“Do I fear death? No, I embrace it” – Ryan Sim, 2017.
You know how some people are so talented in so many ways that just thinking of them makes you sick? Deep down you know you should encourage their way of living and see it as inspirational, but there’s always a part of you that just wants to grab their jowls and shout “Stop being so great at everything, you massive twat!”. Ryan Sim is one of those.
Writer, comedian, storyteller, singer, guitarist, organiser, ex-straight edge icon, good looking, Dallas-Buyers-Club-physiqued, ice-cream eating motherfucker. It’s enough to make you throw up into a bush, even if you’re not outside.
“I guess I do a lot of production around the place. I’m trying to do more writing as well. That would be my official title, that’s what my degree is in even though I don’t do it too much.”
The first thing you pick up on when talking to Ryan is that he’s a thoughtful man with acute self-awareness who gives off a warmth that makes you want to open up to him. His comedy draws directly on a combination of personal experience and making sense of the world in a way that happily shifts between stark honesty and absurd tangents with everything in between. He riffs on pop-culture with such effortless speed and sharp wit that your brain sometimes struggles to keep up, yet the results are always rewarding. He’s a man of many words, which makes sense as he’s written for multiple publications like Under The Stilts and Scum Mag and was a previous shortlisted for the Varuna Publishers Program.
“At the moment I’m working on a couple of short stories which is where I’ve been funnelling most of my time recently. I did write a manuscript, I don’t recommend it. It’s about 70,000 words. It sucks, don’t do it. Have you heard of that movie War Dogs? My manuscript was based on the true story that was based on and that came out and I was like “I was right all along, I should have pursued it. I could have been making money!” but now it’s come and gone I feel like we’re done here.”
In the last year, Ryan started running his own comedy night in Brisbane named after the Fugazi track Full Disclosure. Each line-up is curated with a wide array of Brisbane’s finest comedy talent performing in an intimate environment. As you can imagine from the title, it’s hardly Breitbart HQ.
“My idea for Full Disclosure was looking at independently run comedy rooms when I was in the States and seeing how people treated scenes there. I thought it was nice to give a space for people who are in that intermediate period of their careers. A room where they can experiment without being one of twenty people on an open mic. They get to be remembered. I wouldn’t call it an experimental comedy room per se, I want to give people a bit more freedom to try things. You’ve got people there who want to hear you, so what are you gonna say when they want to listen to you? Who are you?”
Aside from comedy, Ryan has spent most of his adult life performing in bands around Brisbane. His most recent band, the critically acclaimed Low Season, released a new EP titled Weather Maker in January this year, which is a luscious exploration of everything from shoegaze to post-hardcore. It’s an engrossing addition to a mesmerising back catalogue from a criminally underrated band.
“I played in bands in Brisbane and toured a lot. I grew up in the hardcore scene in Brisbane. I was meeting people coming out of shows and stuff, so it was becoming quite an important part of my life, that’s how I got socialised. I was always into music, but in high school I was into commercial metal or commercial pop-punk. Bands that obviously had influences in hardcore, but I didn’t really know about that more underground scene. Then I started going to shows and seeing these other bands when I was 17 / 18. I think the big ones that spoke to me were Minor Threat, Agnostic Front and things like that. From there I went on to what those people did next and that’s where things got really interesting. Things like Fugazi and that post-hardcore vibe. It’s a whole ecosystem of music and bands, it’s just crazy. There’s a quote from a band that I really like that is “Better a child should die than live bereft of subculture” and I think that’s something to keep in mind. Subculture is such an important thing about learning about how you fit into the world, even if it is about opposition, that’s still valuable. It’s like “This is how I understand the world, the rest of the world just doesn’t really get that” but that still helps you find your place, even if that place is as an outcast. You find your people in the end.”
As someone who has more creative spark coming out of him than a favela pylon, I asked Ryan why he hadn’t followed the traditional path of ambitious artistic Australians to Melbourne or Sydney.
“I’ve never wanted to leave. I really like the geography of Brisbane, I like the place, physically I like it. You’re surrounded by mountains, then you drive west for an hour and it doesn’t feel like you’re near a city. I like the meeting of wilderness and civilisation and you get a bit of that in south east Queensland. There are things to be done in Brisbane. There are limitations which can also be opportunities. There are less people doing things, and fewer venues to do things in. The interests of the general population are maybe a bit more limited. That’s a more diplomatic way of what people down south would call uncultured. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but you get to dilute what you want to do into something quite specific. If you put enough effort into something, people might not realise that it’s something that they wanted until it actually exists. Suddenly people are like “Oh yeah, there’s this cool thing to do in Brisbane now”.”
With such a strong sense of identity, I asked Ryan what it means to him to be Australian.
“I dunno, I’ve never been anything else. It’s a good thing. I think Australia is in an interesting place in terms of perception. How we’re perceived is changing, especially when it comes to comedy recently. Australia’s got a bigger hand in the world scene at the moment, and it’s interesting to watch and see how that works. A good example is Nick Cody or Wil Anderson, it’s interesting to see their careers taking off in the states. Even Sam Simmons to an extent. I feel like Australian and English comedy have a lot in common. We would get a lot of comedians over from the UK coming over to our comedy festivals and seeing them on TV and I feel like more comedians are going over to America now. Not to the deficit of that British connection, but as well as. I don’t want to sound cliche, but seeing someone like Nick Cody on Conan is inspiring. I really like that dude’s comedy and it’s really good seeing someone like that achieving that level of success.”
With so many creative outlets, I wanted to know what it was about comedy that made him start, and what was his take on what makes a great comedian.
“The ideal is that you have to entertain everyone who is in the room. Norm McDonald said “Comedy is not an art because you want the same reaction from everyone”, you want everyone to laugh. I like when you have to work within limitations, I think that’s one of the true catalysts for creativity. The limitation would be that “I want to make all 50 of these people all laugh at the same time” and in that they’re going to feel that they’re all together. I also don’t want to misrepresent myself, I want to do something that’s honest. How do you find the crossover in those two things? That’s the process. That’s what’s so rewarding about it. The end point could be anything. Essentially you’re not making any money so it has to be fun, it’s supposed to be fun. Why else are you doing it? It’s not about pandering to the 50 people, but about putting yourself out there in the way that you want to that is also going to make them laugh.”
As is the case with all great artists, Ryan’s passions and drives are about the love of the craft, not the next rung on a ladder of fame. It’s refreshing to hear someone who evidently loves what they do and is ready to stop when it’s no longer fun rather than wondering at what point they’ll be the next guest on a panel show.
“It’s more about having fun doing it, the process needs to be rewarding. You could go get any job and get money if you want earn money and have a living, you could go work in a bank. The process of doing creative stuff has to be rewarding in some way. There’s so little money in it compared to working in real estate or finance or something like that. You could go and have a career in an office and two, five, or ten years down the line be making 70 or 80 thousand dollars a year but instead you’re slogging away because it is rewarding on a personal level. For me at least, that’s part of being alive. You’d say the same thing about music, but it’s easier to hide behind music. There’s that quote from Gary Shandling about his first time up on stage and how uncomfortable he felt trying to tell these jokes. He realised it was because he was uncomfortable with being himself and so much of his performing was about finding out who he is and finding out how to be who he is. I took a lot from that, if you’re doing anything creative, I think that’s what it’s about.”
Ryan’s unafraid to explore parts of his psyche that he may not be proud of, he’s on a journey to better learn about himself, and through music, comedy and storytelling, he channels different aspects of himself externally. Ryan has been running his Yarn Storytelling for a number of years now, an event whose reputation for enthralling storytellers means it regularly sells out and is a highlight of the social calendar for many of Brisbane’s residents.
“The reason we do Yarn is to create a sense of community and a space where an audience can come and listen to these stories and connect with the person telling it. It is a creative process, but it’s a two way street. The craft of “Live Storytelling” is still being defined, because it’s a performance, but it’s a very different thing that’s not quite theatre and not really comedy. It’s a weird middle ground where you’re very vulnerable but without any sort of defence mechanism. A joke can be a defence mechanism, you can be telling really personal stuff but then insert a joke to make everyone laugh. You don’t necessarily have that when you’re trying to tell a true story about something that happened in your life. When you tell a story, what happened and what it’s about are two very different things. I think that’s what storytelling is about. You discover these big themes that are built up from a very small moment in your life, and there’s always some sort of turning point that is the reason you wanted to tell this story in the first place that’s not always apparent. I think that is what both the audience and the storyteller get out of it. It can be so unique and esoteric, but at the same time very resonant and universal. It’s a weird paradox.”
“I think now more than ever it’s important to tell stories. There’s such a rift between people. I don’t even mean groups, I mean how do we as individuals relate to each other. There’s so much animosity at the moment globally. At Yarn, there’s a hundred or so people in that room and there’s a real feeling of communion from all these people from different backgrounds. They might not even talk to each other but there’s these moments where everyone’s just sitting in silence listening to this very emotional story being told on stage. That in itself is a form of communication and that in itself is a way of people connecting to each other and feeling like they’re in same physical space as these other people all doing the same thing. It’s not like watching a movie, you’re in the moment with all these people.”
Conscious that the interview tone was very serious until this point, I asked Ryan how he’d want to be remembered.
“I would want my funeral to be a spectacle that overshadowed the rest of my life. I don’t want anyone to remember anything except for the parades and the giant cannons. Cremate me in the celestial body that we know as the sun.”