Last spring, Detroit’s Ritual Howls released their third, and most accomplished, LP to date with Into the Water on felte. The album is a dark voyage through a sonic oblivion that plays with filmic atmosphere. Murky frequencies bounce through their aural vacuums, creating sonic landscapes that range from sterile clinical coldness to deserts of desolation and bleakness. Vocalist Paul Bancell recently answered some questions about their newest full-length release and plans for Ritual Howls in the coming months.
In a relatively small amount of time, Ritual Howls has managed to forge a ‘sound’ that incorporates some elements that are essential in subgenres like ‘post-punk’, electronic, dance, surf; a lot of different stylistic components. What did you see for Ritual Howls when the band first came together?
We didn’t really have a sound we were looking for when we first started playing. I had a few songs and I knew Chris worked with synths and drum machines. Ben was also playing bass in this super heavy psychedelic doom rock band at the time. I really just wanted to jam with these guys and see what would happen with the songs.
At the beginning, was there anything, musically or stylistically, that you knew would be included in the band’s stylistic trajectory? Anything that you were utterly against and would avoid completely?
No, we just brought our musical influences with us. Mine, from more of a guitar driven sound, Chris, with his industrial roots, and Ben brought his heavy tones and improvisation. The sound has formed organically over the years. I don’t think we make a point to avoid anything – I guess we try to avoid making shit music.
Was there anything you did differently when you were writing, preparing, and recording this album, that broke away from past ‘protocol’ or tendency? Creatively and/or otherwise? What’s the creative process for the band typically like? Who brings what to the structures and sound?
When the real work started on Into the Water we were pretty methodical – as opposed to a lot of trial and error on our previous albums. Over the past three records we’ve learned a lot about how to develop compositions collaboratively by taking the improvised rehearsal recordings and reworking them over and over until we’re happy with them.
My lyrics were a scattered mess of scrap paper until I finally spent a few sleepless nights getting them to feel complete. Even then, Ben and Chris helped me tweak some words and phrases to get the intended effect.
In terms of subject matter, is there anything that you guys prefer to stay away from? Are there topics or situations you like to revisit frequently?
We have always been drawn to darker subject matter. It’s just more interesting to us. As with our sound, it’s not a conscious decision. We just listen to, and play, what we like. Similarly, art that exposes the darker, more raw side of being human is much more appealing. We’ll take HR Giger and Francis Bacon over Norman Rockwell any day.
Is there ever a point, post-recording and production, when you guys might tend to become more critical of the album, certain tracks? Which songs really stood out for you on ‘Into The Water’?
Yeah, I feel like we all have our favorite tracks on a record. But those feelings tend to evolve. You’ll think one track sounds flat and then a few days later it really hits a nerve. “Spirit Murder” was a tricky one. The sounds on that song are pretty simple, and can even feel sparse. After listening to it a few times I realized the simplicity is it’s power. The message, the emotion is what’s important. The death of the spirit; the malicious, exploitive nature of our criminal justice system. We murder the spirit and call it justice.
There are a few tracks that stood out for me, ones that I’m interested in learning more about, like “God Swamp”, “Spirit Murder”, “Going Upstate”. Where did the lyrics and ideas come from?
“God Swamp” is just a collage of imagery I pulled from a number of different writings. I was trying to paint an interesting picture in my mind. Both “Spirit Murder” and “Going Upstate” have similar themes: sin, redemption, judicial corruption, oppression.
Three albums in now, where do you guys personally feel your artistic inspirations are coming from, both lyrically and, still, musically?
Not much has changed. We still watch a lot of movies, try to read inspiring work, hangout at museums, and make art. New gear has a tendency to shape our sound. I recently got a guitar pedal that can tweak effects live via MIDI, and Chris has been writing our new beats on an Octatrack.
It might be a personal observation on my part, but one of the things that draws my attention is the European nature your music seems to have, musically, as opposed to what I conjure when I think of a band from the Detroit area. Again, personally, that serves to enhance the Ritual Howls ‘experience’ when I’m playing your stuff, especially ‘Into The Water’. Has that ever come up before, anywhere?
I haven’t heard that before, but that’s cool. We definitely have a Detroit inspired sound though. Chris has been playing records and industrial shows here for over 15 years. There was a good industrial/break-core scene for a while, though it never really got the recognition it deserved. Ben is super into the electronic and jazz music of the city, and I myself have been influenced by a number of local musicians like Nicola Kuperus or Jimbo Easter.
Would you say that, collectively, Ritual Howls is a band that wants to avoid ‘genrefication’, even if for purposes of reference for newcomers to your music? I would imagine that ‘goth’ might be a generic label that diminishes the authentic impact that your music has, especially that from ‘Into The Water’.
Yeah, the term “goth” is pretty loaded. It paints a defined picture, and though we like dark imagery, the term is not a very accurate description for our band. We draw from so many different sounds – I’m not sure what to call it. We’ve heard people say ‘death jangle’ or ‘dark twang.’ It all seems pretty fucking stupid to me.
Ritual Howls is a band with a lot of unique potential to traverse genre borderlines and really defines itself with its natural attributes, like the inherent intensity, and other similar elements. Is that a safe assumption? What are some [elements] that stick out for you guys?
It’s hard to say. Sonically, Ben has been writing some killer bass lines recently that have really helped drive the song writing process. Synths and drums samples are always the major building blocks of our sound.
Are there progressions or developments that have come along for you guys that were completely unforeseen? Any bizarre turns or attention from any kind of source that you didn’t expect? (e.g. Is the band surprisingly popular among the ‘Hot Topic’ or punk rock crowds, etc.) Has anything crazy transpired?
Nothing really crazy. It has been surprising to get a cool response from such different crowds. It’s weird. The rock crowd supports us and we’ll get people who are into dance music, hip-hop, or metal at our shows. We’ve played a bunch of shows at this killer metal spot called The Precinct.
If you’re looking back at everything that’s led you to ‘Into The Water’, what evolution has the band undergone in that span of time?
I think we’ve been playing music together for almost 5 years now. Over that time the song writing process has become more collaborative and driven by electronic elements. We’ve also spent a lot of time together on stage, in vans, on planes – the creative friendship has become close.
Creatively and artistically, where would Ritual Howls like to venture off into and try out or experiment with? Are there styles or other elements you’d really like to try out?
We’ve always talked about film – making films or writing music for movies. Especially since our sound and so much of the songs themselves are pulled from movies. We’ve started work on a few screenplay ideas, etc… It’s tough though. We want the music to always be new and moving forward, so it’s hard to find even more time to start thinking about film. We don’t want to “take a break” from writing Ritual Howls material, so finding more time to expand into other projects is difficult. We’re all very busy.
How about individually? Does anyone have something going on or plans to focus on another creative area?
Chris and Ben are both visual artists who are constantly making and showing work. I collaborate with friends on projects here and there, but Ritual Howls is my primary creative outlet.
A lotta times, when I’m talking to an artist or band with a long, successful career behind them, I’ll ask if 20, 30, or however many years ago their beginning was, if they’d have believed at a young age that they’d still be going strong decades later. For Ritual Howls, would that be something you could see happening? Would you like to be playing the music together for as long as at all possible, or would restlessness be too likely, maybe?
We’ve made a point to make sure we enjoy what we’re doing. That’s why we don’t tour excessively, or put a ton of pressure on ourselves to become “successful”- whatever the fuck that means. We have our day jobs and enjoy playing in the band. I think we respect each other’s intellect and creativity, so the collective and enjoying the creative process is the most important. We plan making Ritual Howls records, films, books, whatever, for a while.
Where is the band is now, and what comes next? Will we be hearing material that was maybe omitted from the album, for a possible single/EP/split release? A load of touring? Downtime? What are the plans for the rest of the year, into 2017?
We just recorded a 5 song EP that will be out this summer on felte records. We’ll be writing more material over the winter and playing a festival here in Detroit with Moon Pool & Dead Band, and ADULT. in February. We’re also lining up some European shows (Germany, The Netherlands) for this summer and plan on recording the new stuff as soon as it’s ready.