Ballast der Republik
Our exclusive interview with drummer Vom Ritchie
Words: TK Smith

In a stroke of mad luck, we got a second chance to see Die Toten Hosen on their whirlwind Ballast der Republik tour. The gig was in the exotic town of Locarno, Switzerland for the annual Moon and Stars Festival playing alongside headline acts Green Day, Santana, Depeche Mode, ZZ Top, Mark Knopfler, Bryan Adams and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. With such a star-studded line up, it came as quite a surprise to the German quintet that they were the only band to sellout the 12,000-capacity Piazza Grande months in advance. As for Ballast der Republik, the record has done extremely well lodging firmly at number one on the German digital charts boosting the revenue of music downloads for the country to 32%. Videos for “Altes Fieber” and more recently “Das ist der Moment” have kept the record in the public’s eye for over a year now while the deluxe version, with the bonus disc Die Geister, der wir riefen, continues to be popular as it pays tribute to some of the Hosen’s favorite tunes and bands including Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”, Kraftwerk’s “Das Model” and Male’s “Sirenen”.

Sitting firmly behind the drum kit and the turbine engine behind the group is quintessential Renaissance man Vom Ritchie. Prior to joining DTH, Ritchie had the dubious pleasure of membership in UK phenomenon Doctor & The Medics who scored big with hit single (and MTV video) “Spirit In The Sky”. The Norman Greenbaum remake put the band on the map with full tours of the UK and America and had the young, pink haired Ritchie well entrenched in the naughty nature of a successful rock and roll band. Having grown up at the height of UK punk, Ritchie learned his drumming chops with plenty of attitude, spit and swagger. Stints with The Brotherland, Honest John Plain and Stiv Bators gave the drummer his street cred but it was playing in the German electro-industrial Armageddon Dildos and their rabid cult following that brought Ritchie to the front door of Die Toten Hosen. In a brief but intriguing conversation backstage Ritchie graciously opened up about his position as a Brit punker in the most successful German punk / rock band to date.

“I’ve had a really good life,” says Vom Ritchie in his thick ‘East-end’ accent as we discuss Die Toten Hosen’s sold-out status at the Moon and Stars Festival. “It’s quite amazing given the roster has everybody from Neil Young to my friends Depeche Mode and heroes ZZ Top. I thought for sure Green Day would have sold-out by now, that was a real surprise as we are kinda similar, but I tell you it’s a great feeling - a great compliment.” In an ironic twist Die Toten Hosen supported Green Day on a short tour of the US and Canada in 1994. “I’m sure a lot of fans from Germany came down to this show. It’s a resort destination so people travel here on holiday and catch the show at night. We change the set list every night to keep it a bit different - we want to keep it fresh and interesting for the fans and us too.

Ritchie has lived in Düsseldorf, Germany almost as long as he lived in Britain. “It will be 20 years next year,” says Ritchie. “After (Doctor &) The Medics and the craziness of having a hit single, number One on the British charts, Top of the Pops and all, I did the rounds in London working with Stiv Bators with the Dee Dee Ramone / Johnny Thunders project. That never went anywhere so it was over to Germany where I did three tours with the Armageddon Dildos.” Ritchie first met the Hosen as drummer for The Yobs in 1991. Over the years they remained friendly until Hosen drummer Wölli (Wolfgang Rohde; 1986-1999) retired due to health issues. Vom had been working on and off as the band’s roadie and had filled in for Wölli on a number of occasions. “We were great drinking buddies”, says Ritchie. “He told me one night in a drunken slur that I would be the next drummer for the Hosen. I didn’t believe it – then it happened in 1998 while recording Unsterblich.” A classic tribute to their drinking partnership is the Ritchie / Rohde duet “Two Drunken Drummers” on Wölli’s debut album Das Ist Noch Night Alles.

When asked if he ever hooks up with his old mates back in London Ritchie nostalgically remembers drumming with The Quireboys in Gossips on Dean Street. “But, that was years ago,” he says. “I see TV Smith quite a lot because I do shows with him whenever I can.” The two met when TV Smith (of The Adverts) was writing with the Hosen in the early-nineties. “I also have my own project called Cryssis – we’re kind of international. I’ve known the singer since we were kids. We were in a band together in school and wrote a few songs, then we lost touch for thirty years. We finally got back together in 2010, worked up those old songs and put out our first album Simple Men. We just finished our second record (Kursaal Nights) this year. Our guitar player Trip Tom lives in Bochum and our bass player Inge Johanson lives in Stockholm. Dick (singer and guitar) lives in Norwich, England. It’s a bit problematic when it comes to rehearsals and stuff.”

As we steered the conversation back to Ballast der Republik and the deluxe bonus disc Die Geister, der wir riefen we ask where the idea of a covers album originated. “The band always decides on that kind of thing,” says Ritchie. “There are a lot of songs that we like and enjoy covering. We do it all the time – sometime we release them as B-sides.” The band’s first covers album, released in 1987, was a bunch of German schlagers called Never Mind the Hosen, Here's Die Roten Rosen, a parody of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. “With the new covers album we wanted to do a lot of songs by German bands including a couple from local Düsseldorf bands (where DTH are from). One of my favorites is ‘Sirenen’ by Male. They were from Düsseldorf and one of the first punk bands to sing in German. Some of the bands we know personally and it was our way of telling them how much we liked what they were / are doing. Our biggest rival was Die Ärzte from Berlin so we did their song ‘Schrel nach Lirbe’ as a nod of respect.

“Originally, we recorded the songs for fun but they came out really good,” continues the drummer. “They ranged from punk and rock to more garagy stuff like ‘Das Model’ (Kraftwork) and ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ (Falco). It was a tribute to the bands that came up around the same time we did – a tip of the hat saying, ‘we haven’t forgotten these songs’.”  When it came to writing new material Ritchie admits, “We had so many ideas on this album. It was a bit difficult to start after the success of In aller Stille (2008) but then it just exploded into so many songs. There was a big discussion about which ones to put on. It’s majority vote in this band – all a matter of taste really. It’s good we all have different taste – it keeps the whole thing well rounded. We did a special edition vinyl version of the album, about 4,000 signed copies, and they went flying out the door. That was cool!"

With the success of the album has come a bigger budget for videos. “Altes Fieber (Same Old Fever)” is one of the more elaborate videos the band has produced. Set in the backwoods of what looks like mid-19th century Kentucky, the vignette tells the tale of an outlaw band on the run. Trapped in a rustic cabin the lyrics of the song ask “Where did the days go / the ones we believed in?” as the band are gunned down one by one. “Believe it or not the video shoot went really fast,” says Ritchie who is shot while riding a bicycle in the video. “In a couple of days it was done. We try to surround ourselves with really talented people.” Director Johannes Grebert, who’s worked with everyone from Rammstein and Die Ärzte to Rosenstolz and Herbert Grönemeyer, was the director for “Altes Fieber”. He also worked with DTH on the popular "Draußen vor der Tür" and co-directed with Philipp Stölzl "Strom" from the band's previous album In aller Stille. “The best part about it is, I just show up and the rest is up to the director,” laughs Vom.

Ballast der Republik has an unprecedented 16 songs, Die Toten Hosen’s longest player since 2002’s Auswärtsspiel. We asked Ritchie how the songwriting has changed over the years. “A lot of times we just go into the studio and play. We come off the road or from being at home and just go crazy in the studio for a few hours. Some of the most fun sessions on our last album were jam sessions.” Working with producer Vincent Sorg and arranger Tobias Kuhn has given the band an addition edge to the creative process by pushing beyond their comfort zone. “The band does what fills good at the time,” continues Ritchie. “We don’t cater to anyone and I think that’s why the fans have stayed with us over the years. We do change, slightly, from album to album, but you can still hear that it is the Hosen on every album.” A signature element to the band’s songwriting is their dynamic structure and anthemic chorus. “Yeah, we have a bit of a formula there,” says Ritchie. “You got the big chorus then you bring it back down again. I was a fan of the band before I joined 15 years ago and it’s still the songs that keep me going.”

When asked how the transition from roadie to full time member of Die Toten Hosen affected the drummer he candidly said, “It was relatively easy, there was a lot of stuff to learn and a lot of expectations to live up to – but they wouldn’t have brought me in for no reason. I’d played with other bands and they knew I was going to fit in. I’ve never been of the opinion that I’m a technical player – a technical player coming into this band wouldn’t have really fit. It’s more about attitude and feeling. They didn’t need the greatest musician - they needed the personality - someone that can add character to the songs. That’s what I could bring in.”

“Do you ever get burned out,” we asked. “I’m so excited about what I’m doing. I love to play so I never really thought about doing anything else. Everyone in the band has got the same attitude when we go out and play. It’s 110% every night. When you see us on stage we’re giving it our all.” Ritchie converts that same energy to the raw power he brings to his solo project Cryssis. “With Cryssis the music just pours out, it’s nothing I have to think or fret about – it just happens. I never worry about a lack of creativity because I’m excited about what I do. I’m driven by it.” In 2007 Ritchie formed a record label called Drumming Monkey Records and to date has 14 bands on the roster – most of which he plays in including TV Smith, The Spittin ‘Vicars, B Bang Cider and Cryssis. “It goes back to the beginning of our conversation,” says Vom. “I can go from playing football stadiums, to a 200-person club, to an unplugged show in a café then back to a show like tonight with 12,000 all within a week. It’s the best of everything.”

For Die Toten Hosen there are no limits for the future. They have collaborated with numerous other musicians including Bad Religion, AC/DC, U2 and the Rolling Stones. They are also one of the few German punk bands popular outside of Germany, with a large following in South America, Australia and Eastern Europe. “Where the band’s going to play or do next is anyone’s guess,” says Ritchie. “Who would have thought we’d play the Middle East, Turkey, Israel or Jordan? The kids go crazy no matter what country we play in. In Poland it’s like Beatlemania. Now my son’s getting into it with his group Meg’N Jez. He’s only 14 and has already played in front of 40,000 Die Toten Hosen fans. I better watch out or he’ll think he’s topped his dad. I’ve had so many highlights in my life from doing an album with Ian Hunter to meeting Bob Geldof to playing on the Top of the Pops and all these years with the Hosen, the greatest band in the world. Like I said before, I’ve had a really good life.”

Website: Die Toten Hosen