What began as an experimental music project between two college friends has transformed into an opportunity for Rites of Ash’s lead guitarist Ken “Lazzo” Lasso to pursue his “first and true love.”
Rites of Ash, a Virginia-based band, is savvy to the realm of professional music-making. The group has released four full-length studio albums, three music videos, and has been featured on more than 10 MTV programs, including The Real World and Pimp My Ride. In 2014 they won Best Electronica Album at the Washington Area Wammy Awards and were nominated for Modern Rock Group this year.
Lazzo, co-founder of the band, sat down with The Writer’s Bloc during spring break to discuss the formation and creative energy of Rites from its origins as a college rock band to its present state.
Q: I guess we could start with the band’s beginning; how it was formed, when, that sort of thing.
A: I started the band when I was at Christopher Newport University in 2004. I started the band as kind of an experimental project with my friend, Adam. I was very interested, and got turned on as it were, from Nine Inch Nails and Stabbing Westward – kind of industrial rock music. I liked kind of a combination of acoustic and electronic elements. So we started messing around with stuff like that […] I guess initially it was more of industrial rock, not so much pop rock, which is what it is now. So he and I worked on it.
Then, [Adam] ended up transferring so it was just me – kind of a solo thing for a year. Then I wrote the first album, that was never officially released, called Enter the Evil System, [which was] more of a politically-motivated album, what with the war in Iraq, and everything going on over there.
It was kind of a protest album.
2005 was when I graduated and I was coming back up to live here in D.C. and I wanted to get musicians to start the project and get the band going. So I put an ad on Myspace, that’s how old I am [laughs], and I got a response from the singer, Alex [Like]. He and I have been working together ever since, the very beginning. He and I have gone through different members throughout the years, but it’s always been Alex and me.
Q: So you hooked up with Alex. How about the rest of your band? How did they all get into this? Was it more of a progressive thing?
So, without going into too much detail, we went through different members throughout the years. Different drummers, and just for a matter of […] whether the direction we wanted to go in wasn’t working for them or whatever, it wasn’t working, we just kind of parted our ways for different people. So initially, when we had our first album, Beautiful Illusions, in 2006 – that was our first official release as the band – it was just three of us: Alex, Fester (he’s our [former] drummer) and then me. But, over the years, the most recent lineup … I’m trying to think how that happened … magic, really.
Q: That’s often the only explanation.
A: Yeah, I don’t know.
We needed […] Toni [Fisher], the female singer. Alex, he works his day job as a nurse at a hospital. Toni was in there with a relative and they started talking, and he was like, “Oh, you’re a singer, great.”
And I’m on vacation and he sends me a picture of her and I’m like, “Oh that’s awesome, let’s have her on a track.” So we have her on She’s Out For Blood, that EP we came out with in 2012. And we had her on one song.
Then we did a show at Jammin’ Java, and we had her come up on stage and sing with us and we were like, “Oh, this is awesome.” So, we had her come on a couple more songs and she ended up being part of the band.
And a guy in the audience that night – we’d never had a keyboard player, everything was kind of backtracked – so a guy in the audience, Tuomas Easton, he was in the audience and he was goes, “Wow, you guys are awesome, I’d love to play with you.”
So, it was just a matter of chance. And he’s a virtuoso on keyboards. Classically trained, he can hear by ear – he can play anything. So […] he became our “keytarist.”
Q: Ah, yes, I saw that instrument in some of your videos. Now, what did you study when you were in school? What music, or something else?
A: No, it was a side thing. It was always a passion of mine. But, I studied political science actually.
Q: Hence the politically-driven first album?
Then, I ended up getting my masters in public policy from George Mason [University]. I love politics and government and things like that. But, music’s always been my first and true love.
Q: So, this may be an annoying question, I don’t know. But I’m going to ask it anyways. So, “Rites of Ash,” where did that band name come from?
A: Ah, what an annoying question [laughter].
It’s a good question, too. Over the years I’ve tried to develop an actual reason of what it means … we don’t really know what it means. Like, Nine Inch Nails. I think that came about, if I’m not mistaken – in stores they have eight inch nails and ten inch nails, and they were like, nine inch nails? Okay, that’s cool. And that was it … it sounds cool, it sounds good, it looks awesome.
So for Rites of Ash, I think it was Adam, my friend in college, who came up with it. He was a philosophy major. And it had something to do with rites of passage … rites, like religious rites. And ash. He said something like, “Ash was the son of Cain, from Cain and Abel.” It was something like that. I don’t think I’ve ever looked into it. So it’s some spiritual thing. And it just sounds neat. That’s about it.
Q: So, let’s talk about your music. It’s got this kind of dark, electric feel to it. How would you categorize it yourself?
A: That’s something we’ve had a hard time doing in the entire career of the band. It’s one of the things that makes it difficult for us, with the sound you described and what we actually describe ourselves as being, as far as radio airplay goes. Because, certain stations play indie alternative, or its modern pop, or rock. We’re kind of all those things and it’s hard, finding our nitsch. Currently I think its electronic pop/hard rock.
Q: I’m not sure if you personally write the music or if you do it collectively, or what that process is. But where do you find that a lot of your inspiration is drawn from?
A: I couldn’t tell you.
I really don’t know. It can be a really numinous experience, at times. Sometimes it just hits you. Obviously the earlier stuff that you listen to is a lot darker, and I guess a lot more representative of what I was listening to – a lot of Marilyn Manson and stuff like that … I guess we’re always kind of a product of what turns us on at the moment, and I think that’s what we’re doing now.
We’ve never changed our sound just to change it, or changed it to fit in somewhere. The last record is what we were inspired by. I do not remember [what the band was listening to at the time.] But I can say my influences were all over the place. I grew up – my parents raised me right listening to ‘60s Motown and things like that. In high school I got into Metallica and I was like “Woah, what’s this stuff?” So I started learning how to play that on guitar and discovering industrial rock. But in high school I also listened to a lot of Christian music. So I was listening to everything from Christian music, like Jars of Clay, to Marilyn Manson.
Q: So no wonder your band has that versatility.
A: That’s kind of the thing. And as the song fits. We write what we like.
Q: How about lyricism?
A: I can’t speak too much to the lyrics, but I can say that they are definitely very important. Alex is brilliant as far as his lyrics. Even though a lot of them sound poppy, if you read, there’s a lot of emotion and heartbreak in there. It’s real. Even if it’s like a, “Hey girl, da da da …” that’s not what it really means.
Like “Molly.” It’s a double entendre.
It’s not supposed to be just about a girl named Molly, but drugs and drug culture.
Q: So for your early music you had said that you focused a lot on political commentary. Would you say that your band’s music focuses on any certain subject matter?
A: I’d say mostly it’s relationships. You know, write what you know, write what you’re feeling. We never try to write … well, except for that first album, although, I guess, that’s what I was feeling.
You know, America was gearing up for war, the world was, and I was one of the few dissenters, trying, against all odds, to stop the war, but it wasn’t successful. But, you write what you feel, and Alex writes what he feels and he’s incredibly heartfelt in everything in his life.
A lot of relationships, heartache, you know, we all go through that. And the pain, it really comes through a lot.
Not that his life is miserable or painful [laughter] at all. He has a very good life. But I guess, that’s his therapy. Everyone has their ways of dealing with things. And he’s very positive and happy. But when it comes to his lyrics, you hear them and you’re like, “Wow, dude, I had no idea that that affected you so much.”
Q: So, what sort of things have you been doing as a band? I saw some of your music videos. I’ve read about some things you’ve done with MTV. I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit about some of those sort of things?
A: Over the years we’ve had a lot of licensing deals with MTV, we’ve had our music played on a lot of their shows. We haven’t done a big tour or anything, but we’ve played some good shows. We played the Dew Tour up in Ocean City [in 2013] […] so they have a huge beach festival, we’re playing on this huge stage at the beach, there are amps going behind us. It’s live on ESPN so they have all the ramps. It’s a great event, lot of great energy.
We got to play before some good acts.
Q: Where do you usually play your shows?
A: We’ve been holding back on our show schedule, we’re working on some new music right now. Always working. But, mostly throughout D.C. – anywhere and everywhere kind of.
Schedule-wise, we’ve been offered to play at 9:30 [Club] before, but […] when they ask you to play usually it’s like two weeks out and stuff. [We had] bad luck. The last three times we had a show like a week before and we want to make sure we bring a lot of people, so it was just bad timing. So, we’ve never played there before, but we’ve played just about everywhere else. DC9 … [the] State Theatre, Jammin’ Java [in Alexandria, Va.]
Q: So for the gigs you got with MTV or the Dew Tour, how did those opportunities arise?
A: As with a lot of things in this business, I think a lot of it’s about being in the right place at the right time.
In the Myspace days, they were going to film [The Real World: D.C.] So they hit us up on Myspace. They always try find local groups to play music for the show, which is a great idea.
So they found us then and were like, “Hey we’d like you to play some music,” and we were like “Okay, great,” and we got a contact with a guy at [the production company] Bunim/Murray […]
So that’s how we got on that show.
And then he ended up getting hired by MTV and we had that contact get carried over to MTV and he was like, “How about all these other shows?” So, you develop your Rolodex …
Do you know what a Rolodex is?
Q: Yeah, kinda.
Q: So, what are you guys doing now? What are you working on? Any big plans?
A: Right now, we’re kind of regrouping our lives and reworking stuff.
We’re working on new music.
We have a few great songs that we’re going to market and pitch. We’re trying to get some placements on a couple of new TV shows […] some songs we were working on a while ago that we’re going to re-release.
One of the songs we’re working on right now is from the period right after the album Like Venom, and the She’s Out For Blood EP, when Toni Fisher joined.
It was just Alex and me, and we did a demo CD that we sold at shows.
On that demo CD, was a song called City Sleeps Six Feet Deep. It’s about zombies and some kind of hard-hitting stuff. It didn’t fit on the stuff we’ve put out since so we sort of put it on the shelf.
But we re-recorded it, and we were like, “You know this is a pretty good song,” and everyone loves those zombie shows, like The Walking Dead, so we were like “Hey, great.”
So that’s what we’re kind of working on – getting a placement there.
Q: With The Walking Dead?
A: With The Walking Dead or, they just announced a spin-off show of The Walking Dead that they’re going to do, so that got me thinking. That’d be awesome.
That would be awesome.
Daphne Pellegrino is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.