New York-based band The Ritualists embrace the wild and adventurous aspects of the Glam music tradition while creating their own explorations of a modern and art-drive life. Their second album, Baroque & Bleeding, arrived on December 3rd via Suite 484 Music, heralded by a release show in New York, and the new songs show a pretty pointed concern for the conflicts we face, psychologically and emotionally, when we want to hold onto creativity while struggling for basic survival. But the songs also refuse to shy away from self-critique and you’ll find something of the same earnestness in the band’s musical approach, celebrating ornament without overloading the senses. The result is an emphasis on the very human, and yet often quite dramatic, ways in which we explore internal worlds.
I spoke with Christian Dryden (vocals, bass) about the development of Baroque & Bleeding and couldn’t resist getting him to talk about his fandom for T. Rex as well as the Glam scene the band celebrates. We also discussed the conflict-driven ideas behind some of the tracks from the new album.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I have to start with a very strange question. Can we talk about Marc Bolan for a minute, who I believe the band cites as an influence?
Christian Dryden: Of course!
HMS: I’ve been having conversations about T. Rex lately because, firstly I had a weird gatekeeping experience of music snobs telling me that I shouldn’t like T. Rex. That was followed by a huge positive conversation online once I posted about it, with so many fans coming forward and recommending tracks. Have you ever had an experience like this?
CD: I’ve never, ever heard anyone speak that way about T. Rex. I’ve heard a musician talk down to me about T. Rex but their argument was just about taste. Outside of that, most music people love it. When Marc was alive doing this, his biggest admirers were some of the biggest music people of the day, like Ringo Starr. Elton John was obsessed with his music.
I like the deep cuts and the weird albums that no one ever listens to. I have all that stuff on vinyl and I listen to it all the time. I even contributed to the T. Rex Tribute Night at The Bowery Electric a couple years ago. I sang a few songs. It was really cool, and we had a nice crowd of T. Rex fanatics. I even did a local Halloween party a tiny little place, Marshall Stack, and me and a bunch of friends were doing covers all night. We did “Dandy in the Underworld”. It worked well for Halloween.
HMS: That is such an awesome choice. I understand that you and the rest of the band are very interested in the music scene of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 80s. What, specifically, does that mean to you, since I’m sure people could interpret that in different ways?
CD: Well, let me clear, I’m not old enough to have been there. I would argue that most of my influences are from the UK, actually. The thing about the Lower East Side then, and even in the modern day, is that it’s one of the few places in America where you can find other people who dig this stuff. One of my favorite bands, The Stone Roses, reunited, got on a plane from England, came her, played a sold-out Madison Square Garden, and then got back on the plane and flew home. They didn’t play another gig in the USA because they couldn’t get arrested in New York City.
We embrace Roxy Music, T. Rex, David Bowie, and I’m a Duran Duran fanatic. All of that stuff has been embraced in the New York scene. You can find fashion similar to what these guys wore, even. Growing up nearby, I didn’t know it existed in New York , and people thought my musical tastes were very strange. But then I was able to find like-minded individuals across the Hudson. That’s why we’re rooted in the Lower East Side in that respect, but it’s the Lower East Side via Europe. I also love Television, Blondie, and the New York Dolls, but I’ve always gravitated towards the British Stuff.
HMS: It’s like New York as the conduit to Europe. New York has always welcomed British music, but maybe it goes back to John Lennon coming over as well. There has always been some kind of connection.
CD: I think so. And David Bowie lived in New York. British artists have always felt very welcome here, which is cool.
HMS: Do you feel there are other bands with aesthetic tastes similar to The Ritualists operating in New York now, or do you have to forge your own way?
CD: I’d like to believe we have a signature style and sound. I think there are a handful of other acts in the area we could be on a bill alongside. But a lot of the stuff in New York is definitely rooted in a Garage, Punkier, Grittier vibe and we’re a bit more into the more ornate, more European sounding style in the way I sing and the arrangements.
HMS: Tell me a little bit about what went into making the video for “Baroque and Bleeding”.
CD: It’s pretty wild. It’s a combination of a little story with your typical band performance clips. The concept behind the song is that I was having a bunch of conversations with my friends one night, hanging out at the beach. We were talking about how we were Glam, or this and that, and how we were suffering because we should all be doing simple Pop tunes. I went to sleep and I had a kind of a dream where this concept of “Baroque and Bleeding” kept popping into my mind. I liked it because it was a kind of play on words as well [Baroque=broke]. We’re broke, we’re ornate. We’re trying to be dandies in the underworld and suffering for it.
So with the video, I thought it would be cool if we could try to personify three of the elements of what I perceive to be the trials and tribulations of the artistic process. One character in the video represents me as the poet, the writer. Then, there’s another character who comes in who I call “The Princess of Flies”. You walk into a room dressed to the nines and you have the naïve idea that, “This is your world.” Maybe that’s not really how things are, but as an artist, you’re trying to mold the world in this way. Then, there’s a disruptive side to all of it, with things you sacrifice for your art, whether it’s your friends, or your family, your essence, or your heart. So there’s a grim looking character in a black hood playing with a knife.
All of these characters intermingle and kind of I see myself in all these characters. At the end there’s a reveal that I hope makes the audience aware of what we were trying to do. It was a little more ambitious for the amount of time we had! [Laughs] We had to perform the song on a stage in an afternoon, and we really pushed the crew, but I’m very happy with it.
HMS: It sounds almost like these are archetypes in your mind.
CD: Exactly, they are archetypes. With the previous record, I wrote very personal songs about my relationships and thoughts, but with this record, I really wanted to tie things to more universal concepts so that more people could identify with them. I think that everyone who has ever tried to do anything creative goes through this, where they have to wear many hats. One of the greatest guitar players who I’ve ever worked with used to turn up at rehearsals covered in spackle. He was working all day as a mover. It’s so sad what artists have to do to support their art, but anyone who’s creative can identify with this idea.
HMS: It made me think about whether ornament or beauty is seen as necessary in the world, because the world can be a very hard place. Often it comes down to brass tacks, and beauty is what gets dropped, in the interests of survival. But it seems like with this song and with the band’s aesthetics, you don’t want to let go of those elements that spark the imagination. You’d rather hold onto the core content and also the beauty.
CD: Yes, I think that’s very fair. I think that’s what poets and artists have done since the beginning of time. They can take trivial elements of society and make them seem exciting, or take horrific things and make them reflect back upon the general population. They say, “This is who you are.”, in a way that really resonates. It’s not always necessarily beautiful, but maybe it is profound.
HMS: This seems to have bearing on another song on the album, “Forbidden Love”, though that takes a more questioning tone, I think.
CD: Yes, the lover in “Forbidden Love” is Music, not a human being. It’s asking, “What am I doing, giving up everything, bleeding on stage, for what? What am I taking from this?”
HMS: I feel like “Baroque and Bleeding” is more directed towards the world, but “Forbidden Love” is the confessional about internal conflicts. I really liked the line, “Waiting in a world where nothing fits me.” Is that about everything in the world, or more about musical styles?
CD: It’s definitely about both. In one sense, it’s pop culture generally, life, and then in another sense, the music scene. It all fits, no pun intended. [Laughs]
HMS: Does continuing to be in love with music make it more possible to turn a blind eye towards these conflicts for periods of time, or do you think it’s always there as an ongoing struggle?
CD: I think it’s a struggle. It’s something that pops into my mind every morning when I wake up. I think it’s always there. It just comes with the territory. The first instrument I taught myself how to play was the drums, so I played all the drums on this record, and the bass. I’ll never forget an older guy who was a drummer saying, “Now that you have an understanding of drums, you will never ever be able to listen to music in the same way again. You will never be able to just sit back and listen to a song play with a smile on your face. You’re going to hear that hi hat, that snare, and that kick pattern.” He was right.
HMS: It’s awful and wonderful. I get the sense that the band is wary of music that is too packaged or commercial. Is that true?
CD: I think so. Particularly here in the United States, it’s frustrated to hear what is getting traction. It can be horrific, mindless stuff. We don’t want to be that, but make no mistake, I want to write songs that get stuck in your head. I want you to sing it as you’re walking down the street. I’m not looking to make abstract Post-Rock. I’m not looking to do modern Radiohead.
I still love a good Pop song, a good melody with some kind of hook. But we’ve gotten so far away from The Beatles formula of popular music where there’s a discernible melody, chorus, and instrumentation that’s also melodic. Maybe it’s just a “natural progression of things”, but we don’t always have to accept “the natural”. We’re artists and it’s our job to upset the natural order of things.
HMS: The song “Monsters” feels like a very “now” song, with this idea perhaps of not running away from truths that are scary. America has been facing a lot of truths about itself in the past year and half, like its long history of oppression.
CD: I think that’s a fair interpretation. The song is also just about clarity as well. It’s a means of self-preservation to forget things. Your brain goes into shock mode and does certain things so you don’t have certain memories. With “Monsters”, it’s playing that scenario out where, if you truly care for someone, you are honest with them, or try to be. The song is also just about reflecting upon yourself in an honest way.
It says, “Faith, but I’m not afraid of the other…Faith, but I’m afraid of the end.” I know from psychology that when people have a fear of death, they become more patriotic and more tribal. There have been studies on this. They embrace the familiar. I know in my heart that I accept people who are different than me, who have different opinions than I have. But I also know that, as human beings, this has been ingrained in our DNA as a way of protecting ourselves. You have to accept both parts of that, then honestly ask yourself, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I saying the right thing?” I think that understanding that can help your decision-making process a bit.
HMS: The song makes me think of the idea that if you see something in your life as a monster, that’s probably something you should not actually run away from, but need to face. The other thing is that we have the other in us. So, we definitely need to face ourselves. How does sound come about around these different themes for you? Is the music first?
CD: For this one, I had the chorus for a very long time, prior to even our first record being written, but I couldn’t come up with a verse for it. Then I had the chorus and the melody, then I put lyrics to it, and that helped me put concepts to it, and that helped me come up with the verse on it. So it was very much a chorus with a melody, then lyrics, then the verse. I tried to give it a bit of a John Bonham, Led Zeppelin-type drum groove and approach. I intentionally went very busy on the basslines because I wanted to the song to have a lot of space, kind of like an older David Bowie recording from the 70s. I wanted it to be a bass and vocal-forward type of tune.
Photo credit: Aramis Lupao