Unknown in the UK and even unremarked in their home town of Boston, American alternative rock band RIBS have nevertheless made huge waves in their career so far. After an exhaustive, obsessive gestation period for their first EP, ‘British Brains’ frontman and architect of the band’s sound Keith Freund posted the download link for the recordings on Reddit. A flurry of activity later and RIBS were in possession of both a cult fanbase and the bizarre honour of claiming the most popular music post of all time on the service. Two years on and they’ve released the follow-up, ‘Russian Blood’, which again takes its name from the same Stalin quote as ‘British Brains’.
“He said that World War II was being won with British Brains, American Brawn, and Russian Blood,” explains Keith. “That said, we don’t have any plans for an ‘American Brawn’ EP. First off, we’re planning our next release being a full length. Second, as an American band, a release titled ‘American Brawn,’ without the context of the other two EPs, would probably be interpreted in a way we didn’t intend. Plus the word “Brawn” kind of grosses me out.”
Conceptually, there was a desire to move away slightly from the full-on, intense listening experience of ‘British Brains’: “originally [it was] going to be a vocal-based record,” says Keith, “I thought we could use our voices as the main compositional instrument, and treat the guitar as a harmony instrument to fill in the spaces–the reverse of how you’d normally do it.” Fans of their modern rock sound, fear not; the band that melded the transatlantic influences of Failure, Far, Vex Red and Hundred Reasons have not cashed in their chips yet. “We learned pretty quickly that they’re really not interchangeable at all. Even with distortion, the human voice is much smoother than an electric guitar, and less biting, less percussive.”
“You’ll hear hints of that concept throughout” continues Keith, contrasting the dynamics and tone with the first EP, “more rhythm, more riffs, less power chords. [You] get to hear Blake’s piano playing on ‘Gateway Drug’, acoustic guitar on ‘Kiss’, and harmony vocals from Justin and Chris on ‘Destructo’.” The lyrics are changed too – far from the veiled, passive aggressive metaphorical sketches of ‘Silencer’, ‘Even’ and ‘Queen of Hearts’ from their début, this time the specifics are writ large in the music: “My pre-RIBS songwriting was very responsible…’Russian Blood’ is very much the opposite. Most of these songs come from that immediate, irrational gut reaction. There’s a different kind of truth you’ll get in those moments that you won’t have looking back a year later. For example, I was at a club one night and got an idea for the bridge to ‘Kiss’. I walked outside to sing into my phone and write down some lyrics. By coincidence at that exact moment I saw the girl I was writing about walking away with her new boyfriend. So in those 45 seconds I was literally writing in real time.”
If that may sound overly dramatic, it only goes to illustrate just what a change has come over the band. It’s not just NIN-lite ‘Kiss’ that wears its genesis on its sleeve either; the anthemic high-water mark of the EP, ‘Alarms’, triggers another recollection.
“[That] was a reaction to hearing the song that the girl from ‘Kiss’ wrote with her new boyfriend. Their musical collaboration was how they got to know each other, and she left me for him a few months after that collaboration started. Anyway, I thought their song was absolute shit. In a moment of arrogance I thought to myself “I bet I could write a song that would just destroy their song”. I spent the weekend demoing out what I thought was my song destroyer and that eventually became ‘Alarms’. During the ‘British Brains’ days, I probably would’ve let the feelings pass first, to get some perspective on that situation. And I probably would’ve realized hey, maybe their song isn’t so bad, maybe I should be more understanding of why she had to cut me off, maybe those feelings were only a defence mechanism… but if I hadn’t allowed myself that moment of bitterness, “Alarms” never would’ve happened.”
Finally, there’s the subject of Reddit. It seems like every band, artist, brand, magician, school, magazine or business is trying to ‘go viral’ – so what’s it actually like to be an internet sensation? “Blowing up on Reddit only helped us, as a band” Keith remembers. “It didn’t catapult us to super stardom but it gave us a taste… and it’s quite a rush.” Taking from it “how important die-hard music lovers are”, the ones that are “motivated they are to tell everyone they know” has been a humbling experience in some ways – as well as a learning one. “These are not the same people who will turn your song off if the hook doesn’t come in within 30 seconds,” Keith states proudly. “Before ‘British Brains’ came out we thought no one would listen to ‘Queen of Hearts’ because there’s two minutes of droning at the beginning, but we’ve probably gotten as many fans from that song as we have ‘Brains Out’ – if not more.”
So despite the early successes it’s still clearly been a rollercoaster couple of years for the band; contemplating a long-player after two meticulous EPs, how do Keith and the boys stay motivated? “There’s nothing like having someone tell you that your music got them through a hard time or helped them in some way. I’m addicted to that feeling.”