In a Previously Unpublished Interview Late Power Trip Frontman Riley Gale Talks SXSW, COVID, & American Health Care

“I’m having nightmares about what [COVID] is going to do to the status quo”

Riley Gale leading Power Trip at Mohawk on Nov. 7, 2019, during a Levitation festival bill headlined by High on Fire and including Devil Master and Denton’s Creeping Death (Photo by Jana Birchum)

When civic authorities canceled South by Southwest on March 6, Power Trip never blinked. The Dallas thrash group remained dogged in its determination that shows would go on. That proved unsurprising considering their intense tours managed to showcase at Fun Fun Fun Fest, This Is Austin, Not That Great, Sound on Sound Fest, and Levitation over the years.

Frontman Riley Gale, who died on Aug. 24 of unspecified causes at the age of 34, spoke with the Chronicle on March 15 about SXSW and the pandemic. Home from Feb­ru­ary dates in Asia, the singer's predictions of how the U.S. would handle COVID-19 read prescient five months later. Like any great artist, he felt the global events keenly and deeply.

Austin Chronicle: Where are y'all right now?

Riley Gale: "Y'all" would be just me at my house. The band is spread around Dallas-Fort Worth, with our drummer [Chris Ulsh] living in Philly, and we have nothing to do.

Actually, I'm missing our bass player's [Chris Whetzel] wedding today. I self-quarantined, because I had a really terrible sinus infection yesterday – like I couldn't breathe out of my nose – and I would rather be safe than sorry. He was pretty pissed, but I think it's the right thing to do.

I'm really bummed about it because I love weddings. Who doesn't?

AC: Where do you live right now?

RG: I live in East Dallas. I live in Dallas proper, but I could walk a few streets over and I would be in Garland.

AC: Did y'all come down to Austin for the SXSW shows?

RG: No. This has all happened so fast. Seventy-two hours ago is when we started to get notifications of shows getting canceled and things starting to shut down. I'm baffled, because we did three weeks in Asia at basically the height of their infection.

As far as I know, [the numbers in] most countries – except maybe China where we didn't go – have gone down, and life wasn't slowed down much at all. It was very odd seeing firsthand how the East dealt with the situation versus the West. We couldn't be handling this any worse.

AC: Were people still coming out to shows in Asia?

RG: Yes, people used personal responsibility. In Singapore, we had one person request for a ticket refund because they didn't feel well. In Bangkok, a band from China [Explosicum] was supposed to open up, and even though none of them were feeling sick, they decided to take personal responsibility and cancel their flights. I told them hopefully one day we'll be able to make it up to them and play with them.

The funny thing is, we met this white guy at the end of the show, and he had a vague accent – maybe New Zealand. He had gotten his head split open at the show, and I noticed he was bleeding. He had a butterfly bandaid.

He shakes our hands and talks in me and [Whetzel]'s faces for, like, 10 minutes. Then, he's like, "It's a real shame you couldn't play the rest of China. I've been there for the last three weeks. I just flew in for the show, and somehow made it in."

We were like, "What the fuck man? What is the matter with you?" We physically reeled back. He had put his arms around us for pictures. How stupid. It really made me realize how privileged the rest of the West thinks we are – that we're invincible to a pandemic.

“It’s the system. I feel like this is a death cult. It is intended to kill people that are older or in extreme poverty, and then what? The people who couldn’t handle a new wave of inflation sink to the bottom, and now it’s their time to starve.”

In Asia, from the moment [COVID-19] got out, it was people taking care of people first and finding out who was responsible in due time. This was immediately politicized [in the West]. People were trying to blame others and use it for their own personal gain, rather than funneling funds into getting people tested and checking people at airports.

[In the East], it was simple and they stopped the spread. It's going to be a problem here. I feel like the government wants it to go as long as the election does. They want to stretch this out as long as they can, to keep people afraid. It's a very, very scary week for myself, personally. I can't speak for everybody in the band, but I'm sure they're stressed.

It's hard to find someone who hasn't been affected by this.

AC: Y'all really tried to soldier through with your unofficial SXSW shows after the festival got called off.

RG: We felt like we've done SXSW [officially] enough. We're past that stage as a band. We looked at some lineups, and the people doing it were our friends. We were like, "Fuck yeah, this sounds like a lot of fun." So, we were really excited. We always do well there.

These shows were going to be great to go into hibernation to make another record afterward. We had very nice guarantees and a lot of merch. We really expected to get a nice little egg to be able to sit on for a while. We really, really tried [to stage the show]. All the promoters and bands did.

We had that Fiesta Destructo show [at Kinda Tropical]. Even when SXSW got canceled, we were like, "We're still going to do this." Then there was talk of doing a show at the Mohawk with a couple of [canceled Thrasher Death Match] artists, so everyone could see a show and make it worth these bands' traveling out of their way. Those were nixed.

Then, our European tour was nixed. It was a mostly arena tour with Lamb of God and Kreator, so we were looking at shows up to 10,000 people. We were trying to think of creative ways to do it, like maybe make the tour shorter at smaller venues? We're out a lot of money on that. Hopefully we can transfer that bus deposit to whenever that [tour is] going to happen.

AC: Knowing you have the next few months off, how do you navigate that financial situation?

RG: It's pretty scary for me. The band was full time, and those shows were intended to cover pretty much all my income for the rest of the year. Now I'm looking at, "How am I going to get rent through June?"

We were all pretty much living off the band. I would pull a few odd jobs and sell things here and there, but [Whetzel] is the only one who had a full-time job working at a pawn shop. [Guitarist Nick Stewart] worked at a venue, and [guitarist Blake Ibanez] works at a record store one day a week or something. He has a safety net.

I'm probably going to have to find some kind of job, but who knows if there's hiring freezes and how that's going to work. I'll be selling a lot of things – probably pretty rare Power Trip stuff from my personal collection. I have to make it work, you know? People have gotta find ways to survive.

AC: Is merch the main thing you can sell right now? Are there any other ways for fans to support the band?

RG: I don't want to just take money from the fans and not give something in return. I appreciate the idea, but I've earned everything in my life, and I feel like I don't need to beg people for it.

We're going to do merch drops, and probably come up with some creative ways to give products to our fans while hopefully generating some revenue we can live off of. There's ideas floating out there. Some members feel one way, some feel the other. We've got to figure it out.

I was talking to our booking agent Timmy [Hef­ner] earlier today, and it's like, "If this goes on for a long time, how do you kick start live music again? What happens when these bands that have been broke try to all go on tour at once?" You're going to have an assault of shows.

And are [audiences] going to be able to afford these shows? Have they been working? Things like that. Do you make show prices cheaper, or band's guarantees lower? Does the industry become that much more cutthroat again, where it's already as cutthroat as it is?

It's really scary. You wonder if a career change might not be a better move. Or, at least try to do something else for a little while and play shows when you can and make money where it makes sense. Instead of trying to lose your mind, let everything sort of level out over time.

I think this might have a bigger ripple effect than people are anticipating, but I could be wrong. Maybe things will go back to as usual. We've never seen anything like this before. It just goes to show how politicized the situation is.

AC: I saw the band recently posted a photo in engineer Arthur Rizk's Philadelphia studio, captioned "LP3 is coming."

RG: [Ibanez and Ulsh] are in Philadelphia. They've been working on new songs, but that's a long way away. I haven't gotten in there to give my opinion on some things. [Inaudible] ... I don't know if you heard me.

AC: You're kind of fuzzy.

RG: It's because I'm eating Skittles. I ate too many. My mouth is full of the juice.

AC: Is it original or tropical?

RG: Sour, which makes it even worse. I was saying, they're just writing in Philly. Now that we have this time off, maybe we can get the record done faster a little quicker. Then again, flights cost money, and we don't live in the same city.

So it's like, "How are we going to do that? Where are we going to come up with the money to record? Why would we record and put out an album we can't tour and support?"

There's a million and one questions. Every time you ask one, three more pop up.

AC: It's important to quantify how much bands lost for potential federal relief efforts. Could you share how much your band lost?

RG: Between the Euro­pe­an tour and the SXSW shows we had planned, we lost a considerable amount of income that many people could have lived the rest of the year off of. That was what I anticipated: playing all these shows up through May and having enough money to not receive another single dollar if I needed to for the rest of the year.

To put that in perspective, some people live off of $10,000. I have for many years.

[Now,] we don't get anything. MusiCares is a joke. If I went to the public marketplace for insurance, I would be paying $250 a month with like a $5,000 deductible. I may as well just throw myself off a building if I wanted to get my money's worth out of that insurance.

It's the system. I feel like this is a death cult. It is intended to kill people that are older or in extreme poverty, and then what? The people who couldn't handle a new wave of inflation sink to the bottom, and now it's their time to starve.

I'm having nightmares about what this is going to do to the status quo.

All donations in the name of Riley Gale should be made to Dallas Hope Charities.

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Riley Gale, Power Trip, Blake Ibanez, Nick Stewart, Chris Whetzel, Chris Ulsh, SXSW Music 2020

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