Article By: Pat ‘Riot’ Whitaker ‡ Edited By: Leanne Ridgeway
It was just this past year (2018), that the Richmond, Virginia-based THUNDERCHIEF landed on my musical radar. thanks to my pal and all-around great musician, Erik Larson (Backwoods Payback, Alabama Thunderpussy, Hail Hornet).
At the time, he had collaborated on a track with the wizard behind the THUNDERCHIEF curtain, Rik Surly, but we’ll delve into that a bit more later. An online friendship between Rik and I developed, as often does in this modern age of cyber-realm communications and exchanges of information, culminating in our meeting in person at 2018’s edition of The Maryland Doom Fest.
Rik is indeed THE man behind the one-man, stand-alone, sonic crushing that is THUNDERCHIEF, and if you have not experienced that amalgamated bastardization of crusty sludge and industrial doom metal, you will before this article ends, rest assured. Yet, in the time I’ve gotten to know Rik, I have learned of his incredible musical past, including ties to some bands and people, that utterly intrigues me. Plus, Rik is the living, breathing, type of aural underdog that I love, and love to champion… a true, dyed-in-the-wool DIY’er.
So, without a lot further expounding from me, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of why we are here: we were recently able to pick Rik’s brain about THUNDERCHIEF, his past, his present, his future, and much more and thus… Riff Relevant Interviews: THUNDERCHIEF’s Rik Surly
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: Rik, a lot of folks are aware of your recent moves with Thunderchief of course, but for the uninitiated, share with us a little of your musical background (bands, etc.)… what instruments do you play? Weren’t you originally a drummer?
RIK: Yes, I am a drummer that dabbles in strings. For this project, I am playing drums, bass, and guitar, plus creating my own noise/tape tracks. I’ve been in bands since 1989, starting with a tech/ death/ thrash/ trash band called Lycanthropy. After hilariously embarrassing myself, showing my young age by blowing an “audition” with a long-haired Neil Fallon, I then made a glorious move to Charlotte, where I joined The Furys with Bradzig from The Dixie Damned. I was doing road work, too, and then I started The Irritations out of the remains of The Screamin’ Street Trash, who were being scouted by MCA Records. Of course this was when anything that looked or sounded “punk” was being signed, so we blew that real good.
Then I hitchhiked to Dallas with my dog and drums. I wrote articles for a few Texas ‘zines, while looking for a band. I was at Jim Heath’s one day, saw two greasers smoking weed and drinking beers across the street from Church Of Sub-Genius. We formed a gritty three piece rockabilly trio called Mean Mean Man & The Brass Knuckle Band. Tour, tour, tour – then I had the fortunate experience of having El Duce call me to book/ play/ drive/ babysit his solo tour. When he went to jail, I joined The Spo-Its (notorious sexploitation noise outfit, like Crash Worship, but meaner; known to Jerry Springer as “Shock Rock”). When he got out of jail, I did The Mentors’ 20th Anniversary Tour.
When that imploded, I hit Atlanta. The hot band in ’96-’98 was Dick Delicious & The Tasty Testicles, so I played with them, he (Dick D.) played with The Spo-Its, and we eventually got Kirk [Fisher] from Buzzoven and Robert Williams of Captain Beefheart to join in.
OK… now we go to Richmond, VA. circa 2001, where I formed The Deviltones, we did that for about five years. This included Demonboy from Texas Terri & The Stiff Ones and Pustulus of GWAR (known as B.). Being surrounded by Richmond musicians during this time was very inspiring, so many of us were on the edge of breaking thru to the masses. The Deviltones had a few successes, but we fought constantly, but were still in somewhat of a demand.
This is where I had the vision of THUNDERCHIEF – one man, a guitar, with a bunch of amps, drowning out the chaos that surrounded me. When the “big” expensive Deviltones record came out on three labels worldwide, we collapsed. We didn’t tour, the band member’s wives were the shittiest they could have been, and my only out was Thunderchief.
Then I diddled a bit live with Thunderchief and an I-pod, which, to me was the anti-christ. Bobby from The Undead was really my inspiration for a one-man band – he used to tour as The Undead with a mix-tape of his backing tracks, and he would sing, just him and a tape. Very bad, but inspiring. I then spent seven years as a hired gun/ tour manager/ tour accountant for several national acts. Then I did it… I stopped all other ventures in 2013, to focus on Thunderchief, and here we are.
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: What was the catalyst that initially got you interested in music – as far as a particular band, album, or concert?
RIK: I have a pic of me when I was 3 years old, jamming to Elton John’s ”Saturday Night’s Alright” with big-ass headphones and my Mickey mouse guitar. Later, that guitar turned into a KISS guitar, and I was hooked. My sister took me to see KISS in ‘78, we saw the “real” Beach Boys, Stones, Rod Stewart. My sisters were at Cal Jam ’74, so I was always interested in what they were doing with music. I played their records so much, my dad got me a K-Mart record player. Then the next day, he came home with KISS “Rock ‘N Roll Over”. Everyday I would air guitar or sing along with a brush in my hand, or both at the same time… music was, and has been, my life since I can remember. Hell, I still have those KISS records he bought me.
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: And yet another musician names KISS as their gateway band! Being the lone, sole member of Thunderchief, I assume this has its Pros & Cons. Care to elaborate on what any of either might be?
Pros – No band mates. Can do anything I want. Literally. No schedule conflicts/family issues. Rehearse everyday.
Cons – No band mates. Booking/recording/touring is much harder. Promotion is difficult for 1 person. Songwriting becomes more lengthy. *People do not take solo acts seriously*
I don’t think anything can take the place of a “band”, but if the people you work with are not on the same page, it wastes all of your damn years of creating music. I decided to take a chance with a solo project, and honestly, I’ve done as well solo as I did with the baggage. I don’t want to sound like a dick, but really, I have true recollections, man, and even recent tours have proven that sometimes when you get a band with 4-5 dudes with issues, you get eggroll.
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: What prompted you to pursue a project as its singular member like this?
RIK: Thunderchief started as a cartoon of amps and a little dude screaming. I realized that could be me, if only I knew how to play a guitar. I have skater hands, from breaking and dislocating shit when I was younger, so I could never really articulate my fingers to fret properly. I can beat the hell out of drums, Bonham-style, but can’t play power chords. So when the 3, 4, 5-man band thing was clearly not working for me, I had to keep on keeping on… many of those guys I played with just gave up music, but I couldn’t do that, I had to forge my way somehow. I can tour when I want, take my dog, fuck off in Nebraska for a while, whatever I want, instead of waiting for my band mate’s wife to tell us we can’t go to Europe, ha ha!
The idea is of purity and as little effects as possible. Knowing that every band does not “master” every song, I decided I didn’t care about being the absolute best – don’t get me wrong, I like it to be more than good, but no band is perfect. Some keep overdubbing and adding on tracks to make a record, like “Dopesmoker”, or some have one good song and nine that you don’t want to listen to… Thunderchief is different in that aspect, if it’s not perfect, it’s perfect.
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: Admittedly, I’m not a very tech adept kind of guy… it’s all kind of Greek to me! That said, break things down for us as to how Thunderchief works, in the aspect of you being its sole member/player? What type of equipment or setup do you use, either in the studio or live?
RIK: I use the same equipment and settings in the studio, on stage, or at rehearsal. Currently, I have a guitar stack and bass stack, with a drive pedal by Sean Ryan Customs, and a huge PA to match. Drums thru the PA, guitar split to 2 amps, and some yelling, you got Thunderchief. I haven’t introduced any effects into the mix, the original idea was to be as straight forward as possible regarding tone. The drums have to be pushed thru the PA from an iPod, but they’re not programmed, they are human.
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: Speaking of humans, how does a drummer like Erik Larson play with you on the road without actually playing with you live on the road? (Readers, ICYMI – Rik and current Backwoods Payback drummer Erik Larson collaborated on a crushing track last year titled “Stone House“… it’s streaming below)
RIK: I box him up in the back so my dog can sit up front, nobody knows he’s actually there – we wrap his hair in a man-bun!
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: Ha! Being based in Richmond, VA, a hotbed for great music over the years, what do you attribute to RVA’s having such a richly fertile, long-running underground music scene? Care to name-drop any current bands from that scene that you like or think readers should check out?
RIK: I am not sure what it is about Richmond, maybe it’s the ancient Powhatan curse of perseverance. There has been so many great bands to surface from here, and it continues with bands like Book Of Wyrms, Desert Altar, Lair, and many more. The one thing I have noticed from living in Richmond twice within 20 years, is that the music is still here. There is a good support structure here and everybody is quite genuine in their craft, it’s nice.
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: What is currently going on with Thunderchief… and what plans loom on the horizon? And of course, we must touch upon Thunderchief being part of The Maryland Doom Fest 2019’s roster of confirmed bands!
RIK: Man, I have some plans! Of course, being only one person hinders a lot of planning, and I rely on fans and friends to help make booking and touring work. Now, I’m writing new material for an album, like I’ve said many times before, haha… but I still have a few unreleased tracks. Booking for 2019, has been a very pleasant experience, I’ll be hitting the region a bit heavier than in the past, tours in the works, and some killer festival dates to be psyched about. And yes, plans do now include playing MD Doom Fest V.
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: And what are your expectations/hopes with this appearance at the famed Maryland Doom Fest? For the uninitiated, what can observers expect from a Thunderchief live show, be it on the road or at MD Doom Fest specifically?
RIK: It’s an honor to be a part of the bad-ass MD Doom Fest. I will be on tour at that time, my goal is to play with some, if not most, of the MD Doom Fest bands in others cities. I hope to see every band I can by not talking so damn much, I expect it to sell out! I love Frederick, I guess I’ll have to pull out the big guns for that show. Fans will definitely be encouraged to wear earplugs, get stoned and forget the boundaries of the music… Thunderchief isn’t out to reinvent the wheel, or do noodley solos and add rad effects. The idea is to play with a very organic tone, with a little push, and no gimmicks, but I might throw in a surprise for the Fest.
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: Knowing some of your background, I know you have been at this for several decades now… what keeps you so personally invested and still “at it” after all this time”? Care to share some sage advice, insight, or warnings for anyone that may just be starting out?
RIK: Man this is all I know – I don’t have kids and all that normal stuff, I’m basically the same 13-year-old practicing to [John] Bonham and Motley Crue, just doing it differently. My love for music and everything that comes with it hasn’t diminished yet, I doubt it will. All of my past colleagues have been done for a long time, except one ex-bandmate, who plays with a national act now. I don’t want to do anything else, man, I just wanna rock out ’til dawn with a spliff and a cool one. Not much bothers me, but when I’m not playing shows, I always remember The Subhumans lyric – “How’s it going there? It’s Not going at all, We’ve got no more gigs”. Probably the most depressing part of it all for me. That, and post-tour blues.
I think I’m the one who should be asking for advice, insights and warnings! I’m not sure of what to say here, but I can help you with all of your problems, just send me $1 per problem, and consider it done!
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: Ha! You and I have talked privately about the hardships that independent musicians/ bands/ artists face in today’s current music scene… what are some of the biggest that you have encountered?
RIK: Well, the current “industry” changes don’t really allow for past methods to work for bands – for example, we give away our music for free even more so than we used to. We work hard, we have extremely high overhead, we do all of these things for art, to be given away on YouTube or whatever, which is fine – but in contrast, years ago, we were cool with people dubbing tapes of our music, but we were gaining so much more from that form of free distribution. That’s one major change I’ve seen that hasn’t really helped out artists.
One particular conversation you and I had was… what does a band do if they want to release a single with a B-side? Why do we have to continue to write and release full length albums in order to be seen, reviewed or taken seriously? I think if there were an avenue for this, we would see bands releasing much more material. Not every band has the desire to release album after album, without EP’s and singles, right? Maybe I’m just old, but that’s how I still buy music I want. Sometimes 3-4 songs are plenty when I’m in my car, and every record / tape / CD in my collection is not a full length, you know?
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: Hypothetically, if there was one thing you could change or improve, what would it be and how might you go about it?
RIK: I guess I would like to see more booking agents. They do such a huge service for independent touring bands. If bands could spend more time writing and touring, rather than Facebooking and emailing all night, there would be more productivity in regards to the artist’s future.
You know, if a saucy agent would act as a “package promoter”, like, promote package tours for small indie bands (not just his/her friends’ bands), the venues would only need to find those one or two stellar local bands to play with the package they booked. Everyone’s headache goes away, the venue makes bar and food $$, and bands are playing to more people. But the flip-side is, some locals hold out for only “touring acts” – WTF? We are all touring acts!
I can honestly say, I don’t know how to suggest any changes, but what I’ve seen at a small handful of venues does not make sense for the establishment or the artists. It’s reminiscent of the old days, like at the Electric Banana in Pittsburgh. If anyone reading this emails me with an Electric Banana story, I’ll send them free junk!
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: Uh-oh, a challenge! About your background, I have a question that’s solely for my own curiosity: I recently read that at one point, you were a roadie for a band I love and want to know more about your experiences with – Nuclear Assault! What period of time was that and if you don’t mind, care to share one of your more memorable recollections from then?
RIK: Oh man, the times! That was the ’92 Agnostic Front / Nuclear Assault tour. I was at a show one night, working for Polygram Records (age card shown) when Danny [Lilker] asked me to hold his bass. Next thing I knew, I was 20 dates deep, their new guitarist and I started the same day. As much fun as Nuclear Assault was, and everything they were up to, I was in awe of Agnostic Front. It was my first AF experience, and I was hooked. NA was great, definitely a “slam a beer and go” philosophy. Lots of beer, pot, and thrashing about. It felt like a summer camp hanging with those guys.
That was a great tour seeing both sides of hardcore and thrash. I did a lot of tech work for those years. I landed in Dallas in ‘95 and got the ultimate gig… catering for Motorhead/Belladonna club tour. I think there are more “experiences” on that tour than most others, besides Buzzoven, Cramps, Napalm Death, Rev. Horton Heat, Mentors, etc. were all after that. I was so young and in my own world, I don’t know if I appreciated what I was involved in, I took it for granted because that’s all I knew at the time.
So many stories… I remember one venue cancelled the show because Roger was walking around with his shirt off after soundcheck, saw his chest tattoo, and cancelled the show in the name of Catholicism!
Another quickie… I remember Belladonna had a young female tour manager, she was very business, very tough, but a doll behind the curtains. She would make sure to go to as many people as possible and say “Belladonna prohibits any photos”. After hearing that for so long I asked if anyone had tried to take a picture to make her say that, she said “no” (inner laughter). At that age, talking to Danny and Freddie (Madball) convinced me to back off of helping others be successful and focus on my own music. So I did, maybe not the best choice but I did!
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: Outside of music, what type of things (hobbies, extracurricular things, etc.) do you enjoy doing in your personal life?
RIK: I still travel to skate, I ride BMX less than a mile from my house, I’m a horticulturin’ fool, I grow hot chile varieties and pickling cucumbers, of course hanging with my best girl Sasha and trusty Roadhound Kraut. Music has always been sort of a hobby, but like a permanent hobby that you do everyday for too many hours.
RIFF RELEVANT [Pat]: I have a tradition of letting the interviewee have the final word, so is there anything you would like to say, share, rant about or whatever, here’s your shot!
RIK: Last words…. don’t be an elitist, enjoy things for what they are instead of finding the “wrong” in everything not suited to you. And time goes by faster as you get older, don’t waste it… and thank you for allowing me to speak, and thank you for reading this far!
Wow, I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did! I want to thank THUNDERCHIEF‘s Rik Surly for submitting to the previous interrogation… and Erik Larson for bringing us together, ha! Before closing, let me say, or suggest, that you listen to and support independent music and artists.
You can catch THUNDERCHIEF at the following February appearances and The Maryland Doom Fest this June:
Feb. 1 – Washington, DC @ The Pinch
Feb.2 – Doom Hawg Day (presented by Maryland Doom Fest) – Frederick, MD @ Cafe 611
Feb. 7 – Raleigh, NC @ Slim’s Downtown
Feb. 8 – Asheville, NC @ Sly Grog
June 20 – 23 – The Maryland Doom Fest – Frederick, MD