Having played guitar for influential New York rockers Riot, Rick Ventura helped shape the face of ‘80s metal with classic albums such as Nartia and Fire Down Under. His new project, Riot Act pay homage to the classic Riot sound, but also have their sights set firmly on the future (as evidenced by their debut album Closer To The Flame, reviewed here). The Midlands Rocks spoke to Rick prior to the band’s gig on the first date of their jaunt across the UK with Lillian Axe.
Can you start by telling me about your earliest musical memory?
It goes way back. I was young enough to see The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was probably 5 or 6 years old, and that just struck me, there’s something about them that sparks something inside of you. And then anything with a group of guys being outlandish with guitars struck me, and stayed with me.
Then how did your tastes develop? How did you get into rock and metal?
With that side of it, I was really drawn to the great blues guitar players. Every time I heard that sound, it was just so raw. The various Kings; Albert, BB and Freddie, and mostly the English guys at that time, Eric Clapton and the Bluesbreakers, that raw guitar sound, and the raw production. It was so different to the pop radio that was around when I was growing up. As a kid I had the transistor radio hanging off my ear, and it was mainly pop, but every once in a while you’d hear something that was “out there”, a Beatles tune, or The Stones, or Cream, and it was “Wow!”. It was crazy stuff. So that got me into the guitar, it was such a cool means of expression.
How did you get your first instrument?
My grandparents had brought me an acoustic guitar in my early teens, I didn’t do much with it, because I was drawn to the electric. Eventually I got an electric guitar, because you could make sounds with it. It was like “Where can I plug this in to make it sound like Jimi Hendrix?”
With a few notable exceptions, I don’t think of New York as being a rock or a metal city. Therefore, did you feel isolated coming from that environment?
During the period I was growing up it was the disco music craze, and punk also, there was a heavy punk scene. I came from a rock background, so it was almost like the mods and rockers, here in the UK. When I got into Riot we just played the music we liked, which was hard driving music really.
Coming from a place where rock wasn’t so ingrained in the culture, do you think that helped you and the band shape a unique sound?
Probably. We were all influenced by similar bands. I was influenced by the Blues Boom, so anything from England, that was my thing. We were like an isolated group, and from that came our sound. We were young, so there was a lot of angst and aggression, and the music showed that.
Before you joined Riot you were a roadie for the band?
It’s written that I was a Roadie, but I helped the band out. I became friends with Mark [Reale, lead guitarist] because we lived in the same neighbourhood. He literally lived up the block from me, and one day I was walking down the block, and there was this music coming from a house, and I thought ‘What’s going on here?’, and we became tight, and we’d hang out constantly. He already had the first incarnation of the band, so I watched them go through various changes, and I’d hang out with them, and learn from them, and help out with various stuff.
What were the circumstances surrounding your replacing Lou Kouvaris and becoming a full-time band member?
I joined right after the Rock City album. Like lots of bands, there were always line-up changes in Riot. I wouldn’t say there was a falling out, but both Mark and Lou were very good guitar players, and it might have been that certain things annoyed Mark, and one day Lou was just gone. I think there was certain things he wanted to do which Mark wasn’t too keen on, and before you knew it he was gone, so I just fell into it.
As you mentioned, Riot came to prominence at the height of punk. So did you feel you were going against the grain?
Without a doubt. We were definitely left field, and we didn’t fit in with anything that was going on. We were passionate about it, so we stuck with it, and eventually it paid off.
I can hear a lot of Riot’s energy and sound in what became known as the NWOBHM. Do you feel the band gets credit for influencing that scene?
I didn’t find out until later, and people told me that we influenced a lot of bands. I heard it said that we were an inspiration, so that’s a thrill. We all got along with those bands, we did the first Donington festival, we toured with a lot of those bands, and it was a great experience. But everybody influences each other.
How does it feel to be back in the UK? You’ve already mentioned you love the bands and the music.
It feels unbelievable. It’s always been a thrill to come here. The first time I came here I got off the plane and bowed down [does a Wayne’s World ‘we’re not worthy’ impersonation]. Every band I grew up with was from here, so I was ecstatic.
You also mentioned Riot’s appearance at the inaugural Monsters Of Rock…
Yes, and we played the Hammersmith Odeon. It was like ‘Oh my God!’, following in the footsteps of so many bands, and yes, Donington was unbelievable. That was a trip, a sea of denim and leather, to quote Saxon.
Tonight’s gig is the first of six shows in six days. That’s a hectic schedule. What’s your survival plan?
We’re just going to have fun. We haven’t played in two-and-a-half years. So the adrenaline is already there, and the closer we get to our start time, it’s going to be ‘Wow!’. We just can’t wait to play, we’re so pumped to be here that we’re going to let loose.
You’re currently on tour with New Orleans’ Lillian Axe, and Riot Act are from New York, so there’s a North meets South thing going on. I hope there won’t be another Civil War!
I know! I was just thinking that.
How do you think the bands will compliment each other on this tour?
We should. We both play a similar type of energetic music, and we all respect each other, so I think we’ll all get along fine.
What was your reasoning for putting Riot Act together?
It came about from Lou Kouvaris actually. We’d run into each other at a club or somewhere, and he say ‘should we get together and do something?’, that type of thing, and I’d say ‘that’d be cool’, but we never followed through on it. A year would go by, we’d meet again, and say the same thing and nothing would happen. Then we were inducted into the Heavy Metal Hall Of History, and I was so shocked and surprised, and we were invited to the ceremony, we went, and Eddie Trunk [music historian/DJ] gave a speech and spoke highly of Fire Down Under, and on the flight home I was looking at Lou, he was smiling, and I said ‘Let’s do this’, and everything came to a head then, and we decided to move ahead with this project.
So did you know the other members before you put Riot Act together?
I was playing with Paul [Ranieri, bass] and Claudio [Calinski, drums] in another band, and when Lou and I got together, he asked ‘Who’re we gonna get now?’, so I mentioned I was playing with Paul and Claudio, and we should try it out. We did, and it was excellent, the problem was always going to be finding a singer. But a friend of Lou’s turned us on to Don [Chaffin]. Don’s a busy guy so we didn’t know if he’d have time for this, but we sent him some tracks, three Riot songs, Lou was very passionate about it, and really pushed him. So we wound up going to a studio, Don liked the Riot tracks, and when we performed these tracks in the studio, Lou and I looked at each other because Don just killed it. It was like an instant band. Don was like ‘You guys are so tight’, and we just went forward with it.
How long did Closer To The Flame take to put together?
We did it in the few months before Covid kicked in, and then Lou passed away in March of 2020. We had played in January of 2020, we were invited back to play at the Heavy Metal Hall Of Fame, we played two songs there, we came back and two months later Lou was gone.
After Lou passed away, we didn’t know if we were going to continue with the band. As you know, Riot has had many tragedies, we lost two lead singers, Mark, and then Lou. So there came a time when I thought that this was never meant to be. I didn’t play my guitar for a few months, the band members communicated, but everybody knew we had something good, so we made the decision to get together, don’t replace Lou, and continue as a four-piece band, and just write music. So it was kind of cathartic to just indulge ourselves in writing.
So it took about six months to write and record, maybe not even that long. Like I said, there was little breaks in there. It was hard to record because it was right at the peak of Covid. We were all constantly writing, we’d rehearse at home, I’d do demos at home and then send them to the guys, and then we’d eventually get together and try some ideas out.
What’s your songwriting process?
We all contribute, so it’s not like one person does everything. But as it happened, I had a lot of ideas that accumulated, and I’d send them to Don, he’d write lyrics, and that’s how it started, write demos, then when we get to the studio, everybody throws their ideas in, piece it together, and it all just fell into place. The first song we did was ‘Wanted’, that was the first video and it really shows what the band’s about.
Earlier we talked about your musical influences, but I can’t really hear any British influences on here. I’m picking up classic Aerosmith, and of course, classic Riot.
It’s funny because some Riot fans have said to me that it sounds like a continuation of Riot, and that’s probably because I was in Riot for a number of years [laughs]. That sound is just part of me. The title-track, ‘Closer To The Flame’, is probably closest to a British, Rainbow-esque type of thing. I love Richie Blackmore, but there’s American influences on there because Riot were American, and Mark was a big fan of Montrose, so that probably comes through too.
Your old compatriot Lou Kouvaris added guitar to the album’s bonus disc which contains re-recordings of classic Riot songs.
Yes, that was his very last performance.
And how nice it is that he’s been immortalised on record.
Exactly. That bonus disc is dedicated to him, we dedicated it to him, and that’s the only recording of us playing together. We never played together, and it’s the only time on this disc, so it’s a treat for real Riot fans to hear both of us. That’s the sound of Riot with our two guitars.
How was it recording those classic tracks with this line-up?
It was weird because Don’s timbre is very close to Guy [Speranza, original vocalist]. The funny thing is that Don had heard of Riot, but he didn’t know too much about them at all, he started listening to the songs and said that he really liked Guy, his lyrics and his melodies. So, when we started to record the songs, I’m in the control room, and Don is singing, my jaw dropped because it took me back, he sounded so close to Guy, he wasn’t trying or anything, and that was what was so freaky about this whole thing. It just sounded like it was meant to be. It was a trip for me.
They sound like very energetic performances.
The band was really pumped. It was the genesis of the band, and it was so exciting playing together, and I guess it comes across in the recording.
After this run of live dates, what are your short-term and long-term plans for Riot Act?
Once we get home we are back out on the road doing a run of dates with Raven across the US. It’s funny because Riot played with Raven on a Halloween Ball show, and it was Raven’s very first performance in America. It was Riot, Raven and Anthrax on the bill, I believe. So here we are reuniting with Raven after all these years.