Chris Connelly has a wife, two small children, a demanding job managing Reckless Records in Bucktown, and, at any given moment, seemingly half a dozen artistic projects underway. This month alone, he released an ambitious solo album (his 12th), How This Ends, the debut from his new band The High Confessions, Turning Lead Into Gold With The High Confessions, and his first novel, Ed Royal. It’s an impressive feat, especially considering the adventurousness of the results. The experimental How This Ends is divided into two half-hour tracks that eschew traditional songwriting conventions. The High Confessions—featuring Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, Sanford Parker of Minsk, and engineer Jeremy Lemos—follow a similarly cavalier muse, improvising their debut, with three of the five songs stretching beyond the 10-minute mark. (The band has already recorded a second album.) Perhaps strangest of all of Connelly’s projects is Ed Royal, simply because it plays the straightest: a psychological thriller that draws heavily from his experiences growing up in Edinburgh. The A.V. Club went over all of it one night at Connelly’s home in Rogers Park.
The A.V. Club: In the press sheet for How This Ends, you said your focus is more on words now and less on music. What does that mean in practice when you make an album?
Chris Connelly: It means, in the case of How This Ends and [2008 solo album] Forgiveness And Exile, I wrote the words before I had the music, which is really unusual for me. I usually do them in tandem, or I do the music first and the words come later. Sometimes it’s hard to do. Sometimes the words take a long time to come, sometimes they come really quickly. How This Ends started, and by the way [so did] Forgiveness And Exile, as did The High Confessions, for me on the CTA. I write on the train. What I always say is that it’s my time to write.
AVC: What is it about writing on the el?
CC: I don’t have any time anywhere else. I don’t really have any time here. By the time I get to the end of the day and put the kids to bed and everything like that, I’m too tired to give my best. My best is in the morning. I’ll either get up super early and write, or I’ll write on the train, and I find I write my best then. But Forgiveness And Exile and How This Ends, which are in my mind linked, the words became important to me because I was kind of trying to get a message across in the same way as perhaps an impressionistic painter might try and get an almost political message across. With Forgiveness And Exile, it was an outcry against fascism and torture, and How This Ends is a similar outcry.
AVC: So much of this record has other people’s vocals, not yours. It seems like you’ve taken more of a composer role.
CC: Yeah, it’s very much like I wrote the poem, which is a continued piece, and then I tried to decide how I wanted to present it. Which bits I would read, which bits I would sing, and who I would have do other bits. So it’s almost like I was a producer of a Broadway production or something like that on a very, very small scale. I didn’t actually audition people; I just went through my mind and tried to remember whose voices I really loved. Before I asked Tania [Bowers] to do it, I actually advertised on Craigslist for an English actress to do it. And I got one lady but she had the English voice I didn’t want. It was the accent I absolutely didn’t want. I wanted more Judi Dench, not Monty Python. [Laughs.]
It’s really good fun to do, and it’s a really great way because I don’t want me to read the whole thing straight through. I want other voices in there because they’re kind of reflecting what the song’s about more than I can.
AVC: This may be a dumb question and not something you actually want to answer, but what is “this”? What is ending?
CC: Well, How This Ends is kind of—as with Forgiveness And Exile, I use these terms in a very abstract and somewhat impressionistic way—but it’s about genocide and it’s about helplessness. Hence the kind of childlike voices in there suggesting that these people have no choice. I’ll tell you exactly how the germ of this, the seed of this started. I read in the newspaper right after 9/11, it was something in The New York Times about the people who carried out the 9/11 attacks and were committing suicide, they had this utopia that they were going to afterwards. I guess how this ends in a way is that people’s leap of faith to know that by doing something so catastrophic … I can’t get my mind around that concept. That people can wipe out entire races of people because they think it’s the right thing to do, you really do think it’s right. I can’t get my mind around that, either. It’s not necessarily me trying to understand it; I guess it’s just me trying to make an exclamation mark around it.
AVC: By comparison, The High Confessions record sounds almost conventional. It’s an odd fit for Relapse Records, which is best known for metal. Was it hard to find someone to release it?
CC: Everyone I approached, as usual when I approach people, is very polite or just ignores me. [Laughs.] They just flat-out don’t reply. But Sanford just casually let the guy in charge over there at Relapse hear it, and he really liked it. So we went about figuring out how to do it, you know, how to let it out. I was delighted because when I started [approaching labels] again, it was like, “Here we go again.” I can’t stand it, and I can’t do it anymore. Sending packages out and trying to sell yourself—I’m really bad at that stuff. I just can’t be bothered, and I get worked up and annoyed. But this was like, I just said, "Fine." I know what the label’s like and the record doesn’t sound like anything else on the label, but this is nothing new for me. I put acoustic albums out on Invisible Records! That’s the way it goes for me.
AVC: How did recording work?
CC: We just set up and played, and it was really fun. Most of what we found was that we’d record for a half hour at a time. A lot of the material is chopped. There might be eight minutes from this half-hour and five minutes from this half-hour. There was moving around, but the chunks were quite large, so mostly what you’re hearing is live. I kind of thought that maybe after the fact Jeremy might get into some super micro-surgery with it, but most of what you’re hearing is what we played. There are overdubs, but for the most part it sounded like that when we were playing.
AVC: As a solo artist, you’ve developed this croon, which was far different from the shouting style you had in Revolting Cocks and Ministry. But you seem to be taking some steps toward that old voice on this record, like on “Chlorine And Crystal.” Was that intentional?
CC: No, it didn’t cross my mind, but your point is very valid. Maybe it’s a midlife crisis? I have been a lot more accepting of my past lately, over the last few years, whereas before I was not accepting, I had to move forward. But I think I’ve found a way to have some peace with what I’ve done in the past and maybe use a few of these ideas on the fly. Also, because you know I have been singing for so long that I think on the High Confessions record I started pushing my voice again. I think when I stopped doing the Ministry, I stopped singing like this because it was uncomfortable. We, about a month ago, recorded another High Confessions record. So we did that and even more so I pushed my voice to a really insane limit, and it’s funny because I realized that I could do things with my voice that were A) preposterous and B) things that I’d never done before.
AVC: Like what?
CC: Like really go up there, like push it. Maybe that’s based on experience, in that I know how to manage my voice now and so I know I can go way up there, but I can only do it once. And I did this thing in the studio when I went up [sings] soooo hiiiigh, where I actually hurt the muscles in the back of my neck and I had to lie down. They’re like, “Are you okay?” I’m like, “I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.” It hurt. This part of my neck felt like it had been squeezed really hard. But it was so worth it. When I went into the studio, I e-mailed the guys, I said, “If I leave Sunday night being able to talk, then I haven’t done my job.” And then my voice was absolutely destroyed. I couldn’t speak the next day for about four hours.
The other thing is that I know my voice is changing. It just happens as you get old. It doesn’t necessarily change for better or worse; it just has to change. There’s a little bit of me that’s a bit worried about that, so I’ve been trying to find ways around that.
AVC: Let’s talk about the book. I can get writing lyrics on the el. How did you do the book?
CC: Same way. I did a lot of it on the el, but much of it I just set my alarm clock for two hours earlier. I would get up at 3:30 for the majority of the book and just write it then. I write longhand on the el, so come home and just type it up, which is so fucking boring. It’s the dullest thing. The next time, if this book does well, I’m going to do something so I don’t have to do that again. So I would get up at 3:30 in the morning, a good two hours before the family got up, and I realized that’s the only way I’m gonna get this done. So I did it and it was hard to do, but then I realized that about halfway through that it was informing the book a lot. It was a very quiet, kinda creepy time. I didn’t like it. Although I was completely uninterrupted, it informed the book, and I began to be pleased about that. But then at a certain point I had to stop, and I put down the book for a few months. I was just like, “This is freaking me out. It’s all quiet I’m the only person here, and I’m writing this.” But having said that, what I like about what I wrote is that there are a lot of silences in the book. Edinburgh has a lot of quiet places where all you can do is hear a low-level electrical hum. So writing in a quiet environment like this is perfect for it, because that’s all you can hear. That’s all you can ever hear. Most of my life is in relative silence, interrupted by violent outbursts.
AVC: How much of the book was informed by your experiences in Edinburgh?
CC: A few of the characters in that book, the minor characters, are real. The major characters are kind of amalgams of people. There was a huge learning curve for me in this book, and it was very liberating. I realized that I could pretty much do anything I wanted, and that I could create any character I wanted. That’s when it actually started to creep me out a little bit.
AVC: You did a memoir before, but this is obviously different. Where did the idea come from?
CC: After I finished [Concrete, Bulletproof, Invisible And Fried: My Life As A Revolting Cock], I really enjoyed writing it. I really had a good time writing it, and I wanted to do another one. I thought for a while, “I can’t do another music book. Nobody wants to hear the making of The Ultimate Seaside Companion. There’s no story there.” [Laughs.] So I thought about my options for a while, and I thought about writing fiction. The I thought about the characters I’d grown up with in Edinburgh, the people that I’d known, and that time in my life, and how nostalgic I am for that time in my life, and how nostalgic I am for Edinburgh. In many ways, it was an exercise in nostalgia. But I really have read so many crime thrillers, that’s my thing, that’s something that I really like to read. I have enjoyed so many of those books, I somewhat presumptuously maybe thought, “Well, you’ve read enough of these books, why don’t you just try writing some kind of psychological thriller?”
AVC: What facilitated this nostalgia and peace with the past you mentioned?
CC: Distance and time, the same things that help everyone make peace with their past. Doing things like writing, and actually talking to you about my past, it’s cathartic, and it helps me—like, telling a story about it compartmentalizes it. I’ve heard some of the music that I did back then and actually enjoyed it, without getting that hair-standing-up, creepy-Chicago-Trax-doing-coke feeling that I would always get.
Apart from that, over the past couple of years, a few things have happened. This year, as you know, [Wax Trax! Records co-founder] Dannie Flesher died. These things are really, really horrible, and terrible, but they do bring people together, and that’s a wonderful thing. When Dannie died, I reconnected with a lot of people from my past who were all same as me, just working jobs and with kids and things like that. So it’s really, really nice, it’s really, really great to hang out and talk with them. So the part of that past that has actually grown up is really fun to hang out with... I find that, at my age, you’re not gonna bother hanging out with people who you really didn’t like in the first place. And the people you really do like will just sort of gather around and talk about the past, and have a nice time. And maybe you put that to good use, take advantage of that.