Part 1

Name: Todd Rittmann
Nationality: American
Occupation: Musician
Bands: U.S. Maple / Dead Rider
Labels: Skin Graft / Drag City
Musical Reccommendations: Blake Fleming / Cody Chesnutt

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I saved up enough to buy a guitar when I was 16 or 17 and immediately started a band with some other outcasts at my high school. This made teaching myself to play much easier because I was in a group of likeminded folks, most of whom were already a little better than I was, and I sort of fell into this pattern of getting together with musicians who I could learn from. We really weren't good enough to do covers so we started writing our own music just to be able to play together. About a year later two of us pooled our money and bought a Tascam PortaOne and we were off to the races. When we weren't recording the band rehearsals, we would trade the tape deck back and forth and I would spend hours alone fucking around with layering different sounds, and figuring out how to do things like overdrive the preamps and make stuff play backward. This was the very dawn of the home recording and I feel like that 4 track cassette recorder was the doorway to really exploring music for me. It was so much more liberating than trying to play catch up with my guitar chops.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

When I reflect back I have to say I was doing both simultaneously. I was learning to play, write, record, and perform all at once, and at the same time my interests in music were rapidly shifting. When I picked up the guitar I was trying to learn classic rock stuff, but very soon after, I started getting into Punk rock, Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols type stuff. This was really inspiring (I know it was for a lot of kids) as it encouraged me to just go ahead and keep making my own shit up, even though it was derivative of what I was listening to. It was not long after however, that I found something that really resonated with me. Going down this Punk rabbit hole lead me to some very strange music. Once I heard stuff like Sonic Youth, Swans, Einstürzende Neubauten, The Butthole Surfers and pretty much everything else on Touch and Go (circa '86-'89), the straight ahead Punk rock that had just months ago felt so daring, now seemed to have too many rules and be too limiting. I also liked these new ideas as they didn't require musical virtuosity, but they didn't reject it either. I felt a certain zeitgeist had arrived and was excited to get as far out as possible.

What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

I guess, being self-taught in every aspect of music, I never felt too challenged, ironically. Even the simplest things one might learn from a teacher or mentor in the first week of academic instruction seemed like triumphant breakthroughs for me. I never really had a bead on where I should be going, I just wanted to keep blowing my own mind, wherever that took me. I also followed the things that came naturally to me. Finding my own voice on the guitar came as easy as never learning how to play 'correctly' for 20 years! 

Now I have a whole personal history and half a lifetime of experience making music so my main challenge is to keep things fresh and keep plowing ahead while still blowing my own mind. Maybe when I'm 80 I'll learn to read music and learn all the names of the scales I thought I invented.

Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?

Ha! I have always, and continue to make music because of an overwhelming compulsion. I have no interest in sports, making shit-tons of money, cars, vacations, buying stuff, etc... and I stopped drinking and getting high 9 years ago. My family and my music are just about the only things that bring me true joy. If I didn't have those two things in my life I would be lost... at best. 

The music I make is primarily to amuse only me. Although bringing my music to others who also like it is a profound pleasure, I would still make it if nobody cared. I work my ass off to make sure I can continue doing this and feel incredibly fortunate to have a modicum of success and achievement considering the limited appeal of my music. 

My family supports this time-consuming and not-so-lucrative endeavor and I count this among my greatest blessings. I also have a few dedicated musician friends who share my sickness to collaborate with (thank you all Dead Rider players). My workspace is a reflection of my efforts to make the absolute most out of the amount of space, time, and budget I have. There is almost nothing left over for considerations like mood and ergonomics, and I had to look the word 'haptics' up. 

My 'studio' is a 30' x 18' room in my basement. The ceiling is treated as are half the walls. It is very small, chaotic, and always a work in progress. It has a computer, interface, and some nice mic pres at one end, and a zillion instruments and decent mics at the other end. I hope to build another room sometime this year to isolate amps in. I can use the nearby stairway as a reverb chamber if I check when the neighbors will be away. Oh yeah, I started getting backaches at my old desk so I built a very tall desk that I can stand or sit in a barstool at, I guess that's ergonomics eh?

What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using?

I finally bought a pair of Beyer M160s. Recording live drums is my eternal quest, these mics totally changed how I think about micing drums. Less mics on the drums is my new kick. Which reminds me, I also built the ol' sub kick mic from a Polk Audio monitor 10 driver. Why didn't I do that a long time ago? Oh well.

Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?

I have always liked to find instruments, objects, software/apps that have "music in them". This is the phenomena of picking up a guitar in a store full of other guitars that immediately has a sound, or even a flaw, that sparks something and becomes a riff, or a chord progression, or a new technique. Some guitars have it, some don't. When this happens I will always try and catch this lightning in a bottle and use it like a launch pad, apply it to a work in progress, or just file it away. I'm never concerned with the limitations of these tools as there is always another one around the corner. If you keep your mind open, production tools are everywhere and are disposable. If that banjo, or plugin, or field recording of an eagle farting got used only once, great!

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?

Most of the Dead Rider material starts with a sound and a beat. We are obsessed with syncopation and trying to find rhythms that are complicated and fresh but also flow and inspire motion. Other than that, there really isn't much of a concrete creative process to point to. Every piece seems to form itself from its own discrete and emergent set of rules. We will complete the process by arranging, sculpting, and often molesting, but there is always an effort to let the original spark shine and keep an element of improvisation. 

Where and how the sound and the beat originate and where they lead to is completely different every time. We have a lot of R&D sessions and we toss a lot of wonderful ideas out. If a beat doesn't start its own little chemistry, I rarely want to force the issue. Sometimes after a brief fertile period, an idea will get stuck for a while. Some of these we will return to and with fresh ears, be able to point it in a good direction, other times nearly completed themes we've worked on for months will get tossed.


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