An Interview with Todd Rittmann (Dead Rider)

Dead Rider is back with their first album since 2014’s excellent Chills on Glass, the atmospheric hard-rocking Crew Licks. The band is fronted by Todd Rittmann, from whom their name is also derived; Tod is German for ‘dead’ while Rittmann is roughly ‘rider’ (literally ‘ride-man’). I first met Todd when my band was lucky enough to play a show together with Dead Rider in 2011. With the release of Crew Licks, I decided to reach out and see about doing an interview. To my delight, he obliged.

The band’s own description of their latest work reads:
A monster! A damned chimera, reconflecting man in pieces — audio-verite dance and blues, pop and rock varieties. Not created but lived, with parts of life on the run reused to facilitate other parts; not whole, but fully animate. Brutal and beautiful. Even if they didn’t invent this wheel, they brought some bad-ass spinner rims to the table….”

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MLP: The album’s title is rather apt, given the abundance of guitar riffs & licks throughout: both jazzy and hard-rocking. Was this simple fact what drove you to title the album ‘Crew Licks’ or is there something else going on here?

Todd Rittmann: “Crew Licks” is slang for slang. Like little inside shorthand a group of people might develop at work or in a clique to keep things secretive or efficient. Your crew licks are like code or little images to keep information in your little circle.

In some ways this is exactly the album I’d expect to follow ‘Chills on Glass,’ yet it feels much darker overall, albeit in a groovier way. While composing are you ever conscious of where ‘the line’ might be in terms of a track becoming more experimental or more ‘play the hits’ rock riffage? And if so, how to decide where to land in relation to said line?

I think the answer is yes, at some point we are aware of this ‘line’. Generally we are working up a large batch of tunes over a long period of time, recording and writing in the studio when we can. “Crew Licks” came together on a longer time scale than “Chills On Glass” for a variety of reasons, but they both reached a point where the large batch was getting refined and trimmed to the point where there emerged a handful of tunes that we all felt strongly about. At this point we can observe what kind of album this is sounding like and make some conscious choices with the remaining things in progress. We might feel more free to take more chances with something if the album already has hits style rock riffage, or choose to flesh out things with different tempos, keys, instrumentation, etc. to help expand the feel of the thing as a whole. Toward the end we are definitely keeping one eye on making a balanced album that can be listened to from beginning to end without feeling too all over the place, or too repetitive. We cast aside a great many ideas and recordings that just don’t fit on the LP we are working on, or aren’t quite up to some other level we might be striving toward. We never just release something because we made it and it is finished.

Were there any particular artists or albums (classic or contemporary) which were a particular influence on this album? How did you decide to cover the Grateful Dead?

I wouldn’t say the album has any particular influence. This one was a little more of a chimera in its creation. Basically a different writing and recording session for every song over a 2 year time frame. I’m not happy to report that this record was basically made in our spare time, and there were no long stretches of it. Being that we have certain standards, throw a lot of material out, and all the pieces are their own discrete collaborations over a long time scale, there’s not really any way for us to consider influences. Maybe they leak in, maybe some stuff will remind someone of something else they heard somewhere, but its never intentional or even that interesting to me. I just hope this thing sounds like us when we are all done, even if it is a Frankenstein. That said, I did go for some influences when it came time to lay down guitar solos. Normally I try to deviate from sounding like things I like in any overt way. This record was such a struggle to make, I just said fuck it! I think listeners will hear some Roy Buchanan quotes, some Les Paul style, some Eddie Hazel, some James Blood Ulmer. Fuck it!

I’ve always wanted to investigate things that repel me (artistically), especially if it involves sounds that are universally used, or work by artists that are held in high esteem by large numbers of people. We have always tried to incorporate instruments that seem played out in a rock context, and make them work for us (congas, harmonicas, sax solos, etc). The Grateful Dead is a perfect example of the latter. Every couple years I subject myself to their music and try to hear what all their fans hear. To this day I have failed.

I was driving and listening to an NPR thing on the Dead one day and I resisted my urge to turn the radio off as quickly as possible when they started playing a bit of “Ramble On Rose”. I was really captivated by the lyrics, right up my alley. Layered, dark, evocative, funny but not comedy. It occurred to me to try using them over a beat we were working on and they just kind of magically fit in a way I liked.  I also really enjoy borrowing something from this group I’ve always disliked and finding a way to incorporate into our music in a way I feel is really heartfelt and not “ironic” at all. This is not intended to be a “Joke” cover, nor is it a tribute to an artist we enjoy. For me it is finding beauty in juxtaposition and context.

I’ve always felt a similar sentiment regarding the Dead. I was actually rather surprised when the first single from your album was a cover of one of their tunes, although I guess it’s a logical endpoint since your band is another ‘Dead.’ When Red Hot put out their compilation last year of the Grateful Dead being covered by contemporary bands, I realized I would probably never tune into what fans are hearing in the originals (though I enjoyed the compilation). That compilation certainly could have used your version of ‘Ramble on Rose’. While we’re still on the topic of ‘covers,’ I’d like to ask about the album artwork for “Crew Licks.” I understand you personally painted the cover for “Chills on Glass,” and it’s certainly worth noting that the cover for “Crew Licks” is rather similar to the artwork on the single “Uncomfy,” which was released all by itself between ‘Chills’ and ‘Licks.’ What’s the connection?

Hmm, now that you mention it, you could even say Chills on Glass’ art also rhymes with the “Crew Licks” and “uncomfy/new end”. Though our art/lyrics/videos are rife with “Easter eggs” and themes, this wouldn’t be an example of one. I saw the painting we used for “Crew Licks” on a Tumblr page I follow by a polish artist named Aleksandra Waliszewska. She’s fucking incredible. Really dark, profoundly funny, and impossibly prolific. Everyone should look her up immediately!

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I finally made it all the way through your filmography. I think ‘The Ideal,’ ‘Blank Screen,’ and ‘The Pointed Stick‘ were my favorite ‘music videos’ in the traditional sense of the word, though ‘Four Cocks‘ and ‘Mothersmeat‘ were certainly conceptually compelling, as were the Logan Arcade ads. Do you take conscious visual influence from any particular films or filmmakers? And your videos are usually marked with a ‘Slipbeat video,’ or directorial credit is even given to ‘Slipbeat.’ Do you consider Slipbeat more of a character, company or both?

I think anyone would have to squint really hard to tell I’m a huge Kubrick fan. I’m not consciously drawing any particular visual influence from anyone else. I am always trying to come up with a visual idea I have the means to execute and then it’s a mad scramble to pull it off. I took a couple semesters of animation in college and I’m always trying to incorporate some animated elements, trying to explore some new technique I’ve dreamed up.

Slipbeat is just a handle. I’ve never really thought about it much.

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This ‘youtube hole’ also brought me back to a couple of U.S. Maple albums. I know it’s been a while, but do people still bug you about how you ‘used to sound’ (like I am right now, haha) or has it been pretty easy to move forward and onward as Dead Rider?

I appreciate when I hear comments that Dead Rider doesn’t sound like my old band. It never really bothers me when folks want to tell me they loved US maple, it’s usually by way of telling me they love Dead Rider too. Moving forward is just as hard no matter what.

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What pushes you to keep producing music? And how has your impression of touring changed over time?

Honestly I don’t know what keeps pushing me. I do get some kind of fulfillment from recording and performing, but some days I really notice how small and fragmented those returns are. I guess for now I can just feel like I have to. If only to feel like my music, my friends and family are the things that help bring some kind of meaning to my existence. For me anyway.

Touring is in most ways the same. You either love it and believe in what you’re doing, or it is grueling and miserable. One thing that has changed is there are millions more bands, and booking agencies have gotten bigger and more cutthroat in an effort to frack profits out of independent live music, which is a really small, shifting, and spread out ore to mine these days. This has created a weird atmosphere where promoters want to let these big agents lay claim to all the clubs in any given town, even the tiny ones, for many months in advance (9-12 months sometimes!) The promoters in turn, feel less compelled to actually do any promotion, then get panicky when advance ticket sales are not impressive. I’m talking about advance tickets for shows at 100-300 cap rooms on a Tuesday! Unheard of 10 years ago. Sadly, all this is driven by Facebook and YouTube “likes” and not agents or promoters who want to actually curate a roster or calendar that has artistic integrity. Not that it doesn’t exist, but promoters who love music and will even lift a finger to promote, are a precious few.

Are there any acts you’d like to take a moment to turn us on to (Chicago natives like yourself or otherwise)?

Here’s a partial list of kick ass acts we’ve played with this year. Go see them, even if you get a free sample on YouTube or whatever, you gotta see the real thing live to really see, hear, and feel it.

Quits – Denver CO. Trashy hardcore, attitude, and noise. Just kick ass rock and roll pure and simple. Great band, but we were all a little scared to talk to them after the show.

Wheelchair Sports Camp – Denver CO. I’m at a bit of a loss on how to quickly describe this. I guess hip hop and free improv. Their recordings and videos are staggeringly good, but the live show was transcendent.

Baby Gurl – Salt Lake City UT. We played with these guys one other time and it was so great it felt like a fluke. NOPE! Raging bass and drums duo that lays down the RAWK with a perfect balance of stupid and smart. The banter between songs is totally hilarious and fun. These guys just don’t give a fuck…or do they?

Free Salamander Exhibit – Oakland (?) CA. 85% of the DNA of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and they are definitely on the same general aesthetic trajectory. Art rock beast with chrome talons caress your flesh past the point of ecstasy, it truly doesn’t get any better. They operate at the highest levels of musicianship, creativity, performance, and humanity.

Chiromancer – San Francisco CA. This duo played their first show on a bill with us and they fuckin killed. I’ve never seen any band that could cover so many simultaneous ideas and polyrhythms with just 2 brains, 4 arms and 4 legs.

Qui – Los Angeles Ca. There is no genre here. Beauty disguised as madness… or the other way around. This is some Lewis Carrol shit and it will fuck you up. They will prove as fact money has no worth as they steal your wallet.

Time Ghost – Providence RI (?). Audio visual art performance/installation. Abstract sounds, lights and sculptures all emerging from and passing through each other. Truly inspiring and maddening.

Christina Schneider Genius Grant NY (?). Too many chords to be pop, too catchy to be anything else. She is writing great songs and her band is making them 4 dimensional.

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