Longtime friends Ryan Smith, left, Brad Holyoke, center, and Matt Erickson continue to make music together, more than 20 years after graduating from Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris. Submittted photo

NORWAY — What do old friends on separate coasts do after spending three years partnering on songwriting?

In the age COVID-19, they record an album together.

That’s what longtime friends and sometimes band mates Matt Erickson of Norway and former Oxford resident Ryan Smith of Burbank, California, did this spring and summer, with a little help from friends and family.

Erickson had his first exposure to music as a kid when he attempted violin lessons but traded it for a guitar. Smith was given his first guitar at age of 14 and seized on it, quickly joining a jazz band and starting jam sessions with friends.

Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School alumni Ryan Wing and Matt Erickson jam in the post-high school band named A Century of Fakers. Submitted photo

The two connected as students and musicians at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School about 25 years ago. Along with Ryan Wing, Brad Holyoke and Casey Blier, they formed lifelong friendships and their first band, Willis. The name was inspired by the catchphrase “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” made famous by actor Gary Coleman on the TV sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Over the years they sometimes followed each other into other bands and eventually spread out across the country. Living on the West and East coasts, Smith and Erickson continue to make music together.


“In school we mostly played for the Battle of the Bands, a big contest at the end of the school year,” Erickson said. “We would do mostly covers along with six or eight other bands.

“It was just summers of music. We were set up in my family’s barn and every day was the same. We would go to Pismo Beach (in Oxford) for a swim, play music then grab a pizza for lunch, play some more, eat more pizza. And sleep in the barn.”

Early influences included progressive acts like Radiohead, Steely Dan and Jethro Tull, and classic rock bands such as The Beatles, The Doors, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

The annual Battle of the Bands was the staple that kept them sharp and hungry to improve. While the event was competitive, the two remember it more as a huge collaboration than a contest. They have no idea if Willis ever came out the victor.

“Someone always won,” Erickson said. “I guess probably the teachers were judges. One year I think they did it by how loud the cheering was for each band. It was all about showing off in front of each other in the gym.”

“Battle of the Bands was where I first saw Brad [Holyoke] playing guitar,” Ryan said. “I was so blown away I literally walked up and kissed his boots while he was on stage. No one in high school should have been playing like that. It was truly next level.


“He’s like ‘who is this psycho?’ And somehow we became friends. I still admire his playing and work to impress him with my shredding,” he said.

After graduation the friends all migrated to Portland where they intended to make their impact on the music scene. But as often happens, the change impacted them more and Willis was the casualty. They joined new bands with other musicians and sometimes each other, but began drifting in new directions.

Blier found his way to the West Coast to a drumming gig there and invited Smith to join him. Smith bought a bus ticket and has been in California since.

Fast forward to 2017 when Smith felt the pull to work on his songwriting and invited Erickson to join him. The two started collaborating on what they call “song of the week,” a roundtable kind of exercise to explore original music.

“We’d trade ideas,” Smith said. “It might be an instrumental piece. We use a drop box to import what we’d worked on. Just using a smartphone to record it.”

“We’d listen to each other’s songs, do a little critique and collaborate,” Erickson added. “We just enjoy each other’s music so much.”


After logging more than 100 songs together, Smith selected several to record a solo album, titled Rainbow Grass. Erickson helped him put it together. The two were inspired to revisit the material from their song of the week sessions for a new album, with contributions from some of their high school band mates and other musicians they played with over the years.

Love the Work is the title of an album by Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School graduates Ryan Smith and Matt Erickson. Submitted photo

As the two worked on the songs and figured session assignments they had no real plan on how they might get everyone together to record but then COVID-19 struck, ensuring that the album, called Love the Work, would continue as a long-distance project.

Starting with the entire 104-song catalog, they whittled out all but 30 of their favorites and then kept eliminating one or two at a time as they sharpened the concept of what they wanted Love the Work to be. When they got to 12 songs they were ready to go.

“It was tough!” Erickson said of the process. “But music is a language, and the more you know the language, the more fluent you are at communicating ideas. Thankfully, Ryan and I have a similar music sense and language, Ryan would send me audio files from California. I’d take his files, along with my own recordings of the songs and the contributions of our friends who added instruments and vocals, and put them together. Like a puzzle.

“I was in charge of the physical mixing,” he said. “We finally finished mixing the album in late July, and hired Adam Ayan at Gateway Mastering in Portland to master the album.”

“Matt and I would FaceTime every Sunday and plan out the week,” Smith said. “We’d each record on our setups and share the files with Dropbox. I would keep texting him, ‘turn the guitar up, turn the vocals down.’  I drove him crazy. But it turned out great.”


Gateway Mastering took the finished album and arranged it in certain areas to accentuate the best sounds from each track. Erickson said Gateway did not change any of the instrumentation but worked to equalize the tracks.

“Adam gave it a nice sonic space to live in,” Erickson said. “He is a total pro at what he does, works with the best in the music industry. We felt we were in safe hands. Then he sent it back to us, we checked it out to make sure we liked the sound and it was ready (for release into streaming services).”

No album is complete without cover art, and Smith called on his family to pitch in.

“My Mom has been into coloring books for a while now and I love the colors she puts together,” he said. “My niece Hayden let me use her drawing for the Rainbow Grass album cover so I wanted to keep it in the family. Matt found some public domain flowers and she colored them. Then (former band mate) Ryan Wing took the illustrations and designed them into the Love the Work logo, which came out fantastic.”

Love the work is a sentiment put forth by the late Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.

“It speaks to the importance of ‘work’ one must do on oneself to achieve psychological wholeness,” Smith said. “My friend AJ (who sang on one of the album’s songs, “Code”) introduced me to Jung when I was in high school. The idea goes that ‘if we enjoy the work the goal will be that much easier.’  Of course the work of achieving wholeness is not always enjoyable…”

Their first collaboration done, the duo continues their song of the week partnership. They are working on their next album and expect to also release two EPs before the end of the year. Music from Love the Work can be sampled here.

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