Death metal is, and this should be obvious, not a peaceful style of music. Hell, with death in the name itself you should know that you’re not in for a sonic experience conducive to mindful meditation. The speed, power, and rage behind the best death metal speaks to turbulence and upheaval. To put it another way, death metal is a subgenre that was meant for the hellscape that is 2022 living.
Taking advantage of the inherently chaotic nature of the most extreme strand of music, Ripped to Shreds has come back with not only their best album yet but the perfect record for our less than ideal modern day. The eight tracks on Jubian, released Oct. 14, are sure to be in heavy rotation in any self-respecting death metal fan’s playlist for the remainder of 2022 and beyond. Throughout the record’s runtime, Ripped to Shreds delivers the goods with more solos than you can shake a K.K. Downing at and the most personal lyrics that mastermind Andrew Lee has written yet. I caught up with Lee over the phone recently to get the straight story on Ripped to Shreds’ strongest release yet.
First off, congrats on the new record. It’s a hell of an album and I can’t wait for people to hear it. When did you start working on it and how was the process?
Andrew: Basically we started writing it around last April and it took me about two months to get the basic arrangements and everything written. The way it works in our band right now, I write all the music and then I put some basic demo drum machine on it so that we kind of have an idea of the arrangements. Then I hand it off to the other dudes and they listen to it and they come up with some of their own ideas for it, especially because the way that I approach drums is not super different but not really the same way that Brian [Do] approaches drums. He’s coming more from a hardcore background. He plays with Spinebreaker and then also, coming up, he was super into brutal death metal so he has a different perspective on approaching drum parts than I do. Being able to hand off all the bass writing, because before it was a one-man band where I write and record everything, handing bass off to Ryan gives him that much more freedom to really focus on the bass lines and come up with a part that’s not just following the guitar riff. When I do that by myself, I’m trying to think of everything. I’m thinking of new guitar riffs, the drums, the vocals, lyrics, and it’s just really easy for me to fall into the trap of, oh, I’m just gonna follow the guitar riff for the bass because I’m trying to handle everything else at the same time. When handed off to Ryan, he’s not focusing on anything else. He only has the bass to worry about so he’s able to come up with parts that aren’t just following the riff.
It took like two months and then we spent a couple weeks looking at the arrangements, making small adjustments, and then once that was done, Brian started practicing the drums and we recorded in my home studio. I think we started in September or something. Basically, because we’re all busy, the way that we did it was Brian would focus on getting two songs down really well, he’d come over, I’d record his drums, and then we’d send them back and when he had the free time again he’d learn the next two songs, come back, and record. It was spaced out over a pretty long period of time but the actual amount of time we spent in here…we spent maybe four or five hours for two songs…but we just had to figure out when was a good time for Brian to practice and then come over and record. I think we finished the last two songs on drums in January or something like that but guitar, bass, and vocals were all done in the time between September and January.
This being your first time with a full-band during the recording process, how much of an adjustment was that for you?
Andrew: It was pretty simple because basically I was just doing less than I would before. I still come up with all the basic arrangements and stuff so that part is the same as before. When it comes to doing the final recording, then that’s where the big difference is. On the first album, I recorded drums by myself but I’m a terrible drummer so it was a real pain in the butt. Luckily Brian’s a great drummer [laughs] so it was a lot easier for me to record him here and get a great performance and not have to spend hours fixing mistakes on my computer.
How did you put the full band together?
Andrew: I think around the end of 2019, when I was preparing to get the second album out, I figured, you know what, I really need to get some dudes over here in California to play with so we can do some shows and promote the record so I asked some people that I knew. I didn’t used to be super connected to the local scene so the first person that I asked was Josef [Alfonso] from Tsunami to play bass and then he was like, yeah, sure. Then I was having trouble finding a drummer and Josef was like, why don’t you ask Brian from Spinebreaker because Josef also plays in Spinebreaker. That was kind of surprising to me because I had seen Spinebreaker a bunch of times and, Ripped to Shreds isn’t a technical band, but Spinebreaker is slower and groovy and mid-paced, kind of stompy death metal. I was like, oh, I didn’t realize that Brian could play super fast. I was a little surprised but when Brian learned the songs and came over, it was like, holy shit, this dude can really play! A month or two before we were going to jam, Josef said that during the time we were going to do the gigs, his boss was sending him on some kind of work trip but he’s in another band called Doomsday and the guitarist there is a really good player and he can play bass for you. That was Ryan. That was how I got hooked up with Brian and Ryan. Then Mike [Chavez], I’ve actually known him for a while because I’d seen his band Hemotoxin play live a whole bunch of times. I didn’t really think about adding in a second guitarist until late last year. Putting together a lineup and getting people to show up and practice and all that is a big pain in the butt. I [didn’t even] really want to think about doing it with four people but when we got invited to do the Decibel Festival, the Metal and Beer Festival in L.A., I was like, you know what, we need to step up our live presentation and I want to get all the harmonies that we have in the music to really pop live. I thought it was time to get a second guitarist and I know this dude who can play and sing, let’s just ask if he’s down and luckily Mike was down.
To get into the album itself, could you tell me what the title to it means and why you chose that title to represent the album?
Andrew: Jubian is basically kind of like upheaval. I was going for a World Downfall kind of vibe because I love Terrorizer and Ripped to Shreds comes from a Terrorizer song. I guess when I just kind of think about the state of the world…the music is dark and violent but it’s not really about current events but it kind of has that energy. We are living through the current times and that kind of energy just carries over to what I do. As for specifically why that title, I knew that I wanted something with that kind of vibe but when it came to picking the actual words and characters, that’s where I have a little bit more trouble. I asked my friend Derek Lin from Brain Corrosion to help me brainstorm some possible titles. I think the big struggle here is that it had to be something that looked good written down in Chinese characters but when you also write the title in English, in Pinyin, it also had to look good in [those] English letters too. We went through a whole bunch of possible titles. Some of them, they looked good in Chinese but maybe they didn’t sound that great or impressive in English. We had come up with a whole bunch of stuff and maybe this one sounds good, maybe that one but it took a little bit.
Lyrically, what kind of themes and ideas did you want to explore with this one. You said that the album somewhat reflects the fact that we aren’t living in the best of times.
Andrew: I think this one is, lyrically, still pretty similar to the other ones. It’s still history, it’s still some of the more fantastical parts of Chinese pop culture or death rituals. I guess maybe the biggest departure here [are] the songs “Race Traitor” and “Harmonious Impiety.” Those are more about my feelings about Chinese culture or about being Chinese in America. Those, I guess, were less touched upon on previous albums.
What made you want to start touching upon those themes here?
Andrew: Part of it is that I don’t want to only write about war or martial arts novels. There’s only so many times you can do that, right [laughs]? There’s only so many ways you can write a song about some fucked up murder case or people getting chopped up and put inside meat buns or whatever. This is obviously our biggest album yet. It’s going to be the most widely heard so far and I guess I also wanted to explore some more personal topics.
You mentioned “Race Traitor” and that’s a song that I specifically wanted to ask about. To me, it is one of the strongest songs on a strong album. It almost feels like there’s a bit of a melodeath inspiration there. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the lyrical and musical thoughts behind that one.
Andrew: It’s absolutely melodeath-inspired. Do you know the band Intestine Baalism from Japan?
I don’t but I’ll definitely check them out.
Andrew: So they’re a melodeath band that basically sounds like a cross between Dismember and Suffocation but with a ton of big melodies thrown in. I mean maybe more the last two or three albums of Dismember rather than their early stuff. So Intestinal Baalism or Eucharist or maybe even early Bird of Tranquility…I love melodeath. In Flames was the first metal band that I ever got into so I just wanted to do something that was on the melodeath side but still has that Ripped to Shreds flavor where it’s still very aggressive death metal and not, you know, Gothenburg stuff.
On the lyrical side, this one is more about [how] I feel like, and I’ve spoken to other minorities too, that in America minorities are often seen as representative of their entire race so if you have, for example, some really great math students then people will say all these Asians are super good at math, Asians are always good at math. Or, in a more negative context, you have stuff from World War II, all the Japanese were interned because they thought they were Japanese so they were going to betray America so throw away their life forever. In a sense, I feel like minorities have to kind of police what they say around other Americans and especially when it comes to recent events like COVID or Mainland China’s human rights abuses. As a Chinese [person], if you criticize China, Americans will kind of take that as license and be like, hey, these Chinese are saying this, why can’t I say it? There’s kind of a conflict, I think, for a lot of minorities about how they address problems in their community and how that’s kind of taken by the wider American populace.
I also wanted to ask about “In Solitude-Sun Moon Holy Cult Pt. 3.” That’s a 10-and-a-half minute epic. How did you come up with that one?
Andrew: I’m a huge Dream Theater fan. I’ve been listening to Dream Theater since day one, since I got into metal. I’m really into that whole epic songwriting thing they do where they have super long songs that move from section to section or where they have suites or songs that share themes, share musical themes that you can kind of hear from song to song. I was kind of trying to do something similar. The theme from the start of the first “Sun Moon Holy Cult” on the Demon Scriptures EP, I kind of bring it back in a different context in parts two and three. I guess another appeal for me, for writing these super long songs, is that it’s a challenge. A lot of long death metal songs are typically either super slow death-doom songs and are going to end up hella-long either way or they just repeat riffs a lot and don’t really go anywhere. For me it’s a challenge of how do I write a super long death metal song that’s still really aggressive and doesn’t really have any repeating parts. I always feel like I have to challenge myself when writing new music because I don’t want to fall into the trap of just regurgitating what I did on the last album.
I wanted to ask about that too. Being that this is your third full-length, has the process gotten easier with more experience or harder as you try not to repeat yourself but retain the Ripped to Shreds sound?
Andrew: I definitely feel like it’s gotten easier. On the first album, that was the first album that I’d ever wrote. “Craven Blood” and “Yellow River [Incident, 1938],” those specifically were within the first ten songs that I’d ever wrote, period. By now I have a lot more experience and it comes a lot more easy to me to come up with songs. Before it may have been a really big struggle to expand a tiny idea into a full working song but now it’s like, ok, I’ve got a concept or a small musical idea and I can take it and run with it and make a whole song. That wasn’t something I was super capable of before. It took me eight or nine months to write [before] but writing this new one was super fast.
Tell me about the cover for the new record. It’s a very memorable piece of work so I was wondering who did it, how much direction you gave them, and what it means to you.
Andrew: It’s drawn by this painter from Beijing called Guang Yang. He also did the last album for me, the cover art. It’s kind of funny because I think he would mostly be known, at least to westerners, as a deathcore artist because I think he’s done covers for a whole bunch of deathcore bands and brutal DM bands. I really liked his style, for one, and I definitely knew I needed an artist that really understood Chinese culture. The work on the first EP and LP are amazing but I feel that as I am writing these newer albums I need to have a deeper synthesis between the visual side and the thematic side. Basically all the direction I gave Guang Yang was that I wanted a huge statue of Mazu being destroyed in some way and everything else I left up to him.
How excited were you when you saw the final piece?
Andrew: He does rough drafts in digital so I had an idea of what kind of colors he was going for before he even started on the final oil painting. When I saw the early drafts, I was blown away. It looked super sick. I also told him that I wanted a different color palate than the last album. That one was mostly bright oranges and yellows and dark grey and this new one is mostly reds and dark blues. I don’t really like it when you [line] up a whole bunch of albums together and the covers kind of blend together.
How did you end up having Dave Suzuki on the album?
Andrew: Actually, it’s kind of funny. I just asked on Facebook if anyone had Dave Suzuki’s contact info [laughs] and one of his members from Churchburn saw it and put me in contact with him. I told him, hey, I’m Andrew from RTS, I love your music, would you be willing to throw down a solo? He actually already knew about RTS, which was, like, holy shit! He was willing to throw down a solo so that was [amazing]. I’ve been listening to Vital Remains since high school. It’s one of the first real death metal bands that I got into so it’s really special to me to have him perform [on the album].
It’s a very solo-heavy record, which I really dig. What’s the appeal to you about good guitar solos, as a musician and as a fan?
Andrew: That’s really hard for me to answer because it’s just one of those things where I started playing guitar as a teenager and I guess teenagers are just super into guitar solos [laughs]. I’ve just been playing guitar solos from day one so I have a hard time imagining music that I write without guitar solos but I always feel that, when it comes to songwriting, the solos do need to serve a purpose. They need to kind of build up the music, to a point, or serve as a big resolution for tension in the music. I think, in “Race Traitor,” the solos in that are usually resolutions to tension that has been building up, like when the drums get super frantic and the riffs are really fast then the song explodes into this big melodic resolution. If I look at something like, “Violent Compulsion for Conquest” or “Harmonious Impiety,” the solos there typically are the tension and then they lead into a kind of resolution [that you get] when you have a super messy, chromatic, speedy thing and then suddenly it breaks down into a clear, straightforward, groovy riff…that to me feels really satisfying.
“Violent Compulsion” was another one I wanted to ask about. What was the inspiration and what made you want to lead off the album with that one?
Andrew: Whenever I write stuff, I record short snippets into my computer and then I play it back and then I start building by adding more riffs onto it and adding programed drums so I can get an idea of how it is [progressing] so originally the project file was named “Bolt Thrower Rip-Off Number 6” or whatever [laughs]. My initial idea for the song was to be a really groovy Bolt Thrower song. The first riff that I came up with for that song, which is the second riff after the slow intro, the drums hit and it’s a grindcore kind of riff. That’s the first riff I came up with for the song and I was gonna do a Realm of Chaos style Bolt Thrower song, but once I actually came up with a riff and started trying to add to it, then the whole song took a left turn and it turned into this kind of Obliteration or Autopsy kind of style. The initial inspiration was Bolt Thrower but once I started adding these parts onto it, it really got away from me!
Going back to your lyrical inspirations, what was the idea behind “Reek of Burning Freedom?”
Andrew: The title is super straightforward. The United States’ number one export is freedom but that freedom usually comes in the form of bombs. I think the actual historical events that I’m thinking of there are that during the Korean War, there was this bombing campaign by the United States and at the end of the carpet bombing campaign, the commanders were saying something like, we still had bombs but didn’t have targets left to still bomb because we blew everything apart so that was kind of the [inspiration]. I thought that was an interesting visual in my head while I was writing the song.
Was the production of this one affected by COVID or any kind of COVID measures?
Andrew: We started writing it last year in April so I think that was already after…we didn’t play our first gig until October but I had gone to see a bunch of local gigs by then so COVID restrictions were already starting to loosen up. We usually practice about once a month and then if there’s a show coming up we’ll usually sneak in some more practices but it’s not like we’re a band that has to practice two or three times a week. I have other friends in bands and they practice so much that it’s kind of like shocking. I feel guilty because I see them working so hard and then we’re just kind of chilling [laughs]! After the initial lockdown, the first time that we played together sounded so bad because we hadn’t played together in six or seven months [laughs].
When listeners sit down to check out the album, what are you hoping that they get out of it?
Andrew: I just hope they like riffs [laughs]! I hope they like blast beats. That’s the main takeaway I have though. For me, when I write music, I’m not writing it for a listener. I’m not writing it for other listeners. I’m always writing it for me. I’m always trying to write a song that I would jam the hell out of. As long as I’m really happy with how the music turned out, it’s not a big deal to me what other people think of it. I just hope they have as much fun as I do when they listen to the record.