(Music) RITUAL HOWLS
Detroit-based band Ritual Howls shape haunting sonic textures out of dark places. In this interview, singer Paul Bancell, bassist Ben Saginaw, and drummer/synth player Chris Samuels talk about their new album Rendered Armor, cinematic music, and their recently published book of lyrics.
Interview by Tyler Nesler
You just released your third album Rendered Armor. Was there anything that was distinctly different or new for you all with this album, in terms of the recording process, writing, thematic focus?
CHRIS: This time around we spent more time recording and refining the music on our own before we ever went into a studio to mix and record vocals. This allowed me to get very specific with the drums and synths.
PAUL: Yeah, we recorded a lot of Rendered Armor ourselves — tracking, synths, guitars and bass in our rehearsal space. We practice in a large warehouse loft in the Eastern Market (of Detroit). It gets some super huge reverbs, so I set up a few microphones and layered a bunch of guitars. It was cool to be able to experiment with guitar tones to get exactly what I wanted for this record. I wrote most of the lyrics during a six week period just before going into the studio to cut vocals. I think I finished the lyrics for “Mother of the Dead” the day I recorded it. I can’t think of anything drastically different. The writing process has been a slow evolution of increased collaboration. Lots of jams that are refined over months into songs.
Detroit has a long history as an epicenter of electro and techno, with early pioneers such as Juan Atkins and his group Cybotron, along with the influential radio DJ The Electrifying Mojo, and many other seminal figures. Much of the music explored futurist themes mixed with funk and industrial. Ritual Howls clearly has soaked up those influences, but in what ways do you think you've found your own angle or approach to these sounds?
CHRIS: The best thing we ever did was not force our sound. It just happened. By that I mean a little Cybotron, a little Skinny Puppy, a little funk, etc. It does seep into the music but without any agenda to sound like any one thing or another.
PAUL: We all played in bands before Ritual Howls so our influences definitely came with us. The combination has shaped our sound. I played primarily in rock bands growing up — listening to a bunch of different stuff from Les Savy Fav and Fugazi to the Stooges. Electronic and Industrial music is newer to me and has been cool to explore.
BEN: I couldn’t agree with Chris and Paul more. We are three distinct musical backgrounds combining in an environment of respect and excitement. We have an undeniable electronic sound but Paul’s guitar gives a very different twist to something that could be simply industrial. We never want to force a sound or an influence into our music because it would feel inauthentic.
You've also cited movements such as musique concrete and experimental film scores as influences. What are some particular avante-garde composers and other artists who have left their mark on your sound?
CHRIS: I really love how Trent Reznor’s sound has crossed over well into film. He’s a great example of a song maker understanding how to format for film. I also love visual art so in the back of my head I’m always pulling from a deep well of sculpture and painting.
PAUL: Most of the artists who have influenced me are friends. I’ve played in a few projects with the local musician, painter, and performance artist, Jimbo Easter. He taught me how to experiment with sounds and song structures more than any record ever did.
BEN: Alice Coltrane and Ariel Kalma are definitely two of my favorite more avante-garde composers but I’m not sure if it’s easily identifiable how they influence the sound I bring. Maybe they are more representative of the energy I try to bring into collaboration and surviving tours.
Cinema has been cited as a significant influence on the band's approaches to songwriting. I hear the cold chromatic visuals of classic film noir as an almost synesthetic reaction to a lot of your music. What are some classic film noirs that you like best? I've also seen Bergman and Tarkovsky mentioned in another interview. I've been on a Tarkovsky kick recently and his work is immersive and powerful. What's one of his films that's a favorite of yours? I could see Stalker being complimentary to Ritual Howls lyrics and imagery.
CHRIS: Black Angel
PAUL: Sunset Boulevard was always a favorite of mine. I think I just love tragedy more than anything; I’m not necessarily a film noir buff. I dig creepy lighting and bummer endings. Yeah, Tarkovsky is great! I once wanted to name a band the Bell Makers from that amazing scene in Andrei Rublev. Luckily I was voted down. “The Bell Makers” didn’t really convey the genius of that movie, or rock and roll.
Speaking of cinema and film noir, some of your videos (such as the ones for the songs "Going Upstate" and "Blood Red Moon”) have a distinct noir feel. They're minimalist while also drawing the viewer in slowly with a single theme (the winding nighttime road in "Upstate" and the slowly rising moon and silhouetted figures in "Blood Red Moon"). Who did you work with to create these particular videos, or were they primarily put together by the band? How about your recent video for "Alone Together"? How did you come to work with the director Kirill Slavin?
CHRIS: I created the “Going Upstate” and “Blood Red Moon” videos and you seemed to hit it on the head. Both videos are meant to draw the viewer in. A kind of false drama. A never ending road or long steady shot of the moon rising help build tension and use drama as the medium.
PAUL: Those two videos Chris made are amazing! I love how they totally capture the vibe of Ritual Howls. Kirill is great to work with. He’s a good friend of ours who shares the rehearsal space, and runs a label called Industrial Detroit and also plays in a few bands. We’ve been working on more video projects together recently and he came up with some of the ideas for the “Alone Together” video. It’s always a blast working on projects with him.
The lyrical content of your music seems pretty thought out, and it works as a crucial component to the overall tone of the work. A book of your lyrics from 2012 to 2019 is now available, and it includes photos and images taken over your years together as a band. What was the process like to develop this book project? Did you work with any particular book designer to create a literary and visual artifact that feels like it syncs with your sound and overall aesthetic?
PAUL: Yes, we worked with the designers Mollie Edgar and Tobey Albright at Hour.Studio to create the book. A friend of mine in Chicago connected us to them and we are really happy with the work they did. In addition, Shauna Skalitzky helped with the editing and layout of the lyrics. While working on Rendered Armor the band wanted to try and put something special together for the people who have been listening to our music for a while. I had thought about compiling all the lyrics in one book before, and it seemed like the right time.
Who have you toured with that you've felt the band has had a particularly good chemistry with, both as compliment to your own music and personally day-to-day while on the road?
CHRIS: ADULT. would be at the top of my list. Not only are they one of those pinnacle bands who helped shape a generation of musicians but Adam and Nicola are both visual artists like us so we connect on multiple levels. Also they’re fun to be around and travel with.
PAUL: Totally! They are such incredible artists, and we have so much fun on the road with them.
BEN: Agreed! But we have been lucky to play with a lot of bands that we have good chemistry with. Void Vision joined one of our runs with Adult. and Shari is the best! Incredible performer, super fun human being. Our tour with Black Marble was a blast and brought us up to Seattle and Portland for the first times.
What's happening for the rest of the year with Ritual Howls? Any particular tours, shows, events, etc. that you'd like people to know about?
CHRIS: This summer we will be joining The Faint on one of the longest tours we’ve ever done. We start in Boston and end in Austin, Texas.
PAUL: Yeah, we are very excited about joining The Faint and Closeness on tour later this summer. We are playing some towns for the first time, so it will be great getting to perform for new people. It will also be cool to see the other bands perform for three weeks! I look forward to hearing their music in my sleep.
BEN: We can’t wait. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. Lots of new venues. Lots of new cities. The Faint tour will probably be a majority of our live shows for the year. Maybe Halloween in Detroit. After the summer tour we will probably hunker down to write the next record.