RICHIE RAMONE – ANIMAL BOY
As the only drummer for The Ramones who sang on and wrote some of their songs, Richie Ramone is credited as having saved them at a time when his multi-talented skills were crucial in keeping their rock ‘n’ roll spirit alive. He now writes and sings lead vocals with his new band, having two solo albums under his belt and a third due out next year, and has recently been touring worldwide, showcasing his own preferred heavier sound. Richie takes time out after his London show to talk about breaking out as a new artist, his time in The Ramones and the importance of not being a phoney.
You released ‘Cellophane’ a year ago. How has the album been received?
‘I Fix This’, the single, in Latin America went great – everybody knew the words. Latin America is my territory.
How does this album differ and build upon your debut album, ‘Entitled’? Is it a departure from The Ramones sound?
I wrote [‘Entitled’] when I didn’t have a band. I just wanted to do something heavy. And I wanted to do a bunch of Ramones songs because I’m a Ramone, but I’m a new artist – now I’m the singer. I’m like a little baby. So that’s why I did [‘Entitled’]. It was my transition record. Then when I got to ‘Cellophane’ I got into more: I had my band recorded, it was a little more singer-friendly, a little more catchy. And that’s how it came about.
The Ramones tracks you did for ‘Entitled’, what did you change when you recorded them?
We recorded the same way. Everything is digital now. I like doing four or five takes and picking the one that has the right energy and then fix the certain notes that don’t work. Once I have a solid drum track, that’s the way it goes. Because that’s perfect music and that’s what the kids are used to now. That’s the problem, because they all want perfect music. That’s not rock ‘n’ roll; it’s not supposed to be perfect – it’s supposed to be at the moment.
Going back to ‘Cellophane’, why did you choose to cover Depeche Mode?
Great band. I’m very close to Latin America and they’re probably No.1 there. The Ramones are probably No.2, or The Ramones are No.1 and [Depeche Mode] are No.2. And it worked with my voice. I think when you cover a song, you can’t just play it, you have to own it; you have to make it sound like you wrote it. I think I did that on this arrangement of the song; it’s totally original and it’s powerful…you don’t really think of Depeche Mode but everybody knows the words.
How important is it that you establish yourself as a solo artist away from The Ramones? Do you think you’ve achieved that?
I think I’ve achieved it now. You have me out there, you have CJ [Ramone], you have Marky [Ramone] and they all tie us in as the same act. Marky does his act, which is to play 33 Ramones songs; CJ is at least writing records, which I feel is important. I don’t believe in just touring on Ramones songs. I think you have to be creative and keep writing records, so we’ll be back in the studio by the end of the year and come up with another [studio] album next year. I have a few cool songs up my sleeve now but I need six more. This last record, I collaborated with a couple of people…what’s cool is getting different guitar progressions with other artists. I always write all the melody and the words. I believe I need to write the words because it’s more feeling; it’s something I experience. I enjoy writing with other people now who can give me different changes.
You’re not going to record any more Ramones songs you wrote?
No; I kind of did them all. The first album I did four – I’m done with that. I feel I’m my own artist now but I’m a baby artist.
How did you get involved in The Ramones for three albums? What did you bring to the band at that time?
I was just in the right place at the right time. I think they were looking at Jerry Nolan after they fired Marky for being a drunk. Jerry wasn’t working out and I knew a roadie for The Ramones and said, “Tell them about me.” And that’s how it happened. I didn’t have Ramones posters in my house. I knew about them and was excited but I wasn’t the fan. The tour manager called me and I went to auditions. When [I] got in that band, then I was the fan. To be able to play in one of the greatest lineups ever: me, Dee Dee, Johnny and Joey – a very aggressive, hardcore lineup. Whenever you change a drummer in the band, you change the sound. If you ever took Charlie Watts out of The Rolling Stones, it would never sound like The Rolling Stones. As simple as he is as a [drum] player, it wouldn’t sound like that ever again. Led Zeppelin have [John Bonham’s] kid – it’s not the same. John Bonham was the king. It doesn’t have that same feel, that groove.
Do you feel that when you went into the band, like Joey said, you saved the band, to help them go on a bit longer?
I wear that sticker on my head because that’s a great thing for Joey Ramone to say. But what I did was I came in at a time they had two sleepy records before ‘Too Tough To Die’ and Joey took me under his wing. Joey was a lead singer who wasn’t like, “You’re the drummer: stay behind the curtain.” Joey pushed me to the front – he told me to write more, he told me to sing more and he understood the talent I had and used it. He was a smart guy. And he was my best friend for 4 years and 10 months. We never parted: we were together every night, whether it was on tour or hanging out in New York City.
What was your best memory of being in the band?
I can’t answer that because every night was the best memory. I was fortunate to be in one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. So pick one night? It can’t happen. I’m just blessed to have that.
Are you proud that you were the only drummer that was able to sing and write?
I don’t think I’m proud…that’s just what I do. I have a fat ass anyway; I don’t want a big ass. I don’t walk around like that. Punk rock and rock ‘n’ roll, it’s all the same thing. But what I like about punk rock is it’s being true to yourself; it’s not being a phoney. You’re seeing me right here, now – I don’t know if you’ve noticed – but that’s the same guy you saw out [on stage] 15 minutes ago. This is just me. That’s what you do. You be true to yourself, be honest, don’t be a phoney, don’t put on some wacky stage show…just be the guy or girl you are when you hang out with your friends. And you do that [on stage] and people relate to that. The Ramones taught me a lot of things [like] how to treat the fans. You don’t see anybody [in the band] when I’m playing drums turn around and come and rock with me. No, [the fans] paid the ticket: face forward; never turn around and jam within yourself. I don’t like that. Just always face the audience – they paid the money man. And that’s why I’m here. I just came from South America: we played for 500/600 people…here we come and play for 50/60, but you paid your ticket and I’m gonna give you my show. I think that’s what it’s all about; that’s just the bottom line man. This is for the kids.
Has it been a good tour so far?
Oh fabulous. We started in Texas and did twelve shows with The Dwarves, which is a killer band. That was phenomenal. We did two weeks there, then we flew to Latin America for two and a half weeks. And now we just flew here. Then we go to Rebellion. I’m excited about Rebellion – I’ve never played it. Finally, I’m playing it. I’m not going to have a 40-hour drive [this time]! Seriously, I didn’t eat anything today…not a bite. And I did that. Because it’s all about rock ‘n’ roll.
Richie Ramone’s second solo studio album, ‘Cellophane’, is available now on CD and as a digital download on DC-Jam records.
Photos © E. Gabriel Edvy/Blackswitch Labs.
© Ayisha Khan.
ROBBIE GREY – MODERN ENGLISH: THE LACEMAKER
Modern English combined the chaos of the collapsing punk years with the embracing of expansion into atmospheric ’80s instrumentation. Their first studio album, ‘Mesh & Lace’, harnessed the full flavour of post-punk noir that brought with it dashings of Joy Division and Bauhaus. Their new album, ‘Take Me To The Trees’, rekindles elements of this, whilst displaying the band’s layering of exciting new sounds unique to each of its members. Original vocalist and founder, Robbie Grey, talks about the new album, living the American dream and recording with the band again after three decades.
‘Take Me To The Trees’ is the first album the four of you have recorded in 30 years. How did you come to do it after meeting up and how does it feel to be recording and playing together again?
Mick Conroy, the bass player, moved close to where I lived outside of the country and we met up [to] have a chat. He said, “Do you wanna get the band back together?” After I finished laughing, I said, “Why not?” We tried to get everyone back but only the drummer Richard Brown couldn’t do it. That was 7 years ago. We’re all so different now compared to 30 years ago, but musically it was still the same. Steve [Walker’s] mad keyboard sounds and Gary [McDowell’s] wild [guitar] effects were all still there. It was fantastic.
Why did you decide you were gonna do this record now?
We’ve been working on this album for about 2-3 years, writing and recording, trying to do a lot of it live in this art gallery we’ve got in Suffolk. We just wanted to go back on tour and make a new record. Once we got back together in a rehearsal room and felt how good it was it was like nothing had ever happened. It was absolutely amazing. The chemistry was still there from 30 years before, which was quite funny really because we weren’t sure what was gonna happen.
How do you think this album is both similar and different to previous records that all four of you have worked on?
‘Mesh & Lace’ is my favourite because it’s the one the band did on their own. It was all done really quickly over two weeks. And then there’s ‘After The Snow’, which was the big selling album in America. Hugh Jones, the producer, had a lot to do with the crafting of the songs on that. ‘Take Me To The Trees’ is in the area between those two albums; somewhere in the middle. It’s got the effects of ‘Mesh & Lace’ [and] the songwriting of ‘After The Snow’. There wasn’t any pressure on this album to write commercial songs because we’ve all got money, so we didn’t need to make another ‘I Melt With You’. We just did what we wanted to do.
How about the song ‘I Feel Small’?
That’s been picked by America to be the pop, commercial [single]. We tried to make that sound like it was coming out of an old transistor radio. That’s why you get that small sound on it. Back in the ’70s you had songs like ‘Maggie May’ by Rod Stewart – great song but it was all about the song, it wasn’t about the production. We tried to do that with it; make it sound like it was coming out of a really old speaker.
Martyn Young recorded, mixed and co-produced the album. How influential has he been in making it sound the way you wanted it to sound?
First and foremost, Martyn’s a friend. We all know him really well: he’s a 4AD colleague. He’s got a very musical ear; he can add more notes to the songs than we’d normally use. He understood each [band] member’s importance. He knew that Steve’s keyboard sounds [and] Gary’s guitar sounds were as important as my voice or Mick’s bass playing. That was one of the best things he did: to understand everyone was equal.
What were your musical influences growing up and when you started the band?
When we grew up in England it was black and white. It was a very grey country back in the early ’70s. ‘Top of the Pops’ was on a Thursday night. You’d see David Bowie on there in full colour – wow! And then bands like Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop…that sort of stuff that was a bit different, a bit left-field. We were kids that were a bit left-field ourselves. We didn’t really have anything to look at to see that we could relate to. But then it was The [Sex] Pistols – they just blew the doors off. Seeing The [Sex] Pistols play, The Clash and The Damned, you knew that you could do that yourself. And the attitude that we had ourselves was there to see on the stage in front of us. That’s why we wanted to make music.
You self-produced your debut album ‘Mesh & Lace’. The album has a great sound that resonates with the early ’80s, how did you achieve that yourselves?
When we played live, Gary made a lot of feedback with his guitar and Steve would have his MS-20 analog synth swirling around. We just put that down on tape. And it was tape then – analog tape before digital came in. So one of the good things about the sound of that album is it’s analog, not digital, and that’s what gives it a warm sound. It’s not flattened by the digital process. In the studio we had Ivo Watts-Russell with us, who was the boss of 4AD, and he was helping us produce it as well as Ken Thomas: he was the engineer and producer too. So there was a wild mix of brains in there.
Compared to the first album, how did Hugh Jones benefit you?
[He] was a blessing. We used things like flutes, acoustic guitars…we never thought about doing that before because we were too angry. ‘I Melt With You’ is the first song I never shouted on. [Hugh] got me in the vocal booth and said, “Don’t shout. Just talk into the microphone.” And that’s why it’s got those weird verses; a spoken feel to it. He brought so much to the table, he really did. We had outlines of songs and he would help mould them into whole pieces.
How did you get the idea for ‘I Melt With You’?
The lyrics were written in two minutes: I was stoned in Shepherd’s Bush in my little room sitting on the floor with a piece of paper. And the music we just jammed in a rehearsal room. At that time it was The Cold War still; it was a very dangerous time. But it’s a love song. It was [about] a couple being in love during the cold war.
Why do you think the US responded better to ‘After The Snow’ as opposed to you doing quite well with the debut in this country?
I have no idea. Americans tend to like English music, especially the partial thing…songs like ‘Dawn Chorus’ and ‘After The Snow’. We needed to do something different; we couldn’t do ‘Mesh & Lace’ 2. [‘After The Snow’] is all about Hugh Jones, and us being open to his ideas.
Did it feel different being a UK band achieving more recognition in the US?
Many bands have done it before. You could travel around America for a year and never go to the same place twice. They’d put us out on the road and we started having hits. The crowds would get bigger and bigger; it was a kind of merry-go-round. It was exciting but our music was still English. We never moved to America.
You experimented with different instrumentation in ‘Ricochet Days’. Why did the album not achieve success in the US?
Hugh Jones over-produced it. He tried to go a level of musicianship higher than ‘After The Snow’. It got too technical and difficult for us and lost the urgency of initial ideas.
Why did you leave 4AD?
We got so big in America and there’s so much more promotion that needs doing there. The machine is a bigger machine – the music business – and 4AD couldn’t push us any further than they had done already without the machinery being bigger. So we signed to Sire records who had Depeche Mode [and] Madonna. We used to be in the same room as Madonna doing interviews.
Did you feel that marked an end to that part of the band’s history? Did some of the members have any resentment or bitterness about you splitting at that time?
Yeah, we went downhill from there [laughs]. We all had resentments about what was going on but we were under so much pressure by that point. Going around the world, playing concerts all the time…we never had any time. We hardly even wrote ‘Ricochet Days’ – we had no time; it was written in the studio. The pressure was really on us to churn out another album, so that’s why the band spilt up. It was just the pressure of that time, the amount of workload we had. We used to get off the [tour] bus in America [and be told] you’re doing a radio station, a TV show…this would be everyday. Over [in the UK] we just had the label and were more of an underground band. We played the ICA at new year – there’d be a few hundred people there. We’d get on a plane and go to spring break and there’s 20,000 people there to see us. So there was a real disparity.
You recently did a ‘Mesh & Lace’ tour in the US. How did that come about?
We always wanted to do it because it’s our first album that we did ourselves. And for some reason it’s gone 360°: post-punk is back in fashion again. That’s worldwide, it’s not just in America or here. It’s everywhere. It wasn’t difficult [to organise]. These two kids approached us and said, “Do you wanna do a ‘Mesh & Lace’ tour? We’ll put it together for you.” They were from Seattle; they had no business connection, they weren’t big players. They were [a booking agency] called ‘Forbidden Colors’. They put us in the grungiest clubs, where the right people would be, and it was a sell-out, the whole tour. It was brilliant; fantastic. We go back again to do a mixture of ‘Mesh & Lace’ and ‘Take Me To The Trees’. And we’re going to SXSW. Things are going well.
Modern English’s eighth studio album, ‘Take Me To The Trees’, is available now on CD, LP and as a digital download.
Photos © E. Gabriel Edvy/Blackswitch Labs.
© Ayisha Khan.