Forging a path

The life and riffs of Coliseum's Ryan Patterson

When Ryan Patterson met his wife, he screamed in her ear.

His band, Coliseum, was on tour, playing this night at an all-ages youth center in Birmingham, Ala., called Cave 9. As the hardcore punks tore through their blistering set, Patterson — the band’s founder, leader, songwriter, singer and guitarist — kept getting shocked. The waves reverberated through his skull, and the imposing Patterson got angrier. He smashed the mic stand and jumped into the crowd, screaming into the faces in front of him. That’s when Ryan met Jamie.

Jamie Beard was a Coliseum fan and offered to let the band sleep at her home before they moved on to their next stop. Patterson looked around her place, saw that her tastes and interests were similar to his, and the two began to talk. Quickly, he realized, “She’s really awesome.”

It might not have gone any further than that, but drummer Matt Jaha (Patterson’s cousin) left his glasses behind. Beard tracked down Patterson to return them, and they kept talking and emailing, and within months, she moved to Louisville.

“We knew right off the bat that we were meant for each other,” Patterson says today, eight years later. “That was that.”

The wonder years

Born in Lexington in 1977, Ryan Patterson comes from a family of South End Louisvillians — “fourth or fifth generation” — though his parents had moved away for college and work. When he was 8, they moved to Elizabethtown.

In middle school, Patterson wanted to be an actor. He earned roles in local productions of “Hello Dolly,” “The Miracle Worker” and “Annie,” but it wasn’t the kind of performing that would give him the confidence he lacked. He was awkward — not athletic like his father and brother — but didn’t feel like he fit in with the theater scene, either.

His brother, Evan, is four years younger and also a guitarist, vocalist and bandleader. Would Evan have taken up guitar without his big brother’s example? “I would assume the first time he ever picked up a guitar was one of my guitars,” Patterson says. “I wouldn’t say that I’m the reason why, but we grew up with that together, for sure, very much so.” In turn, Patterson says Evan’s guitar playing has had “a huge impact” on him, adding that his little brother is “an extremely creative guitar player.”

Ever feel jealous? “Absolutely,” the older brother quickly replies. “It’s just a sibling thing. Not a straight competitiveness,” he says. “I don’t know if he does or not; for me, it’s part of deep-rooted insecurities …”

Their parents were very supportive, letting them practice in the basement, even letting them put on a show there. “So few parents would do that,” he marvels. “If I had kids now, I wouldn’t let them put on a show in my garage,” Patterson laughs.

It was through dad’s record collection that the boys began discovering music, from Led Zeppelin and The Beatles to Black Sabbath. Dad even had a single by The Clash. “That was huge for us.”

Through skating, Patterson discovered punk rock. “That was when my identity as a human was formed. Skateboarding and punk, it’s all about creating your own identity, finding your own path, doing things yourself, looking at everything in a different way. Politically, punk and hardcore and indie rock changed my perspective. That set me off on the path.”

Early music

At age 15, Patterson bought a guitar. He learned some chords and some songs by Minor Threat and the Ramones. MTV and Thrasher magazine taught him more about punk and a related sub-genre then called “alternative,” turning him on to bands like The Cure. “Or, there were a couple of older punk dudes in E-town who had Misfits jackets. You’d see those things around; you’d see a Black Flag shirt on a skateboarder and you’d go, ‘OK…’ So then you figure out what those bands are, and then you’d buy everything on that label you could find.”

In the local mall, the punks had Disc Jockey Records, where they could buy cassettes on the SST and Dischord labels. “That was it. That was how we discovered the world,” he says.

Meanwhile, “I didn’t know there was a local scene up here (in Louisville) or anything like that. I was completely oblivious to that.”

Louisville hardcore, punk and more

For Patterson, entry into the local scene came through the band Endpoint, who released a 7-inch with covers of Misfits and Dischord band songs. “That was when I realized that a music scene can happen anytime, anywhere. You just make it and there it is. So that was a really good thing for me, that there were actual bands putting out records in this town. That was a huge turning point.”

His first show as an attendee, at the Machine, featured a Dischord band, Jawbox. That band’s leader, J. Robbins, has since produced records by Coliseum (including their latest, Sister Faith, released last week) and an earlier Patterson band, Black Cross. Once he could drive, Patterson was coming up to Louisville as often as he could.

He sang in a band, Synapsis, and passed their demo tapes to local scene stars like Duncan Barlow, Chris Higdon and Mark Brickey. “Those guys seemed so larger-than-life to us,” Patterson says. He and his friends were now putting on shows in E-town and booked Louisville bands such as Guilt, Enkindel and Metroschifter to play with them.

He was still finding himself, and music gave him an identity and “a confidence that I think I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

“I’m sure there were things I said or did that were annoying or obnoxious. One time, Mark Brickey from Enkindel had me stay the night up at the house he lived in with Duncan Barlow and Benny Clark on Grinstead. That was, like, ‘Holy shit!’ To hang out in Duncan’s room … we’re all talking and I’m looking around at all his guitars and posters and records in the room. I think Duncan showed me the Teen Idles 7-inch on Dischord … it was just awesome.”

The Louisvillians began inviting Synapsis to play in their city. Enkindel shared their list of promoter contacts, and when Synapsis got added to a couple of shows, Enkindel let them borrow some equipment. “I don’t know if they saw something in me and my friends that was worth them lending us a helping hand, but it changed my life, for sure.”

“That acknowledgement — you give your demo to somebody and they write you a letter and say, ‘Hey, the demo was great, thanks a lot,’ that was very meaningful to me. That was a big, big part of my late high school experience. After that, that was when, I guess, I kind of integrated into that world.”

What else are you doing?

A couple of bands later, Patterson became closer with Enkindel vocalist Mark Brickey. When that band’s bassist left, Patterson was asked to replace him. They told him they were going to make a record and tour — possibly in Europe. No longer thinking the band was all that cool, Patterson initially declined, even though all he was doing at the time was working “some crappy job.” Looking back, he says, “There was a point when maybe I had got too cool.”

It was Patterson’s mom who convinced him that passing up this opportunity was a mistake, pointing out this was everything he wanted to do with his life.

Only 19 when he joined, his new bandmates quickly took to mocking him. “I thought they were so cruel, but I know, in hindsight, that I was such a little putz. I had no experience in the world — that world of really touring in a band.”

He had $17 at the time. After one record store performance, Patterson cleaned the store’s bathroom in exchange for pizza.

His year with Enkindel was “a huge turning point,” he says — first tour, first album — but he wasn’t into the music, and they parted ways. Patterson felt his identity slipping away again, and so he went in a new direction.

The musician had previously met Andy Rich, owner of Initial Records, who hired him as the label’s “zine guy,” in charge of getting press coverage for their bands. He would go on to also be their graphic designer, and, eventually, the manager, signing bands and booking their KrazyFests.

“It felt like my label, for the last two years, but ultimately it wasn’t my label. It was Andy’s, it was owned by somebody else. So when Initial closed, it was the right time for me to go on and do my own thing.”

Decade of aggression

In 2003, Patterson formed Coliseum. He added his cousin Matt Jaha on drums, bassist Keith Bryant and guitarist Tony Ash for their first album, Coliseum, which was released by a label in New York, Level Plane. “I remember sitting at my desk at Initial, designing the (first Coliseum) record,” he says. “But I wanted Coliseum to be on a different label, not always associating myself with Initial.”

A year after Coliseum’s birth, Initial closed, but Patterson was in control of his own destiny. “Maybe I’m just a control freak. But that was why I started the band — I didn’t want to have that thing where you have a band for years and then someone else quits, and you have to stop what you started.”

For their second record, the Goddamage EP, Bryant was replaced by Mike Pascal. Jaha and two more replacements left quickly before Chris Maggio took over on drums, though he, too, would leave after three years, replaced finally by Carter Wilson.

Ash left before their next full-length, No Salvation, a collection that would test the band’s mettle — and metal.

Patterson says, “I’ve never seen anybody in the band as being temporary, and when anyone has ever been in the band, they have been a full member and are treated as such.” He started Coliseum with the idea that “I have the ability to control this band’s destiny. No one else can pull the rug out from under me. And that’s … maybe kind of cut-throat, but I do feel like there’s a point of self-preservation.”

“And I will say that we have good relationships with everybody who’s been in the band, and some of them have joined us onstage — things like that.”

Bassist Pascal leaving after seven years was the most difficult change. “I very much believe it was better for him and me that he was no longer in the band. I do believe that, with time, that relationship will be good again, at least in terms of friends. I don’t know …”

Life on the road can be grueling, contributing to the instability of the band’s lineup. “To be in a band that’s touring, that’s a lot to ask of somebody. Most people, even if they think they want it, when they get into it, it’s not what they want. Your priorities might be all over the place. You might enjoy doing this, but there might be a band you like more. Or you might have a job that you can’t get out of.”

Today, Coliseum tries to only stay out for two or three weeks at a time, then comes home for several weeks. In the last few years, “A lot of things (made me say), ‘What am I doing?’ … Being a guy who lives on the road is not interesting to me. So it’s a challenge, there’s a balancing act. It’s a little stressful right now to think about how much we’re going to be doing for the rest of the year, but we were home all of last year — that’s the give-and-take.”

He doesn’t want the band to feel like “Ryan and the other guys,” reiterating that they all are a part of the whole. “I want it to be Coliseum. Even though I may be most identified with it, we’re a band. We’re experiencing everything together, and what we’re accomplishing, we’re all accomplishing together.”

Both of his current bandmates, best friends since childhood, are from Birmingham — just like his wife — though bassist Kayhan Vaziri lives in Nashville now. Brother Evan Patterson found drummer Carter Wilson for Coliseum when Evan’s band Young Widows played with Wilson’s band.

When Vaziri joined, Patterson sat him down, just like the others, to give him the speech: “It’s a huge commitment. We’ll be gone a lot; if it’s something like a marriage ceremony, we can try to schedule around that, but we don’t schedule around other bands. This is the top priority.”

“Also, sometimes you have to invest some money. Most of the time you’re paid back and you make money, but …”

Patterson adds, “I probably told him I can be intense to deal with, that I’m extremely passionate about this. It’s really nice to be able to 100 percent count on these guys, as friends, and to do their part — there’s never any bullshit or any foot-dragging.”

Coliseum is stronger than ever these days, he says. “I love everybody that’s been in the band. I’m so happy to have had the times I’ve had with them, and I hope that they’re appreciative — no, that they look back fondly on what we’ve done. I hope that they’re not unhappy.”

Growing pains

Coliseum is a punk rock band, according to Patterson, and he dislikes being labeled as heavy metal. But the tag has stuck to the loud, heavy band partly because Patterson accepted an offer from powerhouse metal label Relapse Records in 2007 for their second album, No Salvation. On paper, it was a good idea: Coliseum would now be available not just in small, independent stores, but also internationally, in chains like Best Buy. To date, their Relapse record is still their biggest seller.

But the metal world rubbed Patterson the wrong way. Its culture didn’t match up to how he identifies himself and what he believes in. “We were just a band on a package. It wasn’t part of a community, it wasn’t part of anything, it was just this gear turning. I really hated that.”

Though the band’s popularity did grow as a result, “I think that we got a little bit tripped up, in terms of what we wanted to do. I think, musically, we felt like we should compete — we should be a Relapse-caliber band. We should be crazier, we should be a bit more intense.”

Though Relapse was interested in another record, Coliseum asked to be released from their contract.

“It’s not like at any point we’re going to be a household name,” he says. “The difference in this and that is so minute, you might as well do what feels right to you.”

Coliseum has since signed with Temporary Residence, a label run by a Louisville native, which also now releases Evan Patterson’s Young Widows records.

Life and death

After the more indie-inspired House with a Curse in 2010, Patterson says Sister Faith is “the most comfortable record we’ve ever done. It’s not a reaction to anything, it’s just the joy of creating.”

“I don’t think that means that it’s boring or lazy,” he adds. “I just think that means it feels good in its own skin.”

The new album was inspired by loss. Last year, both Patterson’s father-in-law and fellow musician Jason Noble died, resulting in an album he describes as “more personally inspired.”

Noble — who died last summer of a rare form of cancer — worked with Coliseum on Curse and became close with Patterson. “We’d known each other for a long time, but we had never hung out until he was sick. And I don’t know anyone else’s experiences — I don’t know if it was because of the situation, but we’d go see movies and hang out and talk and eat food. He had a huge impact on me, as (he did) for all of us.”

The album is full of dark places, he says, but also a renewed appetite “to embrace life and keep finding adventures, experiencing things that most people don’t get to experience … appreciating time while we’re here, and realizing that people live on with you, even if they’re not here. That, to me, is as close to an afterlife as you’ll get.”

Patterson, Louisville’s man in black, is pretty happy these days.

“This is my identity. This is my legacy … I would be happy for Coliseum to define my public life. I want to be a good brother and son and husband, and be this guy. I want this to be the body of work I can look back over … I wouldn’t be sitting here, talking to you, otherwise, you know?”

And though sometimes he questions his path, in the end, he says, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s very much worth it. It’s just a beautiful experience. I couldn’t imagine life any other way, really.”

Coliseum plays Friday night at Zanzabar.