Riddle of Steel
Got This Feelin’ (Ascetic)
An interview with Jimmy Vavak (bass/vocals), Andrew Elstner (guitar/vocals), and Rob Smith (drums)
By Tim Den
Would it be cheap to quote the entire bio, even if it’s the most adequate description of a record? Hell no, especially not when you’re its author! Writhe, sexy babies, for the blinking starry skies of the future entrance tonight to the tune of Got This Feelin’. As you count the constellations, bodies contorting to acute grooves and cascading melodies, rock’s past and present come alive in these 10 songs.
Each tension-and-release playfully recalls the greats who came before – King Crimson, Thin Lizzy, Jawbox, Shiner – but with a breadth all their own. Is that prog histrionics or IDM gone post-rock on “The Lovers of Nothing” and “Deeper Still”? Who cares? Distilling only the finest of brainy, emotive, propulsive, and articulate (not to mention tasteful) nectar from rock’s forefathers, Riddle Of Steel have keg-standed it all to come up with Got This Feelin’.
With new drummer Rob Smith in tow and the tightness tenfold, Got This Feelin’s compositions are tighter and more direct, without losing the exploratory feel of the band’s trademark “guitar trails” and jackhammer bass staccatos. Taking Python‘s melody-and-muscles approach and making it more concise, the results are bombastically majestic, stylishly technical (tempo changes are sexy, kids), and hauntingly catchy at the same time. What if National Skyline, Burning Airlines, and The Five Deadly Venoms (of which bassist/vocalist Jimmy Vavak was a member) had unprotected sex? Yup, you guessed it.
Got This Feelin’ titillates, invigorates, tests the limits, but above all, satisfies both rock’s primal need to kick ass and the human instinct to progress forward. The past has brought us here… A good place indeed.
Here is proof that the Midwest has triumphed over Northeast hip and L.A. trendiness. Riddle Of Steel have not only come up with an impeccable rock experience, but set the bar high for both themselves and their brethren. One of this year’s best albums, no doubt.
You guys have been touring a shitload, even with a drummer who lives eight hours away. How are you financially able to keep this up?
Andrew: Hieu (of Ascetic Records) helps out a lot. We all have our monthly expenses to cover when we go out of town. It’s not like the band’s paying rent or utilities or anything.
Rob: Usually when I come up, Jimmy tries to book a show. That helps pay the expense.
Jimmy: We put him up in The Four Seasons. Get him massages.
Andrew: We’ve cut down the massages. But one of the advantages of living in St. Louis and Oklahoma is that the cost of living is really cheap. I don’t know how New York or San Francisco bands – or even Chicago bands – do it.
Rob, what do you think will eventually happen? Will you move to St. Louis?
Rob: It’s working out pretty well this way right now. As it stands, I spend a good amount of time “living” in St. Louis with Hieu. I’d been up there for three weeks: A week of rehearsals, a show, then some more rehearsals, and now this tour. I haven’t been home in a month.
This new album seems to’ve been written very quickly.
Andrew: So was the last one (Python). Last time, we wrote five songs in a month.
Jimmy: This time, we had a different structure. We’d write a few songs, record ’em, then go back and write some more. We did Python in two chunks, this record we did in three or four, down in Oklahoma. We record where Rob lives.
The new songs are more straight forward and less complicated than the ones on Python.
Andrew: It’s sort of the natural curve for a lot of bands. Rob’s a different drummer than Dave (drummer on Python). Jimmy and I both prefer Rob’s style over anyone we’ve ever played with. And “straight forward” is a relative term…
Rob: Dave was a really “busy” drummer. He had a lot more going on, and that was definitely a big part of how the last record sounded, from an outsider’s standpoint. It was a part of their sound, these busy little patterns. If you heard it, you knew it was Dave. But I don’t play that way. Same thing with their first EP: It was with a different drummer, and again, a totally different sound.
Jimmy: That’s one thing I’m looking forward to…
What, recording a new album with another new drummer?
Jimmy: No, no, no! Recording a second album with the same drummer! (all laugh)
Rob: I was joking that they should ditch me after this record. Keep things fresh! (laughs)
Ascetic is really on the ball with release schedules and planning and everything. How does Hieu kick so much ass?
Rob: Not only does he work an office job for 50, 60 hours a week, he puts in 10 hours every night for the label.
Andrew: He takes on a lot, but he’s also wise enough to not take on too much to the point where shit gets out of control. There are a bunch of labels who are doing way too much and spreading themselves too thin, running out of money, fucking around. I think Hieu has a good handle on what he wants to put out, and he puts action where his words are.
Jimmy: And you feel the 110% trust between Hieu and all the bands. The caliber of people involved is fucking astounding.
Rob: On a financial level, he wasn’t just “I’m gonna start a label, I have a credit card.” He worked his ass off for years and saved up a ton of money for it. He’s put so much of his personal money into this.
Andrew: He takes it very seriously. He doesn’t fuck around. A lot of labels in St. Louis are like “yeah dude, we’re gonna start a label” and they’ll sort of have their shit together and put out a few CDs, but Hieu is so much more focused. He got a business license, he calculates the taxes: The kind of shit that other people don’t think about. “Fuck dude, The Man is coming down on us! That’s bullshit!” Hieu’s prepared for all that. It’s kind of what he does at his “real” job.
Jimmy: His day job is largely an accounting one. Not a lot of label owners have that kind of background and ability.
How is the St. Louis music scene?
Andrew: It’s alright. When a big band breaks up or a bar closes, it kinda fractures the scene, but it’s okay. We still play all the time, but not as much as we used to.
Who do you think is the biggest band in St. Louis right now?
Andrew: The biggest band? We are. (gives contorted smirk as if that fact is both unbelievable and sad) Yeah, I’d like to see another band compare themselves to our tour schedule, albums released, distribution… People have their opinions as to what bands they like better – there are awesome bands in St. Louis – and maybe “biggest” is the wrong term, but I am totally proud of what we’ve accomplished. I completely stand by our accomplishments and reputation as a hardworking band. A lot of St. Louis bands have the completely fucking wrong idea of what is necessary to “make it.” “We’ll play every club in St. Louis all the time and then things will happen.” Dude. St. Louis? These days, you need to travel. I wasn’t convinced until we started traveling, then you see how many goddamn bands are doing this.