In a special contribution to ReGen Magazine, Michael Mitchell speaks to the four members of the Gitane Demone Quartet about the band’s latest album, a progressive and experimental tour-de-force.
An InterView with Gitane Demone, Rikk Agnew, Deb Venom & Paul Roessler of the Gitane Demone Quartet
By Michael Mitchell (MMitchell)
Gitane Demone isn’t a household name, but with the release of her band’s sophomore album, Substrata Strip, she should be. Her bandmates Rikk Agnew, Deb Venom, and Paul Roessler should be as well as all have been involved in the Los Angeles music scene for years in one capacity or another. Demone and Agnew were members of the infamous Christian Death, albeit at different points in history, and Roessler was a member of such L.A. luminaries as 45 Grave, Nervous Gender, and Screamers.
Substrata Strip is an album that will have an immediate effect, but one should try to take it in slowly; you will be rewarded. There is a depth to the words and an emotion that is so apparent in the vocal and instrumentation that closer inspection will yield you so much on repeated listens. From the heartbreak of “Douglas Street,” to the beauty of “Amaranthene,” and the chaotic bliss of “Retrospekt,” this band has come into its own and found a method to deliver stunning music that defied categorization.
Michael Mitchell was fortunate enough to speak with the quartet just prior to the release of the album; in this special contribution to ReGen Magazine, the Gitane Demone Quartet speak about the process of writing the album and what else is to come.
Thank you all so much for taking the time to answer my questions.
Demone: I’ve been in L.A. and European bands since 1980, the most notable band being Christian Death, before going solo in 1989. Rikk Agnew and I were in Christian Death at different times, but we never met. 30 years later, we became engaged and formed a unity with Deb Venom. Rikk was friends with Paul. We played, recorded together, and became the quartet.
Agnew: First there were two, then three, then four.
Venom: Hi, I’m the Ringo of the band. (Laughter) I’m the baby of the group, born in the Midwest and then lived many years in the South (ugh); I didn’t come out here to live until 1993, and didn’t really start playing live out here until the late ’90s. I didn’t really do much of note except for a brief set of gigs in the backing band for Bid of The Monochrome Set when he did some shows here in SoCal in 2003 – some of the live recordings made it on to two CDs. In early 2014, my then band Sacred Spiders put on a Rozz (Williams) remembrance gig and some of us joined with Rikk to do a performance of ‘Only Theatre of Pain’ to finish the show and that’s how we met. At the time, he and Gitane were doing some acoustic gigs together, but they wanted to try something new, and that’s when they approached me because I’m kind of a tech guru – my keyboard setup is massive and complicated (Laughter). They came over to my place and I recorded some demos of him on guitar and her singing and I was thinking to myself, ‘OMG, this is great. What do they need me for?’ But obviously, she had bigger plans in store. They gave me some direction and I worked on my own for a few days and had them come back to hear. After playing the first song, I could tell I had totally missed the mark; she hated it (Laughter). Okay, maybe not that bad because I’m still in the band. So yeah, our first gigs were as a trio, much of it some reworked songs from her catalog. I think the only songs we still do today from then are ‘Lorca’ and ‘Eva Braun.’ We first played ‘Eva Braun’ with Paul at the Tomata du Plenty exhibit. The backing tracks couldn’t be heard, but we got through it and it was fun. A few weeks later, Paul was on the same bill as us doing a solo set and we asked him to sit in, and he just killed it. Save for a couple-to-three shows, we have been a quartet ever since, though I don’t think the actual name GDQ came until 2015. I know we weren’t called GDQ when we played the Echo in late 2014.
Substrata Strip is the name of your new album. Can you explain the title? Is it a play on Sunset Strip with a deeper twist?
Venom: It’s the name of a club I used to dance at and I am sad Gitane is telling everyone about my sordid past. (Cries and runs off)
Demone: The meaning of the title is liberation. I do like your idea, though, about Sunset Strip!
The lead track, ‘Douglas Street’ is like a news story. What’s the background?
Venom: That’s because it really happened! There was a murder on the street Gitane and Rikk live on and they came to practice, and we just started writing it.
Demone: It is reportage, actually, since Rikk and I live on Douglas Street, situated in the barrio. A gangster neighbor was killed in a drive-by incident 12 doors down the street. Rikk and I often exchanged greetings with this guy – w alking past his house that morning after the drive-by left an impression. There was a tearful vigil on the sidewalk, and a bloody sofa in the yard. I wanted to document it.
There is a definite progression in the music on Substrata Strip from your debut album, Past the Sun. It’s a lot less minimal and more song oriented. Was this a conscious decision?
Demone: No, not conscious; just natural progression. We didn’t feel locked in to continue the repetition-oriented ideas we’d done on the first LP, although there certainly are loops here. I don’t want to feel boxed in ever by thinking what we should and shouldn’t do. That just wouldn’t be any fun at all!
Venom: Gitane had a vision on the first album to do something really minimal and raw and insistent; not anything familiar, outside of maybe the Suicide influence, which kind of fits right in really. When we started on this album, there wasn’t any conscious decision to do anything but just play what came to us; natural momentum at play.
The lyrical subject matter seems very personal. Do you find it difficult to lay bare like that?
Demone: No, it’s not difficult.
How do you work on the tracks musically? Does everyone bring a track to the table or is it born of jam sessions? Maybe a little of both? For example, Paul is sole writer of the track ‘On the High Side,’ but the rest, besides the cover tune, is attributed to the band.
Agnew: Paul is sole writer of the track ‘On the High Side,’ but the rest, besides the cover tune, is attributed to the band.
Venom: Oh, ‘On the High Side,’ that, yes, the lawyers are still working on suing him to get our cut. (Laughter) So, last album, Gitane was the firestarter. She had lyrics and the basic idea of what she wanted, and we went to it. This album started off more improvisational as I believe we recorded our first takes of ‘Retrospekt’ and ‘Amaranthine’ on the same evening and both were improvised. ‘Amaranthine’ was just borne of us sort of messing around with the record button on and right at the 100th measure exactly, we lock into the verse of the song. The rolling synth and piano and drum loop are from that original session. Gitane and Rikk and I do a lot of practice sessions and record a lot of what we do and that’s how some of the songs started on both of the albums. The title song was created in a three-hour session. I don’t think any of us had an idea what to do before we plugged in.
Was the process of writing easier this time since this is album #2, or did you all feel that ‘difficult second album’ curse?
Agnew: We are in a constant flux of creativity. That’s what happens when you stuff four geniuses in a quartet and have at it!
Demone: I didn’t even think of those things. GDQ get together in Paul’s studio Kitten Robot – something good always comes out of the session. It’s an incredible event working together, each time. There are no premeditations or expectations about the future.
Venom: Actually, there was really no pressure. We didn’t get on a label until 2016, but the first album was pretty much done by late 2014/early 2015. In fact, we immediately started working on the second album when we decided the first was done. We were in the zone and just kept on writing and recording.
Are any singles planned? ‘Amaranthene’ would be my pick.
Demone: There aren’t singles planned at the moment. Yes, ‘Amaranthene’ would be the one!
Venom: As an A/R person, I have a duty to say that I don’t hear a single.
Agnew: Single? What’s that?
Were there any tracks recorded that you left off of the album?
Venom: Well, we did a cover of David E. Williams’ ‘I Have Forgotten How to Love You’ for the Women Sing Williams vinyl compilation that came out earlier this year. And our version of Gitane’s ‘Perv’ on Cliff and Ivy’s Rainbow Goth compilation, though that was left over from the first CD.
This time around, there is only one cover song, which is Sun Ra’s ‘Retrospekt.’ Why did you choose that track and were any other covers considered?
Demone: I was fascinated by Sun Ra’s riff. Rikk’s playing is insane! Last year, we performed that song with a 17-piece punk orchestra, a 48-minute version! No other cover songs considered.
Venom: They had played me the clip of him doing that on the old David Sanborn show right after we started playing together, so I knew it would happen at some point. Nah, I can’t recall ever considering any other cover for this record. But we have ideas for some future covers that should fuck people up (in a good way)!
Agnew: We have a few other covers in the bank, but we needed a complete epic jam to kill everyone. Plus, Sun Ra is one of our high spirits that we channel collectively.
Do you think the band will be touring for this release?
Demone: A little. We should be going over to Europe next year, too.
What is your opinion of how music is delivered these days with the supposed death of the CD, the resurgence of vinyl, the popularity of streaming, and artists taking control of their music via channels like Bandcamp?
Demone: I worked in a punk rock record store for nine years, so I witnessed people buying whatever format they could get their hands on of a desired artist or band. I like them all, and I think the digital outlets for independent release are great. Not everyone can harbor up interest from a record company.
Agnew: It is how it is – technology shite.
Venom: Yeah, and you may not be able to print this answer because we are doing a release on cassette for Burger Records and I don’t want to piss them off after finally getting an American label interested… but I do not understand the resurgence of cassettes among the younger generation. WTF? I thought my generation had taken that bullet for them.
For this album, you will have better distribution, especially domestically, right? You are working with Dark Vinyl?
Agnew: Well… I hope so.
Demone: Yes, Dark Vinyl in Germany, with distribution in the U.S. by MVD. Also, Burger Records will be releasing a double-cassette with both Past the Sun and Substrata Strip in late November. And then, there are the CDs I sell at live shows. The hand-made covers vary in limited batches of 10, 25, 50, 100.
We are going to get Substrata Strip on vinyl. I just don’t know by whom or when yet.
How do you feel about the L.A. music scene currently?
Demone: Thriving and creative as hell! It’s great. You could see a fabulous show every night. And I’m not talking mainstream… although Beethoven at the Hollywood Bowl is fab too!
Venom: Oh, the punk and death rock scenes here don’t get enough attention in my opinion. There are so many great acts. There’s a renaissance that’s been happening in the last few years.
Agnew: A lot of shit, but in the undergrowth is a new scene exploding and unifying of inventive, imaginative, original bands and performers, comprised of new and veteran musicians. It’s juice.
Your sound isn’t goth, it isn’t punk, it isn’t torch, it isn’t death rock; it’s really a fresh, new sound to me. How do you describe it?
Agnew: It’s genre-less. Fuck labels! Fuck categories! Music is to be enjoyed without barriers, compartmentalization, or analytical bullshit. I believe in total detachment from the ‘real world’ and let
the music take me to ‘those places.’
Demone: Thank you! I don’t know what to call it other than GDQ. Everyone in the band has their own sound going on, so it’s four of these sound personalities combined.
Do you feel that ‘gothic’ music is making a comeback?
Agnew: See the LA Weekly.
Venom: I think it’s getting more exposure as the internet makes the world smaller. But goth and other genres have always relied more on their avid constituents to survive. Popularity/fads come and go.
I’m sure people still approach you about past projects. Are you proud of the legacies of your past?
Agnew: There are so many, even I forget some of my history until someone brings it up or I suddenly recall something. And the numbers keep growing!
Venom: (Laughter) This is my legacy now. I am honored and humbled to get to perform with the rest of this band. They are immensely talented and legends and I’m forever changed by the experience.
Demone: I look back at how I’ve spent my life thus far, and I’m pleased to have made some people happy and some inspired! Of course, there’s still so much to do.
There have been some benefit shows to raise money for the making of the Rozz Williams biography movie, Spiritual Cramp. How else have you all contributed toward the film?
Demone: Rikk has an interview in the film; mine is upcoming. GDQ played for one of the benefit shows and would play more.
Agnew: Interviews and suggestions to Danny Fuentes (movie’s producer/owner of Lethal Amounts). We hold him dear to us. We wash each other’s everything. (Laughter) He is a true asset to the L.A. scene resurgence I spoke of earlier.
Thank you all for your time and for an amazing new album!
Agnew: ¡Bienvenido, mi amigo y fan de la costa este!
Photography by Deb Frazin, courtesy of Deb Frazin Photography