Remaining optimistic

Ben Runyan of City Rain opens up about life and music.

Ben Runyan of the electro-pop rock band City Rain recants on past struggles, current ambitions and the future of the music industry. | Darragh Dandurand Friedman TTN
Ben Runyan of the electro-pop rock band City Rain recants on past struggles, current ambitions and the future of the music industry. | Darragh Dandurand Friedman TTN

Ben Runyan is an optimist. Runyan is a musician. Runyan is a Temple alumn. Runyan is an Apple employee. Runyan is a survivor of post-antidepressant withdrawal. But above all, Runyan is an optimist.

Runyan, 26, is the frontman of the Philadelphia-based electro-pop duo City Rain. Although the band has been on the scene for the last three years, it truly began to gain notoriety with the release of its single, “The Optimist.” Along with a music video for the song that has more than 200,000 views on YouTube, “The Optimist” sparked a viral campaign that encouraged viewers to hold up a sign that declared in the same way that the song did that, “There’s an optimist in me.”

Runyan is looking to continue his motif of unbridled hope and positivity following palpable darkness with the Sept. 19 release of his latest song and music video, “Join The Human Race.”

“I like to think of it as the little or big brother of ‘The Optimist,’ I’m not sure which,” Runyan said.

The video, which was shot in Runyan’s childhood home in Chestnut Hill, is partially autobiographical.

“The video is about a boy who grows up and is very insulated and sheltered and is shown a selective view of the world. At the end, he breaks out with other people and is finally signing onto life,” Runyan said. “But I think the bigger message is about creativity in the music industry, and how the Internet and music technology have given tremendous opportunity to people that are creative, but maybe not in a traditional sense, [so they can] create things and to be noticed.

And I truly believe that you need to get out there, and you need to meet people,” Runyan said. “You have to listen to people, you have to look people in the eye, and you have to be a part of a group.”

City Rain is a band that has undergone several evolutions. The first iteration was a solo project of Runyan’s that was largely experimental and fully instrumental. City Rain first evolved with the addition of guitarist Jarrett Zerrer. After briefly flirting with the hipster-dance-party scene, City Rain morphed into the cinematic electro-pop rock duo that it is today. The final piece of the puzzle was a member change that saw Scott Cumpstone taking over guitar duties.

The City Rain of 2013 is one that is not privy to shying away from big hooks or cranking up the reverb.

“I kind of have a flare for the dramatic,” Runyan said.

And although he has aspirations of scoring movies and TV shows aside from City Rain, Runyan’s love of cinematics has become an integral part of the band.

“I enjoy doing the videos as much as I enjoy doing the music,” Runyan said. “That part is equally important. The visual concept of it is just as much fun.”

In addition to hearty portions of synth and vocal lines with the reverb cranked to level 12, another consistent theme of the music of City Rain is positivity. And although Runyan is in a good place now, he didn’t get there without first weathering a tumultuous adolescence.

Runyan was first put on prescription antidepressants at the age of 12.

“I think that common knowledge in the late 1990s and early 2000s dictated that if someone was creative or eccentric or whatever the buzzword is, whether it’s ADD, manic depression or bipolar, you’re labeled as that and given these drugs. And being young and impressionable, it’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, that’s just what I am, they’re doctors, of course they know right,’” he said.

The endgame of Runyan’s carousel with antidepressants was a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor called Lexapro.

“At the age of 23 I took myself off of those medications, and I had a pretty crazy withdrawal period,” Runyan said. “After being off them I went through a lot of physical changes where things kind of evened themselves out. But this was over the period of years. So it was really something that I felt like stripped away my identity and my humanity for a while, cognitively, emotionally and physically.”

Fortunately, he has found himself on the other side.

“A big part of my comeback story is the fact that it all kind of came back, and now I don’t need medication. I’m just Ben and I manage that the best that I can,” Runyan said. “I was recently reading an article from Jeff Tweedy from Wilco about how he had fallen into this dynamic where he had felt compelled to [mess up] his own life to write good music. From watching documentaries about Marvin Gaye, he really truly believed that he needed to create this drama in and around his life.”

“Luckily for me, I found that the best music I’ve created has come through the other side of struggle and getting through struggle. So that bodes well for my career and my mental health as well,” Runyan said.

In addition to taking himself off medication, Runyan found catharsis through music. It was at Temple where Runyan, who previously had no musical experience outside of a short spat with the school band in the fourth grade, was introduced to FL Studio, commonly known as ‘FruityLoops,’ a digital audio workstation that allows the user to create beats, loops and other essentials for dance music.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done in 1985,” he said, though Runyan was quick to add that he has since learned how to play instruments.

Runyan, a tall lanky fellow who, despite having a beard, is relatively clean cut, sports few blemishes. But a noteworthy one is the “no excuses” tattoo that he has chosen to embroider on his bicep, a constant reminder to avoid the pitfall of complacency.

“Us as humans have a finite idea of what we’re capable of,” Runyan said. “And the reality is that I never gave myself enough credit for what I’m truly capable of. I think it’s Will Smith that said in ‘The Pursuit of Happyness,’ ‘If you want something, go out and get it, period.’ And I put it there to remind myself when I’m doubting myself and being a wuss and going, ‘No I’ve done enough, I’ve gone far enough,’ that that’s bull—-.”

The ink is also there to serve as a reminder to never let others distort his ambitions.

“A label’s not an excuse, and your teachers, therapist, or school counselor telling you what you could do or what you’d be good at, that’s just not an excuse. I’ve even had girlfriends be like, ‘I think you’d be good at this, but I don’t think you’d be good as a touring performing musician.’ And you might take some of that to heart. You define what you are. Don’t be trapped by other people’s thinking,” he said.

David Zisser can be reached at

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