For A Wounded Wren – An Interview With Into Another’s Richie Birkenhead.

December 19, 2012 by Chris Grosso

Friday December 14th 2012 is a day that will forever be inscribed into the hearts and minds of all of us who learned with painful shock and awe of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where twenty children and six adults were suddenly and unexpectedly robbed of life and taken from their families in a baffling and brutal fashion.  I can’t begin to speak about this day, let alone cover a concert or interview, without bringing light to the fact that all those in attendance who I interacted with were savagely impacted by news of the tragedy and hesitated into the evening with contrite and broken hearts. I have no illusions that I can accurately capture exactly what resonated inside the hearts and minds of everyone in attendance, and certainly lack any combination of words and meter that can begin to truly explain what the families of those afflicted felt that night and will continue to feel.

I was personally dismayed even further upon discovering that a family closely connected to my small church lost a child in the tragedy.  And yet, although it seems to this writer that we all felt a natural resistance in trying to continue with our plans for the evening, we pressed in with an appropriate mindfulness of this unfathomable tragedy that co-occurred on such a dark and heavy day resonating within our collective corner of space and time.  If for nothing else to honor those lost with a celebration of life through an explosion of noise, energy, screams, sounds, and sweat, all poured out in gratitude and with a renewed appreciation for the lives, music, and loved ones we are still so blessed to hold.

It would not surprise me to learn that many fans of Into Another have a lot of experience in both pain and perseverance, which perhaps is one reason the night transitioned as well as it did.  For me, Into Another is the quintessential soundtrack summing up the sounds of the nineties which was a time in which punk, hardcore, and even metal were all still moving together as creative cogs in a tiny but powerful and living sub-culture / movement for people who didn’t quite fit into standard society. Into Another’s music brings it’s listeners through the entire spectrum of the human emotional experience and ends up being something brutally beautiful.  A lot of us in attendance had basically grown up together.  In many ways the friendships formed and experiences surrounding this underground movement and bands like Into Another has helped mold and shape us into the men and women we have become.

I sensed that the evening contained within itself a certain freedom and encouragement to be child-like again ourselves, even if just for a moment.  So the night became for me a spontaneous sort of re-celebration of our youth, which I believe was felt by many and expressed in multiple forms of open affection. In addition to all of this heavy and emotional shit that many will glean from and appreciate the group for, Into Another is simply just a ton of fun to listen to and see live making them accessible in so many different ways.  As individuals, the guys are all very approachable and friendly.  I am thankful to Richie who was very valiant in keeping his word to do this interview in light of being sleep deprived, having a strained voice from previous concerts, and being mutually gripped by thoughts of the shooting weighing heavy on his mind.  ~ Justin Mehl

The following interview was conducted in person by Justin Mehl on behalf of on 12/14/12 in New London, CT. Photos also by Justin Mehl.

The Richie Birkenhead Interview

TIS:  In addition to being one of my favorite bands Into Another has always been my favorite band name.  Phonoaesthetically the combination of those two words “Into Another” when read or spoken flow effortlessly together and compliment each other perfectly.  There also appears to be an inherent duality contained within because I feel like there is such a simplicity in the name and yet there is an underlying complexity that leaves interpretation open to so many possibilities.

Richie: Thanks. Yeah that was sort of the original intention of the name.  It just sort of came to me when I was writing stream of consciousness poetry and what I liked about it as a band name is that it was not a noun or a plural noun, not that that is a bad thing, I mean “The Beatles” are my favorite band. But I like the fact that it is a bit thought provoking.  It has transcendental and spiritual connotations, it has sexual connotations, and so like any good form of art or music it is open to interpretation.

TIS:  In the 90’s there were tattoo shops all over America, and I am sure internationally as well, that were receiving a lot of business from your easily identified star logo…

Richie:  (laughter) Yeah that has always really flattered us and blown us away.  It is an eleven pointed star and is actually called a hendecegram by the way.  The number eleven figures into a few different schools of thought numerologically speaking and spiritually speaking everywhere from Aleister Crowley to ancient Egyptian numerology.  And it’s just kind of a cool number…it’s an odd number and I just sort of started fixating on it.  I remember calling Peter one day obviously very early in the infancy of the band and I asked him to draw an eleven pointed star on his computer.  And again we like to leave it open to people’s interpretation.  It means certain things to us and for me personally it has always been sort of a talisman against bad things, but it means a lot of different things to a lot of people.

TIS:  Well I am relieved to hear you put it that way seeing as I have the logo tattoo.  I am also pretty confident that at least half a dozen other people in attendance tonight will have it as well.

Richie:  (laughter) Awesome.  That is so rad.  You are actually the second person to tell me that today.    Someone from Equal Vision or Merch Now pulled me aside today and shared the same thing with me.

TIS:  Looking back on Into Another, was there an era of the band that stands out or a favorite album you were particularly stoked to write, record or tour on?

Richie:  Yeah I mean two records that are special to me are Ignaurus and Seamless.  Seamless for me lyrically was very cathartic.  Songs on there were very heavy for me to write.  In songs like “The Way Down” and “For a Wounded Wren” I was really pouring my deepest pain, sorrow, and joy onto the pages.  So it is those two albums.  I really can’t pick one or the other because they are just so different.    I really love the first record too because that was just this explosion of Drew and I getting together and wanting to make music that was not conforming to any genre and was in no way pre-dictated.  We just wanted to organically make music and whatever came out of us came out of us.  So the first record is special for that reason.  But then I think we started to form a cohesive aesthetic even though each release is very different when compared to the previous one.  I am also a big lover of the “unfinished album” where rough mixes got released in a very unorthodox sort of way.  I would love to be able to go and finish it and turn up some guitars etc.  But that record also was very special musically because we wrote that record very stream of conscious and so musically we would go into the studio and just jam and almost go into a trance and start recording bits and pieces.  So each record is very special to me but if I had to narrow it down I could only narrow it to two…Ignaurus and Seamless.

TIS:  I can imagine it would be hard to narrow it down as the creating artist because it is a difficult task even as a fan, but I share in your sentiments in that those are the two I would pick as well.  A funny side story—when I was in one of my first bands we had a standing tradition where we would listen to “The Way Down” before each live performance.

Richie:  Oh wow that is awesome.  An interesting side-note I can share with you is that is actually one of the very few songs we have with drop tunings.  Just that song and T.A.I.L.

TIS:  Will you guys be playing that song tonight?

Richie:  “The Way Down?”  I don’t know….I don’t think it is on the set list but we have practiced it a bunch so I can ask the guys if they feel like doing it.

TIS:  We were just speaking of the Ignaurus album and so many songs and concepts come to mind.  Right now, I am reminded of the song Ungodly.  It felt to me like at that time you were questioning or even challenging certain segments of conventional and organized religious systems and perhaps even seeking certain answers for yourself.  Is that interpretation in any way accurate and if so have you come to any conclusions regarding spirituality?

Richie:  Well in that song I am targeting those who would use the allure of  god or ancient  philosophy to do horrible things.  I wrote that song after we first started hearing stories of priest molesting children. And the song isn’t targeted at Catholicism but just based on things I have heard that goes on everywhere.  It is just that someone becomes so vulnerable to a person who either is wearing or is pretending to wear God’s seal of  approval. To do awful things in that setting just seems so wicked to me.  I am also lashing out at people who put blinders on because of religion.  Many times the religious people inside the communities where these awful things occur refuse to believe the reality of the situation even though it is right in front of their faces.  Religion or any form of organized thought has the capability to blind people. I am not an atheist and I am not anti-religion.  I grew up in an agnostic house with a W.A.S.P. Dad and a Jewish mom and I am completely and utterly tolerant of absolutely every Religion and creed out there, but I am disgusted by those who would use those forms of organized thought to perpetrate bad and evil things.

TIS:  Thank you for sharing that. I am sure your words hold a truth that resonates with many people who have been subjected to just such a twisting and abuse of organized religion or organized thought. Switching gears a bit let’s talk about your transition to Hollywood records.  I saw you guys play at the Meadow’s Music theater with White Zombie and the Ramones.  Can you share any stories from those transitional days or that tour specifically?  Speaking for myself, and probably a lot of other guys around our age, I had a huge crush on Sean Yseult from White Zombie.

Richie:  (laughter) I agree.  Let’s face it, we respond every time a woman grabs a bass, microphone, or a pair of drumsticks.  Before Into Another or that tour ever happened, I would see her on the lower east side and she is by far the nicest and most approachable member of White Zombie.  She is just great.  That tour was weird because on one hand it was really cool to go out and do that.  And on the other hand it was like…well now that we are on this major label we have to open for these big bands in these big venues where the first person we were playing in front of is at least twenty feet away.

So there were great things like awesome monitors where we could all hear each other but it was weird too. At the same time our record label wasn’t getting our record into stores and so it felt like a waste of time because if we are going to play live shows we would much rather be right there with the people and getting their sweat on us moving as one undulated mass of humanity as opposed to standing so far away from them.  Most of my fondest memories are from smaller venues.  About as big as a place like Irvin Plaza, or the Ritz, or Webster Hall is about as big as a venue I like to play to get that really special feeling.  We are definitely open to play bigger shows and venues.  We are playing a huge festival in Europe in the spring, but I just love those tightly packed hot and sweaty shows.

TIS:  Can you share with us some of how this tour came together?  I approach this topic with total respect and sensitivity.  I imagine it was difficult moving forward without Tony.

Richie:  Well it was impossible going forward without Tony for many years.

TIS:  Was there ever an official statement released as to what transpired with Tony’s passing or were the surrounding circumstances kept between friends and family?

Richie:  I don’t know if it was released officially.  To be honest I don’t even know the exact circumstances.  I do know that it definitely involved drugs and or alcohol.  I think he died in his sleep, perhaps of cardiac arrest but I truly am not sure.  I suppose in some ways how it happened doesn’t really matter…it is just so awful.  Especially for someone who was so kind and good-natured. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body.  I can’t say that about very many people and I certainty can’t say that about myself.  But Tony is a guy who I never saw angry or insult anyone.  And I am not speaking in hyperbole because he is gone.  I sincerely mean it that he was 100% kind, decent, and good, and it is just so awful that he left us so early.

TIS:  So how was it that these reunion shows came together? At what point did you decide that even though it was going to be different and difficult to move forward in Tony’s absence, that it was something you were going to do?

Richie:  Well I have wanted to for years because this band by far is the most important thing in my life that I have ever done artistically and nothing even comes close.  I used to wake up from dreams about doing all of this again and would be just so despondent that we weren’t.  Drew was off doing different things and having a great time but he eventually came around to my way of thinking and missing it.  Then we began looking for Peter which was no easy feat.  (laughter)  He had vanished from the face of the earth.  He was in the middle of nowhere with no forwarding address or phone number.  The reason we got together was Brian from Ignite and Reed from In a Way reached out to me and Drew.  They sent us videos of them playing our songs which blew us away.

And not to make us sound so awesome or anything but I had never found anyone who could play what Peter plays on guitar.  I am a guitarist too and have been playing since I was five years old, I know a lot of guitarists and “shredders” and they could never quite nail what he was doing or play the real chords or voicings he uses.  And I have never met anyone who could replicate Tony’s style and feel either.  So Drew and I were instantly blown away when we saw this video and we said “Let’s do this.”  And just in communicating with them we discovered they have such a great vibe and they are such great guys.  They really are the reason that Drew and I aren’t sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves.  They made it happen.  When we started planning the Rev 25 show on the West Coast it was minutes into that process that we ended up finding Peter so it all worked out.

TIS:  Do you think there will there another Into Another record to look forward too?

Richie:  Yeah I do.  I think first we will record something brief like an E.P. or something and put it out on iTunes because we don’t want to rush a lot of stuff just to get an album worth of material out there. We want the songs to be really special.  What we have always tried to accomplish is for each song to be its own really flushed out entity and never just an album filler.

TIS:  I went to your Cafe Nine performance last year to check out some of your solo performance stuff.  I really enjoyed it but at the same time I personally had some trouble really dialing in and connecting which I think was largely due to a lot of loud idle conversation co-occurring with your set.

Richie:  Well yeah those acoustic shows are hard. It depends on where you are.  In many ways, those kind of acoustic shows are a lot like theater where the dynamic changes every night, whereas playing in a big loud band you can control shit a little more.  So I like the unpredictability aspect but I truly don’t like the din of everyone talking.  That Cafe Nine Show was probably the worst in that respect. So I plan to continue doing the solo tours although I probably won’t ever play Cafe Nine again. (laughter)  Just kidding.

TIS:  Art aside, what is your daily life like at home these days?

Richie:  It’s actually kind of nuts.  I have two kids.  A 4 year old girl and a 5 and a half year old boy so that right there takes up a lot of time.  My wife and I are also in the middle of renovating an old home so that also takes up a lot of time.  So I would say the thing I do the least is sleep.  As far as day to day work I do design and art direction and I find that creatively rewarding.  Whenever I can I pick up my guitar and create music.  Either I write music or play somebody else’s songs, or I sing with my kids or let them write songs with me.  I still fit in as much music as possible but I really have a very busy life.

TIS:  As we start to wind down here are there any books you would like to recommend to readers of this interview?

Richie:  Oh there are SO MANY.  So let’s see…. I will think about books I really loved when I really began appreciating books in my late teens and early twenties.  “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles is a great novel.  If they want to read a really fun bit of non-fiction that is not very well written but really entertaining it is all about the film business in the 70’s.  It is called “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (by Peter Biskind)  It is wildly entertaining and easily read in like two days.

TIS:  Where do you see yourself ten years down the road?

Richie:  Being a busy dad, and maybe writing Broadway Musicals.  Maybe producing some young kids that are trying to keep real music alive that isn’t auto tuned.  And if I am producing any rock n roll or punk rock in those days I will absolutely refuse to work with anyone who is a televised talent show contestant.  I think that is one of the worst thing that has ever happened to music because if that is what dictates who we listen to than we will never again have another Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen or Mick Jones or Joe Strummer.

Think about the incredibly important artists who would never make it past the first round…from The Stooges, Blue Cheer, and MC-5 to the other artists I have mentioned.  These televised talent shows are just fucking horrible.  Having technical proficiency either at singing or noodling on guitar doesn’t make you a good artist.  Maybe it makes you a good employee at a guitar shop or someone who can win American Idle but art should be about illumination, or changing the world and the collective consciousness, not about vocal runs or perfect intonation.

TIS:  Any closing words as we finish up?

Richie:  I don’t know what it will mean at the time this is read or printed but all I can think about right now is this awful tragedy that happened today in Connecticut.  I really hope for the sake of my kids that our collective consciousness as a nation and in fact as a world changes so that we see a lot more empathy and compassion and a lot less brutality and evil.

Visit Into Another Online Here

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.