If you’re into heavy music and you live in Richmond, chances are you’re already familiar with Dave Witte’s drumming. Witte joined RVA institution Municipal Waste in 2004, and has remained in the band since then. While his history with that band is impressive, he has an extensive and diverse CV outside of it. He was a part of the now-legendary grindcore bands Discordance Axis and Human Remains, and has lent his talents to experimental metal bands like Melt-Banana, Atomsmasher/Phantomsmasher, and Brain Tentacles. Witte most recently formed River Black with former Burnt by the Sun bandmates Mike Olender and John Adubato, as well as Revocation bassist Brett Bamberger. While Burnt by the Sun hasn’t been active in about six years, it’s hard to tell when listening to River Black’s self-titled debut — the album sounds just as bludgeoning as Burnt by the Sun, if not more.
While River Black hasn’t played many shows as of yet, more are on the horizon, and you should make it your mission to take in their intense blend of metal and hardcore when the opportunity arises. I recently had the chance to discuss the long-in development project with Witte, whose laid-back, friendly demeanor belies a packed schedule — after we talked, he had to get back to prepping ingredients for Go Go Vegan Go, an all-vegan food truck that he helps operate (when he’s not on tour) alongside girlfriend April Viar. Witte was generous with his time though, discussing the history of River Black with me, as well as his penchant for participating in multiple bands at once, and how he keeps things fresh regardless of what kind of music he’s playing.
Endres: So Burnt By The Sun’s last album came out in 2009. I’m curious — what inspired getting back together with John [Adubato] and Mike [Olender] for River Black?
Witte: Well, John and I continued after that. We started writing music about six months later, ‘cause we wanted to keep playing, but we wanted to change it up a little bit. So we’ve been working on this since the band split up. We had a few different names and a few different singers. Years later, Mike just happened to be interested, so we brought him back into the fold, and everything just kind of popped into place when he came on board. The stuff that we thought something was missing, or we didn’t have what we thought it needed, all kind of presented itself; Mike made it all work out. We were really comfortable with one another, so we knew what he was capable of, and what we were capable of together. We’re happy it worked out the way it did in the end, but we’ve been working on it for a while.
Endres: That would explain the somewhat similar sound. I listened to the River Black album recently. It’s great — it sounds just as heavy as old Burnt By The Sun. It seems like you guys haven’t lost any steam over the years.
Witte: John and I pretty much wrote most of the material for Burnt By The Sun anyway. Ted would chip in here and there, and then Mike wrote all the lyrics of course — we never wrote the lyrics. We wanted to try and make it more mid-paced, more groove, darker, heavier, less chaotic than Burnt by the Sun was. Burnt by the Sun was its own thing, you know? We wanted to move on, explore John’s riffs a little more, see what I could do with them. That’s what we set out to do immediately afterwards.
Endres: There are some really nice drum moments on the River Black album, especially on the closer “Everywhere.” You’ve been playing heavy music for quite a while now. How do you keep things fresh?
Witte: That comes from playing with a lot of different people over the years, but it mainly comes from John, because John has such an interesting, unique writing style. He makes me apply myself in different ways that other people wouldn’t. His riffs pull more creativity out of me, for lack of a better term; I’m writing something within his riff, to go along with his a riff. It’s a beat, but it’s more complicated. He makes me play differently than everybody else. What I said earlier about playing with a bunch of different people — I’ve always been in multiple bands since I was younger, and I’ve always played with people that were more talented and challenging than I was at different stages in the game. I had to apply myself in all these different ways, and challenge myself, but the cool thing about that is, y’know I’d have these beats that wouldn’t work in one band, and they would work in the other, so I put ‘em over there. Eventually, when you start doing all this stuff, you’ll stumble a newer thing that’ll work in an older thing. It’s kind of like puzzle pieces, in a way. It’s a lot of fun.
Endres: So you’re just trying to serve the riffs that he’s giving to you.
Witte: Yeah. You know, I listened to a lot of hip-hop at one point, and it would be cool to take fill-ins from there and apply ‘em to faster music. I’m working from different drawing boards and influences.
Endres: Relating to you splitting time between projects: You’ve probably met so many talented people over the years that want to make music with you. You continue to be involved in multiple projects. I guess what I’m wondering is, how do you decide what to participate in?
Witte: I guess the two most important things are liking the people and liking what they’re presenting, liking the music. That’s important to me. I’ll barely take a job just to do it. I’ve done it once or twice in the past, but it’s always something that I enjoyed at the same time. I have to be a fan. I’m whittling my list down of people I want to do stuff with. I’m almost done. I’m almost finished with my list. I finally got onto a Dälek record. That’s been on my list for years. I sent them some beats, and they used it, and I was so psyched, ‘cause I love those guys, and I love what they’ve done for years. Finally, when I wore them down after years of bugging them about it, I was quite happy.
Endres: So I know you’re in the band Publicist U.K. with Brett [Bamberger], who is playing bass in River Black. How did you end up meeting Brett? Did you recruit him for River Black? Because he’s the only non-ex-Burnt by the Sun band member.
Witte: Well, Brett’s a good friend of ours, and we’ve known him forever. I’m from New Jersey, and Brett’s from New Jersey. When he was in the Postman Syndrome, Burnt by the Sun and Postman would play shows together every so often. We’d just see him around at practice spaces and stuff like that. We knew each other, but we weren’t super tight yet. The funny part is, we had our instruments repaired at the same place, and just around the time we were looking for someone, Brett left a little note in John’s guitar case, like to be funny. It was like “Oh yeah, why don’t we get that guy to play?” It’s weird, but that’s how it all kind of worked out. We knew one another, but we never really hung out that much. We’d see each other at shows. That little note was the catalyst of all of it. We understood he had a sense of humor. He’s my right-hand man. He also lives in Richmond now with me. Not in my house, but he also lives in Richmond. We’re working on some other stuff that has no name. I’m really comfortable with him, and we work well together. He’s the only guy I do a bunch of bands with.
Endres: You calling him your right-hand man makes sense. The rhythm section for River Black, and the other bands that you guys are in, is very tight. You’re both obviously very proficient players, but you know when to reign it in.
Witte: Yeah, Brett’s super versatile. That’s what I love about him. He knows when to not play, which is equally as important. A lot of people don’t understand that.
Endres: Yeah, that’s super valuable. You said Mike writes all of the lyrics?
Witte: Yeah, that’s his thing. We love ‘em. We stand behind everything he writes. Mike’s one of the most brilliant guys we know. He’s got a lot passion and he’s a smart dude. I just love hearing his take on things.
Endres: Yeah, the River Black album, he sounds really fired up, like he’s got a lot on his mind. Especially on “#Victim.”
Witte: The timing couldn’t have been better. He sounds the angriest he ever has. Mike’s always been a critical, forward-thinking kind of guy. With current events, there’s a plethora of things to vent about, y’know?
Endres: Yeah. So since you’ve been working on this stuff for years now, trying to get the lineup solidified. How have the songs changed? Were you always going for this more mid-tempo, darker sound?
Witte: Yeah, we set out to do that. We wanted to make it heavier. We wanted to make it as heavy as possible. We had different versions of the songs for different singers, so there were different lyrical patterns. When Mike came in, he wrote everything new from scratch, so he’d get ideas of adding extra verses, or cutting things short here and there. He helped the songs become stronger, just with his input. It was totally like pouring gas on the flames, hearing his vocals. We’re all in our forties now, besides Brett. Mike said it himself, and I agree: the guy’s vocally in the best shape I think he ever has been. He’s able to pull off a minute-long scream in his forties, so it’s pretty awesome. That another part that keeps it fresh — hearing him add his stuff to makes me play even harder.
Endres: I can imagine. So this album came out in July. I’ve seen that you guys have played one or two shows locally.
Witte: Yeah, we played Strange Matter, and then we did Dark Lord, which is a beer festival that Three Floyds has every year at their brewery. Last year we did the New England Metal Fest, up in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is a long-running festival. We played it as Burnt by the Sun a few times back in the day. We have three shows coming up in September: New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. We’re doing what we can right now. Everyone has such crazy, chaotic schedules that plays in other bands. I’m super busy, and so is Brett, and then John and Mike have families and careers that they’re very passionate about. We gotta make it work when we can. We will play more, for sure. It’s just timing right now — everyone that does other bands are having all these records coming out.
Endres: You’re working with Season of Mist on this River Black album. How did that come about? They’ve been putting out some really great stuff over the last several years.
Witte: I’ve always been a fan of Season of Mist, for the choices that they make for music. They’re all about forward-thinking music, and taking chances for people that want to express themselves a little more than modern mainstream metal, which is fine. If you want to do that, it’s great. We have a different agenda. I’ve always liked what they’ve done. Number two, Gordon Conrad works there, who’s a longtime friend of ours, and was kind of running the shop when Burnt by the Sun was on Relapse years ago. He understands us, and he’s a fan, so it all kind of fell into place.
Endres: So is there anything else that people need to know about River Black?
Witte: It kind of speaks for itself. Chances are, if you like Burnt by the Sun, you’ll like this. It’s not too far removed from it. It still has all the angst and energy that that band did as well, and I think a little bit more. I’m looking forward to playing some more shows. We did go back to Trax East, where we did everything with the other band, and we worked with Eric Rachel, who we worked with on the last record, Heart of Darkness. We have a really good relationship with that guy, and I think he was able to capture us at our fullest potential. I love the way the record sounds and I think it turned out pretty good. I think that’s some of the best drum sounds I’ve ever gotten.
Endres: It sounds fantastic for sure.
Witte: Thanks. Phil from Municipal Waste helped us demo a bunch of stuff out in a practice room down here, and I brought that into the recording studio and said “I want my drums to sound like this. I want them to sound natural. I don’t want them to sound like a typewriter.” They’re not over-processed. We went from there, and he was able to capture the root, and just use that, which I was stoked on.
Endres: I know the Waste is more active than you have been in a while, which is nice to see.
Witte: Yeah, it’s fun. We just got home. Now I work on the food truck for the next couple of weeks, before I leave for a short run with Brain Tentacles. We’re doing some shows with Inter Arma and Mastodon, so that should be a lot of fun. Then, I get home, and I leave for a few days for that River Black weekend. I feel like a juggling clown right now [laughs].