Talking Music and Life After Dartmouth with Reptar Bassist Ryan Engelberger '12

by Abbey Cahill | 1/11/17 5:03am

The Dartmouth sat down with Ryan Engelberger, a former Dartmouth student ‘12 who once missed a midterm to play at Lollapalooza, named his band after a dinosaur from “Rugrats” and inspires the rest of us to fearlessly pursue meaningful work.

How did you get into playing the bass?

RE: My first instrument was the trumpet. I was in third grade, and my mom wanted me to play in the orchestra. I said “No, orchestra is for weirdos—I wanna play trumpet!” Then in high school, I wanted to start playing guitar, and one of my friends was like, “I’m already playing guitar. You can’t play guitar — we need a bass player in the band, and it’ll be better for you anyway.” Years later, I honestly can’t deny that there is more need in the world for bass players than for just another guitar player. I’m still playing music and this dude isn’t.

Did you declare a music major at Dartmouth?

RE: Yes, I studied music. One of the most influential classes I took at Dartmouth was with Philip Glass. As far as classical composition goes, people either love him or hate him, but it’s impossible to deny the massive influence he has had on both classical and popular music. Anyway, he talked about how he had studied music formally through various institutions until he was around 30, and then it took him a few years to unlearn all of the strict rules that he had been learning. Kind of like Yoda in “Star Wars”. You must unlearn what you have learned. I think it is inarguable that the time I have spent studying music has made me better at what I do, but I think it is also inarguable that I have been able to use it better in the years that I have not been studying it. It’s like, in baseball, if you’re learning to pitch, you have to learn about the physical technique of it. But the more you think about the physical technique — not the whole fluid motion — the more difficult it is to get a good pitch. That’s my real shitty attempt at a sports analogy.

How did you decide to leave Dartmouth and focus on music instead?

RE: So there’s this one very vivid memory that I have. I remember standing in Dartmouth Hall and looking into my Spanish class. It’s ten minutes or so into class, and I’m supposed to be there, but instead, I’m sitting there on a conference call with a lawyer and a manager talking about negotiating publishing rights. It was a deal that was going to affect what would happen in the next couple years of my life. I realized that my music was important, but at the same time, it was taking away from me being fully present at Dartmouth. I was wasting the time and the money of the institution and the other students, and that felt super dishonest. It felt like a wasted opportunity. Every dean and professor that I talked to said, “Look at the end of the day, Dartmouth is going to be here. Your credits don’t expire. But that opportunity is a little more timely.” So I left. And in my mind, I’m still just doing a bunch of stuff outside of Dartmouth, until it’s time to go back and finish my degree.

How did your parents react to your decision to leave school?

RE: My parents were supportive of my choice. They started a conversation with me over Thanksgiving break and they were like, “Hy we know you’re actually doing something with this music thing, so we think you need to make a choice.” So, they were totally on the same page as me. They gave me the punch.

What were the first months like? Where did you stay?

RE: We kind of made a last minute decision. We thought, “Okay, we’re not going to school next semester, so where do we want to live? [I] don’t wanna live at mom’s house.” So Graham, Ulicny, our singer, and I ended up subletting a room in Athens, Georgia from some friends of ours who were on tour. I was on a blowup mattress in the living room, surrounded by screen printing materials. They had been doing screen printing for their album cover and they were in the middle of it when I left, so I was surrounded by stacks of maybe 1,000 record covers in this room. And I’m not kidding, probably 30 analog televisions. I woke up one night, because one of them fell of a stack of records onto my air mattress and, like, shot me off the bed.

How’d you pick the band name Reptar?

RE: I think it was us just being really dumb and hating every other name that we said. That’s the least dumb one, so we thought we may as well go for that until we change it. But we never got around to changing it. And now I’m a relatively full grown man who is constantly talking about a cartoon dinosaur.

What were your first couple years of touring like?

RE: Within a year after leaving school, we recorded an album and started doing a bunch of tours. We went on back to back tours with Phantogram and Foster the People. Grouplove was shortly after that. In 2011 and 2012, we probably played 150 shows a year. We got great exposure touring with Foster the People when “Pumped up Kicks” was a huge hit. At the beginning of the tour, the venues we were playing at and they were all 500 or 700 person venues, but all of those shows sold out quickly, so they changed everything to 1,000-to-2,500 person venues. It was insane — it gave us a lot of insight into what it’s like to be a band operating at that level. For example, from a career strategy perspective, they issued a commercial radio mode of promoting their band and their albums. There were things about this that made sense, and there were things that I disagreed with.

How did you end up touring with bands like Foster the People in the first place?

RE: I was living with my friends in Athens, Georgia. It’s a really small town, full of people with a lot disproportionate amount of success. It honestly just took reaching out to different folks in town who thought that we were doing something cool. Eventually, we met our agent. She emailed us and said, “You guys are a really good band. I want to help you become successful. Let me start booking you shows, but I won’t start you with anything until you start making x amount of dollars per show.” And we — instead of being like “That is an incredible offer, thank you, you are a dream angel come out of heaven!” — We were like, “What do you want from us? I don’t know if I can trust you.” We were 18 or 19 years old and very wary of the “band has career ruined by mean overbearing industry person storyline.” We didn’t want to be taken advantage of. Some of that stress and some of that skepticism was healthy and helped us out in the long run, but I definitely think we made a lot of decisions that were more conservative than we needed to be when there was really nothing to lose. It’s not like we’re U2 and we have millions of dollars of contracts that are hanging in the balance here. We’re talking about her looking at a show for $200 and us being like, “I just don’t like this. Are you trying to swindle money out of us?”

Do you write your own music?

RE: In Reptar, Graham [Ulicny] is the songwriter. But I’m working on my own album now, in which I’ve written all the songs. It feels important to me to build up a voice that I’m a little more in control of. Pretty often, I think about how I am a white male from an Ivy League school. You can’t get a better picture of privilege than that. I feel like I have a responsibility to use that position of privilege to try to make a bigger change in the world. It can’t just be playing songs in bars; there has to be a little more than that. There’s a lot of meaning behind Reptar’s music, but it is best known for being a great, fun band to see live. In my own songs, I’m trying to establish an emotional connection with other people through music. And that is not, you know, rewriting climate policy or addressing the income inequality in the world, but it is giving people some kind of support in a time when they might need it.

Can you describe your songwriting process?

RE: A lot of times, I write songs when I need to do something else that I don’t want to do, like my taxes. It’s a very productive form of procrastination. Just like writing, just like exercising, the more you write songs, the easier it is to be successful at it. For every song that I actually like, there are probably two that I get halfway through, and I realize they suck. But if you don’t get those ideas out and give them a moment when you’re not critical of them, then nothing’s gonna happen. You have to give them a chance to breathe. That’s what I’ve found. Everyone writes bad stuff. You have to be bad to get good, and then even when you get good, you’re still going to write bad stuff sometimes, I also keep an acoustic guitar and a notebook next to my bed, and that way when I can’t sleep, I’m more likely to pick them up.

How would you describe the sound of your music?

RE: Reptar has a little bit of a manic dance party sound, but over a pretty organic 70s style groove, maybe. Most of the songs are meant to be danced to, but we try to do that by creating as interesting and different of a soundscape as possible. The stuff that I’m working on now is meant to sort of wear its emotional heart on its sleeves. I want the lyrics to be audible. It’s maybe more rock n’ roll. A bit more Bruce Springsteen and less Kate Bush.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.