Rikk Agnew, James McGearty, and London May helped build the foundations of American deathrock. Agnew (guitar) and McGearty (bass) were half of Christian Death’s first and best lineup with the late Rozz Williams. The pair helped write and record the landmark album Only Theatre Of Pain, which turns 40 next March (Agnew was also a forefather of Orange County punk and played with both The Adolescents and D.I.). May was the drummer for the Samhain lineup that recorded the classic November Coming Fire and played with Danzig in recent years on the Samhain reunion tours (when not making independent horror films).
Agnew and May kept making music in the ensuing decades while McGearty walked away from music for roughly two decades before he started playing with Agnew again in 2007. Later, the pair wrote several songs and tried different drummers, including original Christian Death drummer George Belanger. Still, nothing clicked until they met May and enlisted LA-based vocalist Devix Szell.
Symbolism has recorded a full-length album with producer Bill Metoyer, who tracked many of your favorite metal and crossover albums from the likes of Slayer, D.R.I., Cirith Ungol, and more. We’re premiering their second track, “Rile On,” today. While listening, read a conversation with the band about their new music, reimagining licks shared with Williams back in the early ’80s, and why Rozz-fronted Christian Death continues to reach new generations of listeners.
How did all of you get together?
JAMES McGEARTY: In 2014, Rikk and I started playing together again. After a few lineup changes, we connected with London. We met at a family restaurant, and London kind of outlined some things he’d need to join. The three of us got together and started working after that.
LONDON MAY: I’ve been a big fan of Christian Death and The Adolescents and had seen Rikk around. I ran into him at a movie theatre and was so starstruck that I backed up into a gigantic planter and fell over (laughs). That was my big introduction. We also had mutual friends at an art gallery called Lethal Amounts. Through that connection and other events, I knew Rikk was playing again. I grew up on all the old Frontier records like The Adolescents, Circle Jerks, T.S.O.L., and Christian Death. So when James and Rikk said they were working together on some stuff, I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t?
James and Rikk – you’ve been out there playing together for years but was the idea always to write new material?
McGEARTY: The idea when we first started was to write. We did have George (Belanger) on drums for a minute and different singers, then other drummers. Rikk and I revisited riffs and ideas that were buried back in 1984 and 2007. That’s what led to meeting London. We had several songs written with different ideas and let London put his mark on the arrangements. That was the transformative aspect. Adding London brought it to a whole new level. London’s beat signature was the right one for the band. We worked with some good drummers, but London has a different feel. It fits the genre and the music.
MAY: They played with a bunch of singers and different drummers. I had to play with my style of drumming. I didn’t want to mimic or ape someone else’s style. I said we should deconstruct the stuff rather than rehash it.
RIKK AGNEW: Once London got into the mix, we improved without even touching our instruments. I’m so glad to be in a group with London. His drumming works. In the beginning, you could tell he was passionate. As time went on, it just became perfect. I got a lesson in dynamics from him.
Rikk and East Bay Ray have the most distinctive guitar sounds in American punk and hardcore. What is it like to play behind Rikk?
MAY: It was nerve-wracking at first. But James and Rikk were super casual, so it never felt like an audition. I tried to listen and kept my drum stuff on the simple side, so Rikk’s sounds came out. You can’t be too busy with Rikk because you’ll crowd out the sound spectrum. Many of the beats that work with Rikk’s signature sound are not beats I like to play. There’s an “O.C. Beat” that is very popular with The Adolescents and Orange County hardcore. I always try to do something different. For other drummers, that O.C. beat would be the default. But I didn’t think it was “death rock” enough. I tried to play more tribal, and we’d meet in the middle.
AGNEW: At the end, fuck, it worked. It was an epiphany.
MAY: I wanted to play what he wanted to hear, but it had to be connected to me. It wasn’t that O.C. punk beat. It had to be simple, driving, and tribal. We had to find a new language and trust each other.
How did you three move forward and honor your past bands and the style but take the music in a different direction?
AGNEW: Well, it was like two hemispheres coming together…two different worlds that were part of the same world.
McGEARTY: Rikk and I like to loop things. I’ll come up with a bass line and loop it, and he’d lay guitar lines on top of it. We don’t write songs in the classic sense – it comes from a different place. London was able to stitch them together and provide the dynamics.
MAY: All the songs were instrumentals. We were like a deathrock prog band and needed someone to help decode it. There was no singer. We were playing to please ourselves, and I think we were fortunate enough to create these bits of music. We found the perfect singer who dropped in and heard these pieces of music and could do something with them. “Rile On” has five different styles. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but the vocals help bring the song together.
How did you find Devix?
McGEARTY: How many people did we go through to find the right singer before we came around to Devix?
MAY: He was the first guy we talked to. We looked everywhere else and approached lots of big names…Tom Warrior, Ian Astbury, and Burton (Bell) from Fear Factory. It seemed like we weren’t a priority or people weren’t interested. Vince (Price) from Body Count introduced us to Devix. We called him like a year later.
DEVIX SZELL: In 2014, I played a suburban dive bar show with one of my groups. We opened for Vincent (Body Count) and his Tarantino-esque side project, Powerflex5. He was super into it, and we got along really well. I think he just liked watching me try to set my guitar on fire. A few years went by, and he called me. He said a super legit “serious” band had been through the wringer with a ton of singers. When the opportunity came up, he remembered me and threw my name into the ring. One demo recording later, I was invited to their Black Hole Studio. I remember it being deep and loud, tight and violent. I screamed my way through an entire set of songs with virtually no lyrics. Whatever they heard, they liked. It was a done deal.
How did you manage the pandemic, and how much of the record was recorded during Covid?
AGNEW: The album was pretty much complete before Covid.
McGEARTY: It was all in the can. We spent the better part of the year on it before coming to a place of finality. We were ready to play a big show with Body Count, and it was going to be our debut. `
MAY: Right before the Whiskey show in August, we got together a few times. I thought the show might be canceled. I knew it would take some time to get our chops back and know the songs. Fortunately, we were able to jump right back on the horse.
How did you choose Bill (Metoyer, producer), and what was it like to work with him?
AGNEW: Mentors! (loud laughter)
You picked him because he worked with El Duce? (note: Metoyer produced The Mentors albums You Axed For It! and Up The Dose).
AGNEW: (loud laughter). He was already working with us when I heard he worked with The Mentors. I was like, “this is perfect.” Seriously, though, he’s great and very mellow and methodical.
McGEARTY: Bill is unflappable. He is calm and quick and blends in with everyone. It allows everyone to work. Everybody had their place and was able to work and collaborate very easily and cohesively.
MAY: When I met Bill, I didn’t know it was “that” Bill. I thought he’d have a lot of swagger and ego. He’s just the most mellow person. I didn’t know it was him and was caught off guard. It was a shock that someone with his experience could have the most Zen, quiet presence. I am used to people that don’t have nearly his credits taking all the air out of the room.
SZELL: Bill was the Zen Master of calm, but maybe that’s just because he loved our direction. I developed a sinus infection just before our studio time and was worried I would suffer greatly. Bill’s energy helped keep me focused. Plus, I wanted to contend with his catalog of screamers.
AGNEW: His attitude goes hand in hand with his credibility. He’s the real deal.
MAY: Cool and calm was not what I expected from the person who did W.A.S.P. and D.R.I. records.
Tell me more about the song we’re premiering today, “Rile On.”
McGEARTY: The opening bass hook dates back to 1983. Rozz and I were working on a song called “Awake At the Wall.” We added several bass parts over the years. It wasn’t until Rikk and I got back together that the song began to take shape. When London joined, we rearranged the song, added a new chorus, then laid down the Rikk Agnew magic.
MAY: Our curse is we write powerful verses. That means we need to write even better choruses. The bass hook that started with the Rozz era was so strong that we had to figure out a part that worked.
SZELL: I penned the lyrical content and melodies. It is deliberately anthemic. “Rile On” was written live in the room during our band practices.
London – November Coming Fire came out four years after Only Theatre Of Pain. I have to imagine you heard that record when you were young.
MAY: I was a super hardcore kid and also into Bowie and Bauhaus and Sex Gang Children. The pictures (of Christian Death) that filtered their way to the East Coast were very creepy. Christian Death seemed a little too evil. It sounded like the alternate soundtrack to The Exorcist. I thought it was cool, but it was scary.
What’s next as you try to get the music out and play for people but stay safe?
AGNEW: We have to wait and see before we go full bore. We’ll try to do what we can and stay healthy.
MAY: What else can a band at our level do safely except release music, play when it’s safe, and try to stay as productive as we can?
McGEARTY: We hope they will reinstate the Body Count show in the future. They said we didn’t lose our spot. We’ll probably make a physical copy of “Rile On” to have things out that are part of the single progression.
MAY: We have a whole record, and it’s terrific. We don’t have a label yet, and the singles are at the mercy of the pressing plants. Unless you have a big presence at the plants, you might have to wait six to eight months.
Only Theatre Of Pain turns 40 next March. It’s still influencing people and finding new listeners. What do you think about the effect it’s had on the underground scene?
AGNEW: Yeah, it’s still out there kicking devil tail. I never really look to the past. I’m too busy trying to move on and don’t like to dwell too much. But, amazingly, it’s had such an effect on people. I would never have thought it would become so popular. This is how The Velvet Underground must feel (laughs). The last thing on our minds was that we’d go anywhere with it.
McGEARTY: I’ll echo Rick’s sentiment and add that it’s a miracle that it even got recorded. The attitude that we had, fronted by Rozz’s ideas, was fuck you and fuck religion. We were making a statement and living in the moment, and something happened.
MAY: Something that makes a lasting impression is usually made with focus and without any attachment.