07 May 2011

Interview : Twitch The Ripper

I've been following the music career of Connecticut musicians Twitch the Ripper for a couple of years. Their style is a moody blend of darkwave electronica and emotionally raw lyrical content which, somehow, results in sweetness instead of bitterness. I reviewed their debut EP, Don't Go Out Tonight, back in 2009 and earlier this year they released their debut full length album, Bodiless.

Between finishing up the album, promoting it, and touring throughout the US, vocalist Jon Dobyns agreed to sit down - via email - to have a chat with me about the band's sound, vision and themes.

Twitch the Ripper (TTR) consists of yourself - Jon Dobyns - and Lonn Bologna. You were previously in a Connecticut hardcore band named The Distance. Did you meet each other during this time and how did you come to the decision to break away from that genre and form a duo together?

Lonn and I actually met in our pre-teens and formed our first band together. The project was in the same genre as The Distance, but occurred one year prior. We decided to break away from the Distance in early 2008, and I really wanted to begin a project to play the style of music I never would of been able to in previous bands. While in The Distance, my tastes and influences came from all of my favorite acts in early new wave, post punk and electronic genres. So the time came to finally take the plunge to create the kind of music that has inspired me for years. Timing was everything, and it made sense to start the next phase at this time.

Has it been an easy transition from bass and drums to becoming multi-instrumentalists? How has this challenged you both, as musicians, and also what benefits have come from this move?

Initially it was pretty difficult, but we just went with the flow. With the first steps of TTR, I went ahead and booked studio time four months ahead to record an EP. We wrote the songs on a sampler, acoustic guitar and bass; not too far from the writing process we used in The Distance. Lonn and I went with everything we knew at the time. It was an interesting transitional phase with trial and error to get to this point in our present day supporting Bodiless. Lonn taught himself how to play synth, I had to learn how to sing for the first time (which was done during the Don't Go Out Tonight sessions), and we both taught each other how to program, etc. We like to think of the early stages as an experimentation of finding ourselves and learning how play a new genre of music.

TTR aside, this process has made us become better musicians and able to communicate on a more professional level with each other. It wasn't until writing and doing pre-production for Bodiless where we really stepped out of our comfort zone and dropped everything we knew from our hardcore/punk days. That is one of the main reasons for the evolution of style and sound from the EP to the LP.

Your debut EP, Don't Go Out Tonight, was self-released in 2009. How was this do-it-yourself experience different to that of previously being in a signed band?

Coming from that world, everything was DIY. So being in a signed band you still had to maintain those set of ethics and mentality to stay afloat. Now coming into this new world with TTR, our ethics haven't changed one bit. We have gotten everything from working hard on our own and constantly pushing. From the tours we have lined up present day, to hopefully releasing a proper LP on a label down the line, we will continue to do everything ourselves. I'm sure an aspect of this is being in control, but it's controlling your own destiny/career and path you walk down. I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving our 'baby' completely in someone else's hands.

In your debut album, Bodiless, the songs weave seamlessly to create a delicate hybrid of elegant new-wave-style electronica with highly textured, ominous and atmospheric sounds. Tell me a little about your inspiration for the mood of this album and how you went about creating it.

When it came time to write Bodiless, we wanted to carefully execute each part for every song. Don't Go Out Tonight wasn't the best representation of TTR, but why should it be when it was our first EP? Bodiless was the result of both of us finally finding ourselves and catching our stride. We wanted to write a record that was an accurate sound of all of our influences, which was something we never did before. As I stated earlier, I am inspired by the genre's earlier sounds. We were looking to create a moody yet danceable record which the listener can get lost in at times. I take a lot of inspiration from bands like Massive Attack to Erasure to Fever Ray, so I think that is another reason how we created this hybrid of a sound. A good amount of the moodiness also stemmed from the current events at the time in our personal lives. Lonn and I were both going through a lot, so execution was both brutally honest and passionate.

Your lyrics appear to be quite personal, telling tales of desolation, control, love, lust and suffering, albeit in an obscure manner which both allows the listener to relate and simultaneously have no idea what you're singing about. How important is the art of subtlety in your lyrics and music, creating a dynamic between dark and light?

It's very important to me for the listener to create some form of a connection of familiarity with the lyrics. At the same time, I don't want them to seem so plain and generic that it would come across as being elementary. I like to be able to take my life stories and say them in an artsy manner. It'll also allow the listener to interpret the song however they like; so as long as they can connect on some level, I'll be happy. I have a weird thing where I need to have a contrast between everything, whether it's in the music, lyrics, artwork or stage show. I enjoy a healthy balance, which I also believe has helped create our aesthetic.

You and I have discussed our mutual appreciation of the horror film genre. Which are your favourites, why do you love them so much, and how does this type of influence impact upon your musical style, mood, or even your songwriting/recording process?

I grew up on horror movies, mostly the Universal films of the '30s and '40s. From an early age, I've been attracted to the cinematography and settings. We talked before about the inspiration of moodiness in Bodiless, and I can also say a lot of that came from early horror cinema. Universal movies aside, I have a strong love for Italian horror cinema of the '60s and '70s. Mario Bava was a genius when it came to lighting. Of course, Argento is a master of it, but he took all his cues from Bava. When we write - and even in past studio sessions - we have movies on in the background non-stop. Not just for inspiration, but also for comfort.

I like to think I am able to create the same feelings from watching these films and put them in our music. They are more than horror films to me. Early Universal horror, Italian giallos, RKO pictures, there is so much humanity in these films which make them great cinema. Now, in this digital style of music, we try to bring a human touch to the sound. Some of my favorite films include Blood and Black Lace, Cat People, Freaks, The Old Dark House, and Daughters of Darkness, to name a few.

As a visual aesthete, how important do you feel the image or visual presentation of a band is and what mediums - such as video, photography etc - do you feel allow you to even further express your musical vision?

I think visuals are crucial for bands in this day and age, especially for younger ones. It's another way to express yourself artistically which will help create the whole package. At this time, I wish we were able to have more visuals on stage with us, but for each tour we will bring more and more. There are endless opportunities for musicians to explore that will help get their creative vision across, whether it's a light show, stage props or video.

A younger band opened up the tour package we were on in North Carolina. They were an industrial/noise duo and one member was controlling video with a projector live while simultaneously performing synth. It was quite refreshing and added a lot to their performance. I was able to see what they were about on a deeper level. For TTR, I'd like to help direct our first music videos and I've been dying to shoot them in the vein of Italian giallos. Everything from the technicolor film, to storyboard, to POV camera angle. I feel our music could fit quite nicely if placed correctly.

Do you feel certain instruments or effects have become a staple in your music; which do you enjoy using most and why?

We have an obvious love for classic drum machine samples and reverb-ing them out! I also have a 'go-to' for favorite pads. My ears tend to go towards anything with an ethereal, airy sound. I'm a sucker for airy pads over classic sounding dance beats (just look at my influences). I know Lonn's 'go-to' synths may be somewhat similar, but he does enjoy a lot of hip-hop sounding samples. Whether they get used for TTR, or personal fun projects, I am always impressed with what he comes up with.

How have you adapted to live performances with only the two of you to perform all of the instrumentation?

Starting out, we really tried to perform every aspect of the instrumentation live. Our first shows took us way too long to set everything up. We played warehouses and smaller rooms, but had gear that could fill an amphitheater. It started making less sense as we played more and more. Each phase of shows, we re-configured our live set-up. It wasn't until after our first shows, after the recording of Bodiless, where we began to get an idea of what and how to perform live. We come from a different world, so we would take notes from a lot of the bigger bands we performed with and put our own twist on it. It's funny to see bands on stage and you know they are all performing to a backing track, like karaoke; that's something we always wanted to steer clear of. So if it takes a little longer for the two of us to set up everything, so be it. We are constantly evolving, so I'm sure our fans who saw us last week will see something different next time we come to their city.

You've recently played gigs in America's north east and have been included on the line-up for a couple of US tours. What has been the audience reaction to your music and how has it felt to play your new songs live?

The reactions have been great. A wonderful part about this music scene is that the fans have a wide array of musical tastes. Groups in genres of electronica, industrial, goth rock, new wave, EBM can all be on one bill and have it make sense. That's one thing I really enjoy and don't take for granted. Packages have such an opportunity to create an eclectic mix, and we are lucky enough to fit in a lot of places. For example, when we played with The Birthday Massacre, their fans are very open minded and seem like down to earth music lovers, so we had a fun time performing for them. We were lucky enough to land these spots as the first shows post studio. It was much more comfortable playing these songs live, and finally had that "at home" feeling. I think you could see that from watching us perform as well.

I hear you had the opportunity at several gigs to meet fans with whom you have engaged online; was it rewarding to listen to their opinions about your music and how it makes them feel?

I really do enjoy meeting fans from online. I have a good memory and am usually able to remember who is who, and how I met them. It's humbling to hear their thoughts and reminisce of conversations had, especially when you get to witness their facial expressions and sincerity. Twitter doesn't give you that!

Where would you like to see TTR progress from here? What do you seek to achieve in your music and your career?

In the end, I'd like to be able to get us in a position where our career is an actual career. That's the dream, right? At this point we are lucky enough to embark on another tour - this time with Thrill Kill Kult and 16 Volt - which will be a full national tour ending in July. I am really looking forward to beginning the process of a new LP after the Bodiless touring cycle. Lonn and I are constantly writing, and can't stop talking about doing another record already. With that said, another record will most likely happen sooner rather than later. I won't divulge too much information about that now since it's really early, but this is a constant evolution. It's comforting to know that we finally hit our stride as musicians with the release of Bodiless, and there are no signs of slowing down. Was it you [Yes, yes it was - MAF] who said that we were the "Sade of industrial"? Let's see where we go with that now!

Find out more about Twitch the Ripper's music and current US tour dates on their website.

Photos courtesy of Matthew Bologna Photography.

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