Robot Lords of Tokyo - interview

Columbus, OH - I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rick Ritzler, one of the two founding members of the heavy-metal duo Robot Lords of Tokyo. Check out the interview below.

1.    Okay I have to ask, where did you come up with the name? I love it.

So the name is a snippet from a lyric by a band called Clutch. They’re one of our favorite bands, and they were an inspiration early on. I was listening to one of their albums called ‘Robot Hive’, and they have a song called ‘10001110101”. And in there he just goes on about robot lords of Tokyo. I remember when I first it, I wrote it down and thought “man, that would be an name for a band”. A couple months later, Paul and I were laying down some riffs and I told him “Man, if this turns into anything, I’ve got the perfect name. I have no clue what it means but I think it’d look cool on a t-shirt.” That was about eight years ago or so.

2.    How did the band start? How long have you guys been around?

I’d say it’s not a band, but more of a partnership between my buddy (named Paul Jones) and I. It’s kind of like the heavy-metal Steely Dan, or Hall and Oates. But we bring in a lot of buddies and a lot of guests, locally and even around the country that we work with. It really started as a concept of “Hey, what if we just write songs, and then reach out to musicians we admire to play on the record?” That started in 2005, so about eight years. Three records later, it’s just gotten bigger and bigger, and we’ve had a lot of people on the records that we grew up listening to. It’s amazing how with digital technology these days, how you can share files and things like that over the Internet. You have people play on your record that are from the other side of the world. That’s how we started, with this idea of “Let’s just start something on our own, and not worry about forming a band, or getting three or four other people that have the same vision, attitudes and egos and stuff”. We’ve always kept it to the two of us.

3.    I noticed that your last record was recorded in 2008. Why was there such a large time gap in between the making of those records?

That’s a real good question. If I had my way, there wouldn’t have been [a gap], but you don’t always get your way. Essentially, the reason goes back to the last answer, about the way the project works and how we write the songs. Most of the songs on this new record were done in early 2010. But once you start trying to get other people involved, and farm out work to different players who are in bands (some of these guys are in real bands that tour the world and things like that), it really can stretch out the record making process as opposed to if you had a band with four guys from around the corner. You could get together all the time and rehearse, book studio time, etc. The short answer is it’s because of the way we make these things, and we want to get a lot of different people involved. You’re subject to their subject and availability when it comes down to it.

4.    “Virtues and Vice” was released this year. When and where was it recorded, and how long did the process approximately take?

I’d say 70% of it was recorded here in Colombus, Ohio at a studio called Sonic Lounge. 30% of it was done wherever the guys we were working with were located. For example, Chris (Poland) did his stuff in New York, or Tracy G did his stuff in the south side of LA. I’d say we started recording in October 2010, and we went to about December of 2012. It was two years, which was way too long (laughs).

5.    In your opinion, how does this record differ from an album like “Whiskey, Blood and Napalm”?

Well, that’s a good question as well! My opinion, and I will put it on the record that I’m totally biased (just as everyone who gets this question would be), but the writing and melodies and lyrics, Paul Jones’ contribution is better. It’s stronger, it’s more layered and more sophisticated. There’s a lot more going on. I think his lyrics and singing are better. It’s a definite step up in song writing. From the heaviness perspective, I’d say that the music is a bit thicker and heavier in the riffs. The tempos are a bit slower, and the music is more sophisticated based around what Paul came up with. That’s my take, but everybody’s got an opinion.

6.    What is your role, and what is Paul’s role in the group?

During the writing phase, our roles are pretty much split evenly between the music side in my department, and the lyrics and melodies in his department. Those dabble in each others areas. I’ll contribute a few words here and there, and he’ll contribute a few riffs. But that’s basically how the responsibilities are divided during the writing process. Now that’s all out the window once we get to the studio. I purely play the drums on the records, and Paul purely sings on the records. Neither one of us picks up a guitar in the studio because we’re both just good enough to write the songs, but we’d never want to play [guitar] on the record. There are pros that we know that we want to bring in and play on the record. 

7.    You are an amazing drummer. How long have you been playing?

I started around 10 or 11, with a junky old drum set. I think that with a lot of kids who get guitars or drums early, you can’t blame your parents for getting you the cheap one they found in the Sears catalogue. There’s a good chance that in three months, it’s gonna be sitting in the corner gathering dust. How many people did you know that played the guitar when they were younger, and they don’t anymore? My parents realized that I wasn’t gonna give it up. Once I started playing, it was like a virus, and once you got it, you couldn’t stop. I just kept going from there. I’ve been playing a long time.

8.    What is your setup for recording? Same goes for live setup?

On this last record, “Virtue and Vice”, I had what I guess you’d call a “mutt” kit, made up of different parts from different sets. I used a 26” Ludwig kick drum that the studio had. It was awesome. I had never recorded with a kick drum that large before. I loved the way it felt, the way it moved air, and the big bottom-end that you’re looking for in a bass drum. I used an 18” Ludwig floor tom. I used a 16” DW rack tom, and the snare was a bronze Pearl, 6 ½ x 14”. There’s a wide variety of drum makers in there. But playing live, I use a black-cherry maple DW kit. In the studio though, you’re kinda going more for what sounds better over making everything look pretty and matching and everything like that.

9.    I can hear a lot of classic heavy metal in your sound. I hear a lot of that gritty, yet solidified heavy metal music. Where would you say that you musically take inspiration from?

The foundation for it all is classic heavy metal from the 70s and early part of the 80s. Everything starts with Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi, There’s certainly elements of more modern bands like Clutch, kind of these stoner, groove metal bands, with a little bit of doom, a little bit of Southern feel. Those are my influences. Paul comes from a different place, so when you have a collaboration, you’re gonna have that mixture. He’s really into more of the grunge sound, bands like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden, and you can hear it in the melodies and harmonies. Throw all those things into a pot, and that’s kinda what comes out the other end.

10. Where do you take inspiration from lyrically? Both in terms of writing style and content?

I’d say that Paul writes most of the lyrics, but we do discuss them. On the last record, we kind of felt like we did the traditional, heavy metal, apocalyptic, end-of-the-world theme. But then we have the song ‘Deathwagon’, from the last record, which was about the Plague. We’ve got the track “Through Perdition’s Flames”, which was one of mine. That song was actually influenced by Star Trek! Specifically, the Wrath of Khan, which is one of my favorite movies. We were sitting around and trying to come up with lyrical ideas. I thought to myself that I didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again. We’ve already done two songs that dealt with war and that kinda thing. I thought “what has no one written about before?” and I couldn’t think of any heavy metal songs that had been written about Wrath of Khan! And you don’t sit there and sing the words “Star Trek” or anything like that, but you take inspiration from it, like “what did that character go through?” There were heavy metal kinds of themes, like revenge and bitterness, and trying to strike back at your enemy. Inspiration can come from anywhere though. I know there are some more personal songs written by Paul about his family and things like that, but for me I’m more about thinking of big grandiose themes or concepts, and then just have fun with it.

11. What kind of message would you like fans to walk away with after listening to your music?

From listening to our music, or reading an interview, we don’t take ourselves to seriously. We want to have fun, and we want to celebrate the kind of music that we think deserves more attention. I think of a song like “Two In The Belly, One In The Head”, which is on the new record. If you listen to the lyrics, I think they’re some of the best ones Paul’s ever come up with. If you listen to them, the narrator is talking about the dirty things that have to happen in the world, whether you’re in the military or a cop, or whatever it may be, and how people glorify those things. But if you really look at those things, you’ll notice that there are a lot of repercussions from the things that these people have to do. War is not something to be romanticized; it’s a dirty thing. There are messages like that in our music, but mostly we just want people to have a good time. For me, as someone who has been playing music for a long time, something I want people to take away is “hey, playing your instrument is cool! Practicing is cool!” Growing up in the 80s primarily, it was all about getting better and achieving something through your instrument, and it just kind of dived throughout the 90s.

12. What are the future plans for Robot Lords of Tokyo?

We’re going to do some limited shows throughout the summer in the Midwest. We have people who would like to see the band in different parts of this country and in other countries as well. We’ve been getting a lot of good press overseas! It’s hard to tour these days for anyone, though, especially with us where we have a rotating lineup, and rotating special guests. I would guess that we will only do limited regional touring. I would anticipate in the future that everybody keeps enjoying making these records. People are responding well to them, and each one sells better than the one before. We’ll probably do another one. If I know myself, within about two to three months, I’ll start getting the itch to go into my own studio and start writing some riffs. I would hope that at the end of next year/early part of 2015, we’ll have another record ready to go. But like I said, all the other guys that play on the records all have other things going on. Every time I start from scratch and figure out “Who’s interested? Who’s available? Who’s got the time?” and I put it together.