(L-R) Mariusz Duda, Piotr Grudziński, Piotr Kozieradzki, and Michał Łapaj. Press photo from the Riverside website.

Turning Dreams Into Reality: A Conversation With Piotr Grudziński of Riverside

Guitarist Piotr Grudziński reflects on the inspirations, processes, and intentions that make Riverside's latest opus, Love, Fear and the Time Machine, another fearless trip into its distinctive and beloved style.
Love, Fear and the Time Machine

Founded in 2001, Polish progressive rock quartet Riverside currently reigns as one of the top acts in the genre, rivaling not only its modern peers but also its vintage influences when it comes to blending affective songwriting, colorful timbres, catchy melodies, and sophisticated yet accessible arrangements. With several benchmarksunder their belt (including the magnificent Reality Dream trilogy), it’s easy to see why the foursome (bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda, guitarist Piotr Grudziński, keyboardist Michał Łapaj, and drummer Piotr Kozieradzki) has become so revered by both fans and critics.

Last month, Riverside released its sixth full-length effort, Love, Fear and the Time Machine. Demonstrating a slightly more streamlined, poppy, and delicate vibe overall, the record is nevertheless another stunning conceptual statement, undoubtedly earning its place alongside its predecessors. For Grudziński, the LP represents not only how much Riverside has progressed (pun intended) as a band over the years, but also how much potential still lies ahead.

Like almost all of your previous work, Love, Fear and the Time Machine is a concept album. What is it about, narratively and/or thematically?

Well, it’s a story about a person who has to make a really important decision. Like in life, there are a lot of things to think about, both positive and negative. At the end, we have to make that decision, though, even if it’s hard to do. So more or less, this album is about that. Of course, Mariusz would be able to give more details about the story, but the main concept is about making impactful decisions, even if you’re scared of them. That’s where the fear and love comes in. Along with that, making these decisions can remind you of things you’ve done in the past, so there’s the idea of time. Again, it’s not really my idea, so Mariusz would know more.

That’s okay. I definitely see what you mean, and you guys have done a nice job representing those ideas on the album, as you always do. Going along with that, why does Riverside prefer doing concept albums?

Honestly, Mariusz is the guy who comes up with the concepts. He’s so ambitious and I don’t think he’s interested in doing just a bunch of songs, you know? For him, making a story is a really good challenge. Making the lyrics and music fit so well together. I really admire him for having those skills; he can make something from nothing. Of course, he also does that with his own albums [as Lunatic Soul], which is also great. When we have only the drafts of some songs, he’ll decide which one will be the first on the record, the second, etc.

Back in November, we didn’t even have drafts for Love, Fear and the Time Machine, but within about two months Mariusz came to us with the entire album pretty much worked out. He’s truly a visionary and I really like what we’re doing because of that.

Wow. I’m sure many fans would agree that they’re some of the best concept albums the genre has ever had, so it’s great that he can keep coming up with new narratives and such.

Yes, absolutely. At first, you may just have one or two great pieces but not necessarily a link between them, so being able to put them together to form an even bigger statement is amazing. He spends a lot of time working on how to do that.

It makes the music feel even more epic and cohesive. Moving onto the music itself, it’s been described as “a return the melodic and atmospheric style of Out of Myself.” In addition, Mariusz has said that there’s an ‘80s vibe to it. In what ways does the record achieve these traits, and was this direction a conscious choice?

Just before we started preparing the songs, we sat together and defined some keywords for how to describe what the new album would be. The most important was “melodic”, because the melodies are a big strength of Riverside. We also wanted more air in the music; we wanted to have some more space between the instruments. Not as tight as we’ve done before.

Another aspect was cutting out a bit of the ‘70s style that a lot of modern progressive rock bands do. We tried to do a bit of that on Shrine of New Generation Slaves too, but it was more deliberate here, to move a bit more towards the ‘80s. For instance, the bass guitar is sometimes the lead instrument in the song. Like with The Cure, for example. Also, the recording and production was unique in the ‘80s; the sounds were clear and warm and without any dirt or harshness. I think we reached that goal on this album, at least for the most part.

It’s interesting that you mention the Cure because that’s exactly who I thought of as I was listening to it. The song “#Addicted” definitely has that melodic quality, not to mention the shimmering echoes in the guitar patterns.

Yeah, definitely. “Discard Your Fear” also has a leading, modern feel on the bass parts. It’s definitely reminiscent of the ‘80s.

Going along with the aforementioned qualities, Love, Fear and the Time Machine features fewer virtuosic instrumental jams, which have become a trademark of Riverside.

Yes, I think so. I’ve heard some people say that we’re trying to play some kind of pop/rock [laughs]. I don’t agree, but compared to our previous albums this one is a bit easier to digest, I suppose.

We’ve never written a song like “#Addicted” before, with that sort of really short length and upbeat chorus. For the first time, we can go to a radio station with a song [laughs]. We decided to make this album easier because it was the right moment to do it, really. We can always play fast solos and things like that, but we’ve always concentrated on the melodies. We’re also not a band that records the same album all the time; we try to look for new inspirations and ideas to try or abandon. It makes us a bit unpredictable.

With this record, we’re truly being “progressive”, not because we’re playing progressive music, but because we’re still progressing as a band and as individual musicians. That’s really important for us, as is recording really good albums, of course, be they more progressive or poppy or even metal. I think we’ve done pretty well with that up to this point.

Definitely. Each album is fairly unique unto itself, yet it still maintains certain Riverside trademarks.

Bands like AC/DC or Iron Maiden kind of play the same kind of music all of the time, but there’s also something special about them because they can do that and still draw such a great crowd every time. Our politics are a bit different than that, though. We try to do different things every time; we want people to not only listen to the albums, but to really think about the music and lyrics, too.

Absolutely. There’s always a lot to digest in that way. So was the songwriting process different here than it’s been in the past?

This time, Mariusz wrote the outlines for all of the songs. He came up with them and we worked on rehearsing them. I think we did two of them without really rehearsing. Then there are the “Day Session” bonus tracks, which I did with Michał and Mariusz on the spot.

In general, the recording process was the same as what we did for Shrine of New Generation Slaves. We didn’t spend a month or two in the studio; we had, like, a two-week session and then a week or two of a break. We realized with the last album that this way of working is good because you have time to rethink some ideas if you need to. We could listen to what we had and make better choices about what to do next.

That makes sense. Going back to the “Day Sessions”, I assume that they’re similar to the “Night Sessions” that came with Shrine of New Generation Slaves. How would you describe them?

Actually, we’re thinking of making a new project, with me, Mariusz, and Michał. Something completely new, unrelated to Riverside. We like these kinds of mood—a little bit electronic, a bit ambient, with some nostalgic elements. I don’t know if people would like it or not because it’s so different from Riverside, but we like it, so we’re really considering it. It’s also quite interesting because it would be easy to put songs that don’t fit within the Riverside main albums somewhere else, and we just like to show that we can do this kind of music, too.

I enjoy that style very much. You’re also finishing your second US tour ever, correct? I saw you guys a couple weeks ago in Philadelphia.

Oh, cool. We played in the US about two years ago. We played about ten shows, whereas this one was a bit lengthier. It was the first time we traveled with a bus, though, which was really helpful. Last time, we were traveling with vans, and it was quite tiring because we had to travel hundreds of miles sometimes.

We couldn’t play Philadelphia or New York last time because of RoSfest. There was something in the contract about not playing in those cities because of it, so we were really happy to make it to bigger cities this time. The most difficult parts for us in terms of US touring are making the flights and carrying the equipment. We’re always overweight with that stuff; most of my luggage is equipment. It’s very rewarding, though.

I’m sure it is. It must also be quite a task to recreate the music in a live setting. Do you guys use any prerecording parts or other tricks?

No, we never do those things. Actually, most of the albums were composed in the rehearsal room, so we were playing them live before recording them, anyway. With the last two albums, some of the final versions of songs were finished in the studio, so we needed to learn how to play them without studio help. We always try to be an authentic band, not one that uses all these tools to achieve something. Of course, Michał has some opportunities to use some samples, but that’s the only “tricks” we’re using on the stage.

That’s great, though. As you say, it makes Riverside more authentic and dedicated.

I think we’re living in a time when a lot of bands seem to be playing live but they’re really using a lot of playbacks and such. Doing it our way is important to us and our audience really likes that we don’t cheat. If there’s a mistake in the song, it only shows that we’re human beings. The base of being a band is playing live.

You alluded before to the need to balance heaviness, softness, and technicality. Prior to Riverside, you were in a metal band called Unnamed, which you eventually grew tired of, choosing instead to go towards the most atmospheric style of artists like David Gilmour and Anathema. What’s your stance on how heavy Riverside is allowed to get? For example, Mariusz growls on occasion. He’s only done it a few times thus far, but it’s there nonetheless.

Well, metal was kind of my roots as a teenager. To be honest, I don’t really connect with the newer side of Anathema; you know, when they came back after a six-year hiatus [following 2004’s A Natural Disaster]. I prefer their older material.

Anyway, melodies and emotions are more important to me than brutality. I’m not really a metal fan anymore, although I have some bands that I still like. I’m not digging into metal to find new inspirations because that’s not my focus anymore.

The greatest band in the world to me right now is Dead Can Dance. I’ve been very into them for about ten years, and they’re not connected to metal at all. It’s genuine and full of emotions. That’s my definition of “music”. That’s why Riverside goes for feeling, too. When we first got together to play and talk, I saw that Mariusz and I had a similar way of thinking and we liked a lot of the same music. He’s easily one of the most important people I’ve met in my life; because of him, I’m here talking to you [laughs].

It’s nice that you give him so much credit and admiration. In terms of your inspirations, who influenced you growing up and who do you still learn from (besides Dead Can Dance)?

David Gilmour is still such an powerful guitar player to me. His solos are always so tasteful and passionate, especially on Wish You Were Here. The way he plays is sort of how I try to play.

I think you share that focus with him. I mean, it’s one thing to shred dozens of notes a second, but it’s much more valuable and meaningful to construct the perfect note progression and let it flow naturally.

Yes, that’s really what I try to do. I don’t even call the things I play in songs “solos”; to me, a “solo” implies that you’re trying to show off. I call them “melodies”, because I’m trying to tell a story, not prove how good or bad I am.

I’ve never been a big fan of progressive rock, which is strange, I guess. I was never really into Genesis or Yes, although I know some albums and have preferences. But that ’70s stuff wasn’t really my music at all. I preferred metal as a teenager, so maybe that’s why I never learned how to play guitar in a “progressive” way. The most important thing is what you have in your heart and how you can show it to other people.

You certainly accomplish that. To be honest, I think “Second Life Syndrome” has some of the best guitar work I’ve ever heard in that respect.

Oh, really? Thank you. I’m always a bit confused by reactions like that. There are so many great guitar players with unique skills and techniques, but I often hear people say that I have my own sound and style and it’s more important than those showy techniques. I’m really happy that people feel that way.

Do you have any favorite songs on Love, Fear and the Time Machine, or in the entire Riverside discography?

I have some favorites, but they’re typically not the rock songs. “Schizophrenic Prayer”, for example, and the tracks on the Voices in My Head EP. That record is a bit different from the rest. I really like “Deprived (Irretrievably Lost Imagination)” from Shrine of New Generation Slaves, as well. I don’t know if I have anything to say about the new album yet.I really like “#Addicted” because it’s unlike what we’ve done before, and I really like “Found (The Unexpected Flaw of Searching).T.he working title for it was “Biko” because it reminded us of the Peter Gabriel song. I guess those two stand out for me now.

Totally. I think the opening track, “Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened by a Hat?)”, is my favorite, “Found” is really great too. It’s very uplifting.

Maybe the reason I like “Found” so much is because Mariusz really liked my solo in it. He suggested that I do one, so I just played what I thought was just the first take of it, and Mariusz said, “Wow, I think that’s one of the best solos you’ve ever played.” I guess that’s partially why I like it [laughs].

Riverside has been around for about fifteen years now. Looking back, how do you feel about its levels of success and popularity thus far?

I really like that we’re not the kind of band that comes out of nowhere and gets really famous overnight. We worked really hard for what we’ve achieved. If I’m counting correctly, next year will mark the fifteenth anniversary of when we started to play together, not as Riverside itself but just in terms of the start of what would become that project. I’m actually a bit scared about how fast the time is passing [laughs].

A few weeks before the tour started, a Dutch friend of mine posted on my Facebook wall a picture we took ten years ago and I was so baffled, seeing myself then. I looked almost childish and now I have a long beard and gray hairs, so I feel like time is passing too quickly sometimes.

Going back to the band, I really like that we’re always moving forward. They aren’t always big steps, but it’s also going forward. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m a rock star kind of guy; I’m the same guy I was ten years ago, for example. Some things changed, though, so to some people I may be important, but I never really think like that. I’m the same guy as before Riverside. After each show, I try to reach the crowd and be among them. That’s important to me.

It’s great that you try to make that connection as much as possible. It’s interesting because many bands that’ve worked so hard and have gotten success bit by bit seem so humble, whereas some artists who skyrocket overnight let the sudden fame go to their heads.

It’s not always the same case, but sometimes bands that come up that quickly disappear just as fast. Building momentum over fifteen years of albums has allowed us to gain really dedicated fans. We’re selling more albums now and seeing bigger crowds than ever before. We can really feel the fruits of our labor.

It’s certainly well-deserved.

I’m not the person to judge that [laughs], but thank you. It seems like progressive rock isn’t as big as it used to be decades ago, so I’m always surprised and grateful to see so many people supporting us. We’ve played some festivals in the past in North and South America and what was curious to me was that I saw the same faces at some of them. There’s something wrong about that, not in that the same people are so dedicated, but that you don’t see newer faces or younger faces. In the United States, for example, NEARfest and RoSfest typically attract people in their fifties.

Progressive rock is definitely less popular than it was when it started, and it’s still largely ignored compared to many other genres.

Yeah. I guess Riverside is in the middle, between the old and modern kinds of progressive rock. It’s sort of like post-Marillion. There aren’t a lot of bands straddling that line. Of course, Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree and Anathema also touch upon that melancholic style, but I’m not sure there are many others these days.

A lot of modern bands try to emulate groups like Yes, Genesis, and ELP rather than finding their own place in the field.

It’s easier for us because we started fifteen years ago. It’d be more difficult to start now because the scene isn’t as big. We’re happy that we can play shows outside of Poland, in other parts of Europe and across the United States. Two years ago, for instance, we played a show in South Carolina or North Carolina. I can’t remember. Anyway, it was only a crowd of about forty people, yet their cheering made it seem like two hundred people were there. It was on a beach too, so it was like a vacation town.

Whether you’re playing for thousands of people or only dozens, you still need to play as well as possible. The fans expect it. It can be a bit difficult to find the energy to play for only a few dozen people because the band takes its energy from the people, just like the crowd is taking the energy from the band. Someone has to start it! When the crowd is small, it’s difficult to reach that electricity, but at that show it was easy because the audience was so enthusiastic.

I’m sure. Fortunately, Riverside has a very adoring fanbase from what I can tell.

Yes, luckily.

Well thanks again for taking the time to speak with me, Piotr. It was a pleasure. Congratulations again on the new record, too. It’s incredible.

Thank you so much, Jordan. Take care.