Spoken word artist Samantha Riott has emerged over the past few years as a unique and powerful figure on New York’s experimental music scene. Having developed a reputation as an iconoclast in the poetry world, she turned to fierce experimental music as her medium of self-expression. Her deeply personal, biting lyrics delivered with such raw force set her apart on the contemporary scene. Her band Rodenticide released their debut record in September and Riott is working on a number of other solo, duo, and small-group projects that she is recording and touring with over the coming year. I had the opportunity to speak with her extensively in January. There are numerous embedded videos and lyrics published herein.
INTERVIEW WITH SAMANTHA RIOTT AT HER APARTMENT IN RIDGEWOOD, QUEENS, NY, JANUARY 19, 2018
Cisco Bradley: Where did you come from? What were the formative experiences that shaped you as an artist?
Samantha Riott: I’m from Queens, NY. A product of my environment. I regurgitate whatever I deal with. It doesn’t matter what medium. I just do it. Since I was a child I was always on a stage, whether acting in plays for theater, singing in choirs, playing instruments like guitar or piano, dancing classes… I was always in front of an audience in any capacity I could. So that’s where it all started. I also lived in suburbia for a few years. I befriended my neighbor whom I went to high school with and we bonded heavily over obscure art and music and this knowing of being considered this dynamic duo of misanthropic and alluring, strange girls. We’d constantly go to libraries or shop around left and right getting our hands on books and music from Dostoyevsky to Palahniuk, Nina Simone to No Trend, Valerie Solanas to Iceberg Slim and so on. We consumed so many underground, eccentric artists at 14, 15, 16, which at those ages I think the both of us being daughters of immigrant parents, she of Lebanese background and I of Colombian, mirrored how we felt as outsiders. So maybe it’s no surprise that I was attracted to that which was deviated from the norm of what a human, artist or person of whatever stripe is supposed to be and just be.
CB: What got you on the path to being the artist you are today?
SR: The need for creative expression. I don’t care for formal training, as it can be really limiting. Learning the basics and that it’s for me. Where there’s too many rules, I like to make my own.
CB: You make your own and break other rules?
CB: Are there artists, writers or musicians who have inspired you?
SR: Yes, too many to mention. I’m most into artists who are really brazen and don’t confine themselves to anything that is mainstream or status quo. My favorite author is Hubert Selby. (Requiem For A Dream. Last Exit To Brooklyn)
He’s inspirational by way of his writing as he wasn’t afraid of his own darkness or the brutality of life by articulating it. I started reading his books and watching the movies based on his books in high school.
And with his particular writing, it’s not… again, the breaking of the rules and making your own, the way he wrote is very strange because it doesn’t have quotations. It barely has punctuation, it doesn’t even say who’s talking. And I think that’s pretty amazing. I’ve never read a book quite like the way he wrote his books. He’s just one of many who have inspired me.
CB: What was your entry into the scene you are now a part of?
SR: I just sauntered into it …
CB: Was Rodenticide your first major band?
SR: Yes. With Rodenticide, I wanted musicians who could handle what I was doing with spoken word. When I befriended Weasel, I was digging his music so I went to more of his shows and one night he introduced me to Chris Pitsiokos who was playing that night with his band called Bob Crusoe with Richard Lenz and Nat Flack. I saw them perform and immediately felt it was kismet and soon after I formed the band. It was their final show. If I hadn’t seen them that night, there would be no Rodenticide.
CB: You began doing spoken word around age 18. How did you get involved with that?
SR: I was looking to find places to go to perform by that age. I didn’t enjoy doing shows at Bowery Poetry Club but did it anyway. Too many people eager to call themselves poets taking themselves too seriously. The smooth, finger snapping kind of prose I despise. I did what I did and people were terrified. I’m up there with a shaved head, screaming and cursing my head off. They’re like ‘NO, SCRAM!’
CB: Were there any other places you performed beyond Bowery Poetry Club?
SR: Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
CB: And you didn’t find that conducive either for what you were trying to do?
SR: No. What I do is not poetry. The people who perform there are hungry for the applause and finger snapping coolness. By 19, I frequently performed at this dive bar in the East Village. I actually met Max Johnson, the bassist, there, and I would tell people “Don’t applaud. I’m not here to entertain you.” I do what I do because I need to get this out. It has nothing to do with praise. If you like it, that’s great. If you don’t, even the better ‘cause then I’m irritating you because you’re irritating me by complaining you don’t like it, as if I care. So it’s a mutual exchange.
That’s how I create … out of this rage.
CB: Can you talk about the rage?
SR: Yeah, what’s up with the rage? As a native, it’s inherent. I don’t know any native New Yorker who isn’t genuinely angry. Find me one and I’ll tell you they are lying! Having your childhood in New York City is rough. By the time people come to New York they’re adults, so they don’t know how to navigate and get freaked and may assimilate. But as a child, seeing someone lose their mind on the street corner with no shoes and stinky, filthy skin was normal day to day. No questions asked. No reasons why…
Rage … I exercise a lot to workout negative feelings. Some friends have said they can’t picture me doing that but can totally picture me punching someone in the face, so it’s either that or go to jail! My anger stems from feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, feeling oppressed from society that I should bow down to ridiculous and outrageous standards that don’t suit me on a base level let alone an individual level. It’s through stubbornness that I instinctually choose not to let the world bring me down with apathy. I did feel suicidal at an early age which was more like a “Fuck you and fuck this, I’m out” but then I became homicidal. I believe this world is hung up on the “Kill or be killed” saga so I had to be so arrogant and stubborn to survive it.
CB: Punk is dead.
SR: Yeah, it should be!
CB: I watched the performance you did of “Calloused Runt” that you did with Leila Bordreuil at the Park Church Co-op.
SR: That was written at 19 and I never performed it until that night at the church. It was only appropriate since I’m confessing my awful history branching off into this backlog of sins. Leila understands me very well being intense and dark herself!
CB: How did you come to collaborate with Leila Bordreuil?
SR: I met her along the scene. She plays the cello so hauntingly beautiful.
CB: Your work seems incredibly honest and very revealing. At the same time, it is really instilled with ….
CB: Rage and your narratives are really, really powerful. When did you start writing this kind of stuff?
SR: I had exhausted every creative endeavor except for writing at 16. I had written a lot when I was 11 until 14 but figured writing is for novelists and poets, which I had no interest in being either. I had songs written but nothing more other than misanthropic diaries. At 17, I had this nervous breakdown or more like an awakening. Felt like I broke a dam inside myself and it felt great. Out of all the creative mediums I was doing then, automatic writing just took over.
CB: You were just doing it?
SR: It came from some elemental force. The things that I write… I don’t pull my hair out searching for a lyric or a song or anything. I let the pen take over the paper.
CB: You’re just letting your voice speak right through you.
SR: Yes. When I read back on some material, I’m always amazed at the insight articulated so sharply.
CB: What was that like? Is it liberating or is it alienating? Do you ever look at what you’ve written and feel like you’re revealing too much?
SR: No. I guess it’s the exhibitionist in me that I don’t care about exposing myself. I’m shameless!
CB: Is it an empowering act in and of itself?
SR: Sure, even though I see it as the need to purge. It’s a brutal honesty I am showcasing mostly and feel no shame in that.
CB: Reading through the words and hearing it performed, your writing is very direct. It doesn’t feel rehearsed or anything.
SR: I’m not trying to shock, but if it doesn’t come out, I’ll feel even sicker.
CB: How often do you write?
SR: Whenever that lighting strikes. It doesn’t happen that often but when it does the storm either comes and pours heavy or barely rains on me like a tease. So it’s either a few lines or like 10 minutes worth of material.
CB: You have talked about this process of purging via your writing. If you perform a piece once do you feel compelled to perform it again?
SR: Good question because when I was doing it as a teenager, I wouldn’t feel the need to do it more than twice. I had lots of material to dish out. The wane happened eventually but as I’ve gotten more active again, especially performing older material, it takes on another energy from a different perspective with new audiences.
CB: What do you see as the difference between poetry and spoken word?
SR: I’ve tried to get into poetry and it just doesn’t work for me. It’s too contrived. Spoken word has range and can be anything from storytelling to theatrical.
CB: “Calloused Runt” is an absolutely stunning piece.
SR: It’s autobiographical with a sadistic conclusion. At 19, I was dating this psychopath so I thought okay, he’s probably going to kill me before I can kill him and I’m going to die and or we’re both going to murder each other so I have to write down my life story before that happens. It’s a very… This is the most I’ve talked about my family but it has to do with how my upbringing shaped my perspective on how I create, ’cause they didn’t like my American bizarreness.
CB: So you talked about kind of like the harshness of New York and just being in this kind of unfriendly environment… the rage that you feel like you have. It’s central to your piece “New York, New York.”
SR: When I was 21 after coming back from living in Georgia for some time, I wrote that. I came back to NYC and I hated it even more. I hate it for what it’s become. I hate it for what people think it is.
CB: You feel alienated from that?
SR: Yes. With the alienation from what I thought I belonged to, you know? And that was inspired by The Last Poets song “New York, New York.” The rhythm… “[singing: New York, New York, the big apple.”] My lyric is “New York, New York, the glorious rathole.” ‘Cause that’s what it is. People here are just living on top of each other like rats, it’s filthy, it’s gross. 3-4 grand for a lunchbox apartment split with 4-10 roommates and you still may still live with roaches and rats and for what? 10 million people and counting trying to keep this facade of the ‘authentic’ experience. So it’s not like I’m romanticizing my past in “New York, New York” but people don’t want to realize that it can be a very toxic environment in the same breath as it is exhilarating. Again, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, “It’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny…”. It’s even more so now than ever, an expensive, white-washed ghetto.
CB: When you put Rodenticide together what was your vision?
CB: Annihilation of what?
SR: Everything you love about music. Anything you may care about on the things I speak on. ‘Cause to me it doesn’t sound like music. It just sounds like a big fucking threat. Violent and volatile. That was my concept.
CB: How did the band develop and how did you go about writing the pieces for Rodenticide?
SR: The one piece that I did write for Rodenticide is “Human Condition.” I was 24 then, just a small bit was written a few years prior. The other pieces I wrote at 18, 19, 20, 21. It’s all based on the human condition… which is splayed out all over the place and in your face, sinking into your skin, deep within your blood until you kick and shout it out.
CB: Things you’ve seen, things you’ve experienced …
SR: Yes, things that make me tick. The things that get under your skin.
CB: How would you describe the aesthetic of Rodenticide?
SR: I would describe it as a hit and run. Some kind of hedonism in nihilism. People come up to me after shows and told me how much they really needed that… being hit by the aural, verbal, assault.
CB: Let’s talk about your piece “Twilight Zone.” [Note: Lyrics appear at the end of this article below] I’ve heard you perform this live with Luke Stewart on bass. I’ve seen a video of you perform it with Michael Foster on saxophone. I had the impression it referred to BDSM.
SR: It’s about love.
CB: Can you talk about love? You’ve talked about rage. I’d love to hear you talk about love.
SR: My love is a rage! That was written while watching Animal Planet! The Dark Zone creatures that live so far down that humans can barely reach them. I thought it was very seductive the way that they attract and repel in total darkness. Anti-love, romance.
CB: Is anti-love how you experience love?
SR: No. Not necessarily. But I’ve put myself in positions where things can get very intense and it’s all or nothing.
CB: What do you mean about all nothing?
SR: I live in extremes so it’s only natural that my romances go from one extreme to the other. How does it go? “A million deaths ago my lifeline grew thick and silvered with growth.”
CB: When I used the term BDSM I actually wasn’t necessarily separating that from love.
SR: Well, yes, there is dominance and submission in it but that goes for everything in life. I’m going to be recording that with Luke and Michael.
CB: Do you have another record coming out?
SR: I’m going to do a compilation of collaborations with people.
Right now I’m in the process of doing something with Austin Julian from Sediment Club. He’s going to be playing guitar chopped up with my vocals of an erotic confessional secretly recorded in a church with a priest talking to me, with a forthcoming music video too. And I’m doing collaborations with Michael Foster, Dreamcrusher, Rick Eye from Flesh Narc, and Heroes Are Gang Leaders.
CB: You’re performing one of Heroes Are Gang Leaders’ pieces?
SR: No. One of my own. It’s actually a poem that I wrote.
CB: A poem?
SR: Well, it’s an anti-poem. It’s a humorous mockery of poetry called “Sing a Long”. You’ll hear it soon. I’m working on a book of anti-poetry based on the ‘7 Deadly Sins’ with a friend called the ‘Sins of Saturn’. And also working on graphic novel-esque book with a graphic artist called ‘Mouth of Hell’.
CB: What appeals to you about Michael Foster as a collaborator?
SR: He’s just a strange guy. Unconventional. He’s amazingly talented & unapologetic in his approach.
CB: And Luke Stewart? When did you start collaborating with him? I saw you perform at the Glove.
SR: We were hanging out in Berlin last fall and had him in mind for some of my new material. As I predicted, we had good chemistry collaborating.
CB: So in Berlin, were you on a European tour?
SR: Just myself in Germany, a solo tour. There was a show in Berlin that I tagged along with Grid, Tim Dahl’s band.
CB: How do you relate to feminism?
SR: I don’t. It’s gotten such a bad rep. Even when I was younger I barely cared for it because it was curated with a lot of censorship of what a woman should be via the rules of another woman. Fuck that! A lot of feminism is not sex positive either. It’s just too limiting, too negative.
CB: How do you feel most of the time?
SR: Like a man. Even though I’m dainty… wearing high heels and red lipstick. Yeah. I own both sides of my being, masculine and feminine. Aggressive and sensitive. Vulnerable and guarded. It’s a balancing act, always.
CB: You own both of those sides of yourself?
SR: Yes. I think as an artist you have to.
CB: So your dominance comes through in your approach and your aesthetic. It comes through in the tone of how you write. How do you express your vulnerability? Or do you have more to say about dominance?
SR: Being dominant is a vulnerable thing because people criticize you and put you down and try to make you feel small. You’re putting yourself out there and dodging bullets for being confident and taking control of whatever situation at hand.
CB: And in terms of vulnerability? I guess those are tied together, huh?
SR: Yes, because most dominant people are really sensitive. I am sensitive but you probably wouldn’t think that from looking at me.
CB: What new projects do you have coming up?
SR: I’m starting a new band this year.
CB: Do you already have pieces written for it?
SR: Yes. I’m starting fresh and making new music and taking it from there. One of my friends recently told me of conversation he had with another fan friend of mine that I haven’t reached my peak yet and that they are anxious to see it. That will come in time.
CB: Well, you’re only 26.
SR: Exactly. I got time. Unless I die tomorrow.
CB: Do you want to talk about New York changing? How is it to be a part of a music scene that is largely white?
SR: Everything is largely white. We live in America. The thing about race is I don’t have any cultural pride. We’re all humans. It doesn’t matter what your color. It doesn’t matter what your culture. We’re all in this shit together.
How I create is devoid of my race. If other people want to do that then that’s fine. That’s their prerogative. I’m already the minority in this genre of being an Avant-garde artist and then a minority onto my race then a minority as a woman. I cringe when people say, a ‘Black guitarist’ or ‘Asian cellist’ because no one ever says ‘White saxophonist’…
CB: So and so white composer. No one ever says that. So you’ve been cutting across boundaries of all kinds in terms of aesthetics, artist vision, and the people you include in your bands.
SR: Yes. I have no boundaries. When I formed Rodenticide it was only later I realized okay, I have Isaiah who’s Black and these two White boys. But does it even fucking matter their race? I understand the need to broaden your horizon and find out who else is in the scene besides White people, but personally I blind myself to it because I don’t look at your race and think okay, I’ll work with you ’cause you’re that race or that gender. Just ain’t the case. You can be whatever race and still not be talented.
CB: You called the piece you did with Isaiah Richardson Jr. at the Park Church Co-op as “a short piece about sex and violence.”
SR: Yes. Again, a lovely place to perform when I’m doing the most blasphemous thing. That piece speaks it’s own dirty language and point of view. It details my sexuality through a feminine standpoint with another woman in particular. It made both of our heads spin with delight. Scenarios I can only experience with other women, not men.
CB: You can only get there with trust.
SR: Yes. And it has to be a mutual thing.
CB: In your view, is there a big overlap between sex and violence?
SR: Sex is a form of beautiful violence! And some people like to bleed. My solo spoken word album yet to be released is called ‘Bloodletting.’ I do believe bloodletting can bring alleviation. I think people should do it at some point in their lives… bloodletting. In any way, or form, sexual or not. A cleansing of the self from the inside out.
CB: Thank you for sharing all of your insights. It’s been great talking.
For more information, visit: https://rodenticide.bandcamp.com/releases