Interview: Christian Death’s Rikk Agnew Talks 40 Anniversary of Debut LP

It was a blast talking to guitarist Rikk Agnew, a godfather of the O.C. punk scene, or should we just say Southern California, or, probably safest to say punk scene in general, who added his unmistakable signature sound to such bands as Adolescents, Christian Death, and D.I. in the early 1980s. Agnew, alongside bassist James McGearty, drummer George Belanger, and vocalist and lyricist Rozz Williams, who tragically died in 1998, crafted one of the earliest and finest pieces of punk/death rock, Only Theatre of Pain, originally released in 1982 on Frontier Records.

Agnew now plays in Symbolism, alongside old bandmate McGearty, and they’ve been around for a few years and have a record forthcoming in the New Year. He also plays guitar in the super-fun-to-see-live band Radolescents with Adolescents alumnus drummer Casey Royer.

As Frontier Records owner Lisa Fancher, who released The Adolescents debut S/T blue album, as well as Christian Death’s Only Theatre of Pain, and Agnew’s 1982 solo album All by Myself, says, “Rikk is one of the greatest songwriters of punk or anything else.” With such credentials, it was cool to talk about how he first got involved with Christian Death in the early days and the process of crafting the pioneering punk and death rock gem Only Theatre of Pain. And, of course, we had to delve deep into the masterpiece that is All by Myself, among other topics.

I know you want to talk to me about something I did 40 years ago that made the Red Guy happy and Jesus wept.

Mmhmm …

[Laughter]

Oh man. I was just wondering after putting out the iconic Adolescents record [in 1981] and then getting with Christian Death, how you got together with them.

They opened for us at a show. Adolescents were headlining, and in fact that show, we got another band to play, we split our time with them, and it was their first show; they were called Bad Religion. It was in Pomona, at a boxing gym, and we saw the list of bands that were playing that night and the opening band was Christian Death. And it was like, we didn’t know they were going to be all spooky and everything.

We just thought it was a punk-rock name, which it is. And so, it was, OK, Christian Death, whatever. But when they went out, they started playing, these kids were there all dressed like they were going to a funeral. Now you have to remember, this was like 1981, so we were just going like, hey, I guess a bunch of kids just came from a funeral to go to a cool punk show. But then they were all quiet and stuff and they started lining up these lilies like making a stage border with lilies and this organ music was like “Brrrrr…” And I’m just going, “This is fuckin’ cool. This is amazing.” And the rest of the guys were just like, “What the fuck?” Then they played four songs and it reminded me of Black Sabbath, a punk version of Black Sabbath because they didn’t have Rikk Agnew yet, they didn’t have me yet to shape those songs, so it was just kind of the skeleton so to speak, no pun intended, of the songs.

It was just slower punk rock/Black Sabbath sounding. But they had this singer who was amazing looking. Wow. That dude. I think it’s a dude. Is a real trip. And he just kind of mumbled into the microphone, but breathy, and like, what is this? Oh my god. I made eye contact with him in the bathroom before the show. He was doing his makeup in the mirror; I was taking a piss next door, and I look at him and he looks at me and, “Hey.” What a trip. From there on after that—it was towards when they were going to kick me out of The Adolescents, the first of four times. (Laughs)

And afterwards I saw George and James outside. And I’m all like, “Hey you guys. You guys are amazing!” And George goes like, “I wanna ask you a question about one of your songs, and I go, “What?” He goes, “Are you singing stuff about my sister?!” And I go, “What?” “You’re saying something about my sister, in that one song, “No Friends,” the sister of Christian Death and I go, “No!!!” (Laughter) So, boom. We just got talking more and more. We exchanged numbers and I was like, “You know what would really make your band—well, I didn’t say pop back then, but I go, “You know what would be great? To have really weird scary out-there guitar and keyboards put on top of this.”

Since I was a little kid I always thought, I want to start a band that was like watching The Munsters and Lurch and Groovie Goolies later on, the cartoon, and Phantom of the Paradise was a big influence early on. Without that movie, there would be no Christian Death. It came out in the mid-’70s, maybe a little earlier, it was just so influential. That’s all I gotta say about that. You’ll see where a lot of Christian Death influence came from. Magic and horror. Just dark things. Just hanging out at graveyards and being all herky and jerky.

That’s so interesting, like you said you saw them and they played four songs and it was bare-bones. Because the album definitely has the “Rikk sound.” (Laughter)

Yeah. I brought my frosting, my decorations, and my candy. My happy birthday letters and the flowers but in a spooky way. Have you heard of symbolism?

No …

It’s a band we’ve had going four years now, off and on, and then COVID trying to put a damper on it like it did everything else. It’s a band we’ve been working on, but COVID really put the brakes on it. It’s a band we got together. It’s James, original Christian Death bass player, myself on guitar, and a singer named Devix (Szell), he’s an actor, and he’s in a couple other bands singing, but he’s incredible. He’s the new thing, I swear to you. We were looking for a singer for quite a while and he works. We went through a few singers, but this one pops. And at first George (Belanger) was in the band too, but he didn’t last that long. I love George, but it wasn’t working out, so we got a drummer named

Hoss (Wright) for a while, he’s in a band called Mondo Generator, which is one of my neighbor’s bands. Nick [Oliveri], he was in Queens of the Stone Age, The Dwarves. He also played a lot with my friends Svetlanas. But then he had a daughter who was going to school and he was a single parent and he was living in Torrence, where he lived in L.A. at the time. It was too much for him at the time, so long story short, the drummer we end up with is London May.

What?!

Yeah. He was in Samhain and shit. He is so good. So, we wrote a bunch of songs together and have an album to be released very soon. We recorded with a guy named Bill Metoyer; he worked with Middle Massacre, The Mentors, and Slayer … We played three shows so far. We did a show at the Whiskey, which was COVID depression awareness, a benefit show for that. The first time was “Brutal Realty,” him (London May, star of the movie and the singer are both active members of SAG. They made this movie called “Brutal Realty.” They had the premier for it in L.A. It was our very first show. We closed the night out after everyone watched the movie and talked and they did a Q&A and all that type of stuff. Really interesting. Really fun. We’re a multi-media kind of thing.

OK. And then, all you guys (the Agnew brothers, Rikk, Frank, and Alfie) are such great musicians. Where did it come from? Were your parents into music?

Well, my mom’s dad—he was a professional drummer, in the Latin music scene. Like your Ricky Ricardo kind of stuff. He spent a lot of time in the nightclubs in L.A., because that’s where they lived. But she and her siblings were born in Mexico. Then they moved up here to L.A. As far as my dad, he had an acoustic guitar and he’d always play it with like one string and sing these Irish songs.

It inspired us. We were like, “Yeah!” My mom was an amazing harmonist. That’s what she would do. You’d sing a song. or there’d be a song playing, and she’d throw a harmony onto it. It’s like, “How do you do that, mom?” “I don’t know.” (Laughs) God bless them. We lost them both last year. It’s a terrible decade. The ‘20s. Looking in hindsight, 2020. “Let me at you!” That Jim Carrey thing. You grab your butt cheeks. (Laughs) Humor, what would we do without it.

Which instrument did you pick up first?

Drums. My grandpa left a little kiddie drum set kit for me when I was like three or four and the first song I played of course immediately was “Love Me Do” by The Beatles because I was a huge Beatles fan.

When you did your 1982 solo album on Frontier Records All by Myself that record is kind of amazing.

Thank you, thank you very much.

There were so many great songs on that record, not what this interview is about, but … did you put that together quickly or what?

I recorded it—it was songs I accumulated, a couple of them were going to be on the second Adolescents album. But then I got kicked out. “OK fine. I’ll take my songs with me!” (Laughter) So I had these songs, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, basically. This guy John Lee? had a record store in Buena Park that was up another octave; it was responsible for a lot of the Orange County scene.

I was in there, and I was talking about kind of having no band and he asked me, “Have you heard Alex Gibson’s album?” I’m like, “No.” He’s like, “He’s the keyboard player from 45 Grave and he did everything except for the drums on this album.” And he goes, “But you play drums. A whole album just you.” And I go, “OK.” And All by Myself was born. Some of the songs I wrote in the studio. Some of them I already had written, like I said, some of them were supposed to be for Adolescents album two. A couple of them were going to be Christian Death songs.

Oh wow! Which ones?

Some of the weirder ones like “Surfside,” and then I always wanted to write a huge, epic song. I love classical music and I love ‘70s prog rock. Seriously, it’s funny but it’s true. So, I always wanted to write an opus or something like that. And that’s what “Section 8” is. And then that song “Fast,” right before it, that song I wanted to see how fast I could play this riff and everything else. Just a super-fast, blinding thing. That was so fun to play.

And “O.C. Life” and D.I. did that one …

Yeah “O.C. Life,” and “Falling Out” were going to be songs for the second Adolescents album. Those two, “Yur 2 Late.” What’s the song after “Yur 2 Late”?

I don’t know … I didn’t write the record.

[Laughter] OK that’s it. I’m going to come over there and we’re going to wrestle, damn it.

“Everyday”?

That was the fourth song.

That was such a pretty song, though …

You know why I wrote that? I go, “I gotta write a love song and put it on the record.” Just ‘cause. And I was in love at the time when I wrote it. It’s been used as a wedding song several times, for their first dance together, friends when they got married. They go, that’s the ultimate, romantic love song. And was like, “I didn’t know I’d be capable.” [Laughs]

“10”?

Thank you! “10” is a true story. It’s a very sad thing. It really is. It was about somebody I knew in high school, and long story short, she offed herself. The reason was ‘cause she was living with her father, and her father was really just always being a fuckin’ jerk and stuff, and then you come to find out that he was basically—I don’t even want to talk about it, but you know what I’m saying.

So, a lot of those songs would come from the heart and from experience. It’s real stuff. That’s why I was able to write it real quick. I just reached in and pulled out my heart, shook off the cancer and the blood and everything else that was stuck in it. That’s where that comes from. It’s a very personal record. It’s a diary of sorts.

And also, so listenable, so great. I spoke to someone during the pandemic who made their own record, playing everything, and I referenced your album. “Kind of like Rikk Agnew’s record.” You’re like the touchstone for doing that. I don’t know.

Thank you so much. It makes me feel accomplished. No ego here.

Just back to Christian Death though, would you consider that, well, I don’t know timeline, but the beginning of death rock?

You know what? We always called it death rock. When people started going, “Well, it’s goth.” It was, “No, it’s death rock.” We called it death rock. That’s what it is. Goth is your kind of swirly-whirly buttholios, do their spinning skirt thing. (Laughs) We’d call it “doing the sweep” because it looked like they were sweeping with a broom. God bless ‘em. (Laughs) The death rock is what we liked to call it.

Or in Europe, they interviewed us, and then they interviewed Eva (O.) for The Superheroines, and when they asked her, because she did backing vocals for us on a tour of the U.S., that’s when she was married to Rozz. They interviewed her and asked her about being in Christian Death and everything and about the shadow project and being married to Rozz, and she was like, “You call it goth rock; you call it what you want, but when it comes down to it, ask Rikk, ask Rozz. It’s punk rock.” Yes, thank you, Eva for making it clear. It’s punk rock. It really is. And when it comes down to it, any music besides classical and jazz is rock ’n’ roll.

Just even at the time, to me later on in life finding it, it seemed revolutionary looking back. It seemed like you felt there was something different and you were into it. What did you think?

It’s growing, another branch on the tree of music. I have a poster this guy drew and it’s a history of rock ‘n’ roll. And it’s a big tree and at the trunk of it is Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, all this, and then it goes up into branches and then into twigs and stuff towards the left my name is there. And Christian Death and Adolescents. But real tiny. We’re just leaves.

But we’re part of the tree, and that’s what you gotta think about. I love the genre thing too, the more genres that come up and everything, it reminds me of the you know like black metal, grindcore, and all that stuff. (Laughing) I laugh so hard sometimes. I go to the record store, and I’ll pull out records that are newer black metal whatever and stuff, and you look at the name of the band, and it looks like a shrub that’s in my front yard. How do you read that?

What about when you listen to Only Theatre of Pain now? Have your thoughts changed? Or do you even think about it?

No, no, no. I’m just as proud of it today as I’ve ever been. And, just to add to this, I had a second album planned. We got a lot of flak from everybody from Jerry Falwell to Billy Graham and all those huge evangelists, saying, Channel 40 we were watching, it showed a picture of me holding a cat. “Now, see, this band writes songs with Satan and demons. They’re pulling out dead cats; they speak through it; that’s where they get it. This is the real deal.” And that and “The Omen” movie and these guys are truly evil. And I was like, “Yes.”

I didn’t even think it was on the radar of …

Yes, it was. At our shows that we had, there was pickets of protests, hundreds of people screaming at us and throwing stuff at us, just going like, “You’re gonna die; you’re going to hell!” And Rozz would just look at them and go, “Do your kids know that you speak like that? You’re out here instead of being home with them; you’re out here condemning, and you’re not supposed to judge, which I remember my Christian rules.” They didn’t expect that; they thought we were going to go like, “Grrrrr … ” Rozz would talk to some people who had the signs with them and everything, and then they would make complete sense and everything, and I’d see them after a while talk, and they’d shake hands.

Oh, but also, you grew up in Anaheim, Orange County? Or no.

I was born at Hoag Memorial Hospital, December 9, 1958. […] I was born in Newport Beach, my dad was a fisherman, my mom was a waitress, so I was a beach kid. From the time I was born till the time I was five or six, I was a beach kid because we lived across from the beach in Newport Beach. And then I started getting into the music. Then, from there, we moved to La Puente, which is in L.A. County, and it was a total barrio. It was gangster stuff. I was in a gang until the time I was in fourth grade, because if you weren’t you got your ass kicked badly. (Laughs)

And back then, there weren’t guns; back then, the only thing they used in fights were baseball bats or crowbars, maybe a knife. Maybe a switchblade. That’s about it. Nobody died. Some people had to go to the hospital. That was life for me. I was a gangster. I went from a beach kid to a gangster, and then we moved to Fullerton in Orange County, and then that’s where I started getting into music a lot. There you go.

Did you start in band at school?

You wanna hear it? My musical history? When I was in junior high school, in the ‘70s, bands didn’t have their own songs; bands didn’t put out their own records or anything like that. If you were in a band, you played cover songs. What we covered was T. Rex, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, I even got us to where we added a couple Ramones songs later on.

But, before that, it was always Mott the Hoople, Queen, your classic rock and glam rock, Bowie, stuff like that. We would play backyard parties, and we’d play lunchtimes at different high schools. It was pretty fun, but that was about it. The whole scene hadn’t started yet at all. I’m sure in L.A., there was bands playing the club circuit and whatever and had songs, but we were in Orange County and that was a million miles away.

Oh yeah. But did you ever play in the school bands? Or no.

As far as marching band and orchestra?

Yeah.

No, ‘cause I wasn’t classically trained. If you did that, you had to be in music classes, and you had to read music and all that kind of stuff. To me it was, “Can you read music?” And they gave me a piece of paper, and I’d go, “Why are there a bunch of ants on this piece of paper?” (Laughter) So, I’m a classically untrained musician.

“Classically untrained.” I like that.

I don’t call myself a musician. I like making sounds from things. I like coaxing sounds and putting things together and making things that you feel in your heart and in your stomach and in your mind. And things that make you laugh and cry and get pissed off. It’s an art to me, music.

Yes, definitely. I was going to say All by Myself was all your lyrics, but have you written lyrics for other things?

Oh yeah. It depends on the situation. Like with Christian Death. I didn’t write lyrics because we had a poetic genius in the band. It was like, “Oh, there you go. I’m just going to make the scary sounds and stuff. You give the backdrop, the whole scenario.” I mean, look at his lyrics, I could never even start to write like that.

Listen to Only Theatre of Pain here:

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Photo courtesy of Christian Death and Ed Colver

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