Sometimes, a conversation clicks along naturally ... and sometimes not. Talking with D. Rider singer and guitarist Todd Albert Rittmann, via phone from his home in Chicago, was nearly a bust. In particular, it seemed that our separate attempts to lighten the mood just baffled each other; we had to start over midway through. "We control time and space," he said at one point, describing D. Rider's live show. "We've taken the very fabric of our universe by the reins, and we are the masters at that point." I'm still unsure whether this was a joke or the most serious thing he said.
The unsettled, listing conversation was perhaps appropriate for discussing D. Rider's album Mother of Curses: a collection of bleak, junk-strewn soundscapes, propelled by heavy, syncopated grooves. "Growing up I was really into bands like The Birthday Party and Einstürzende Neubauten -- there's definitely a funky element going on, but it's still very bleak," Rittmann says. "Who's to say the apocalypse can't be fun? I think you can dance to it."
It's also appropriate when you consider Rittman's musical history, especially in the mid-'90s as a founding guitarist of U.S. Maple, an experimental punk band whose deconstructed rhythms and slippery tonalities made Captain Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby seem safe as milk. Live, the band was a lurching, seasick beast that seemed an equal assault on your eardrums and your inner ear. Other Rittmann credits include stints in Singer, Cheer-Accident, and playing with Rhys Chatham and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm.
Joined by Andrea Faught (keyboards and cornet), Noah Tabakin (saxophone) and drummer Theo Katsounis, Rittmann in D. Rider explores "things that I wanted to get to that maybe Singer and U.S. Maple didn't get to," he says. "More of a groove, a bit heavier of a beat -- definitely a focus on syncopation," he adds, citing "James Brown, The Police, stuff like that" as influences. Again, it's hard to know whether this was serious or tongue-in-cheek -- or whether that matters.
Mother of Curses was released last February. Apart from the grainy, shambling acoustic ballad "Welcome Out," the album consists mostly of subsonic, distorted bass and overloaded, broken drums, almost crooned vocals and squalling dissonance. "Body to Body (To Body)," for example, opens with screaming sax and strangled whispers, before Rittmann's almost gothic vocals take over.
On "Dew Claw Don't Claw," the drums (played on the record by Rittmann) sound pitted and potholed -- the product not of an audio plug-in, but of using odd instruments and cast-off obsolete gear. "Things that may sound like cutting and pasting are sort of Rube Goldberg treatments," Rittmann explains. "It's not editing going on there." The song also contains one of the album's most evocative lyrics: "Is the west treating you right? / Are you getting your noise?"
"Of course, I'm aware that that might be seen as 'the west' being 'Western Civilization,'" Rittmann says. "But really, to me, the west is representing the dark side of your town, or your life, and 'noise' is just the distraction that we allow ourselves to get wrapped up in." He pauses, then clarifies. "There's horrible shit going on in the world and in your life, and it's possible for you to change it, but you choose distraction instead. It's painful to make changes in your life to make things better."
For D. Rider, the album is one thing, but the show is another -- as audiences can see when the band plays Gooski's this Saturday -- and live performance seems to be Rittmann's preference. "We're playing compositions, but those compositions have elements of improvisation built into them -- and that's one thing that carried over from U.S. Maple," he says. "Just to recreate something from an album bores me."
"I love seeing live music; I love making it even more," he says. "You definitely know when you've been to a show and you felt like you were part of something, some special event. And yes, it was human beings playing musical instruments -- big fuckin' deal. But there was a big fuckin' deal -- and you can't explain it to people who didn't witness it, and to the people who did, there's the feeling of 'Yeah, I was there -- it was amazing.'"
D. Rider with Microwaves and Tusk Lord. 10 p.m. Sat., Jan. 30. Gooski's, 3117 Brereton St., Polish Hill. $6. 412-681-1658