Seated on a couch on the porch of the Glassell Park house he rents with two musicians, L.A. native Wade Ryff, singer/songwriter for local band Races, is smoking a Nat Sherman cigarette and drinking a concoction of coconut water infused with mineral greens. “I'm wearing a Lakers shirt and I have coconut water and cigarettes. It's very L.A.,” the 26-year-old jokes. It is just after 1 p.m., and the barefooted Ryff has requested to remain outside to allow his roommates to continue to sleep in silence.
Races' debut record Year of the Witch was released Tuesday, and they have tours lined up on both coasts. Ryff, who has played bass since he was 12 years old, began writing his own songs three years ago. Within two years, his band was signed. But there was one problem. Races was originally called Black Jesus.
“That was a really bad band name and we all knew it was stupid,” says Ryff. “But we figured no one would forget it which is what you want out of a band name.” When the band was in talks with the label Frenchkiss, they were told that their name had to be changed. For weeks, Ryff struggled to come up with an alternative until Frenchkiss founder Syd Butler (Les Savy Fav bassist) sent Ryff a list of potential band names including Races. “For whatever reason,” says Ryff, “that name kind of jumped out.”
Ironically, despite both signing a record deal quickly and receiving critical acclaim (their first video premiered in January on Rolling Stone's website), Ryff had neither planned nor intended for Races to become a band. In 2009, when one of his musician friends asked him to open a show, Ryff, too scared to perform solo, put together a group of musicians for what was originally supposed to be a one-night-only event. But that show led to another until Wade Ryff and Friends, which is how the band was originally known, evolved into a full time sextet.
Ryff is reluctant to speak on the obvious theme of the Year of the Witch — the first single is called “Big Broom.” “I don't really like answering that question,” he says. However, he concedes, having named both his record and songs after a witch, that it's a fair question. “Long story short,” he says, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “I was with somebody who was heavily into witchcraft and a lot of the songs on the record are about that relationship. If you could imagine the repercussions of a relationship ending with a witch … all of the curses and jinxing and kinds of stuff that comes along with that.” Asked if he believes in the validity of her spells, Ryff says, “Yeah, I do. For sure.”
Though he's a self-professed “city boy,” Ryff says growing up in Los Angeles can be daunting if one wants to be a successful musician. “I always felt it was harder here,” he says. “I remember thinking it would be better to go to a smaller place where there aren't as many bands. If you live in L.A. and you tell someone, 'I have a band. Come and see my show,' they don't care because everyone has a band and everyone plays shows. I feel like it's harder to get people to take you seriously as an artist in L.A. because everyone comes to L.A. to do that.”
Of course even when one is being taken as seriously as Races, there are challenges. Ryff has to train a new bass player because the band's current bassist, Oliver Hild, can't continue to tour due to the demands of his job. Ryff doesn't have a day job, but he jokes that Starbucks should sponsor their tours because two of his bandmates work there and Ryff once worked there, too. He only lasted a few days. Looking sheepish, he laughs and says, “I went out for my lunch break and never came back.”
Races' record release show is Friday night at The Echo.