than most up-and-coming musicians, thanks to the success of No Knife. As recent as 2001, No Knife could be heard on local radio and were touring nationally with Jimmy Eat World in support of Riot for Romance.
Then, after a U.S. tour with Cursive, things just kind of stopped, and Ferguson is hard-pressed to nail down a reason.
"The whole "breakup' of No Knife is a funny thing to me," he says, "because the four of us never got together and said, "We're breaking up.' Nothing was ever established or finalized-we just stopped playing."
He suggests personality clashes, business disagreements, financial stresses, health concerns and family matters. But in the end, he says, it's just "fuckin' hard to be in a band and be successful-just ask 99 percent of the bands out there. It just became too hard to find time to consistently rehearse and tour in between multiple school and work schedules, while getting older, while trying to make a living, while having families, blah, blah, blah.... I'm not making any excuses, I'm just saying it's a bitch."
When it was first announced that Ferguson was going to put out his solo material in earnest, friends who knew him were skeptical. They didn't question the music-Three, Four definitely deserves its San Diego Music Award nomination for "Best Pop Album." The concern was Ferguson's willingness to leave his new wife and get back on the road.
"The bottom line is: touring is absolutely essential to make it in this industry," he says. "It's all about gaining visibility and making an impression on people. Touring is definitely not for the weak at heart.... My wife knows it's gonna be hard, but she's very supportive and understands that this is how it is if you marry a guitar player in a band. We've been together for over six years now, so she's had a good taste of what it's like. The distance factor of touring isn't fun, but it is essential and is part of the job."
Who else will be up for that part of the job is still a question. There were those musicians who contributed to the record-Pinback's Rob Crow, Dirty Sweet's Shawn Cornell, Reeve Oliver's Sean O'Donnell and No Knife drummer Chris Prescott-and others who jump in with Ferguson at live shows.
Sooner or later, he'll have to assemble his band and take it on the road. After all, it could be his last shot.
"Overall, I'm willing to take more chances now, because I know this isn't going to last forever. This could be my last chance at making it in the music biz," he says. "I believe this is what I was meant to do, and I know from experience just how quickly it can all disappear. The No Knife "breakup' was definitely a reality check. This business is a harsh one-you really have to watch out for yourself.
"Great things are happening and I'm really excited," he says. "It's like I'm 19 all over again, except far less naïve."
Ryan Ferguson plays at Big Bertha's for "PB & Jam," 10:40 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28. $10. 858-373-3444.