Ritual Aesthetic is one of the better things to come from the industrial scene in recent years. Originally a solo project by Sean Ragan started up to give rise to his own voice after being the drummer and thus taking the back seat for a number of years RA eventually grew into a fully fledged band.
I got in touch with Sean to investiage (or interrogate?) the results of which is on display below where we discuss the possible divine origins of inspiraton, working with Chris Vrenna for their upcoming album and much much more!
Start off with giving us a quick summary of the band. How long have you been around and who`s involved?
Ritual Aesthetic has been around for 6 years as an entity but only 3 years as a true band so I truly only consider us to be 3 years old. Originally it was just something I did just to vent creative energy while spending time in other bands and I didn’t do anything with it beyond releasing songs.
I truly view the band as being 3 years old with its real birth being marked from the point of finding members to create a full band and performing our first live shows. Currently it is myself, Vance Valenzuela of the incredible Blackened Death Metal band Vale Of Pnath, Mack Barrow and Nicholas Klinger. Ritual Aesthetic has had somewhat of a set of revolving doors concerning live members and I have accepted that this format is what suits it best. I prefer to collaborate in the moment with other artists who have projects of their own who can bring their unique talents to the table with whatever their primary instrument is. Vance and I had known each other for years and years and the timing of life put us on the same path together and it made sense to forge something together through the lens of Ritual Aesthetic.
You`ve got two albums out so far , Decollect (2014) and Wound Garden (2018). While sonically different you can still tell that it`s Ritual Aesthetic. To what do you attribute your, for lack of a better term, genre shifting, and where do you think you`ll go with the next release?
The genre shifting present in our two releases is just a direct reflection of being a big fan of different genres that share certain parallels and becoming easily bored with the same reoccurring sound. Metal and all offshoots of Industrial are my absolute favorite two genres and as I grew up listening to the two I would always find myself somewhat disappointed with wishing I could find more bands marrying the two together. I think they compliment each other beautifully and can bring out qualities in each other that only exist when they’re together.
With our next album, it was an intention of mine early on to take both the Metal elements and Industrial elements and push them farther in intensity than I have done on an album ever before. Early on I knew I wanted the album to have much more labor intensive guitar work and much more abrasive and present electronic elements. I knew I wanted both to lead equally as intense at differing times rather than using either as layering pieces that cast an overall vibe. The perfect way to describe our next album without being able to hear it is that the intensity and violence of the differing genre sounds have been strongly increased. I want the core fans of both worlds to be able to enjoy it equally and find they’ve come to appreciate something new in a genre they maybe haven’t explored before and for them to see that the other side isn’t all one boring way.
Speaking of the next release, any idea when we might hear that?
We were originally planning for Fall 2020 but because of the crushing blow that Covid-19 has dealt to the industry and the ability to tour we are now looking at Spring 2021. Although I do see this as devastating I also see it as a silver lining because this grants ALL artists an extra passage of time to refine their works and continue writing beyond any preconceived deadlines. I am a very firm, firm believer in last minute miracles when it comes to the writing process. Some of the moments within songs that I am the most proud of came to me in the final few weeks.
Your music was recently featured on the Boulet Brothers Dragula, how did this come about and do you follow drag culture?
I got a call from our A&R rep in the winter of last year that the Boulet Brother’s wanted to use our song “Dread” and that it would be another solid 7-8 months before it would see the light of day and that I wasn’t allowed to speak about it until the month prior to air date. The story was that they had burned through a list of songs to use for the Halloween episode and kept passing through choices looking for something more brutal to break from the tradition of using less sonically abusive songs for the lip-sync challenge.
How they landed on us I’d love to know as I am a HUGE fan myself. I do follow drag culture and I quite enjoy observing it. Christeene is my #1 followed by Dollya Black and Sharon Needles. I saw Christeene perform in my town and it was one of the funniest and most depraved performances I have ever seen. Imagine a mid-size bar packed well over capacity. It’s hot as fuck to where you can almost taste the condensation in the air and Christeene is crowd surfing across the patrons flashing her balls while covered in mysterious brown and red liquid that we probably shouldn’t disclose. She finally gets back to the stage where she’s bending over and pulling her buttocks apart while screaming to the point of clipping the microphone about how many people it takes to fix her dick. There was an energy in the room I had never felt and never did quite feel again since that night.
It was somewhat of a cross between Christmas morning, a bloody car wreck and being in a brothel that exists in the parking lot just outside of Hell itself. I LOVE her. Dollya I discovered on the show and I was moved almost to tears seeing her perform to our music with such a dark aura of grace. I thought she always had hands down the best and most original looks and to this day I see countless people rocking the double eye look. She is most definitely a trend setter with her aesthetic.
Lyrically, Decollect was made up of what to my understanding is mostly imagined scenarios rather than your own life experiences. Looking back, why do you think you made that choice?
Decollect happened at a time where I was barely into my 20’s and hadn’t really been knocked down by life yet. Although I was writing from early personal experiences, I was enhancing those scenarios in a more theatre inspired way as a means to cope with those said experiences at the time. I am a very big Horror fan and that album is littered with samples from such films & games and a lot of the lyrical aspects reflected that. I would take simple statements or recaps from things I had experienced and then re-write them while each time injecting more metaphor and word arrangements that seemed to supplement the images I was seeing in my mind.
If I was writing about a hardship within a past relationship, I would then morph that into a stalker / prey scenario. If I was writing about any grievances I had with the scene at that time, I then morphed that into a more snuff oriented narrative. “Through The Lust Of Flies” was an audio tribute to my favorite Giallo film images. “Tender Petal” was heavily inspired by the narrative of Suzy Banyon’s journey through Suspiria being a vulnerable loner in an evil place willing to subjugate herself to fit in. “Orchid Incestus” was the most personal of the lot. I sampled the sound of Melos crushing his brother’s head from A Srpski Film to supplement any feelings of anger I had at the time. “Fleshing Wheel” was an audio conglomeration of every slimy, perverted exploitation film I had seen at the time composed to a projected backdrop of disgusting places in rural America at night. I view Decollect as a diary of first entering the arena of writing music by yourself and exploring what matches you the best while stopping to admire a nice pile of smut along the journey.
Wound Garden on the other hand is more personal, was it just that you wanted to express yourself in what may be called a more genuine way, opening yourself up more or did it just happen to come out that way?
Yes, it is much more personal. I had been writing the songs before I had concrete lyrics as it’s common practice for me to keep a large conglomeration of lyrical snippets as I progress through life. My plan was to complete the songs and start fitting the lyrics I found most fitting to the music. In the middle of this, my best friend of many years drove himself out to a beach in Seattle and shot himself. I had been working on scoring a production for the Urbanite Theatre in Florida at the same time and I got the call minutes before a Skype meeting with production. I had never lost anyone that close to me before besides my Grandparents and so it took me completely by violent storm.
I immediately became engulfed in a near fatal battle with alcohol to cope with the rage, sadness and the dozens of other grey emotions that come with living through the suicide of a loved one. Production on the score became a ball and chain, I separated from my partner of years and as some sort of twisted grand finale, our mutual friend, another person I had a very long history with, succumbed to a heroin overdose. Just like that in the span of a few months I had plunged into a new definition of pain by losing multiple people extremely close to me and seeing the foundations of my life begin to execute a death rattle. I threw out every piece of lyrical content I had thus far and began instead writing directly of my feelings that were related to this chapter. I trimmed it down to something more like an EP format as I wanted a simple and strong onset of rage for the listener in the same manner as I had experienced these events.
Everything that went into the sound and process of Wound Garden was the most authentic experience I had ever had in life up until that point. It was truly a moment of experiencing ones art in a 3 dimensional format. That album’s entire genesis and timeline was the true calling card moment for me where I decided I no longer wanted an outlet but a full on, full time project to bring into the world where I abandon collaboration with other bands and focus solely on turning it into as real of a being as it can be. I dedicated the album to my best friend’s memory which one can find in the booklet of the CD or the jacket of the LP to be forever out there in the world and the hands of whomever may hold it. The hellish process of getting the band on its feet and getting that album out into the world is what ultimately got me clean and sober for multiple years strong so when I look back on it I view it as a sacrifice or offering made to exit total destruction and find harmony in this world. I think every artist experiences this in some shape or another and I think every artist must experience this kind of process of self sacrifice and holding on until results present themselves. I believe that everyone traveling full circle is the only thing that will bring true balance to this earth.
Correct me if I`m wrong but RA began as your solo project? To what capacity does your current members influence the writing and recording process?
Yes, it began as a solo project and remained that way for a while. I will always be the core underlying member as this is my lovechild that I am stuck with but I do collaborate with others. Currently, Vance Valenzuela is my primary writing partner. We have known each other for years and he has sewn impressive success with his project Vale Of Pnath and I heavily contributed to their last album “Accursed” so it seemed prophetic at the time that we would wind up working on Ritual Aesthetic together.
We have written half of the new album together while I have ventured into the other half alone to keep that balance and to bring aid to preserving the spirit that some have become familiar with. Our writing process with this album has been starting songs from the ground up at the same time. It usually begins with me putting together a core landscape of electronics and melodies and then he starts adding guitar parts to them and I re-adjust accordingly until we have a song. It’s a really exciting process to me because I became used to bearing the weight of the whole load while writing by myself and it’s fantastic to see someone else’s vision meet up with your own. I worked with others on parts of Wound Garden but never anything this intensive. I think it’s good for artists to break out of their comfort zone and see how their energy shifts when another person is brought into the situation. Although having zero interruption can be a great thing, you also run the risk of never having someone tell you no or check you on over indulgence.
Balance seems to be the crucial component that can be easy to lose in all things.
Your music falls into the industrial genre yet it doesn’t just sound like a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. Which era of industrial music do you yourself gravitate most towards and why?
Thank you! That is definitely a tough question because my taste ranges so broadly from era to era. I can tell you that I gravitate towards whatever has a heavy dose of sonic brutality and a good essence of beauty found in the middle of that filthy exterior.
I am a huge fan of Skinny Puppy’s “Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse” era, Goflesh’s masterful “Streetcleaner”, Cyberaktif’s “Tenebrae Vision”, Test Dept’s “The Unacceptable Face Of Freedom”, KMFDM’s “Symbols” and “UAIOE” eras, the totally violent wave of
European & American Industrial bands that came up in the early to mid 2000’s, Velvet Acid Christ’s “Lust For Blood” era, Ministry’s “Land Of Rape & Honey”, anything Coil has touched, NIN’s “Broken” era which is a hill I will die on with all my guts out.
Last but certainly not least, Wumpscut’s “Bone Peeler” is my all time favorite Industrial album. I could go on all day really but you’d be asleep by then. If it has that spirit that excites your primal instincts in a way that might get you arrested or fired then I probably enjoy it.
When it comes to current day Industrial happening right now, I jam to Youth Code, Statiqbloom & Cyanotic quite a bit.
Sticking with the genre theme, what would you say is the best and worst aspects of industrial?
The BEST aspect of Industrial no doubt is its ability to transcend and defy the rules of music as many know it. It can take you places mentally that I think absolutely no other genre can. Its influence has bled into SO many corners of music and in my opinion,many people don’t even realize or know that today in 2020. It injected new life into so many genres of music or outright created them with their origins now remaining unknown. That is fucking AMAZING. Industrial can take you on an otherwise familiar path and make way for a totally different and previously unimaginable journey. I think that there is no experience quite like connecting with an Industrial record. When you can start making sense & beauty out of a voidscape of mechanical babel and synthetic pollution, it completely changes the way you experience music and I don’t even think Chopin can do that.
The WORST aspect of Industrial no doubt is the closed minds and elitism within the culture. It is such a fucking bummer. Metal comes pretty close but after spending my share of time in both worlds I really think Industrial holds the throne here. The scene is still plagued with too many gatekeeping genre purists who hate to see change and act like it’s their duty to protect whatever assets they see being threatened by evolution of the scene. The irony in that fact is that I STRONGLY believe this is what dragged the genre down lower than it needed to go in terms of popularity. It doesn’t take much time on the ground to frequently encounter people loathing the lack of successful events and progress within the scene as a whole and yet they perpetuate that very thing. Here you have so many brilliant minds who were breaking rules and changing music just to be pushed into obscurity because the fans themselves don’t want to see those very same rules broken . It’s a toxic self fulfilling prophecy. Those who have taken the most risks in this scene have made the biggest impressions and usually carry the largest burden of criticism and that will continue to be true in this genre and many others until the day we are dead. Of course what I am saying is not true of every person.
Do you rely more on hardware, software or a mix of both when writing?
With Decollect I was going with all software because I was just getting my feet wet. Wound Garden was my entry point into hardware as a means of experiment and I fell in love with it. With this new album I would say it is about 90% hardware and 10% software. With that being said though, I am not a Hardware VS. Software purist. I prefer hardware now because I love the physical process of achieving results through labor and the element of chaos and risk / reward that work around it. I think hardware forces the artist to commit to the piece under the notion of knowing they might not ever get that sound back. It can be completely maddening to stare down the barrel of 30,000 software choices and never arrive at a final choice. When everything is said and done, I do believe hardware sounds better but I also know that most listeners aren’t going to give a fuck what it is because they will be searching for that connection rather than the gratification of knowing what kind of gear you used. I know there are those out there who do show great interest in that element and my hat is off to them for possessing that pool of knowledge and dedication to the craft.
These days the music industry undergoes constant change, people’s attention span seems to shorten by the second and as a result many might not have the patience to sit through a full-length album or even an EP. What makes you make albums then rather than for example releasing a single every month or so?
I agree with you 100% and I can tell you right now that I choose to go through with albums for a simple reason. It is to prove to myself that I can survive that journey and to tell a complete story. If the listeners want to cherry pick those few songs and not stay for the rest of it – that’s fine. I get it. I am sometimes guilty of the same thing. But, for those who want to stay and hear the whole story and experience all there is to experience with us, after everyone else has left – THAT is what I live for. I live for the satisfaction of knowing that these personal journeys should be told in complete tales. I believe firmly that you cannot travel to the places you can go with a full front to back experience with just a little single. In the end when it’s all done and people have extracted what they need to extract from it and I can look back at it knowing what a difficult journey it was actualizing that entire project….there’s no other feeling like it. With that being said, once this record is complete and I feel we have finally done that in the way we see fit, I would be open to exploring that drip feed method of release so long as the end result landed on a conglomeration of music to be enjoyed as one.
You`re originally a drummer having played in and toured with bands of different genres. Was it a big change when you took on the role of frontman rather than being in the background?
Yes. It was fucking intense. As a drummer you’re used to being hidden in the back and not being watched every moment while bearing the pressure of knowing that if anyone can fuck the whole thing up first it’s YOU. As a frontman all eyes are on you and that can be quite the pressure at times. The rush is much more extreme than that of a drummer and quite unlike many drugs you can do. Being a frontman also awards you less punishments for error in that if you make a mistake the whole band isn’t gonna implode because of you.
Coming from a drumming background has benefited me in staying locked in on time and has sometimes been a curse in it causing me to over scrutinize candidates for that position. Our drummer now, Mack Barrow is one of the best musicians I’ve had the pleasure of playing shows with so he eases that pain quite well. I have come to enjoy fronting a band so much that I’m not sure if I will ever return to playing drums but there are definitely times where I sorely miss doing so.
What do you think inspiration is, where do you think it comes from? Other artists have described inspiration coming from this elusive realm where if you just tune in to it you`re presented with melodies, words etc. If that is the case, would you consider the possibility of inspiration itself having more divine, loftier origins?
Absolutely I do, on all fronts. I believe that in all people this realm that you speak of not only exists but is actively affecting that person in ways beyond just art. I think that when one thinks they’re experiencing writer’s block they’re just experiencing a form of “clogged pipes” and it’s a matter of shutting down that Above part of the mind to dig deeper into the Below by any means necessary whether that be by chaos, transcendence or ritual of any kind.
Alex Cresconi mixed your first album, what about him and his way of working made you go back for the second one?
Alex is a longtime friend of mine and we have a lot in common in our musical tastes. I’ve always felt like he understood what I was going after sonically and life seems to have a way of magically putting us back together as the years go on. At the time that I met him I was a college student and he was a fresh graduate of the Musicians Institute and we were some of each other’s first clients. I am a very sporadic sort of spilled paint type artist and he is a very calculated and detail oriented artist so working with him a second time made the most sense for organizing the chaos of that time. Alex has been kind of a shadow entity of this band in that regard. He has done a lot for us behind the scenes on the business side of things and he played guitar on our song “Dread” which was featured in Dragula so in a spiritual way we came together for our first time on TV after years of exploring different sides of the industry from different places. He was my only friend from back in my college days who ran the distance with his career and didn’t succumb to Hollyweird insanity.
You announced recently that you`re working with Chris Vrenna for the new album. How did this all come about and how do you think it`s been going so far?
Chris has always been a “most wanted” on my list of artists to work with. I am an avid fan of his production / remix work and his soundtracks. He was my favorite member of classic NIN as he’s a drummer and he was involved with what I think are the finest hours of NIN. Any true Nails fan out there immediately thinks of him and the rest of the golden lineup and what they were doing in the 90’s.
We both have some mutual friends and once Ritual Aesthetic got its wings off the ground a little bit after Wound Garden, I started considering the possibility of finally attempting to contact him to just sniff out the possibility of having him on board for a project. Once we finally got in touch we immediately hit it off and spent hours talking about this life and things seemed to just work out.
Chris is one of the kindest and most sincere humans I have ever met anywhere in this life and not just the music industry. He has an aura to his personality that is unlike anyone I have ever met when it comes to his ability to pass on wisdom and inspiration. He is a true teacher by nature and a true example of someone who’s seen it all and been jaded by none. Unfortunately as you and I speak now, we are just now stepping into the infantile stages of this project as the pandemic had us all held hostage to our living rooms and rendered unable to do much besides eat canned food and wonder which day we’ll die and decompose into the couch. This is something that I will be looking forward to sharing with the world in the coming weeks as we get farther away from this mess and closer to normality.
Asking if Nine Inch Nails has served as any inspiration for you seems pointless and obvious so we won`t go there. However, Vrenna was part of the line-up during the Downward Spiral era which included a good amount of experimental methods in sound design, did working with him bring about any less conventional ways of working?
Chris has such an understanding of the unconventional that when discussing it in a forward fashion you’d think it’s basic conventionality you’re speaking of. Something I learned right away in our initial production talks is that nothing is “wrong” or really “right” when it comes to that world. I realized very quickly that the times I spent in the past worrying if I was doing something wrong didn’t matter. I think any and all musicians should take that thought into consideration. Who gives a fuck how you get there – what does it sound like? A less conventional way that we have been working since bringing him into the mix is reaching farther back for older equipment and outdated sounds to bring a new shine to them in a new vessel. I’m a big fan of sampling sounds I find outside of the studio and converting those into purposeful use somehow.
As most of kids with black hair, makeup, torn up clothes etc we all grew up listening to bands like Manson and NIN both of which Vrenna was involved in at some point. Have you at any point had a moment where you realize that you`re now in the position to work with the people who made the music you surely listened to on endless repeat growing up? What`s it feel like?
I suppose I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I contemplated this a few times. It doesn’t mean that I or anyone else is special. It means that life is cyclical and things are far more connected and attainable than one might think in the loneliest hours of their artistic or personal journey.
It means that anything can be done with a refusal to quit and understanding that most of the hurdles put before us in this life are as intrinsically temporary as we are. To me, this thought feels more like a reassurance than any victory. It feels like I know now marrow deep that the most important thing any of us can do while pursuing goals and wants is to listen closely to our intuition, reject negative and suppressive people who dampen down our self worth, that perseverance is more important than many other things and lastly to never under any circumstances wear blue jeans.
The last word goes to you. Feel free to promote whatever you wish, shout outs etc.
Shout out to you for these wonderfully constructed questions!
To anyone still reading this going through this fucking dark and uncertain time,
There are people in this world who need you and you need you. This climate is RIPE for creativity and art is one of the things that can soothe us all while we go through this. Create or Die. Look out for your friends and take it one day at a time.
We hope to be on tour with a new record and fully back in action by late Spring 2021 and we hope to see you and hear you in any capacity.
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