If you’re outside of the United States, it’s quite possible you’re unfamiliar with the opioid epidemic that has peppered its way across the country. There are a lot of resources to learn more about it, but this article from the New York Times is a good start. If you do live here, then you know too well the pain that’s being inflicted by this issue.

This is something that hit incredibly close to Zach Ryalls (solo project name: Eternal Garb) in his home state of West Virginia. He lost a family member to this battle, and he’s seen friends struggle. No longer in the state, Ryalls has turned to his art as an attempt to reflect on the loss with the crisis as a framework.

His upcoming album PHARMA addresses this, and the lead single, “Demand,” serves as a thick, blackened portrait painted as part of a collection of something personal and meaningful.

Given that I grew up 16 miles from Ryalls, I knew I wanted to attempt to deconstruct this work. Now living in Asheville, he was kind enough to indulge me as I looked into what went into the creation of this work from a personal viewpoint and artistic setting. It’s not often conversations around this issue arise, but as we discussed, it’s one that needs to.

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Before we get into the single – I’m curious about your background. You grew up in Milton, WV – a small town not too far from where I grew up. How did you get into production, and what were you listening to that led you to the particular sound of Eternal Garb?

My interest in production goes back to a young age. A friend’s parents had some home recording gear we used to obsessively mess with, and by the time I was in high school I had obtained a 4-track and a few mics, and I’ve had some sort of home studio set up ever since.

Eternal Garb started around 2012 when a hand injury left me unable to play the guitar for about a year. I tried not to let the injury interfere with writing and used it as an excuse to approach music differently by incorporating more electronic and sample-based elements. Since then, the guitar has made its way back in prominently, but working around it was an interesting experience creatively overall.

I think WV is a lot more musically inclined than most folks know, but it’s more communal or even household centered. Did you grow up around the world of music? What drew you to this creative outlet?

I was fortunate to have a lot of talented musician friends around me growing up. It seemed like almost everyone at least played some guitar, which always made it easy to start bands and explore and experiment. We were always looking to stumble onto new musical ideas together, so being around musicians at a young age definitely shaped me creatively and having that outlet was invaluable and still is.

“It is hard to stay in touch with the past, especially when it is something both sides may not be prepared to confront”

Prior to your work on Eternal Garb, you were in a couple of bands – what led you from Milton to Brooklyn to Asheville?

I was living in Texas for a year prior to moving to Brooklyn with some friends, and had intended to maybe live there a year and then explore some other cities. I met my friend and long-time musical collaborator, Ruben, and we started the band Afuche together around 2007.

My girlfriend Denny joined the band in 2009. Afuche’s many iterations included so many amazing musicians and through that band I found enough of a musical community to keep me occupied with music in Brooklyn for the next 9 years. After Afuche, I began focusing on the drums and started the band Supplier with Denny and her brother and some close friends.

That musical community is basically represented now through Floordoor Records, which my friend Jason started and runs with Ruben and each put their projects out on (Public Speaking, A Bunch of Dead People). Denny and I had been talking about relocating for a few years and my sister, Cassie Butcher, is a ceramics artist in Asheville, and she convinced us to move there.

Your production sound on the single is relatively dark. Do you tend to lean that way in what you make, or is this just a reflection of the deeper story behind PHARMA?

I think dark is a good description for that track and a lot of the album. I try to mask and manipulate a lot of the audio to make the overall sound a sort of mysterious, dream-like experience. For this album, a lot of the songs were recorded, then dismantled, and then redone as differently as possible with one common rhythmic line. Not everything has always been dark; I have taken a much more playful approach on previous work.

Pardon the length of a couple of these – So PHARMA is about the opioid crisis in WV. Is it something you noticed while you were there, or did you starting seeing the fallout of the crisis once you were gone and could reflect on the state and your hometown differently? I know I look back and think how naïve I was to what was going on, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever felt similar. If not, I get it.

The album is less about the opioid crisis and more about personal loss in relation to. I would say I was naïve to it as well, and it unfortunately took friends and family struggling with addiction to look at the issue as a whole.

I feel like, as much as I love certain parts of our home state, there are aspects that are just beyond frustrating. Do you think there was a certain amount of pride and willful ignorance to the situation that led the crisis to reach this point?

I wouldn’t say that is necessarily a big part of it, but I know what you mean about some of the frustrating factors. To me, the biggest factor is the availability and abundance of drugs, and that’s it. Other communities across the country are dealing with similar situations. I just think if you drop that quantity of opioids on any state you will have a similar result.

So why exactly this issue? I know it hits close to where we grew up, but a lot of people also leave the state and leave it in the rear view mirror. I honestly think it’s pretty great that someone is using their art to speak up about this with so many other issues being talked about right now.

I lost a family member to an overdose, and I’ve had some friends whose struggles with addiction have really disrupted their lives.  It’s an issue that I’ve felt strongly about and is much bigger than any artistic statement, but if it can add any more awareness or create a conversation, then that is all I could ask.

I’m not sure if you grew up in a similar environment or not, but it seemed like if someone was viewed as an outsider, either not from WV or someone who left, offered a critique on the state, the people closest to me had the immediate reaction to become defensive. Are you worried about alienating anyone from your past with the album or concerned about any backlash?

Of course. Particularly my friends who have struggled with addiction. If they were to read this I would imagine they would wonder why I haven’t reached out more, and wondered where I was over the years. That goes back to the rear view mirror you mentioned. It is hard to stay in touch with the past, especially when it is something both sides may not be prepared to confront. It’s certainly something I have to work on.

PHARMA ­– would you say it’s a concept album? If so, where does “Demand” fall into the narrative, and if not, what is the story behind the track?

I wouldn’t call it a concept album. I don’t have any one message or statement in mind either. It was an outlet for me to deal with my family’s loss and to try and interpret the pain of countless other families going through the same thing. “Demand” takes its title from the absurd notion of a ‘supply and demand’ for highly addictive pain medication amounting to an estimated 400+ pills for every single citizen in WV from 2007-2012.

“Know that you will never understand someone’s struggle you haven’t experienced yourself, and be prepared to have the support rejected. Don’t lose hope.”

“Demand” is almost like a maze in the way it gets lost in itself and turns. What was it like making that track – did it come organically, or did you have a sketch of what you were hoping to achieve and made it happen?

“Demand,” along with many of the tracks on PHARMA, started as an improvised rhythmic loop. I would play along with the loop and just built around it. I tried to keep it melodically dense, just wanted it to feel like a weight with this jarring guitar theme on top of everything.

An even bigger question that arises out of the album’s influence is addressing issues or creating discussions from afar. Is there anything you’d recommend to people who are in similar situations – seeing a crisis from afar, but unsure how to be active in the cause surrounding it?

Reach out to anyone you know going through a similar situation. Know that you will never understand someone’s struggle you haven’t experienced yourself, and be prepared to have the support rejected. Don’t lose hope.

Sonically, where else does the album head? Is it sonically tied to a similar string, or can we expect some curveballs as well?

Almost every track’s foundation is a different rhythmic loop recorded in one day and then revisited individually. I would take one line and build and manipulate it and then tried to arrange a full piece so it didn’t just feel like a repetition. The instrumentation varies throughout the album, and I would say that approach is reflected sonically throughout.

Finally, in addition to the album, what else do you have in store for 2017 or after?

Playing live. Eternal Garb has only ever been a recording project, and I’m currently arranging a solo version and a small band version. I also play drums in the band Supplier, and we are starting work on our second album which will be released on Floordoor as well. It’s been great working with Ruben, Jason, and Preston at Floordoor and hopefully I’ll have more collaborations with them coming up.