Dead Rider’s Todd Rittman talks David Bowie, layered lyrics and Flat Black Studios ahead of Grey Area

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Dead Rider at Grey Area festival

Grey Area Acreage in Lone Tree, Iowa — Saturday, Aug. 11 at 9 p.m.

Todd Rittman blesses a fan at Gabe’s in 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

Dead Rider is a Chicago rock band made up of Todd Rittman (formerly of Chicago noise rockers U.S. Maple); Andrea Faught on trumpet and keys; and drummer Matt Espy. While their sound is heavy on guitar and drums, keyboard plays a big part, and they seem to wind their own path between rock, jazz and Tortoise-style experimental rock.

The latest album, last year’s Crew Licks (their second on Dead City), pulls together seemingly unrelated musical ideas. “The Listing” amalgamates Grand Funk Railroad riffs with hints of Captain Beefheart’s skronky weirdness and a sample of an auctioneer’s speed rap. Rittman croons, “Well you could always trade the danger/For something much worse.” The song uses real estate terminology to describe erotic compulsion, making both seem queasy and menacing.

Big guitar riffs, like those of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, drive the songs, but something unexpected always intrudes to dislocate the groove, like the bummer steel drum on “The Ideal” or the squalling saxophone chorus on “The Floating Dagger.”

Grey Area Festival attendees can expect an intense virtuoso rock experience shot through with humor, menace and menacing humor. The festival, put on by Flat Black Studios and White Rabbit and now in its second year, runs Aug. 10-11 at the Flat Black acreage in Lone Tree. Little Village spoke with Rittman recently, ahead of the band’s upcoming appearance.

How do you feel like your music has changed since U.S. Maple?

This band automatically differs from that because I’m a completely different lyricist and singer. L[Johnson of U.S. Maple]’s was incredibly distinctive and original and I couldn’t do what he did if I wanted to. So our built-in differences were a nice jumping off point to start something new, just me developing my vocal and writing style.

Todd Rittman and Dead Rider perform at Gabe’s in 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

You have a very distinctive singing style, do you have a touchstone or influence you start from?

I’m not a trained musician in any way. I’m already used to the idea of limitations as the secret weapon. I didn’t even start singing until Dead Rider. As an artist I’m at the point that I know better [than] to try and emulate my musical mentors, not only because I don’t think I could do anything anyone else does, but I’m also trying to discover what it is that I naturally want to do and work with that.

The Grateful Dead cover, “Ramble On,” was odd in all the right ways — what it really reminded me of was David Bowie on Black Star.

I’ve gotten that comparison before, and that’s extremely flattering. I’m not intentionally going for that kind of thing, and if that even crossed my mind I’d feel like a complete and utter failure. David Bowie was one of the greatest rock and roll singers and it would be … yeah [laugh]. I’m fine with the comparison but that’s more coincidence than anything [intentional].

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There’s a lot going on in your songs beyond just verse/chorus/verse. What is your creative process in writing songs?

For this band, it’s a reaction to my last band, which was three or four of us together in a room jamming out parts and all building something together in real time, practicing that, and going into a studio and record it how we wrote it. With Dead Rider, I knew I wanted to try something else. I wanted to record and mix it all myself so the idea that things had to be finished before they were recorded went right out the window. The approach to writing a song is different every time. The genesis of them can come from anywhere, and it’s built in the studio bit by bit.

There is a lot of classic rock riffiness in some of the songs but you’re deconstructing that genre … This is part of my musical background. In the past I may have spent more energy into subverting or running away from that. This record in particular I made the conscious choice to just go headlong into that, into my guitar playing influences, and that probably played the biggest part of the band going for the rock gestures.

Todd Rittman and Dead Rider perform at Gabe’s in 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

Your lyrics, while staying vernacular in intent — do you put a lot of effort into them?

Yes. I don’t consider myself a writer and this, along with singing, is a new discipline, which I’m really excited about. I’m excited to be on the upswing of a learning curve; you can feel yourself making progress. I like lyrics that are layered, where there are meanings superimposed over each other; that’s my style. I’m not going to tell you a story that you’re going to hear once and be able to describe to a friend what everything’s about.

You’re playing the Grey Area festival; do you have a personal connection with [Flat Black Studios owner] Luke [Tweedy]?

I have been doing some mastering work for clients that recorded at Flat Black Studios, and Luke has been a good guy to get to know, both professionally and personally. The work he does at that studio is top notch; it makes mastering it an enjoyable experience.

Kent Williams is trying to make the best of being stuck in the wrong timeline. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 247.

Photo captions within this article previously stated that the photos were taken at the 2017 Grey Area festival. This has been corrected.

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