CVLT Nation Interviews Rikk Agnew
O.C. O.G. – An interview with Rikk Agnew
Punk rock dark lord and master of the octave chord Rikk Agnew has left his sonic prints on more red hot and poisonous projects than you’ve had furtive wanks.
Emerging out of the embryonic Orange County punk scene in the late 70’s, Rikk is a multi-instrumentalist, punk polymath and antenna for the muses – contributing to legendary album’s like The Adolescents’ blue debut and the otherworldly Only Theatre of Pain by Christian Death. He should need no introduction, he basically invented deathrock guitars, but if you need a doorway to guide you then fire up ‘Cavity-First Communion’ or ‘Kids of the Black Hole.’ There’s miles and miles behind that door and beyond.
Bouncing back from a brush with degradation, bloatation and evaporation, he’s strapped in tight but loose again, antenna polished to a buffed chrome gleam with The Rikk Agnew Band, their new LP Learn and about eleventy other projects to throttle the shit out of a new lease on life.
He took some time over a few busy weeks to beam me his musings about origins, hauntings, new chances, strippers, willies and the eternally burnt brand of Christian Death.
There’s so much ground to cover in your career, as you jumped ship a lot and followed your muse in both creative directions and down some pretty dark pathways. Can we start with you first picking up a guitar and formulating your sound? What was buzzing inside your skull at the time?
Nothing is original, everything “new” or “innovative” evolves from influence ov an existing thing that is re-interpreted. My “sound” is a reconstructed and more classically-influenced version ov the most underrated band ever “The Mechanics”, a band in the 70’s from Orange County who’s Guitarists – Tim Racca & Dennis Catron – utilized the “sound” aka Octaves.
Also Gary Glitter, Cheap Trick, JIMI HENDRIX! My Musikkal Messiah/Biggest influence/Soulmate. I picked up guitar after having been a bass player in cover bands since 1973. When I was drumming for The Detours (My first “official” punk band in 1977, who still play now and then!), on a fluke, we traded instruments and did a hilarious version ov Black Randy’s ‘Loner with a Boner’, where I played guitar and the guys loved it so much, plus the fact that our favorite band, the aforementioned “The Mechanics” had 2 guitar players, so we decided to move me to guitar and got Casey Royer on drums. The rest ov my career has been quite a patchwork, going from rock bottom, 350 lbs. and 3 months to live to a healthy living strapping 59 year old who has kikkstarted his career with a quarter mile ov foot up my ass and is living the dream!
I have played with, recorded or been in every band ever except the Beatles or the Osmonds. I wasn’t from Liverpool or a Mormon. And I had bad teeth.
That sound you cultivated is really unique and influential as fuck. Your playing has that punk abrasiveness but also some really unconventional techniques, especially on ‘Only Theatre of Pain’. A lot of it is in the timing and phrasing that you don’t get with standard hardcore players who copped some of your sound. The progression in your playing from The Blue Album to Deathwish and OTOP is pretty striking. You can hear the seeds of it in the slower passages on ‘Blue’ but it really fucking blossomed with Christian Death…
I connect with the Muses, the universe, the cosmos (like one ov my mentors, Sun Ra). I channel in and let it guide me through body and spirit. I don’t count, read or use any “grounding” techniques that use the brain. The brain is for post creative work. I am blessed with many influencees, tales ov how my musikk has changed and even saved lives. My influences musically are everything from the great classical masterpieces to noisecore, from urban and factory sounds, and most important, the sounds ov nature.
Can you tell us about your first encounter with Christian Death? It was probably a little more fey than what you were accustomed to right?
At a show in Pomona, California where Christian Death opened for an Adolescents show in early 1981, we (Rozz and I) met in the Men’s room ov all places. He was touching up his make-up in the mirror and I was taking a piss. We glanced at each other and smiled. No words necessary: Psychic Connection bigtime. Then 10 minutes later, Christian Death played and there he was at the microphone. His subtle charisma was brilliant!
Quiet, shy, a basic introvert. He commanded attention without batting an eyelash. On tour, when he would smoke or drink with everyone he would go total opposite and be loud and quite a comedian! Up for anything and a lot more pleasant. This was the Rozz I liked being around. From the time I met the whole group at that show in Pomona I exchanged numbers with George Belanger & James McGearty as they were interested in getting me in the group, and I was sensing my time (2 weeks to be exact) with the Adolescents would be over soon. I Worked with Rozz from 81-83, and 88-93. I still work with James McGearty in a group called Summon.
It was OTOP that first introduced me to your playing when I was a teenager, and I pretty quickly afterwards sought out “All By Myself”, that must have been a point of pride to do that record, all off your own back? Unfiltered?
Half ov those songs on “All by Myself” I had already written for the second Adolescents LP, but even before the ‘Welcome to Reality’ EP I was let go. I will spare you the gory details, but suffice to say that it was devastating, I was totally coldcocked. You know that feeling when everyone knows about the time your girlfriend was real drunk and caught blowing a couple guys at a party and everyone knows about it except you…until someone slips and says it within your earshot? Kinda that same kicked in the balls feeling.
It was thanks to my Friend Jon Lee (RIP), who owned and ran a record store in the late 70’s/early 80’s called “Up Another Octave”. Alex Gibson had just put out a solo LP, something unheard ov in the punk rock world, except he had someone else play drums. Jon says “Rikk you can play over a dozen instruments; you should do a solo record and play everything!” So I called Frontier Records when I got home and told her ov the idea (I was band-less and idle musically on the scene) and she was like “sure”. So I got ideas for songs, went over them with a ghetto blaster playing the rhythm and doing the octave and leads on top. Went in, laid down the drum tracks first (I have a studio in my brain, I can literally hear songs as if playing them on a machine), then bass, rhythm guitars, lead vocals, keyboards, lead guitars and octaves, and backing vocals all in album order sequence. With mixing it took 3 days in under 40 hours while working a full time job. No pride, just driven.
It was a return to the more classic So-Cal style but with those cool open chord rising runs on the guitar, and you could fucking sing too. Was this a more pure representation of where your head was at?
I always write lyrics involving “Personal politics and observations”.
Yeah better personal and political than spooky mumbo jumbo. And though The Adolescents letting you go must have hurt like hell we wound up getting two classics out of it. It’s to all our benefit that you chose to bite down instead of licking your wounds.
As far as being hurt by the Adolescents letting me go, it stung the first time because they totally sprung it on me in the guise ov a meeting that was supposed to be about an upcoming US tour we were about to embark on (needless to say the tour never happened). Really sneaky, backstabbing shit. We have reformed over the years 3 times, and each time Casey and I got the boot. But ya know, I figure I don’t wanna be where I am not wanted, so move on. I never got the mindset ov musicians or people for that matter, wanting to fight or retaliate with those who do not want them. It’s whakk. Besides, all roads lead to now, and I love NOW.
You mentioned that you don’t ‘write‘ songs in the conventional sense as an intellectual exercise and that in fact they are ‘gifts’, a sense of channelling or being attuned to something?
Yes. I am not a musician; I am a magician, an illusionist. It only appears that I’m playing, but I have a batline to the muses. All song possibilities are all floating around the universe in all its dimensions. I am a translator who is fed the tunes and I interpret them for all ov You. Enjoy.
Fast forward to the present and you seem more active now than ever, that must be a side effect of having a lot of time on your hands now you’re sober right? As a recovering gas enthusiast myself I was initially terrified that I wouldn’t be able to play music when I quit, did this spectre of a dry spell give you pause for thought or was your hand really forced by your health?
I was always active throughout my “wet” spell spectre, just wasn’t putting it out there. It very much affected my desire to create. I got kleensoburr because I was going to die within 3 months if I didn’t, so yes; both hands were health forced.
Could you tell us a little more about that unless it’s too heavy to dwell on? The diagnosis and the steps you took? It’s amazing how circumstance sometimes forces us to change against our will and yet we come out of it twisted into a shinier new form with more focus and enthusiasm. Like hands of fate slapping us.
Not heavy to dwell on at all, it’s a game changing event that was a total blessing in disguise. It gave me a choice and I chose to fukking live! In a nutshell: I was not getting drunk anymore even though I was downing at least a 1/5 ov vodka, a 1/5 ov whiskey and a case ov beer daily (no lie!). On 11/20/2010 I was sitting on my Mom’s couch, weighing almost 350 pounds and I started to feel a sensation I never experienced before. It was very peaceful. I was feeling my worries, pain and concerns, leaving my body like losing gravity. It was frightening and I called my friend Paula to come take me to the hospital NOW.
And I hate(d) hospitals. They did a diagnostic and found I have (and some ov it still have almost 7 years later) 4th stage Cirrhosis, Hepatitis C, Liver Failure and Splenomegaly (enlarged spleen), Gall stones maximus, Kidney stones, Ascitis (the swelling and a lot ov the weight gain was 3 gallons ov toxic fluid sloshing around unfilterable), Adema, HBP, you name it! Then I asked what I should do. They said quit your present lifestyle and start living a healthy one or die within 3 months. Been living like they told me ever since. The biggest and most supportive person who helped me (and still does) is my fiancée Gitane Demone. I owe my life to her, literally!
That’s triple heavy but also pretty inspiring. And I guess it proves there’s no balm or bandage like love.
Good thing my willie is in fine shape and working to its max again! From like 2001 to 2014, I had crucial ED symptoms. That was also a plus from getting healthy that I didn’t expect but it keeps me on-board!
Hahaha glad to hear you can still raise the flag man. You mentioned at some point that just prior to leaving Christian Death you were experiencing ‘a lot of evil paranormal activity’. Care to elaborate on that? Certainly summoning such sinister sounds and themes with conviction each night, coupled with the drugs must have brought on some pretty heavy mindsets and mental states…Especially with speed and sleep deprivation where everything seems loaded with symbolism.…
I didn’t start my “Meth period” till like 88-89. During the Christian Death Days it was drink, weed and a shitload ov LSD & other hallucinogens, but these “metaphysical” experiences were at night while I’m in bed, or watching TV in the dark. They were very real and very serious. We opened something up that was very frightening. The shit is REAL, Rozz was more than a dabbler ov the dark arts…
What’s happening at the moment with The Rikk Agnew Band? You’re playing pretty prolifically now. Can you tell us a little about recording the new album ‘Learn’ and the shows in support of it? You look like you’re having a blast.
We recorded it in 40 hours over a period ov 9 days at Kitten Robot Studios, Engineered by Paul Roessler (Screamers, 45 Grave, Nina Hagen…GDQ!) w/ Assistant Engineer Polina Ann Mt. Agnew (My Daughter). We had a lot ov fun which is vital in recording, no sour grapes! Everybody that would visit or be there, I put to work.
“You and You, I need some screams here!”
“But I never did this before, so…”
“Fuck it! All the better!”
The studio is about a brisk 20 minute walk which I would sometimes take going to record, especially when it was time to lay down vocal tracks. I ended up writing half the songs lyrically during these walks. Very inspirational, the city is! We (The band) are a group ov friends who all share a common childlike hilarity and sense ov humor, a pakk ov fukking kids we are! And it carries over onto the stage. Comedy!
The recording sessions sound like a riot. And yeah you can hear it. It must be a lot more fun to chase that vibe. I have no doubt you guys tapped into something with Christian Death that was probably difficult to put back in its Pandora’s Box so it’s fucking great that the pack of kids is thriving.
And still I pay the price. It’s a badge that seems to shimmer from underneath my skin, forever marked, branded, haunted by Roger Alan Painter’s doppelganger! Jesuselbub! The Brimstone Barnacle Breath ov prose and sound is Christian Death’s backing vocals.
Right after I left those last 2 messages, one ov my “watchdogs” found another site selling Bootleg Only Theatre of Pain merch. Fukkin Pirates! No love for the artiste!
Bootlegs are rampant. Sex Gang Children are having the same problem. It might be small comfort when your pockets are light but man, just think about the impact you had to have made to inspire such a black market boom. It’s a fucking milestone record. And maybe a millstone too. Me and my mates? We printed our own.
I don’t mind that, it’s free advertising and support, and y’all are DIY true supporters, not some fly by night, let’s catch what’s hot and mass market it without consent Hot Topic fukkstix, trying to make a fast bukk on this week’s model. Remember bakk in the OG punk days we made our own shirts with felt pen and spray paint ov our fave bands to represent, all good on that level ya know!
You’re also still doing some of the 1334/ OTOP style shows celebrating the Christian Death stuff. What’s it like to revisit those songs after so long? When watching your playing during the initial reunion run in the early 90’s by the time you got to recording the video you were absolutely on fire. Is it in your bones? How about the ghost at the feast?
Ghost at the feast? What’s that? The muses gift me with these creations and they are ingrained. I don’t think or count or anything when I play or it will fukk up the flowkonnekt I have with said muses. I become grounded and all the static and interference ov society scatters from me brain. I love every song I have ever written. They are like lifelong familiar Friends so it is always a pleasure to perform them.
By the ghost I meant performing them without Rozz.
I perform them with Gitane Demone in RIKK AGNEW BAND, Eva O in CD1334 and Steve Skeletal in the Tribute band I play in ONLY THEATRE OF PAIN. No Rozz (or Valor) required.
Your book ‘Daddy where do Strippers Come From?’ sounds like a riot. Can you tell us about the genesis of that and that planet Dolce Fabrique?
My good Friend “Frederick Burnt”, a fellow artist from the AAB building (an art colony in Santa Ana) came up with the idea. He had artwork for the story and a title, and we collaborated from there. There was a lot ov weed and laughter writing the text for it! In fact we have a second book called “Daddy, Where does 420 come from?”! You can order both, along with a lot ov other Rikk related merch at www.rikkagnewshit.bigcartel.com
You also recently played on the comeback album by Canadian strongman ‘THOR’ right? How the fuck did that come about?
I was asked by Good Friend and Partner in krime Paul Roessler if I would like to do a lead track on the THOR album. I was like “Wha? He’s still around? Sure, I love THOR, always have always will!” I listened to the track (that also featured Betsy Bitch ov Bitch and Boxboys), a couple times, put myself in buttrokk metal mode and ripped loose. He liked it I heard (I was in the studio alone w/ Paul and Atticus my feline baybee boyee).
Finally- Did you ever imagine the resonance your work would have? Do you ever get sick of hearing shitty covers of ‘Deathwish’?
Oh, you mean the one the Smashing Pumpkins did and called it “ZERO”? Hahahahaha! Honestly I have never heard any other covers ov that song except “Rikk Agnew Band”(Gitane sings it), and the band Only Theatre of Pain (a tribute band to the album and time period ov the same name), which I play guitar in. I always wanted to be in my own tribute band. I like taking things and turning them sideways.