Every now and then, you run into someone who is so no bullshit that it almost shocks you. Richie Ramone, drummer for the legendary Ramones during some of their most prolific years, is one of those people. He tells it like it is, walks the walk through the pretenders and over-the-toppers and plays rock & roll still salted with a big dose of the punk he has always been known for.
If there is one surname in musical history that sparks an immediate reaction, that name is Ramone. The majority of musicians playing today hail the band of “brothers” as influences, worshiping at the altar of “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Richie joined the band in late 1982, replacing the popular Marky Ramone, and played on Too Tough To Die, Animal Boy and Halfway To Sanity. On September 17, he releases his first solo album, Entitled. With nary a ballad around, Richie blazes through not only some original tunes but re-workings of a few of his Ramones-era contributions.
Calling in from his home in California, his New Jersey accent firmly intact and his dogs singing in the background, Richie talked to me about his years with the punk rock innovators, hanging out with Joey Ramone, seeing his first concert at Madison Square Garden, what it was like being a producer on his new record and why he will always take time out for his fans.
Why did you leave New York?
New York is probably the greatest city in America as far as culture and everything you want to do, and that’s kind of where I’m from so I end up going back. But then you get there and the way of life is a little difficult and hard, you know. Here I can have a home with a yard and dogs and cars. In the city, you don’t really have that. And I don’t like the snow anymore anyway (laughs). The weather is really nice here. But it does get cooler in the winter time but then you make a fire. For me, in this business, it’s either LA or New York. I’ve lived in South Beach, Miami. I think only Lenny Kravitz lives there and he’s able to make it work. But it’s kind of like everything is tied up on these two cities. So it’s easier for me.
You have a new record. What got you back in the studio?
That’s a good question. I took some time off and then I came back, I think it was 2006, and I played my first Joey Ramone Bash. He has a party in his honor on his birthday in New York City. His brother Mickey Leigh puts that on and I did that one year, two years, and then I did the symphony [West Side Story in 2007]. You know, there was something inside me that wanted to get back to this, where I’m singing and it’s kind of weird but stuff started flowing out of me and I wanted everybody to hear this and that’s kind of how it happened. You know sometimes you got to get stuff off your chest and that’s what this record is and it came out great. So it’s very exciting. It’s fun to be back and I think I’m more grown up now and I can handle this. When you’re a songwriter you’ve got to pick your moments when your good material is coming in and this is what happened with this record.
How long had you actually been writing for the record?
Probably only two years. Eight are fresh and four I did with the Ramones back in the eighties that I redid, you know, with me singing. The arrangements are a little bit different but not much.
Why did you decide to include those?
They were missing my sound, the Richie sound. They had the Ramones sound, you know, so I wanted to give them my sound, my vision, with my singing and everything. And plus they’re too good of songs to not redo (laughs). I mean, those records had some good stuff that I wrote for them. Those were the cream of the crop of what I was writing at that time. So why not redo them. It was really fun to do it, you know.
And you have a whole new generation coming up and it’s a good way for them to discover the Ramones. They pick up your CD and then go back and listen to the Ramones.
That would be cool. I feel a little sorry for the kids now. I mean, the kids who like rock & roll, there’s nowhere to turn to really hear it anymore. But the internet radio is coming into play and you can find your favorite stations on that; or Sirius, you know. But Sirius you got to buy but the internet radio is free.
You produced your new record. Was it harder doing everything and then trying to look at it with more of an objective perspective? Did you find yourself thinking too much?
I always think too much so we can start there. I’m an over-thinker but it becomes harder in the studio cause you got to be on both sides of the glass. You got to cut a track, you got to go inside and listen, you got to go back out. You walk back and forth to the control room a lot more (laughs). But people don’t realize the producer’s job is not just making sure that the mix is right. It starts in the beginning, from the songwriting to the arranging to how many choruses to your bridges. I sit and I make sure the arrangements are tight before you even record it. That’s all stuff you do in advance, you know. A producer’s job is more than just hanging out and making sure the mix is right.
Did you find yourself nit-picking your own material more?
Of course. Hey, you must know me (laughs). Yeah, you get really close to it and then when it comes time to mix, I think I mixed for seven months, with two different great guys: Dave Jerden, he did Alice In Chains, the Offspring, all those bands, and Mark Needham, who is really hot right now. You just end up getting so close and you take it home and you got to listen. You just want everything right. So it took a long time. I took almost a year from the time we started to make it.
Did you change a lot once you got in the studio?
You change it a little bit. I mean, I knew what I wanted. I never really complete a song until I have a purpose to complete a song. It’s kind of weird. I just don’t sit there and write songs from beginning to end. I need a purpose and the purpose is more, yeah, you have a vibe and a feel, but the purpose comes into play of what’s going on in your life and what story you’re going to tell. That’s why I really don’t finish a song. I could finish a song from eight years ago and tell a story that has no relevance of what I want to talk about, you know. The lyrics are key and the lyrics on this record are really cool. This record is all about my life and what I’ve been through, what I’ve experienced over fifty-five years.
You’d much rather write about real life than trying to make up somebody else’s story.
Yeah, and you can ask a lot of songwriters, if it comes from within on a personal level it’s easier to really make people feel that and understand it and sing it that way, you know. I don’t talk as much about politics in my lyrics as other bands, but I’m glad they do, that someone’s handling that, you know. This is really about me and what’s happening. You learn a lot about me when you sit down with the lyrics and follow them as they go.
Were you talking about who we all think you were talking about in your Ramones song “You Can’t Say Anything Nice?”
Hmm, well, you kind of know who it is. You probably heard that story. There’s been different versions of it (laughs) but that’s a good question. That song had multiple things. People keep relating to this about Johnny Ramone. I think there are some things in my mind about Johnny in that song, you know what I’m saying. I used to watch him comb his hair and he’d hang his head down and comb the hair from the back (laughs). That’s what that line is about, you know. He had beautiful hair, Johnny. He would comb that hair from the back and can’t say anything nice so there were parts about that and parts about some other things but …
You only allowed the press to hear five songs from the CD. What else can you tell us about it?
Yeah, there’s twelve songs on the album and then we’re doing a white vinyl also. The white vinyl has a bonus track on it, so there’s thirteen songs on the vinyl, one song that’s not on the CD. So it’s really cool.
Why have you chosen “Criminal” to be the first song to say, “I’m back?”
It’s a vote (laughs), basically a vote, a consensus. I feel like it’s Motown 1971, where they had a panel come in and they vote, you know. I know what goes around. There’s a lot of singles on this but this one may stand a quarter inch ahead of the next one (laughs). I mean, it’s a real tight race to what can go out there. We’re loaded up to put out singles and to promote and that’s the way it should be. This is my first solo record and it’s chock full of great songs and that’s what happens usually throughout time. Your best songs come out on your first record.
What can you tell us about the title track, “Entitled?”
It gets dark and mysterious but it talks about a lot of other things. I wanted to come off like, we’re entitled, not like I’m entitled and FU, know what I mean. Like, I didn’t want to come off snobbish like that. It’s like we’re all entitled and it just talks about a lot of people’s lives of what they went through or what they go through. I love that track.
Who do you have playing with you on the album?
We have my shredder, Tommy Bolan. He was in Warlock back in the late eighties, playing guitar for Doro Pesch. He’s from that band. He’s killer and probably the fastest guitar player I know, which fits in perfect with me. I like fast. And Jiro Okabe played bass. He’s from Japan and he did a great job. Then my touring band, I have Tommy, I have Clare Misstake, she was in AntiProduct from England and a bunch of other things. And I have Ben Reagan, who was in the Feederz. Those are the people who tour with me right now.
I know that drummers and bass players play off each other but was everyone following you?
Everyone always follows me (laughs). Just like in the Ramones. I laid that beat down. You go to the Ramones show and the loudest thing was me and Joey, drums and vocal. So I lay it down and they’re all right there with me. I have all those beats in my head and basically they’re playing what I wrote. And Tommy adds a lot of color and solos to the record.
You haven’t lost any of your speed over time.
No, you just got to keep at it, you know. It’s amazing what the body can do if you eat right and condition yourself, because when we’re live, I’m singing and drumming and then I also come to the front and just sing in front throughout the show two or three different times. I move around and Ben, my second guitarist, plays drums. He jumps on the drums. You see, he does a lot of utility work, you know. He plays drums and guitar so I get to go up to the front and have the kids steal my jewelry (laughs) instead of just being behind the drums all night and singing. I always want to play some drums because that’s what the kids know me for and I just don’t want to like be a frontman all night. But it’s fun to go up there and they can get in my face, which they deserve.
You’ve been in this business a very long time. What still excites you about playing music?
Everything. You read all about it, the rush that you get live. I mean, for me to do a live show and hear kids singing your words is the biggest reward. They’ll sing, they know every word. If you make a mistake, they know it (laughs). They know every word and that’s like so killer to me. And the other thing is, hearing other bands do their versions of a song you wrote is very rewarding. There’s a lot of stuff that you really don’t get out of any other kind of job, you know. That’s what I really like.
What do you miss most about playing with the Ramones?
Joey and Dee Dee. I miss them a lot. You know, five years I had my Ramones little family, and Joey and I, we hung out all the time. You kind of miss that. Not only that, the time it was, the 80’s; to me, the eighties were 80’s. It’s a different world, more corporate now, the whole industry’s changed with the internet and all this stuff, but I miss hanging out with them and just playing and looking at them, you know. But we all move on.
Why do you think you connected with Joey so well?
I don’t know why, maybe because we were both tall (laughs). It used to be really fun because I’m 6’3 and Joey was like 6’5; Richie Stotts, the guitar player in the Plasmatics, was like 6’7, and Joey’s brother Mickey was like 6’5 or 6’4. And I always remember going to Joey’s and we’d all hook up and go out and we got in the elevator. I was the shortest guy and I never had to look down (laughs). I could just look everybody in the eye cause no one was shorter than me. It was kind of cool hanging out with them (laughs). It was really interesting. I always think about that, you know.
Was it surreal when you worked on Joey’s solo album, …Ya Know?, which was released last year?
Totally, totally, cause people don’t understand. You just don’t show up in the studio and play it. You play it for a week at home, learning the tracks before you get to the studio, and they sent me the tracks without drums but Joey’s singing so it’s like he’s right there with you. So after a hundred times, it becomes a little sad, you know. We were really, really close and a lot of people don’t know that. We hung out every night for five years. If we weren’t playing, we were still going out to Paul’s Lounge or the Ritz or anywhere in New York City, going to get something to eat. Every night, you know. He was my bro.
In your opinion, what do you think was the Ramones greatest contribution to the music world?
The way the sound influenced music. That’s the greatest contribution, especially when they came out during the height of disco. It took a lot of whatever to come out with that sound and it worked and they stayed true to it and they never varied on anything. They created the sound and it changed rock & roll history. Some people say it’s the Sex Pistols but it was the Ramones. That changed the course of music forever and that’s what made them such an icon.
Do you get a lot of the musicians coming up and telling you how much that you guys influenced them?
Oh yeah and you can read it in any interview with any band along that genre, seventy percent mention the Ramones as an influence in their life. The first time they picked up their first album, you know, so yeah.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Passaic, New Jersey, about six miles from New York City, the Lincoln Tunnel, and I just grew up in a suburban town. I’m a New Jersey kid, me and Bon Jovi (laughs). Then I got exposed to New York more and more and started in bands and started taking the bus into New York City and all that kind of stuff.
Who were you listening to then?
We were listening to arena rock, anything from Creedence to Yes to all that stuff. I listened to a lot of stuff as a kid because I was a drummer and I wanted to take in all forms of drumming, whether it was melodic rock or Alice Cooper. It’s important for any musician to just listen to all genres, take it in and then spit it out the way that you want it to come out on paper. If you just listen to rock & roll, that’s what you’re going to do, you’re not going to have any blues behind you or jazz or anything like that. You should have that no matter what you’re playing. You can influence yourself just knowing what that stuff sounds like, or how to play it, you know. I would set up big speakers in my mother’s basement and bash away as a kid.
How did she feel about that?
It was great, you know. The neighbors got a thing but I would do it during the day. But I had big speakers and big chrome drums and would just smash away. But I studied with a teacher starting at four years old so I learned to read music. But then when you get older, like twelve, and you want to start playing all that rock, and I played to all those different kinds of records.
Did you go to a lot of concerts back then?
Yeah. I think my first concert was Elton John and the Allman Brothers at Madison Square Garden. I loved Elton John’s drummer, the way he sat there, and the Allman Brothers are always great. You know, I had a brother who’s five years older than me so I was constantly being exposed to music at a younger age. I was five years ahead, you know. But that concert may have been maybe 1969 or 1970. I don’t even know. I was young, a kid.
When you joined the Ramones, how did the crowds react to you? Did they accept you right away or did you have to kind of work at it?
I don’t know, they didn’t say anything bad (laughs). I’m sure they accepted it right away. It’s just a new vibe with a new person. Nobody said anything but I guess it takes people time. Like the first show with a banner with Richie on it, after three years they’d show up with Richie on their banner (laughs). So maybe it takes a while for it to sink in.
Being the new guy, how did you manage to get one of your own compositions on the first album you recorded with them?
Joey always encouraged me to write and that’s how that happened. Johnny would only allow one song from me because I was getting all the writing royalties and all that. Beggars Banquet, our label in London, would always take another song from me. So if you notice, those first two records I had one in America and one on Beggars Banquet; and then finally Halfway To Sanity, the third album, I had two of them on that one in the United States. I guess he gave up his fight, you know. The songs were too good. You know, you should pick the best material but it was more about money with John.
When you made the decision to leave the Ramones, did it come easy when you decided that you wanted out?
No, I mean, I guess it comes easy because I got in this band when I was twenty-four. I was way younger than them so I was still like a bratty kid and I really didn’t care. And you think back and, was it the right decision? Maybe not, because maybe they would have came around and I could have wrote another pile of hits for them like “Somebody Put Something In My Drink” for them. But at the time it’s what you did and you live by your decisions and you move on. You don’t regret what you did, that’s what you did. You’ll drive yourself crazy. But I think everything comes around for a reason and then this is why this record is coming out now. It’s exciting.
I bet you are real excited about it.
Yeah, I really am. It’s too good. I want everyone to really hear it and I think they’re going to love it. If fifty percent of the people love it, I’m happy with that (laughs). You can’t please everybody.
Would you say your career has been everything you imagined it would be when you first dreamed about being a professional musician?
Beyond that, because to be lucky enough and to be in the right spot to be a Ramone, that’s like one in a gazillion million trillion (laughs). That’s so rare and so rewarding to be a part of that group. I’m blessed that that happened. That’s huge, beyond my dreams. I learned a lot through my years in there. It wasn’t like I was a fan. It was none of that. It was a professional gig but then after being in the band and boy, you cannot help loving to hear Joey croon, you know.
You have a tour in the works. Where can people keep up with you?
For all the latest they can go to www.richieramone.com or I have two Facebook pages; I have a personal page and a musician page. The album and vinyl drops October 8 worldwide; digitally, the CD comes out September 17, I think, and you can get it online at iTunes, three weeks earlier than the actual CD and the vinyl. We’re working on the tour dates now. That’ll be up on www.richieramone.com. We’re going to start in the US probably in September and go through October; whatever it takes to hit everybody. I don’t just want to hit the fifteen major markets. I want to come to as many towns as I can and say hello to everybody.
There’ll be meet & greets, there’ll be in-stores; and everybody knows after the show I come out and I go hang out at the merchandise table and everybody can see me and we have fun. I don’t hide and leave. I want to say hello to everybody. I think it’s important. And I like doing it. The fans are so much fun so why not hang out with them a little bit. They get to take their picture and put it on Facebook. It’s a different time now with all this media so why not give them this opportunity.
When I did the meet & greet in South America a couple of months ago at a club, they got to come to the sound check. We sound checked and they were all standing there. I jumped out there and stood on the dance floor with a mic, got everybody around me in a circle and we sang together a Ramones song. They loved it.
How have you stayed grounded? Is it just your personality? You seem so down-to-earth.
I think that’s part of it but you need to stay grounded a little. And my girl hits me over the head when I get out of line (laughs). But it’s not fair to the fans or anything. I think there’s people putting on a false front or whatever, like a show. I just want to be me and that’s what this record is. I don’t know, maybe it’s the personality but I’m just being me. And some people don’t like me (laughs). They may think this or that but you can only be you and be true to yourself, who you are. People can tell when you’re being someone else than who you really are, like you’re trying to be a fake or something. There’s nothing fake about Richie Ramone. Nothing at all. You’re going to see me and you’re going to see who I am, whether you like me or not. But that’s who you’re getting.