On their debut album, “Painted People,” NYC-based band The Ritualists showcase an intense, theatrical post-punk sound that seamlessly blends a variety of influences. The music can be dark and abrasive while also full of melodic hooks and soaring choruses. There is a strong glam rock undercurrent, but The Ritualists never come across as trying to emulate a particular style. Strong songwriting and creative arrangments make their influences coalesce into a sound all their own. In a phone interview, frontman Christian Dryden discussed the formation of the band and making of “Painted People.”
What was your musical background before The Ritualists?
Christian Dryden: “I’ve been doing music since I can remember, since I was three or four years old. I used to do “performances” for my family, but my family wasn’t a musical family by any stretch. My father was an ex-Marine and a football coach, so music wasn’t exactly encouraged. Actually, the first instrument I got into was the drums. I started as a drummer and a backing vocalist. Soon enough, I became the lead vocalist because most lead vocalists we found weren’t really cutting the mustard and the singing drummer thing didn’t work.
Then, I started to front the band, and I wanted to write songs. Bass is sort of like drums with notes, so I got into the bass. I’m a multi-instrumentalist, and I play the guitar a bit. So, I started writing songs, and we’ve had different permutations of lineups. This latest band I put together, the drummer’s been with me the longest. Pat [Bennett] is an excellent drummer. We put out ads and got connected to friends of friends, and put a band together that had a similar mindset and we worked out the album. We got hooked up with Reza, our manager, and got signed by Out Of Line, and here we are.
When you started, did you have a sense as to what you wanted to do musically?
Christian Dryden: I started at a very young age, around 13, 14 years old. The whole idea of what I wanted to do in a band wasn’t really there yet. My only concept of where I wanted to be at the time as a drummer was I wanted to play like Keith Moon and be a wild drummer. But you know, you soon realize that if the singer isn’t bringing it to the audience, then it doesn’t work. You can be the best. You can have the best members in the world, but if you don’t have a decent singer, no one’s going to really pay much attention. I got more into singing, and now I’ve totally embraced it. I consider my primary instrument the voice now. It’s no longer the drums, but drums is kind of how I broke into music.
What is the creative process like within the band?
Christian Dryden: As it stands now, I’m the only songwriter in the band. That’s not just chords and lyrics and vocal melodies. I also wrote all the riffs on this album. I even wrote most of the guitar solos and the main keyboard riffs. I’ll put a song together myself at home; I’ll either write it on the bass or the guitar or sometimes it’ll even start with the vocal melody that I’ll just come up with. Then, I’ll put chords to it or a drum groove that I have in my head, and I’ll put music to that. Then, I’ll bring it to the band and we’ll kind of flesh it out. At that point, we add the toppings, and we’ll put the cherry on top of everything. But the bones and the muscle and much of the skin is usually there, presented by me initially.
When it comes to writing, do you feel there is a particular Ritualists sound that you’re going for?
Christian Dryden: No. The Ritualists is just what comes out of me when I write. I don’t have a preconceived notion of like a dark wave song or a sixties pop song. It’s just the way it sort of comes out. Every once in a while, I’ll write something and think it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the songs. But it’s never a conscious effort. But I think stylistically, we certainly have influences that you can hear in it.
Who would you say your influences are?
Christian Dryden: I wouldn’t say I’m directly influenced by newer bands, but I like what I hear. I love The Horrors. I’ve loved their last few albums. “Skying” is one of my favorite all-time albums. I like just about everything White Lies have done. Temples, I like the first two. I heard the new single, and everything from them sounds really cool. But as far as bands that I think have directly influenced me, certainly David Bowie, especially the Ziggy era and the Station to Station era. T-rex, Roxy Music, Duran Duran, Echo and the Bunnymen, early Cult, and I love Suede. I especially love the early Verve. That first Verve record “A Storm in Heaven” is one of my favorite all-time records. As far as classic rock, I’m a huge Doors fan, a huge Velvet Underground fan. I guess it’s mostly British stuff. I put it in the meat grinder in my brain, and I try to recapitulate it in somewhat of an original way and put my own sort of New York City American spin on it.
Are there any particular songs that you feel evolved or took on a new life once the band started working on them together?
Christian Dryden: There’s a song on there called “Sunset” that was originally supposed to be a medley with the song “She’s the Sun.” We decided against that, but when I wrote the first part of “Sunset,” I was feeling like doing sort of an acoustic ballad kind of song. I was like, “I really dig this chord progression.” I said, “Let’s just turn this into somewhat of a psychedelic freak-out jam at the end of the song.”
So I think “Sunset” is a good representation of me just letting go of the reign and saying, “Okay guys, here’s the chord progression. Just go for it.” I wanted them to just be themselves and not worry about the riffs or anything else. I’d hold it down on the bass. I played all the bass lines on the album. That’s one that sort of came together, during the recording session.
What was the timeframe like of making the album?
Christian Dryden: I’m writing all the time. Sometimes it will be like “I’m with the Painted People”—I had that riff forever, the chorus riff, but I just couldn’t come up with anything that made sense with it in terms of a melody to put over it or a verse to go with it. And one day, I just came up with it. So, it’s hard to put a distinctive timeframe on that because things come together differently. As far as actually tracking, that happened relatively quickly. We tracked the drums in one day. The vocals were done in about three sessions. We didn’t have all that much time in the studio on it. Every now and then, there will be a song like “Sunset.” I wrote that in three minutes, I just sat down and I wrote it and it just worked. Sometimes, it works that way. Other songs, like “I’m with the Painted People” are more of a riddle that you have to solve. So, it really varies.
Had you performed the music from “Painted People” live before recording the album?
Christian Dryden: We played many of them live. I think it’s actually really helpful to perform them because you work out kinks. You record yourself live, and you hear things—oh, that works, or that doesn’t work. Except for “Sunset” and “Darling,” everything had been performed pretty regularly, live.
Prior to the album, you released “Ice Flower” as a single. What made you choose that song?
Christian Dryden: Well “Ice Flower” is the song that got us noticed by the label. It was the first song that my manager was drawn to. I really loved it from the first time I heard it with the full band. I thought it really worked, and I think it’s a great representation of our sound.
Could you talk about the “Ice Flower” video?
Christian Dryden: The video is wild. It’s not my concept. They came to me with the concept and I thought it was interesting. I said, “Well, you know, this may raise a few eyebrows.” I think it works. I think for the second video, we’re going to be doing something a little bit more band focused. It’ll probably feature us in some capacity, either performing or doing something in the video. The concept they did with “Ice Flower” was really interesting. They didn’t go a traditional route in the end. I think it was a pretty bold move.