Chicago songwriter moves further from his industrial past on new album
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During Ministry’s 1990 concert film, In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up, Chris Connelly ascends a tall chain-link fence at the front of the stage. Clinging to its wobbly top, he shouts the lyrics for “So What?” The scene epitomizes Connelly’s old life, which began when he moved to the States from Scotland in 1988: loud, incomprehensible, and surrounded by people who looked like extras from Mad Max. Back then, Connelly was a vital component of Chicago’s industrial-music scene as a member of Ministry, Pigface, Revolting Cocks, and others. But as that music grew more popular, Connelly grew more disenchanted. By the mid-’90s, he abandoned industrial’s skronk for quieter, more contemplative sounds in his solo work. On his latest, The Episodes, Connelly sounds positively post-rock as he experiments with everything from song structure to the recording process—he recorded part of the album outside at the suggestion of co-producer Tim Kinsella—but never drowns in the self-indulgent deep end. Before The Episodes’ release, Connelly spoke to The A.V. Club.
A.V. Club: You’ve said you had trouble finding a record label because of a stigma attached to your past. How so?
Chris Connelly: I have a very dim view of my past. I’m not crazy about it, and it’s something that I’ve come to terms with, as much as I’m ever going to come to terms with it. There are certain things about it that I like, but I don’t have terribly fond memories. When I got involved with bands like Ministry, it was before they were famous, and it was before there was a name for what we did. Honestly, there was a lot of fumbling around and experimentation, and that’s what was exciting about it. To me in 1986, it sounded like the future, you know? It was very “future-rock.” It was this sort of punk-rock-Mad-Max-outer-space adventure, which for a little while was great, but I stopped enjoying it very quickly. It ceased to be a novelty. Then it got really popular. There was a look, and there was a sound, and there were also terrible stories about the people I was involved with—their exploits with drugs and things like that.
After grunge-rock came and stamped on my career, after it all caved in on itself, I almost felt it happen overnight—it just stopped. The after-burn was worse, in a way. I mean we’re talking about 1993 here, when I stopped being involved in Ministry. And I had made a few solo albums by that point. I continued to do so, and was very naïve, thinking, “Well, I’m doing this now. This is what I want to do, and I feel this is where my heart belongs, and surely my fanbase will follow me.” They didn’t. At all. In fact, they rejected it outright. So here I was, stuck, having alienated anyone who liked what I did. But at the same time, courting labels that were starting at the time, I was naïve, I suppose. “You’re Chris Connelly. You were in Pigface? Uh, that’s great.” I’d just be like “Yeah, but listen to what I’m doing now.” I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to sign me at all. I spent most of the ’90’s not knowing what to do with my career.
AVC: But people didn’t respond to it?
CC: Well, I got hate mail. I don’t know what it is about that genre of music. I look around me and see all these cautionary tales of people who have moved from the genre of music and tried to do something new and failed at it, and it’s frightening to me—or it was frightening for me. Now I don’t give a shit, to be honest with you. I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. I try to think of people like Bob Mould and Mark Eitzel. They’ve all transcended the genres they helped to create—because they got bored, basically. And I got bored, and I do get bored quite quickly. And it’s not because I have a lack of focus. It’s because you just have to move on to the next thing, and push yourself. Otherwise you’ll be repeating yourself.
AVC: So how do you approach songwriting now?
CC: When I’m about to do a record, I’ll stop writing when I have about 13 or 14 songs, more than enough for an album. Then I’ll try to choose the best nine or 10. I wanted to do something that still made use of whatever skills I might have as a songwriter, lyrically and musically. However, I was bored of that format—verse/chorus/verse/chorus/medley/outro blah, blah, blah. I was really tired of it. It was no longer a challenge for me to do that. I wanted to bite off more than I could chew, and so I chose five numbers, five songs, and gave them to [producers] Ben [Vida] and Tim [Kinsella], and I said, “I want to make an album out of these songs. What can we do? I want to spread out.” I want the people playing on the album the way someone like Miles Davis would tell his musicians to play. He would bring a theme to the table. One of the greatest talents Miles Davis had was that he would allow the instrumentalists a lot of freedom within his theme. He would let them go. He wasn’t a control freak like that, and neither am I.
AVC: You must trust your players quite a bit.
CC: The material that we had was great. The versions we had were very well-recorded and well-executed. It was almost like, “Well, what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?” It’s not like in the days of Bitches Brew, when you’d have to copy the quarter-inch tape and slice it. These days if you fuck up your record, you can fix it really quickly. It’s an easy fix, so it’s good. I don’t worry about that stuff anymore—because you don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff anymore. You can focus on the real meat of what you’re trying to accomplish.