Gary James' Interview With
Bruce Springsteen Tribute Artist
Matt Ryan is Bruce Springsteen. That is to say in his tribute group Bruce In The U.S.A.. But how does a guy get a gig like that? That's what we wanted to know.
Q - Matt, what were you doing before Bruce In The U.S.A.?
A - I'd never done this before, but it was a running joke I could. I kept getting calls from Las Vegas from the producer of Legends In Concert asking me if I would put the Springsteen character together for them for a year run on the Vegas Strip. I kept saying "no". I wasn't interested. All of a sudden, by the third call, it was just good timing, and I just decided alright, I'll try it out and I ended up spending a year in Vegas and ended up staying and becoming a part of the cast of Legends In Concert. I traveled the world doing it. So Bruce In The U.S.A. was put together about nine years ago. (2003). So, I had about six years of Legends In Concert.
Q - How often did you work with Legends In Concert?
A - Six nights a week. Two shows a day, six nights a week. In other words, I had a lot of practice.
Q - They had other acts on the bill, so you didn't' get much stage time, did you?
A - About fifteen minutes and then the finale. It was a sweet little gig, but definitely a good place to kind of understand the character more or less 'cause it is performance art. It's a complete act from the ground up. It's just one of those things that you find in Las Vegas in Legends, a lot of people that are doing this sort of thing also do a lot of other things. They've had careers, been there and back and they just kind of settle into this really, really sweet performance show that keeps the wheels turning and keeps you performing, basically. In other words, it's a pretty interesting place. The kind of people that are doing these acts, it's not all they do. It's just another acting gig, so to speak.
Q - You do take Bruce In The U.S.A. on the road, don't you?
A - Yeah. It started on the Strip, which was the Aladdin and is now Planet Hollywood. That's where the billing came from, Bruce In The U.S.A.: Matt Ryan And The American Dream. We ended up just taking the name Bruce In The U.S.A. and touring because Bruce and the E Street Band and the Inner Circle heard about the show on the Strip. We did a private party with The Inner Circle and Clarence Clemmons. They rented out the Hard Rock in Times Square and on a Saturday night. (laughs) They had us perform and we did a couple of songs with Clarence and backed him up on his originals as well. That's when we kind of became a touring act. We kind of got hooked on the idea of performing for really starving, hard-core Bruce fans rather than a huge percentage, got-the-ticket-with-the-buffet, which is Las Vegas. You take it to The House Of Blues and you're gonna fill it with Bruce fans. If you're familiar with the whole Bruce thing in depth, the fans are very interesting people. It's sort of become the new Grateful Dead, the tail gate parties, the traveling around. It's become very deep-rooted for a lot of those people. So, our concerts kind of reflect all that, just the positive energy. People are extremely passionate about the music, singing along with every song. Those are our audiences, or should I say those are the Bruce audiences that we attract. In a lot of ways it's kind of addictive.
Q - I didn't realize Springsteen had these kinds of fans.
A - Yeah, it's a very strange thing that's happened, especially in the last ten years. It's not like Pop radio anymore, but it is something like at the Sands that had been with them since 1971. It's all about the lyrics. This is why it's sort of powerful to these people and I didn't totally understand this when I first started either. This was just something I realized slowly. People would come up and talk to me about how this changed their lives. It's the most honest writing in Rock 'n' Roll, especially for this long of time. Every character in his story, all stories, are all true stores. It's all human experience delivered in a very simple way so everybody can get it, from people who have been down to people without an education, to people in jail or white collar Wall St. It's just something that he spoke in a very clear, simple way and makes these really, really powerful points. I think that's been the root of how people have fallen into it so deeply. It's pretty interesting and now the demographic is 30 to 65. For the most part, that's what at our shows. Pretty interesting for a club date. (laughs) I'm 45, so that's kind of my generation.
Q - How many times have you seen Bruce in concert?
A - I've only seen him once in concert. (laughs)
Q - I saw him in concert in 1978 I think it was.
A - I saw him in concert in the '90s, during the Rising tour when he came to Las Vegas. When I was 17, he was "Dancin' In The Dark". I was gravitating towards heavier music back then, than that whole thing. But, I love what he did before that. Loved the early Bruce stuff. I grew up with that. I totally get it. It wasn't until we had to learn the huge library of songs, about five hours of music. You have a revolution or two when you have to memorize all these lyrics and there's only one way to memorize them and that's to understand them. Know where the story is going, 'cause it's such a jumble.
Q - Does Springsteen know about you?
A - Oh, yeah. I've had some invites and I've always had this theory that first of all, this character is way easier to play if he's fictional. I wasn't very comfortable with the idea of going to one of his concerts and trying to meet him. I've always respected the character by leaving him alone. They have enough stalkers and weirdoes that are all over him. This sort of borderlines that, just because if this is portrayed as a hardcore fan, then it would be different, but it's an act. It's performance art. He knows that. That's an important thing that he knows it's performance art, not a fan band. Second, my invite and hope is he will come out and check out one of our shows. We do play in his neighborhood. We've done private parties with his friends and neighbors. We're around enough for him to be able to pop his head in and hopefully check out the show. He'll probably have a laugh. It would be much easier and less invasive if he came to us. So, we've always left that open. I've never pursued him.
Q - You bear such a strange resemblance to Springsteen. Did that influence your decision to put his act together?
A - To make a long story short, it was always a running joke since I was a kid, 13 or 14, that I looked like Bruce Springsteen. I was in my teens, 17, I was in high school and just all of a sudden people nick-naming me "The Boss", which I absolutely hated. I was trying to do my own thing. What was comical about it was my voice. I had that kind of voice that Bruce had and I was trying to sound like Steve Perry. (laughs) It wasn't something that was very natural for me. And the same with R&B singing, certain things were a big part of Bruce Springsteen's style, vocally I mean. It's one of those things you really can't pretend. It's just always there. So, when I was doing my original music, no matter how long or short my hair was, somebody would always say "You look like Bruce." Even the music, my voice would sound, the enunciations not so much, but the voice would. So, I always got this connection to Springsteen. And I was trying not to. It was only later on in life that the running joke became something very positive. When I realized in a lot of ways I was perfect for playing this part 'cause it would be very easy for me, I don't mean easy like the performance aspect, but I wouldn't have to contort my voice or wear wigs. The singing was pretty naturally there already.
Q - How difficult was it to get the other musicians for this band?
A - It as actually pretty easy. Las Vegas is a melting pot for really amazing people that are working in town in certain bands. I'd been working in a certain band on the Strip for awhile outside of Legends. The guitarist was David Cassidy's guitarist, "Sully", Matt Sullivan had this resemblance to Little Stevie and he said "Man, we should put a band together. I'll do the Little Stevie character." I'm like, "Really? We're never gonna find a big, big African American guy that can really play and sing and also be somebody that would be great to travel with." There's so many aspects into bringing in a new character to this. Finally, after talking to a couple of people, we knew somebody that could possibly do it. So, we approached him and he wanted to do it all of a sudden we had the three characters and we realized we could put like a supergroup together. So, that's what we did. "Sully" has a reputation of being an extremely heavy guitarist and he's very well-known, all the other high-end musicians in town really wanted to be a part of the project. It was just within a matter of weeks we were offered; word of mouth got out and The Aladdin basically wanted to buy the show and bring it in. That's when it became a show on the Strip. We put the rest of the band together, created a story line, a story board and it's a fun show.
Q - So, you debuted the group at the Aladdin?
A - Correct, yes.
Q - What if only you resembled the character you're playing in this band, would that have made a difference in your success?
A - The quality of the music would have been high, but it wouldn't have been a show at that point. What's special about this show is you're able to loose perspective. You actually feel like you're seeing a Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band concert. It can only be created with that kind of visual. So, it basically would make us a cover band rather than a show and there's a big difference. This Bruce In The U.S.A. plays like Performance Arts Centers and theatres. We do high end corporate and exotic locations. The show is working on this really, really high level. It makes me proud. It didn't come overnight. It was nine years of building and working and rolling up sleeves and pounding the pavement for very little. It still is that way. It's definitely a labor of love. So, those are the things that separate us from the cover bands out there.
Q - Paying great attention to detail is what separates you from other Springsteen tribute acts then?
A - Yeah. There are other shows out there. There's nobody playing any characters. It's what we call in Vegas a cover band. This is sort of an elevated thing because it's a show from the Vegas Strip and it's been working on the Performance Art level for nine years now. It's just sort of a completely different thing.
Q - Is it musically satisfying for you to play the same material again and again?
A - Yeah. We have five hours of music already learned. We never go back into the came cities with the exact same set list we had last time. We try to mix it up and keep it interesting for us. A lot of these songs are nine to ten minutes long with lots of big solos. So, everybody in the band, from the B-3 player to the piano player to the sax player to the guitar, everybody gets their moments and their spaces to be creative and play these five minute solos. The early '70s was pretty great for these really long tunes. So musically, it keeps everybody interested. Our bass player is in Queen, our B-3 player is from The O'Jays. These guys have all been there and back. They bring it in the biggest way possible. Dynamically the band just holds water. They're so, so good. That kind of floats the whole ship. There's something else too. This is a real powerhouse product.
Q - Who came up with all the money it takes to put such a production together?
A - That would be The Aladdin and the producer.
Q - So, in return for the money that was fronted, they became your management and took a percentage of your earnings?
A - When you're on the Strip, you're owned. If it's your show, it won't feel like that because it's pretty much the toughest place in the world. I would say New York City theatres, Broadway would be equal to what it's like to have to go through the politics of putting a show on the Las Vegas Strip. (laughs) There's a lot of people to pay.
Q - If you have guys in your band from Queen and The O'Jays, it tells me there must be a lot of money to be made in a tribute band.
A - Well, this is the thing: The reason we put it together wasn't really money related. It was more of the idea of having something that could be good for us. You know, something steady. When you're a performer or a musician in this industry, you're rolling along, you have you mortgages and all of a sudden the rug is pulled out. The show closes in three days. (laughs) That's it. After that, there's no reason the rest of the world is gonna care about. Vegas is sort of a bit of a bubble. You've done all these wonderful things, but all of a sudden you're starting from scratch, trying to get into a different show, another show to keep the wheels turning. It's the entertainment business. It's a very, very tough world. That's why actors are also waiters and waitresses. You have to keep things rolling. This was one of those things that just seemed like an instant hit. It seemed like an instant hit. It seemed like a real positive, fun thing, especially if we were traveling and working with the musicians we love working with. So, in a lot of ways, whether we're doing a tribute to Bruce or we're doing something else musically, it would all be the same. We're blessed to be working and especially to be part of something as special as this whole Bruce phenomenon.
Q - How often do you work with Bruce In The U.S.A.?
A - Well, that depends. It's seasonal. We've been out most of the Summer.
Q - Do you fly to your gigs?
A - We fly and we also have our backline and our vehicle out on the East Coast in Maryland. So, my partner, who lives up there, would pick us up from whatever airport and we would start our tours. When we do European things and Canadian tours we would charter a small bus and have backline already there, rented.
Q - That's impressive.
A - It's insane is what it is. There's things we do and go through with no sleep and some tough travel, but there's something like very cleansing about hard work. (laughs) At the end of it all, when we hit the ground and we're home for like a week or two, the feeling of accomplishment is just amazing.
Q - This also tells me you're not doing anything else but perform in Bruce In The U.S.A.
A - Yes. None of us (are doing anything else). I did a lot of music stuff in my life, but this is the hardest I've ever worked. This character is unbelievable. He (Bruce Springsteen) in 63 years old and he's kickin' my butt. It's like a James Brown type of singing all night long. Just balls to the wall. It's a very tough gig, but it's definitely something you couldn't do unless you had some "Carney" in you, because that's the road life. It's all just open road. Next place, set up, do your thing, thank God you have another show and carry on.
Q - Do you try to keep up with his appearances on TV talk shows?
A - I usually miss those things, but there's YouTube and he's gotta be the most filmed artist on the planet. He's got so many 'live' shows. The character has so much footage, so many bootleg videos to study. That's really been my source. So, I don't race to the TV. YouTube makes you lazy. My study is not that much of a study anymore. Back in the way it was, big time. I'm definitely not an encyclopedia, but part of respecting the character is knowing the character. I certainly put the time in. He's a brilliant guy. So, I had a lot of respect from day one. That made it easy.
Q - You just have to wonder where this talent comes from to write all those songs.
A - And what we've heard is just a fraction of what he's written. Some people are just in the muse. Some people's brains are just wired differently. He's definitely one of those. Lord knows I've tried. I've spent most of my young life, right up 'til about 30, writing and recording music and doing that whole deal. It is tough. Inspiration is tough.