Symbolism are Rikk Agnew and James McGearty (formerly of the legendary Christian Death), London May from the iconic Samhain, and a mysterious vocalist known as Devix. Symbolism are as thrilling and atmospheric as you might imagine and ‘as powerful as anaphylactic shock’ says Dan Volohov as he talks to Rikk and James about the formation of and chemistry in the band, the upcoming LP, Christian Death, and 40 years of Only Theater Of Pain.
LTW: As far as I know, over the years, you gents had been rehearsing trying to push your new project. And correct me if I’m wrong but I think for both you the Iced Out EP is the first record you featured on in many years. What intentions did you have at the beginning of what became Symbolism?
James: The original intent behind us reforming involved George Belanger at one point. There were a number of other people I won’t mention – just because it didn’t work out. We had formed back in 2014, the four of us. The idea was to revisit a lot of Christian Death music that had been written through the different eras, and there was George playing drums. I had quite a few songs that I had written post-Rikk Agnew with Rozz…
Rikk (entering the room): Liar!
James: Oh, here you are!
We were just talking about the intentions you had at the beginning of Symbolism. What view do you have on this Rikk?
Rikk: I don’t know! These are just four guys who really really kick ass with the great-great music. There’s this symbolic thing…we have a lot of fun and we’re out to make some music altogether. We have fun doing it.
James: With the four of us, with this lineup, we have really good songwriting chemistry together. We get through the creation, the songs on this album, we have a good time doing it. And we’re definitely excited at this point.
Rikk: The trick is actually the band name. That’s the hardest thing – to make it original.
Symbolism is certainly the perfect one for the sort of band you have. The band got together in 2018, was it just you two at that point ?
James: Before you came in Rikk, we were talking about how we re-grouped in 2014 with George.
Rikk: Yeah. James had some riffs. Words. That’s right when I came in. And I just listened for a while before I started talking. That’s why I said “Liar!” when you were saying…
James: All the same lies!
Rikk: It was like the original Christian Death with James, George, and myself. And there was an idea that Casey Chaos had. Because he always wanted to be Rozz!
James, while Rikk has been mostly active over the last few decades, after the breakup of Christian Death you stopped doing music for a while. What did you feel, getting back to this cycle of writing, recording, and finally releasing a record as a finished product?
James: I definitely took a break for a little while. And I think, getting back together with Rikk and writing music together, and being able to collaborate in an old familiar way, has been great. There’s nothing in life that you can do that would be a substitute for that; the creativity and hanging out, laughing and making music has been great.
Rikk: Yeah! Jimmy tiger!
James: After Christian Death, I released a record with a heavy-metal band – Dark Age. I changed my name at that time.
There are some cases when you took riffs and sketches of ideas from back then using them within what you’re doing as Symbolism. But how different is the process right now?
Rikk: Well, with James, either with Christian Death or now, there’s a kind of Lennon- McCartney kind of thing – I guess. Rozz was our Ringo!
James: We kind of have a certain way of working together, developing our song ideas. And there’s chemistry and just a way of us approaching things; very easy, in some respects. And that creates a certain sound.
Rikk: And it’s always the music part of it! We always leave the lyrics to the singer or frontman. ‘cause they always do way better jobs. We’re riff-masters, we’re the ones who write riffs. James would have a riff and he’d start playing it, and I’d start doing something on top of it. Or vice versa. It’s not like a Ramones song. It’s just like we kind of take-off. In fact, in the early days when we started, James, George, and I would go to James’ parents’ house, we’d eat a few hits of LSD and just make music! No form of whatsoever, just take off – and it worked.
As far as I know, when you started playing together, at the very beginning, Christian Death had a different sound. It was mostly compared to Black Sabbath.
Rikk: Yes, yes! You’re completely correct on that! It was kind of a Black Sabbath band. Spooky but punk. It was basically this riff – almost like playing Ramones half-speed. In a weird way; just chords, riffs. But when I joined the band I just thought: “Man, these bass-riffs are cool! The drums are steady!” Rozz was just “wow!”. I heard them and thought: “There’s got to be something on top of it that has its own thing!”. The chords were like early Siouxsie And The Banshees, PiL. That kind of approach; you had the bass-riff going everywhere, steady drums, singing. The guitar is totally different. I mean, listen to Bauhaus…
James: That’s pretty much the approach we took. Each of us was creating our own melodies, basically. The bass lines could stand alone on their own. Rikk used to do this, what he called “art”.
James: That’s right! There’s this art noise of top of it! And it had its own identity. That’s what made everything unique. The drums and bass kind of held everything down and allowed him to be creative. Rozz was singing poetry on top of everything. That’s how you achieve the sound that did way back then.
Rozz himself noticed that you’d passed through some serious changes through Deadwish and up to the point when Only Theater Of Pain was recorded. And the difference in sound is pretty significant. What caused it, in your opinion?
Rikk: That’s the same thing! Half of songs on the Deathwish EP are on Only Theater Of Pain. There were two different versions of Cavity or Spiritual Cramp. And what was the other one?
James: Desperate Hell was on there. Romeo’s Distress was the other one.
Rikk: Yeah. Romeo’s. Yeah. To me, they were two different versions of two different songs. We just have more toys to play with; more money, more time to push it. But they just came out the way they did.
James: And it was one thing that happened prior to Rikk joining the band – we started out playing a lot of really punk-sounding songs; Skeleton Kiss, which is the song…Rikk, do you remember this ?
Rikk: Ta! Da-da-da-da…
James: Exactly! Those were the early-early songs that were written as a part of Christian Deaths’ Deathwish, and they were kind of the same. But when the time came to do the record Rozz said: “You know what ? I don’t like those songs anymore! Desperate Hell, Deathwish…”. It didn’t fit where he wanted to go. And so Rikk was writing new songs. We were hard-pressed to get all the songs done we needed before the end of the album. Remember, Rikk ? We were writing songs at the last minute!
Rikk: Yeeeah. There’s never been a primal reason as far as…Primal reason!…As far as writing songs with whatever band; Adolescents, Christian Death, 45 Grave – it’s whatever comes out. There’s no process really. I do have a hard time with the interviews – how would you explain it?
What was it like, when you started performing in clubs like Masque, obviously the mecca of punk-rock in L.A.? In a sense that you were quite different as a band.
Rikk: I don’t know! Before that, I was always playing in cover bands. Nobody really wrote their own songs. From the mid-’70s, that’s when a lot of punk-bands started saying: “Hey! We can write our own songs! We have our own songs!”. Before that, you’d been in bands and you’d do just a cover-songs. Bowie, T-Rex, Earl Smith, Led Zeppelin. You just did cover-songs and played these backyard parties. That’s all it was!
There were bands that were popular in local areas. They would go: “Ok! The next song is original…” – they always have one original song. And it was always horrible! You were like: “Nooo, dude! Play Montrose!”. That’s that where it was musically. And with punk, they got it; got that the new music could be created. And you didn’t have to have a big old record-company, and play huge stadiums – it could get heard with your own music. Punk or goth or whatever else underground music – they saved the day, man.
James: And MASQUE club specifically pre-dated Christian Death as a band.
In what sense? Was it just the environment ?
Rikk: We used to go to MASQUE all the time! Every weekend, to hang out and stay with people who lived in Hollywood. I was playing in one band that ever played in MASQUE. We were called Naughty Women. Crazy, Dan! Two singers; went nuts and everything! It was open enough. Spray Coca-Cola on everybody and stuff… Barbed wire all around themselves, got all bloody. It was crazy. They couldn’t sing, they couldn’t play.
Our other guitar-player and the guy who played drums were from those cover-bands. They didn’t know what punk was, they didn’t know any of that stuff – but it was fun! I just got them in the band because: “Oh, guys! We could play Hollywood!”. The MASQUE was the main thing. I mean, it was a basement underneath a porn-theatre. It was a totally scummy place and everything, but it was so fun! Back in those days, we’d go and watch The Go-Gos try to play their new songs. “There’s this band called The Go-Gos” – “Okeeey!”. We got drunk, listened them, watched them – and they were horrible! I said: “Wouldn’t it be scary if they’d became one of the biggest bands in the world?” Everybody would just start laughing!
James: Look what happened!
Rikk: It’s just insane! But we had the funniest time there.
James: Starwood…A lot of other clubs around L.A. drove people in the same way afterwards. Different. But that makes it fun and cool.
Rikk: Oh, yeah! Starwood…That’s where Devo started coming out. They were doing three-four nights in a week, two weeks in a row. Every show was different! Our job was getting stomped on by people dancing…and we were like: “WHAT THE F*CK IS THIS?”. Devo was there; they were doing some real guitar shit…Every performance was different. A lot of bands in the late ’70s and stuff were very imaginative, very amazing. There was always a different show. It was so exciting. Luckily, a lot of this got documented on these really shitty black and white video-cameras.
Among the songs that came out on your recently-released 7-inch is a re-worked version of Figurative Theatre. What made you get back to this experience of almost 40 years ago?
Rikk: We wrote a bunch of really classic timeless songs. Why not play them again? We can re-do them! We have a brand-new band. Hey! Let’s cover it. We have a lot to do with that. Let’s see what would happen.
James: I think it’s a song that not a lot of people have covered by us. And I think, for Rikk and I, there’s something we do that slides…we call it KNM slides.
Rikk: I’d give you a thousand dollars if you’d guess what KNM is!
I won’t even try!
Rikk: James and I always had different things we used in different Christian Death songs. But KNM is – K for Kiss. N – for “And” and “M” for “Mentors”. And it’s like “Kiss And Mentors”. It’s like when you’re doing the riff and you slide down to the neck doing “Wooom!”. But I think James could explain it better.
James: No, it’s perfect! When we did Only Theater of Pain we had a lot of Kiss lines. We didn’t call them “Kiss-lines”. That was one of the things we had a lot of fun playing, it fitted the music. And fast-forward forty years later there’s Kiss N’ Mentors when we were first doing Kiss-lines…
Rikk: Are you familiar with The Mentors ?
Oh, absolutely – a powerful embodiment of controversy of punk-rock.
Rikk: I have a tattoo…they’re total badass, so amazing. They happened to be in L.A. during that time. Everyone was focused on their personality and sound. And they were just like watching a play man! It was a total performance. It was beautiful. That’s what I don’t like with a lot of these bands. With hardcore “Ta-da-da-da-da!” – it’s like “Oh, get out of here!”.
To me, hardcore music is something that really drives stuff. D-beat. Discharge. And also, grindcore and speedcore. Mayhem. Cannibal Corpse. Slayer. When they were like: “Now rockers are playing faster than any of the punk-bands! What’s going on ?!”. It was beautiful.
The general colouring on the Iced Out single is almost metallic. There’s a lot of tensionm but also a lot of progressivity. While you’d been working on these songs, were there any particular musical elements you wanted to explore?
Rikk: Everything! Everything and anything! I put my fucking taste on any kind of way, or any kind of music there is. That’s what I like do to with Gitane, a lot. She’s now doing uplift stuff – Gitane DeMone Quartet right now is almost like acid jazz. Sun-Ra is one of our influences. Swans. There are no limits whatsoever; you just explore, explain and go for it. There are so many bands out there, so many music scenes. But they’re so limited. They are fucking, just “Let it go! Do whatever you want to do!”
James: I think, you talk about tension, Rikk. Specifically in Iced Out. London brings tension and dynamics to the music we didn’t have with some of the other drummers who’ve played.
Rikk: So true! He’s different. James and I are known for the certain genre we do, but we still try to go beyond; we don’t limit ourselves to it, with punk and goth. Then, you have London – he’s from New York hardcore-heavy kind of stuff, and he has his taste on those things too. That’s why, I think, we worked really well together. And our singer Devix – who hasn’t been really mentioned so far, probably because he’s a new kid on the block, basically – but he’s amazing! He got to start the whole new genre, just a cut in itself. It’d brought us four together, and I’d call it something new.
James: Something new; something old; something familiar-sounding. But yet, it defines who we were.
Rikk: One thing here is we never do things that could become a hit. “Oh, it would be a hit. We could be a big band” – that’s never an intention. If it would happen, it would be something that would happen automatically, because of our personalities, our approach and who we are. Boom!
James: Yeah. And we’re not trying to sound like anyone. When people say: “We want you to sound like this! We need you to sound like this!”. No – we sound like us. That’s just what comes out.
It becomes a trap for lots of artists Unlike in your case – you’re artists known for a particular style. And now you’ve released this 7-inch and it sounds so different to the things you’d been doing 40 years later – so authentic and original.
Rikk: Thank you! It’s good. We’re just waiting to get in the studio to do a final mix on it all, so it’s basically a rough mix. But I’m happy with it. And you, James?
James: Oh, yeah. You can even tell with music; the progression over time. The last couple of songs we wrote, as a group, we really fell into the place of having our own definition of what we’re trying to do creatively, and bent on the whole thing. It came together really nicely in the last couple of songs. Even a sound engineer said the same thing hearing us at the beginning and hearing us at the end – “Man, I like this stuff at the end! It’s better!”.
I think “progress” is an important word here, because, with the breakup of Christian Death, we never got the chance to see this progress you were coming to musically. Even so, your upcoming LP is quite different.
James: Yeah, it’s different but it’s familiar, to a degree. Over time you just mature. Things change. But we haven’t lost a feeling of who we were. And I think that’s evident in Rikks’ approach to guitar, the sound that’s his signature. He can’t lose that. Even from the bass-lines’ perspective, I still play the same sound – slurry kind of bass technique I did when I was young. Just a little bit different…maybe a little more refined!
Rikk: I love when you were playing the fretless!
Rikk: James was very responsible for the early Christian Death sound – within the fact that you play it fretless.
James: Oh, absolutely! I used to be slightly out of tune all the time. I used to drive Rikk crazy. But, that’s I think what made it so unique!
Rikk: Yeah! I learnt a lot from it. He does that and I just hit whatever…played guitar on top of a thing. Never clean playing. That’s my brother Frank, he’s a very clean player. I like to be just all over the place. I like to approach guitar-playing concentrating like Jimi Hendrix, Ted Falconi from Flipper, and other guitar-players too; Jimmy Page.
Both Symbolism and Christian Death have been based on a strong foundation – the aesthetic side. Do you think this darkness you want to explore affects you musically?
Rikk: Yeah, Dan! You know what? Since I was a little kid, since the days of The Beatles, early Led Zeppelin, I always thought it would be cool idea…There was this movie, Phantom of The Paradise – there was this one scene when they were playing on stage, and they looked goth. White-face, black eyes. They used to wear black and had guitars and used to cut peoples’ heads off; audience and stuff. Truly creepy. I thought: “That’s a great idea if a band would scare like that!”. And being a fan of the early-early Dracula and stuff I thought about band like that, an approach like that! A scary band!
James: Don’t forget the Monsters! They were an influence as well.
Rikk: Yeah. And there was this TV show with Sally Field. What it was called? Gidget. Where she appeared like goth. I always thought, that would be a great shot; tour-horror-rock. I told you about this: “Someday, I should start a horror-rock band!”. And then, all of a sudden, here we are.
Dan, do you know that one of my favorite bands, as well as Gitanes’, is Suicide?
Nope! That’s a new fact, Rikk!
Rikk: They were amazing! They were “wow!”. Nothing will ever be like what they did…
I remember a well-known story of how Kraftwerk did meet Suicide. They were on tour in Brazil and Alan Vega just scared them to death.
Rikk: They were just jealous! Ralf and Florian were just: “Oh, my God! We should do this!”.
James: They wouldn’t have told something like this on GG Allin…
Rikk: I loved Kraftwerk from the get-go, from the days I was a little kid. I first heard that Ralf and Florian album; it was just called Ralf und Florian. Before Autobahn. I just thought: “These guys fucking rock!”. Seeing them on TV was: “What the hell?”. So yeah, Kraftwerk is another of my all-time favorite band. Then Devo, Screamers, Suicide. Boom!
James: That’s pretty good desert-island list!
That’s another interesting thing about you, James – you’ve never spoken about your influences. Could you please name a few artists from your list?
James: This question is a rather interesting one for me, from my perspective. There are bands that changed the music you like and bands that influenced the music you write. The bands that changed the music l liked and listened to were: the Sex Pistols, Generation X, The Clash, Devo, and The Germs. To name a few. The bands that influenced or shaped my music writing in the early days were: Public Image Ltd, Kiss, Budgie, Black Sabbath, and Sathya Sai Baba.
Right now you’re mixing your upcoming LP. Can you describe it ?
James: I’m super excited about what it is we’re creating together. It’s a nice situation for Rikk and I to start with something ; now we have this together, at this stage of our lives. The music is great. We are both proud of it. And we’re excited for people to hear it, and see what happens next.
Rikk: A few who have heard it are just like: “oh my god!” – they became instant fans! People really, really love it. Our singer, Devix is original; he’s a very original person, he’s great to watch perform.
James: He’s an original psychotic!
Rikk: Yeah. He is psychotic!
James: It’s death-rock in 2022, it’s also what we do. Nobody created death-rock since it ended. And we can do it now!
Rikk: It’s definitely death-rock! It just is!
Interview by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.
Photo credits: Alina, Symbolism MGMT