Music

The Man Behind B. Hamilton

Ryan Christopher Parks is a sane, sensitive guy. But you'd never know.

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Do yourself a favor and friend Ryan Christopher Parks on Facebook. Because he really does embody the term "Internet performance artist." Case in point: His typography. Parks didn't invent the all-caps style, but he uses it much more effectively than the average message board troll. Also, he's ornery (e.g., "THE ONLY STRIKE GOING DOWN IN HAYWARD IS ME PUNCHING MY DICK. FUCK MY STUPID LIFE SO GOD DAMN MUCH."). And unexpectedly poetic (e.g., "ALSO, FUCK THE COLOR BLUE."). And strangely divorced from the Ryan Christopher Parks who fronts the seemingly ego-less indie rock band B. Hamilton, which launched about two years ago and deserves much more renown than it currently enjoys. The group just released its debut album, Everything I Own Is Broken, on Soundcloud. It's positively stunning.

But you'd never know that by talking to the band members. Parks, bassist Andrew Macy, and drummer Bill Crowley met through mutual friends in the band world, and apparently hit it off — partly because they're all a little to the left of the rock-star stereotype. Crowley has a Mohawk and a veiny blue line tattooed along his right forearm; he used to organize social movements back in New England. Macy, who does Internet seminars for a living, looks like a softer version of Robert Plant — meaning he has the Goldilocks hair without the boner pants. When he's not playing in rock bands, he writes poetry. Parks, who is tall and broad-shouldered and wears glasses, tries as hard as possible to live an ALL-CAPS existence — meaning he speaks in a loud bellow, towers over other people in a room, and enjoys heckling. He also likes imitating other people's vocal intonation, to the point that he's often accused of mocking them. In Parks' estimation, that's what makes him a good vocalist.

Beneath these surface-level eccentricities, they're all sane, sensitive guys. The three band members plucked their initial repertoire from a song library that Parks had cadged away since his days leading bands in Anaheim. His dad owned an aerospace machine shop and he used it as a de facto recording studio, because of the echo-chamber sound quality. He remembers sequestering himself there as a teenager, listening to the sound his guitar made as it bounced off the jet engine parts and concrete walls. Parks is a very close listener, but more importantly he's a person who finds deep, visceral pleasure in sound. The machine shop was so integral to his art that he actually referenced it in the name B. Hamilton: Hamilton was the surname of the shop's landlord. "B." could have stood for Parks' original band name, Better Than Better Than Ezra, but he says it's actually "B." for "banana." "Because banana is literally the stupidest goddamn word in the English language," he said dismissively.

Parks resettled in Oakland after studying journalism at San Francisco State University, and enjoyed a brief stint writing music articles for The Onion. Ultimately, he parlayed his writing talents into song lyrics. The result is an album that's also a collection of short narratives, most of them culled from Parks' life. Take the opener, "Me and Margaret Counting Countdowns." Parks' synopsis: "It's about doing a specific drug at a New Year's party, and just running around, and not paying attention to the girl I'm dating, and fucking up a potential romance." (Well, almost.) "Margaret" is actually a code name for a different girl who'd apparently caught his fancy that night; "counting countdowns" is shorthand for "New Year's Eve." Parks was reticent to identify the drug, but he finally confessed it's a fairly popular aphrodisiac. And the potential romance? "We're still dating," he said. "Because I persevere."

Even if you can't decipher the lyrics, the song itself is a monstrous piece of rock 'n' roll. It begins with a sharp guitar chord, which snarls over Crowley's ride cymbal in a web of distortion and feedback. The drums are murky but the beat is tense and fast, and Macey's guitar riffs are as immediately catchy as anything you'd find in the pop music canon. Parks sings in a forceful, mid-range tenor, drawling on the verses and unleashing a loud yowl on all the crescendos. His singing voice is so evocative that it's hard to connect it with the Ryan Christopher Parks who drivels poop humor all over Facebook. "I started to write more serious songs, and people didn't understand that I had it in me," Parks said. He chewed on the thought, then added: "Because I like screaming 'motherfucker' a lot."

Parks actually recorded several songs by himself, or with the help of guest musicians like Caleb Nichols, who plays bass on "On Borrowed Time," and Hillary Overberg, who contributes the violin on "Gold Tooth." Thus, Everything I Own really bears his personal stamp. A few of the songs are observational. "On Borrowed Time," for instance, is a snapshot of the "Devendra Banhart-looking," transient hipster-type who natters on and on about how great of a photographer he is. (Parks apparently gets accosted by many such people at parties.) "Gold Tooth" is a made-up story about a man who crosses paths with an ex-girlfriend, and realizes she's completely transformed since their breakup — she now has a fake gold tooth, and a baby on the way. The title track, meanwhile, came to Parks as he was sitting by Lake Merritt, gazing west toward downtown Oakland, the same day as the Oscar Grant verdict. The song's most resonant line is: I rubbed my crystal ball/And threw it through a storefront/Yes, I threw it through a storefront.

There's an achingly personal quality to just about everything Parks writes, even when he's goofing off, or milking lines for a laugh. Most songs contain coded autobiographical details — "Gold Tooth" mentions the pink tract house he lived in in Anaheim, while country-rock tune "Now or Eventually, "which is at once liquid and melodic, and also heavily steeped in blues, is about Parks' desire for total artistic freedom, and frustration that he can't get paid for it. To date, B. Hamilton has made about $50 playing live shows, and hasn't sold a single piece of merchandise.

And then there's the Oscar Grant song. Called "Oakland and Anaheim (Ain't Divided by the 5 Tonight)," it's a stark, plainspoken, uncharacteristically somber guitar ballad about two shootings — that of Parks' friend Julian, who was gunned down by police in Anaheim while sitting on his porch, and that of Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back by a BART cop. Parks juxtaposes the stories to create symmetry, but he doesn't milk them for meaning. Rather, he looks inward: The boys in black keep pushing me/To burn it to the ground/When I just want to process/What's been goin' down. Parks admitted that he hesitated to put "Oakland and Anaheim" on the album, since he thought the tone was too off-putting, or that it didn't line up with the more humorous, upbeat tracks. But many listeners call it his best work.

People who only know Parks socially, or who know him through the Internet, might be surprised to find the searing, insightful writer who lurks behind the brash persona. "Persona" is a word Parks hates, and yet he embodies it fully: He's loud and intimidatingly funny, and has a tremendous sweet tooth for profanity. And yet, even on Facebook, there are moments when Parks the writer outshines Parks the eccentric: "I LOVE WHEN MY WHISKEY-SICKS THOUGHTS TURN INTO REALITY," he wrote in a status update on Saturday. And it shows.

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