Fresh off the January 31st US release of their second album, Invisible Empire, and embarking on a tour spanning both the United States and Europe, Riotgod vocalist Mark Sunshine took some time to answer questions from Music Design’s James Whelan. The rocker discuss the band’s new album, piracy’s place in music, and the kind of people that Riotgod makes music for.

JW: You guys started off your tour last night in Pittsburgh, how did that go?

MS: Yeah, the first night out is always a little challenging. We hadn’t been out in a while, and were just breaking into it, but it went well.

JW: Just based on that, how’s the vibe looking so far on the tour?

MS: We were excited to play the new material, so that’s always fun. We had about 50 packed in last night and they seemed to like it.  They were entertained, so what more could you want?

JW: The new album, Invisible Empire, was released in Europe in what, November?

MS: Yeah, and then we had a separate UK release and the 31st here was the release in the US.

JW: How’s the reception been so far?

MS: It’s been really, really good. We’ve been getting some great reviews for what it’s worth, so it kind of validates what you thought might happen if you put some work into it.

JW: It’s a killer album, I really like it.

MS: Thank you.

JW: Your drummer, Bob Pantella produced it. It’s got a big sound: big guitars, big drums, and overall comes across as a lot more full than your self titled album. Did Bob produce that one too?

MS: Yeah, Bob produced the self titled too, but we had to approach this differently. The thing with that one was that it was a lot of different recording sessions, a lot of different music, and then the scheduling. There were a few challenges, and it was a learning process. It’s a new band, so you might approach it one way and realize the other way is better. I know what I’m working with here, the familiarity from knowing what kind of sound to expect, and remembering what you might’ve done settings wise, and changing it, keeping it, refining that. I think it’s well evidenced on this CD that you really become familiar with your own band. The next CD will be an even greater refinement of that sound.

JW: That’s awesome to hear. As you said, it’s an entirely different sound from your self titled. One of the things I notice is there are a lot more harmonies going on, and there are even the occasional blues and psychedelic elements. Would you say you guys have established your sound as Riotgod, or is that going to keep evolving from album to album?

MS: Well, no. We’re going to take those elements that we like to do and eventually, I don’t think it’s done on this album, those influences will become more coherent and integrated into the sound itself. I’d say we’re about mid-period to achieving what we want.

JW: I’d actually like to hear a bit about “Gas Station Roses.” It stands out from the other songs, and not just because it’s an acoustic song. Usually whenever a good rock or metal album has that one acoustic song, it’s that sappy ballad, and it generally sucks, but this is one of the more complex songs on the album.  How did it come about?

MS: Well, Bob had had the music, and I, as I usually am charged, was given the music and asked ‘well, what can you do with it’? I’m the only lyricist in the band, and had a pretty challenging year where I went through a separation with a long time girlfriend, and I had some personal experiences in life that were less than favorable to my own self-critical analysis. So it was just an expression of those things in a way that wasn’t too heavy handed, and just trying to process what was going on at that time. The music that was in front of me would serve as the vehicle to do that.

JW:  Nice, well I think it turned out really well.  How do you go about the songwriting process?  I know you said you handle the lyrics?

MS: Lyrics and melody. Well it depends, if someone comes to the table with an idea, it will either be accepted as a whole idea, or it could be just a few parts of songs, and they might be fused if the tuning and the key is alright, so it’s pretty fluid. On this particular album, Bob had a lion’s share of the initial music, he just had a lot of ideas sitting around. In the time frame we had, which is also a component of decision making, he had the goods. He gave them to me during the summer. Some we started earlier, but we would really finalize them when they came back from tour with Monster Magnet. I write fairly quickly if the inspiration is behind me. But if someone else would’ve had some songs and they were ready to go, we’d look at them, I’ll give it a shot and see what I write, and if it makes it to the album, so be it. It’s always usually music first, but sometimes there will be other little tertiary elements. Like, I’ll do a vocal line, Garrett [Sweeny] will find that interesting and he might harmonize with it with the guitar or use that as inspiration. So that’s kind of like polishing. Once the song is cut, you polish it up with those things. But music first, and then lyrics and melodies are sort of overlaid on that. That’s always the way it’s worked with us.

JW: Cool.  It sounds like a very organic process overall.

MS: It is.

JW: Going back to Europe, with the album being released a while before in Europe, and with the way the internet is, once you release an album anywhere, it’s available everywhere.

MS: Yeah, it’s hit every warez site, every torrent place, that’s really par for the course as a musician these days, and you’re going to deal with it.  That just comes down to the integrity. Like, let’s just say someone does torrent your album and likes it, if they come to your show and buy your merch, technically you’re going to make money right there. So there’s ways around it. The only people that really complain are the very well established bands like Metallica, Rush, they’re old school in their copyright. It’s [piracy] impossible to stop. We’re putting together a vinyl record, and it’s only vinyl, there’s no digital representation of it. But you know what? In a few months, someone’s going to digitize it, and it will be available, I know it. But there are people that have their own self policing. I’ve had people say to me ‘I’m going to wait for it to come out and buy it on iTunes.” It’s a matter of personal choice.

JW: Do you find with piracy that it helps out your overall merch sales?

MS: Just cause it’s out there doesn’t mean that people are downloading it. I know it sounds a little pessimistic, but there are a lot of things. I’ve downloaded albums myself, you know? Mainly I tend to go for albums from defunct bands or obscure things and if I can see the band, I’ll go and see them. But put it this way, with an old album like The Who, which I already bought twice on vinyl, or cassette a number of times, it’s like “Listen,  I already gave you guys enough money.” I’m gonna find it on a newsgroup or in a binary and I’ll take it. For our stuff it’s a different element and for younger bands it’s a different element, so you try to do what you can. Sometimes you may just want to check it out. There are a lot of downsides to getting that kind of album. You’re not going to get the original. Some people are very into having the original, the hard copy, because it is what it is. But what do you do when you get something that’s pirated off the web? You’ve got to print it out, put it on your computer, and there are people that really dig that kind of DIY process, they’re that devoted to it, but some people it’s just too inconvenient to them or they just simply don’t know how to do it. So at once, it’s kind of overblown, and there’s a select group of people that really only get their music that way, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And you know what? If you think of it strictly from an aspect of a search engine, your name’s up there, it’s out there, and people may not download it but your name is out there because of the prevalence of these sites. So either way you get minor victories from it.

JW: So you said you guys have a vinyl thing in the works?

MS: Yeah we do. We’re getting that done very soon, we were actually just filling out all the forms while we were on the road. It’s two sides, 10’ vinyl, it’s sweet. That too, you want to talk about writing. Bob just gave me a bunch of parts, I wrote the song right there in the studio, right in front of the computer, within an hour.  We did something evocative and it came out pretty damn cool, I heard it there the other night.

JW: I can’t wait to hear it. Was that in [Bob’s] Atomic Studios also?

MS: It was in Pantella Vision studios. Yeah, we did it all there, it came out really good. We just hustled up and got it done.

JW: Nice. I’ll admit it myself. I was first introduced to you guys as a Monster Magnet side project. I’d say, especially with this album, I don’t view you guys as that anymore.

MS: No, we’re more of a… people are going to see what they want to see, but if you just keep doing what you’re doing, and it already has become quite evident that this has nothing, and not in a malevolent way, it just has nothing…we’re doing what we’re doing and they’re doing what they’re doing. Like a difference between two horses. Same species, very different.

JW: I definitely agree. Has it been tough to overcome that?

MS: Sometimes you have people where it’s left down to the sophistication of the reviewer or the listener. I read a review the other day where the guy was very honest and came right out and said ‘well this is obviously a very different animal’ and then you have other people who struggle with the originality of their own thoughts and they’re just relying on what they’ve heard or whatever it might be.

JW: So you’ve got the vinyl coming out, and you’ll be on tour for a little while. What else is going on in Riotgod’s future?

MS: We’re very excited to play the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany in the summer and a few festivals we’re doing over there, so we’re excited to do that.  The immediate future is that.

JW: What else are you really pumped about for this upcoming tour?

MS: Well in the States we’re just hoping to get as much out of it as we can, hopefully a little cash out of it, you know?  But really, it’s just turning on new fans or new people that want to hear us. And Europe is just exciting, I mean we’re going to Poland. It’s our experience, and just turning on people to what we do, and along the way maybe get some inspiration for some songs.

JW: Do you have any favorite songs off of Invisible Empire?

MS: I do.  I like “Tomorrow Is Today,” because it was a challenge for me to write it, and a technical challenge to sing it.

JW: It’s got a real deep groove to it.

MS: Yeah.  And I do like “Breed” a lot, I like the way that grooves.

JW: Is that song to your fans in a sense?

MS: Yeah, it’s about those people that may not have chosen this rock ‘n roll expression that I have, but they’re cool people, they’re doing their day job, and yet they don’t give up on any kind of inspiration or having curiosity in their life. And yet, they’re just ordinary people, they just know how to live. They can enjoy themselves and like music and other things as well, and they instill that in their children, and they’re just good people. And so, it’s a message to those people that just don’t give up and suddenly become some sort of complaining, whining, thing saying “Oh I remember I used to like that stuff.” Now they’re shopping at Land’s End and miserable, or wearing mommy jeans or something, just totally giving up, just losing it.

JW: It’s a good way to live by.

MS: Yeah, you don’t have to be out there and be a crazy person, but you’re just doing what you want to do, and that’s it.

JW: I really appreciate you taking the time out to talk to me.  I hope the rest of the tour goes well, and can’t wait to hear your vinyl.

MS:  Ok, thanks very much man.

Invisible Empire is now available through Metalville Records. Check out upcoming tour dates for Riotgod right here.

– Submitted by James Whelan, Music Design