Polish Rockers Riverside Set Their Sights on North America
Riverside isn’t exactly a household name in the American music scene, but the Polish rock group is on a mission to change that. Founded in 2001, the band balances metal, progressive and ambient approaches with a strong emphasis on melody.
The group’s 2003 debut, Out of Myself, didn’t chart, but by the time of 2005’s Second Life Syndrome, Riverside had begun to build a following in Poland. Each successive album expanded the band’s fan base, charting first in the Netherlands, then Germany, then in Sweden, Finland and Belgium. And even though the band’s lyrics are in English, the group’s popularity at home is undeniable: beginning with 2007’s Rapid Eye Movement, every Riverside album has reached #1 or #2 on the Polish album charts.
Riverside suffered a major setback with the 2016 cardiac arrest and death of founding member and guitarist Piotr Grudziński, but a year later Maciej Meller joined, initially as a touring guitarist. While Riverside has visited the U.S. before, the band’s current tour represents its first serious foray to build its fan base in the United States. Featuring two dozen dates, the band’s North American tour in support of Wasteland kicks off May 3 at Atlanta’s City Winery. I spoke with songwriter, lead singer and bassist Mariusz Duda in mid-March, between live dates in Rome and Milan, Italy.
Going all the way back to beginning, Riverside seems an unlikely group. You joined with musicians with backgrounds leaning more toward the metal side of progressive rock, while your own interests are more on the atmospheric side of things. Did Riverside all come together smoothly right from the start?
Actually, yes. Because probably I was the only guy with a vision. So they just followed me and we did that together.
What, in fact, was the original concept for the band’s sound?
I was really [first] in touch with Piotr Grudziński the guitar player. We kind of became best friends already. The same age of birth, the same influences, the same music that we’ve been listening to. And we both realized that the emotional aspect is the most important in music. We were kind of – how can I put this? – sensitive guys. So, this sensitivity connected us, and we really wanted the sensitivity into our music. His playing with the guitar and my vocal melodies were the most important things in Riverside music.
And when we started, I was thinking already about us doing something which has a concept. A beginning, an end, something that has a story behind it. And I already wanted, from the very beginning, to have our first album be like that. And after that, another chapter has appeared. So it was just a kind of easy thing.
I was the main guy who wanted really to have something behind [the music]. There are lots of bands that just play songs. Later, they just pick the best ones, title the album and, “Come on, let’s do this kind of best-of.” No, I always wanted to have the story first. And of course, [I wanted to] focus mostly on melodies, because for me that’s something that is eternal. The melodies and songs are always the most important.
Tell me about the decision made early on to sing in English.
That was the beginning of 2000s. The beginning of that decade, we’d been very open to people all over the world, and we wanted to reach a wider audience. These days, if Riverside started, probably we should start with Polish because [today] our country is different. If you sing in Polish right now, you have a much better position.
But we really wanted to play the music for everybody, not [just] for the people in our country. And these are different kind of genres; sometimes your language fits much better to music: some kind of oriental folk music or whatever. And that’s why there are lots of bands from Scandinavia or Iceland or something that just sing in their own language, and that fits.
For me, we wanted to just sing in the universal language, and the universal language was English. If the universal language was Esperanto, probably we would sing in Esperanto.
What do you think it is about the band’s music that strikes a chord with listeners in Europe?
When we started Riverside, we really wanted to do two things: record the albums and play shows. And in those days, it was nice to have the album first and later go on tour promoting it. These days, it appears that you had to tour all the time because people get used to this, and if you don’t tour, people start to have another band that they follow.
But we knew from the very beginning that we have to do things. Not record one album and do three years of break, no. So we knew that we had to be an active band. For us, it was really natural to go and play, not only in Poland, but also in Europe and gain more [fans]. But the very beginning was hard for us; somewhere in Holland we had like 80 people. Then, in Germany, 120. But with every year, the audience was bigger and bigger. And now, we can finally play for thousands of people.
As far as songwriting, do you road-test material before you go into the studio?
First, I compose songs by myself or sometimes in front of the guys, and they add up something from time to time. Later, we record this, and later [still], we go on tour with this material. But I don’t like to play live the arrangements that you can find on the album. I always try to slightly change this or that, do the mixture. That makes your show much more unique.
We are now touring to promote our seventh album, and I think that after all these years, I finally found a good set list! In the past, we’d be playing, we were on the stage, and people would listen to that. Now we are more entertaining people; there’s more interaction between us and the audience. I think that Riverside changed on the stage, and it took us some time.
The first three Riverside albums are a trilogy, but recent releases don’t so much have that conceptual continuity. Is the idea of conceptually-linked releases something that you’ve left behind?
Reality Dream Trilogy was connected mostly because of the lyrics, mostly because of the Travis Smith [album] covers. And the music, let’s be honest; it was kind of similar music on each of these albums. And it changed with Anno Domini High Definition because I started to write about the present days. And later, with Shrine of New Generation Slaves and Love, Fear and the Time Machine, I focused on different aspects, more about how we should struggle with solitude. So, it was not like the fantasy story about someone, like we could have on the Reality Dream Trilogy. Of course, I named Anno Domini, Shrine of New Generation Slaves and Love, Fear and the Time Machine something like The Crowd Trilogy, but it was just like my personal Crowd Trilogy or whatever.
But I think that Wasteland, the seventh album, is the beginning of something again. I don’t think that it will be the first part of a trilogy. No, it will just have some connections with other ones. Maybe this post-apocalyptic thing; that’s [laughs] kind of modern these days. We’re just aiming into this, and maybe it will be convenient to continue that in a sort of way.
I always try to play with the formula, of course. That’s why the fourth, fifth and sixth albums have these connections with the titles, right? Four letters, five letters, six letters in the title and some acronyms. Anno Domini High Definition is ADHD, Shrine of New Generation Slaves is SONGS. I just wanted to mark what’s the most important for us.
But after that trilogy, I started to do something else and I also started my solo project, Lunatic Soul, releasing [those albums] in between Riverside albums. So, it was like the deep dig again, and now I created some kind of circle of something. I always love to look at my albums from the wider perspective and put them into something which is not like a single one. It’s only a part of something bigger.
How has the group’s musical approach changed in the 15-plus years since Out of Myself?
I’d say that the previous decade was, from one side, we created something quite original because we connected the heaviness and the mellow things together, full of melodies and everything. But it was also a bit of, let’s say, underground. The production, the arrangements were really intense. It was connected even to punk music sometimes. It was like progressive punk, full of weird approaches. We had the drummer who used to play death metal and he started to play ballads; it was weird. Weird, and at the same time pretty original.
And with Shrine of New Generation Slaves or even with the mini album, Memories in My Head, I really wanted to change the approach, because I was tired of this underground approach. I wanted to open the windows, let the fresh air come in, and do something with the arrangements, do something with the melodies. Just to simplify the formula into more songwriting process than just doing the long, complicated things. So, with Shrine of New Generation Slaves, Love, Fear and the Time Machine, and even Wasteland, we’ve been focusing on the melodies, and songs, and songwriting. I wanted to skip this progressive part. I wanted to be a more alternative band than progressive. Progressive means, “This is the music for the guys who just love to listen to shredding guitar players.” And I don’t like that kind of music, really. It sounds like something that girls don’t like, which is not true because we play lots of stuff for women and we have that kind of audience now. So, I think we needed that kind of album like Love, Fear and the Time Machine or Shrine of New Generation Slaves.
And with Wasteland, I think we’ve found this bridge between the old Riverside and the new Riverside, a new approach, because the darkness of it returned. And I think Wasteland is just the beginning of a new chapter. Of course, we lost our guitar player; it was a really huge tragedy for us and it was really important force in Riverside’s music, but we’ve been always compared to someone else. The Polish Porcupine Tree, the Polish Dream Theater, the Polish Anathema. Even when we did Shrine of New Generation Slaves and there were three songs with a Hammond organ, someone started to say we are just the Polish Deep Purple! Jesus Christ!
And because of Piotr, his way of playing, we’d always have, “Oh, I love the guitar player because he plays like David Gilmour.” So, we always were someone. And we’ve noticed one thing. When we lost Piotr, we lost our Polish David Gilmour. So, we’re not the Polish Pink Floyd anymore.
So, some people started to have a problem with us because Wasteland is like the new chapter. Not only because we changed a bit of our music and approach to something; now it’s hard to compare. You listen to – I don’t know – Nick Cave, plus some Lunatic Soul, plus some western subjects, some others, something from Riverside in the past, but it’s not so easy to compare us to anyone else now.
Some people told me that, for the first time, they’d have this impression that Riverside finally became their own style. I don’t know if it’s true. I think that from the beginning we had this style, but there’s something that we still develop. We’re still growing up no matter what, with every album. We’re not Iron Maiden that records every time the same album! We’re just trying to do something else all the time.
Is there anything about Riverside’s approach to music – or your approach to lyrics – that is uniquely Polish?
Honestly, I’ve started to do that in Wasteland. I used to be inspired by British music; I had this kind of British melancholy. But with Wasteland, I changed some of the melodies into more Slovak ones, if you know what I mean. We’re a kind of sad nation, sometimes, and we love that kind of melancholic song, but with a different approach. And I think that when you hear the songs “Lament” or “Wasteland,” they sound a bit like Johnny Cash, but it’s not. “The Day After” and some of the other melodies are inspired by the Polish entertainment from my childhood; you can hear this Slovak folk approach. And I wanted to do that for the first time in Riverside. In the past, I did that in Lunatic Soul. Now I did it in Riverside. So, I think, after this tragedy that we had [the 2016 death of Grudziński], we finally started to play something with a Polish approach.
You mentioned Lunatic Soul. To date, you’ve done a very good job of keeping Lunatic Soul as a separate project distinct from Riverside. Do you ever see a time in which the two might blend into a single project?
I don’t think so. Of course, I’m the main composer in Riverside, but Riverside is a band. We’re touring, and every musician has meaning. I mean, Michael [Łapaj] and his keyboards, Piotr [Kozieradzki] and his drumming, me playing the bass guitars in different ways and maybe sometimes in different ways. Piotr [Grudziński] had his unique style on the guitar, but now we have the support of Maciej Meller who is our live guitar player. I also want to use him on the albums, because he has this kind of modesty I really enjoy and I really think that it will fit. The guys in Riverside have their own identity. These are not musicians that I hire for money. So, it should be also in the music.
But I always wanted to keep [the two projects] separate. Lunatic Soul is without the electric guitar, and if you don’t have such an important instrument, you have to experiment more. These boundaries I found in Lunatic Soul gave me much more artistic freedom. That’s the huge paradox, but thanks to this, I could do lots of stuff. And I would love to keep it separate because it has its own identity.
But … I have to say, I did something like a connection recently, because for me, Wasteland is the most Lunatic Soul-ish Riverside. And [2017’s] Fractured by Lunatic Soul is the most Riverside-ish Lunatic Soul. So, we kind of connect those words to each other, but I would love to keep it separate.
Of course, of course, probably one day I will release something under my own name. I have some songs that I would like to use, and I don’t want to start another project with a weird name. My name will be probably much more popular than something weird. Under my own name, I could play shows and use both Lunatic Soul and Riverside songs. So, probably, in the future, that kind of connection may appear.
But I don’t think, not on the albums. The albums I will leave separate.
Will the upcoming tour of the U.S. be Riverside’s first time touring in the States?
Let’s say it will be the first time in a professional way! Because we had two tours already, but it was always like East Coast and, I don’t know, ten shows. But now we’re going on something like 25 shows all over the United States. So, that kind of tour will be for the first time, yes.
Some bands who come to America from Europe just hit the big cities – New York, Chicago, L.A. – and then they go home. What led to the decision to do a more extensive tour?
We should finally give a chance to everyone who follows us on social media and give them a chance to be in touch with us live. Lots of people are coming to see us all over Europe. I still remember that lots of people came when we played this show [in tribute to] Piotr Grudziński. Lots of people came from Australia, even, and we’ve never been to Australia. So, I think it’s time to let some people know about how we play live, and just visit their hometowns. That’s our plan.
These days, you have to be also more active in that way. The fact that you are on Spotify or YouTube doesn’t mean anything; you need to show yourself playing live shows, and then lots of people can meet you and find out about you. It’s even more important than listening to music from the albums. So, that’s why we decided to finally go on a tour and reach the places like Seattle or somewhere in Texas. That kind of stuff should be from the very beginning, but we didn’t have a chance. But with every album, we became a bit more popular and some promoters started to know about us. And now, after almost 20 years of existence, we can go on a proper tour in America.
I’ve interviewed many European acts, and a lot of them tell me that it’s quite difficult to get the work visas sorted out to be able to tour…
That’s very true, yeah. Working visa and stuff, we’ve we just rented some lawyer who does lots of stuff [for] us right now. I hope that it will be fixed on time.
What are you looking forward to most about the U.S. tour?
I think knowing new people, new connections, new contacts, and new experiences. I visit all these places that I’ve never been to. Those things, take something. But I’d also love to come back to America because I have very creative memories from this place. We even used to see the baseball match in Atlanta with this – how do you say – [makes Braves war chant] with the hand. Because the guy who was working with our tour manager before was from Atlanta.
But mostly, I would love to see those places that I’ve never seen. So, that’s my goal.
I’ve been listening to Riverside for many years, and I’ve never seen the band. I’m looking forward to seeing you on the opening night of the tour, in Atlanta.[Laughs] Maybe you should give us a chance to at least warm up a bit!