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, guitars, new chances, strippers, willies and the eternally burnt brand of Christian Death.
There’s so much ground to cover in your career - 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 the influence of an existing thing that is re-interpreted. My ‘sound’ is a reconstructed and more classically-influenced version of the most underrated band ever: The Mechanics. Also, Gary Glitter, Cheap Trick and Jimi Hendrix (my musical messiah, biggest influence and 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 - we traded instruments and did a hilarious version of Black Randy's ‘Loner with a Boner’. I played guitar and the guys loved it so much we decided to move me to guitar.
The rest of my career has been quite a patchwork - going from rock bottom, 350lbs (159kg) and 3 months to live, to a healthy-living, strapping 59-year-old who has kick-started his career with a quarter mile of foot up his ass and is now 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.
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, Rozz and I met in the men’s room of 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, big time. Ten 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 and James McGearty. They were interested in getting me in the group and I was sensing my time with the Adolescents would be over soon (it was two weeks to be exact). I worked with Rozz from 81-83, and 88-93. I still work with James McGearty in a group called Summon.
It was Christian Death's Only Theatre of Pain that first introduced me to your playing when I was a teenager, and from there I pretty quickly sought out your debut solo album All By Myself. That must have been a point of pride to do that record, all off your own back?
I had already written half of the songs on All by Myself 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 cold-cocked. You know that feeling when your girlfriend gets real drunk and blows a couple guys at a party and everyone knows about it except you, until someone slips and says it within your earshot? It was kinda that same kicked-in-the-balls feeling. Enough Crying.
It was thanks to my friend Jon Lee (RIP) who owned and ran a record store in the late 70's to called ‘Up Another Octave’. He said: "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 (Lisa Fancher, founder of Frontier Records) of the idea. I was bandless and idle musically on the scene, but she was like "sure".
I got my song ideas together and 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, then bass, rhythm guitars, lead vocals, keyboards, lead guitars and octaves, and backing vocals all in album order sequence. I have a studio in my brain, I can literally hear songs as if playing them on a machine. Mixing took 3 days in under 40 hours while working a full-time job. No pride, just driven.
Though The Adolescents letting you go must have hurt like hell we wound up getting two classics out of it. 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 of a meeting that was supposed to be about an upcoming US tour we were getting ready to embark on. Needless to say, the tour never happened. It was just really sneaky, backstabbing shit. We have reformed over the years three 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 I move on. I never got the mindset of people wanting to fight or retaliate with those who do not want them. Besides, all roads lead to now, and I love now.
You mentioned that you don’t ‘write‘ songs in the conventional sense and that in fact they are ‘gifts’. Do you have a sense of channeling or being attuned to something?
I am not a musician; I am a magician and 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 of 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 that 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, just wasn't putting it out there. It very much affected my desire to create. I got sober 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? The diagnosis and the steps you took? It was a game changing event that was a total blessing in disguise. It gave me a choice and I chose to fucking live! In a nutshell: I was not getting drunk anymore even though I was downing at least a fifth of vodka, a fifth of whiskey and a case of beer daily. On 20th November 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 immediately. And I hate hospitals.
They did a diagnostic and found I had 4th stage cirrhosis, hepatitis C, liver failure, an enlarged spleen, gallstones, kidney stones, edema, high blood pressure and ascites (a lot of my weight gain was three gallons of toxic fluid sloshing around, unfilterable). I asked what I should do and 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 has 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 willy is in fine shape and working to its max again! From like 2001 to 2014, I had crucial erectile dysfunction symptoms. That was also a plus from getting healthy that I didn't expect, but it keeps me on-board.
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.
I didn't start my meth period ‘til like 1988 - 1989. During the Christian Death days it was drink, weed, plus a shitload of hallucinogens - but these metaphysical experiences were at night while 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 in the dark arts 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 of prose and sound is Christian Death’s backing vocals.
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 of nine days at Kitten Robot Studios and it was engineered by Paul Roessler (Screamers, 45 Grave, Nina Hagen, Gitane Demone Quartet) with Assistant Engineer Polina Ann Mt. Agnew (my daughter). We had a lot of 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 twenty 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. The band is a group of friends who all share a common childlike hilarity and sense of humour; a pack of fucking kids, we are! And it carries over onto the stage.
You’re also still doing shows celebrating the Christian Death material. What’s it like to revisit those songs after so long?
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 fuck up the ‘flowkonnekt’ I have with said muses. I become grounded and all the static and interference of 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.
How does it feel performing them without Rozz? Is there a ghost at the feast?
I perform them with Gitane Demone in Rikk Agnew Band, Eva O in CD1334 and Steve Skeletal in the tribute band. No Rozz (or Valor) required.
You recently played on the comeback album by Canadian strongman ‘THOR’ right? He’s a goofy cat but I love him. How the fuck did that come about?
I was asked by good friend and partner in crime, Paul Roessler, if I would like to do a lead track on the THOR album. I was like "He's still around? Sure, I love THOR! Always have always will!". I listened to the track a couple times, put myself in ‘buttrokk’ metal mode and ripped loose. He liked it, I heard.
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 of weed and laughter writing the text for it. In fact, we have a second book called Daddy, Where Does 420 Come From? too. You can order both, along with a lot of other Rikk related merch at www.rikkagnewshit.bigcartel.com
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 ‘ZERO’ (laughs). Honestly, I have never heard any other covers of that song except the Rikk Agnew Band’s cover, which Gitane sings, and the band Only Theatre of Pain (a tribute band to the album and time period of 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.