Chris Connelly

The first time, I discovered Chris Connelly was because of that Ministry tour and following live-album – In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up. As powerful as a dynamite explosion. At that point, Connelly himself made a move – from the U.K. to the U.S, where Chris became a part of the scene, signed to Wax Trax! and started working with all the possible bands of industrial-era: Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Murder Inc, Pigface… And, of course, as a solo-artist.

To a point, his latest, Graveyard Sex, reminds me his first solo-releases. It’s different, of course. Over the years, Connelly tried lots of different things. Projects. And even novels, he wrote. Which isn’t quite unusual for him – Chris Connelly is one of these artists who’d keep challenging himself no matter what.

I got the chance to interview Chris about his latest, Graveyard Sex, his love of Crass, about the political aspect of his creativity, Revolting Cocks and The Joy Thieves, about concepts and words.

While writing, are you usually keen on to limit yourself within deadlines? How long did it take for you to write Graveyard Sex ?

I started about a year ago – in November/December and I sort of finished it in March. I wasn’t hurrying myself up. Usually when I write, it comes quite quickly. But I wrote a little – stopped. Wrote a little more…Nobody’s ever demanding on me to deliver a record at a certain time. I work at my own pace.

What I find interesting is that all through the record you’re touching the images of life and death without opposing them to each other. What drove you to explore these particular themes ?

I had started writing this album with a view to work on the music with my friend – Bill Rieflin. Bill, who I’ve collaborated with, for a long time wanted to do something. He was dying. And unfortunately, he became too ill to play music. I started writing music that I hoped we’d write together. The album sort of went from that. And then, I started writing about our friendship. Also, the fact that I was losing him. It was a good thing to do. It helped me to accept the idea of death within life. Which he all sort of have to do. So, the album is about being able to live with death. Graveyard, signifying death and sex as something you do when you very much alive, coming together. We live with live and death all the time. These were interesting questions I was asking myself.

During that period of time you started working with Bill, you joined Ministry, touring and recording with them, which led to your joining Revolting Cocks. With all these projects you’ve been exploring your artistic abilities. What defined the direction and shaped your style when you started playing and writing ?

It has to be remembered, that at that time I was much-much younger. I was 22. When you are at that state of your life it is about a journey, it is about discovery. You’re discovering you’re not living at home anymore, you’re on your own…It was different for me! Because, I ended up moving from Scotland to America which was a big jump! Suddenly, I was in the middle of all this noise that I loved! I was a fan before I joined the band. There were just circumstances that happened very quickly. And I ended up in the band. I learnt so much at that time. And I feel very lucky that I was allowed to get in, allowed to see the process…And I’ve learnt a lot of things that I really loved, as well as the things I didn’t love. I learnt a lot about creativity that was useful to me. I learnt a lot of things about creativity that was not useful to me. For example, one of the things I learnt when I joined Ministry was that Al and Paul from the band – they have the last word, they are producers. And I had come from the world, from my own band, where we made all the decisions together. As a band, which took forever! We could never agree about anything.

When you give over power to the producer and as a young person I was like: “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do!” – I learnt that this is the thing. You need someone to reign in the chaos and turn it into something good. And so, I learnt very quickly that I was a player in a play, in a movie or whatever. I was one small part of a record, one small part of a concert. And TOGETHER we made up the whole. But we need someone to sort of tell us what direction to move in. The thing I learnt that I didn’t like so much that – boy, they took so long to make records! It took a LONG-LONG time! Sometime, I got frustrated, went off and did something else. They want to spend two weeks mixing a song – that’s fine. And sometimes, you’d come back and hear it. And think: “Wow! It’s worth of it! This is AMAZING!” and sometimes you’d come back and: “Wow! It doesn’t sound any different to me!”. Through that lesson I learnt to be careful about your time. Is this worth doing or should we stop move on ? Al was very ridged about…If you’re working on one song – that’s the song you’re working on. Whereas, I think, if you’re working on something that’s not working, put it to the side, do something new, then come back to it. So, I leant about how not to work and how to work.

Experiencing punk-rock and post-punk revolution in the U.K, you used to see artists like Public Image Ltd and avant-garde bands like Henry Cow. Then you got to Chicago and became a part of the scene being signed to Wax Trax! etc. How did it feel ?

When I got to Wax Trax!…You have to remember, when I left Britain, which was 1988, things were changing there. They were going too much towards acid house, rave music and at that time I left. It’s not I didn’t like it. But it was a lifestyle that was starting. That would later become really big and important. And I left right before it started. When I got to the U.S, and Wax Trax! – they had a record-store. I saw they had records I wanted that I couldn’t ever find in the U.K. Records by Coil, Einstürzende Neubauten – records I loved, that were really hard to find in the U.K. – they were there! So, in a sense, it felt very comfortable. Very much like a home to me.

I can’t talk about how it was growing up in suburban America as a teenager. I was very lucky, because – yeah, I got to see Henry Cow. Yes, I got to see Crass a few times. And these were a very important things for me to do. And yes, I felt very fortunate that I was around at a certain point of time – 1979-1980, when I started going to these concerts a lot. I saw change, I saw people experimenting with a new music. Pushing boundaries, doing things that maybe we couldn’t do. After punk, it was a very special time. People started breaking the rules way more than punk-rock, way more than punk-rockers did. A lot of punk-rock bands, like Generation X, which was a great band, but they wanted to be megastars. And that’s fine. But bands like Wire, had no interest in that. They were interested in experimenting and pushing boundaries. And that was really exciting for me and my friends.

In conversation with Chris Connelly (Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Murder Inc, Pigface…)

Some of your records – for instance Graveyard Sex or Whiplash Boychild are more focused on arrangements, within such songs as Silk Balune. While other records of yours, you’re less focused on background sounds rather than on sounds of your acoustic guitar. What usually drives you to explore those avenues, whether these are orchestrations or background sounds or just an acoustic guitar?  

I like melody. And I think that, sort from the early 90’s, when I started less to do with Ministry, I started exploring melody a bit more. My background was in the choir! So, the first music I ever heard, I listened to was classical music from the Middle Ages. And I liked it! I was about 9 or 10 at that time. And I loved singing it! In a sense, I went back to melody. And I’ve always loved pop-music! I loved Roxy Music, I loved David Bowie. Things like that. That was the music that was around before punk. That’s when I started listening to pop-music.

The great thing about what we call “industrial music” is it was beyond punk in a sense, that we were suddenly realizing we didn’t even need instruments to make great-sounding records! Bands like Test Department were a huge influence on me. And to me, it doesn’t matter if something got the melody or not. Does it move you? In a way like an album Halber Mensch by Einstürzende Neubauten moves me still to this day…35 years later. It’s such a force and it’s so good to listen to! But at the same time, I listen to Heroes by David Bowie and love the melody on it. It moves me. I still, love and crave making noisy music. Recently, I’ve made a couple of records last year that were a lot more abstract. But I think I can use the two together as well.

In one of your interviews you’d mentioned that the situation you’re in requires you using different type of mindset. How different is it when you’re using an acoustic guitar or some different tools ?

With the band that’s still current for me – Cocksure…This is the band I do with my friend – Jason Novak, and it’s very sort of old-school industrial. He does the music, I do the words. He does the music that’s really hard. And I really have fun writing words for that music. Cause, I really think about the rhythm more, the regimented machinery of the rhythm of the words. When I’m writing by myself on the acoustic guitar, I also think about the rhythm. But also, about the words themselves, how they work with a melody. What am I singing here? So, it’s very much different kind of mindset. I suppose it’s like…You have an author who writes books. An author might write a love story and an author might write a book about a plague or something like that. I never thought about these restrictions. I react towards what’s happening around me. If my friend Jason sends me a really heavy dance-track full on noise and rhythm, then I had into that headspace. I think about how far can I push this with my voice. I love to scream and I do everything at my studio, where I’m talking to you right now. I do everything from here. The band The Joy Thieves, I do play with still. Dan Milligan sends me these great…I did some this week! Some great industrial loud…It makes me swear…I love it (laughs)!

Is it important for you to have a certain theme in the core of what you’re doing ? Or for you songwriting it’s kind of fixation of something – thoughts, feelings and ideas?

I think, certainly for a lot of heavy industrial music I’ve done – it’s political. It’s unashamedly. Especially, during the past year, a lot of stuff I’ve done with The Joy Thieves has been very anti-establishment, anti-government. Because, what better way than with music as a non-violent platform to say what you think, sort of speak for people who can’t speak? And maybe to wake up some people. I don’t believe in violence. But I do believe in violent music. And I do believe in using that as a platform for talking about what makes you angry. I don’t want to get into a physical fight. I don’t want to hurt people. But I want people to understand the truth. And for people to have a voice. I think there’s a lot of people in the world, who, if they did what I was doing in their country, they’d be killed, or go to jail so you won’t hear about them. So, I’m grateful I get to do this and nobody arrests me. I really appreciate that I’m free to do this. But yeah, a lot of that stuff is political for me. And like I said about Graveyard Sex, that was a lot more a meditation on life and death. It was a more personal for me.

At the same time, being a vocalist of Revolting Cocks, you’ve never been focused on one thing only. With each release your role was a bit different. Whether these are Live! You Goddamned Son Of A Bitch where you used to play keyboard alongside with singing or Linger Ficken’ Good where you also used to contribute to the production side – what drove you to explore these things ?

With Linger Ficken’ Good, we had decided to do that record while we were on tour with Ministry. The tour was coming to an end. And we decided to basically take a week or so off and then go straight away into the studio. But in terms of production, before we’d go in the studio, what we’d do back in the old days is go out and rent movies from a video rental-place. This is production! We’d sit there with VHS – not watching but listening! For hours! To find good vocal samples. We’d build a library of sounds and vocal samples, not like cars and machines. For two weeks we’d just sit in the room with coffee, listen and use our samples to sample…That’s what we did. Then we went to the studio with all these samples and started building from there. And unlike making a melodic record, we’d build a structure.

We started with simple rhythms: “Boom! Khh! Boom! Khh!” and then: “This would go here! And this would go here!”. And a lot of it was just joking around! “This would be funny here! This would be funny here!” – it was a lot of fun. So, when you start that way, taking what you’ve sampled into a studio and you’ve already a part of this production and how you have to decide on your esthetic. What’s this song gonna sound like? What can we do here? And with Revolting Cocks it’s all fun! It’s like “What can we do to be really-really fun ?!”. So when we did something like Do Ya Think I’m Sexy ?! – I mean, it’s ridiculous. It’s so stupid! And we kept making it more and more stupid as we worked on it. If it started being cleverer – we’d tear it up. We kept barebones and dumb. And it was the biggest hit we’ve ever had (laughs). So…

I’m wondering how different it is creatively when you don’t have such limitations as most of the bands do. Of course, there was Paul who played bass, and Bill who was your drummer. At the same time, there was Martin Atkins, Terry Roberts, Nivek Ogre – what was your work like, being dictated to by the situation and the concept each of these people bring to?

With Ministry, the golden rule always used to be: once the record was recorded, once it was done, what Al wanted to make that sound live. So he’d have to figure out: A) Who could play it? And B) How many would it take to make it sound as much as a live-record as possible? It was very important for him. And still is. So, there you have your collaboration. He’d add different musicians, bring them together. They have to work. Like Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste – there so many tracks of guitar on that record. So, we had to have four guitarists. And they had to be playing the same thing, the same time all the time. No mistakes. Nothing. Just: “Thrrrrrr!” – to make it sound as big as the record. For him there were no point in going out and making it sound any less then powerful. And he’s right! That’s what the audience wanted. That’s what the audience got. Anything that happened after that, once he’d assembled these people, not paying a particular attention to who they were, then he had all these desperate different people to get in one room. And that’s really remarkable, that’s really fantastic. And great things can happen. Also, terrible things can happen too! But for the most part, it was the really unique collaboration.

How different is your approach when you’re writing by yourself as a solo-artist or within the band like The Joy Thieves? 

I collaborate a lot and most of the records I do here in my studio. I do them virtually and the people I collaborate with are never with me. I don’t work with people and that’s mostly to do with that these people don’t live here. Over the past years, because, of the lockdown etc. – it wasn’t just convenient/safe to get together with people. So, I start by myself and I would record guitar and voice, keyboards. Then I would send that to someone else. To me, when I collaborate with people, I don’t really tell them what to do. I work with people I trust. I only ask people to work with me who I know are going to do the right thing.

I was really impressed, at a younger age by Miles Davis. When he did the record Bitches Brew, he assembled a pretty big band, gave them a loose structure of music and didn’t tell them what to do. He assembled the band of people he knew they would do this right, and he was right! I tend to work with people who I’m either close with or whose work I really like and I say: “Look, I’m just gonna send you the song. You do what you do! I know you’ll come up with the right thing!” and that always works. I’ve been very lucky in that respect. So, I don’t tell people what to do. I tend to work with people I can just trust and they will know what to do with my music.

Some artists speak about the writing process from perspective of a certain necessity. Is it similar for you and what brings you to start writing a new record?

They’re absolutely right! It’s a part of me. It’s like shaving or brushing my teeth in the morning. Something you have to do and it’s always been that way. Before I started writing the music, even as a kid, it’s just something I had. When I sit down and do it, there’s nothing quite like that feeling. It’s amazing! It’s a really great feeling. When I’m not doing it, I’m fine. I never sit saying: “I got to write a song!” I know in my heart when it’s time to start writing, and I sit down and start writing. Right now, I’m not writing. I’ve done some collaborations. But I haven’t been writing anything by myself for couple of months and I’m fine with that. When the time comes, the time comes and I’m: “Oh! Yeah!”, ’cause it’s crazy how physical and how amazing you feel doing it. And that’s the best part of it for me. Recording is fun and writing is just amazing. It’s such an amazing thing. Recording is great, fun to do. It’s an adventure. When the record comes out, that’s great too. But I’m ready to move on to the next thing ‘cause, I want to feel it again. It’s a necessary thing, like how painters have to paint.

The first songs you’d written were quite aggressive and even provocative – Thieves or So What. Within Whiplash Boychild you were writing a lot using different images – quite surrealistic in their own right. What were you searching for at that point as a lyricist and musician, and what drove you in the direction of a solo project with that record ?

I did Whiplash Boychild at the same time I still was in Ministry. I didn’t really think about it. I thought: “Well, this is fine!”. I’d again use the example: a band like Throbbing Gristle. Most people, when they think about Throbbing Gristle think about full of noise or something, but they weren’t! They had these moments of a real serene beauty. Like the song Weeping from D.o.A [D.o.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle] or the song AB/7A from D.o.A. Or some of the more ambient tracks on 20 Jazz Funk Greats. That’s what I grew up with! I knew that Throbbing Gristle wasn’t noise. There was noise. They knew how to use it, dynamically. When I did Whiplash Boychild, I thought: “Well, this is what I’m going to do! I’m not just one-dimensional person.” I have many dimensions to me and this makes total sense to me. At the same time, the same person who’d buy a Ministry-record would probably buy a Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds record. And I thought: “These two worlds can exist together perfectly well!” and they did, for me! And some people hated it. They just didn’t like it at all, which is fine, I didn’t expect it. Being a music-lover, that seemed natural to me.

In what way did you re-discover yourself within your first record ?

I think, it pushed me to get a little deeper. Before that, with Ministry, it had been all about writing politically and it was a good exercise for me, ‘cause, Al would tell me what he was thinking, what he has concerned about, what he wanted to write about, and I would try and put that into a song-framework for him. Really good exercise and really fun. With Whiplash Boychild, I wanted it to come from heart. I wanted it to be more surreal, more fluid. I wanted it to be full of the images, not necessarily violent images. Just like painting, really.

At the same time, despite the style and the projects, whether these are The Joy Thieves or your solo-albums/collaborative projects, there’s still a dynamic you’ve managed to reach with each release or  song. What guidesyou through the process?

Well, lyrically I’ve always had a great love of language and the language I speak. I like the shape of words. I’m not talking about the meaning of words, necessarily. When I’m writing lyrics and I come up with a word, I often try to substitute that word for something that sounds better, that’s more lyrical, that comes off a tone better. I read a lot and I think that has certainly been a strength and a supplement to what I write. I think I’ve always been a good writer. When I was in school, I always had good marks for my essay-writing. I’ve always been interested in poetry. I was good at that! It really interested me when I was in school. At that time, I didn’t realise what was interesting about Shakespeare to me. I loved it! But I wasn’t hung up on the stories – I really couldn’t care less about Romeo and Juliette, in a sense. But I really enjoyed the way it was written. So, I stuck with it and I think it has translated, perhaps, into what I write now.

When I start writing, with a lot of songs, I don’t know where I’m going or what they’re about. I don’t start with a concept. It would appear while I’m writing and, to me, this is a part of the writing process. And the same with melody. I don’t know where the melody is gonna go, but it would go somewhere. It starts and finishes when I start the melody, I have no idea. When I was younger, when I started writing I might say: “Ok! I wanna do this song that sounds like Nick Cave!” or “I wanna do this song that sounds like PJ Harvey!” – whatever. And I soon realised: “They are their own thing! You write like you!”, which is so obvious to say. But at the time, we all are record-listeners. We’re buying records and listening to so much stuff. It can’t help but influence you, but the biggest influence to me is how they are influenced. What make them do…I don’t want to sound like them! But I love the way they do what they do! I love the way they wrote that thing and I want some of that. But it has to come from a heart – not from them.

When you became a writer and started publishing novels, how was it for you to get to a place where you should have a concept before starting something ?  

It was really hard! When I wrote my first novel, I did it because I wanted to challenge myself. I had been writing lyrics and songs for so long and I was so in love with language! And I am so in love with the language. I wanted to push further. Like I said, I read a lot. And for a long time, I had been reading detective novels, crime fiction. All this great noir stuff. Jim Thompson and James Ellroy. James M. Cain – The Postman Always Rings Twice. Really great detective novels, stuff like that. I just couldn’t get enough! At a point, I thought: “Well, I’ve read so many of these books! I know how they’re formatted. I know what happens…I’m gonna try that!” and at that time, I wasn’t really working, I wasn’t playing shows. I just had my first child and so I was home a lot. I wasn’t playing music so much. So I thought: “Well, this is the great opportunity!” – I sat down, sketched it and I did it! It took a long time, I revised it. I kept going back over. It was a really interesting way of working, ’cause it was not like songwriting. The thing that was similar was the way I used language, the way I would try make the prose more lyrical. I used good words, the best I could find, to convey a certain feeling or meaning and I was really interested in writing a story that had a good twist in the tail, at the end. Or you didn’t know what’s gonna happen. That was it! I’m really glad I did it! It was a really fun exercise for me.

With The Joy Thieves, you released an EP this year Genocide Love Song – so what are you working on now? What should we expect?

During lockdown we did a couple of songs. There was one – very angry, very political. and after that we haven’t released them yet. But there’s a couple of a very political songs are coming. This week, I actually sat down and sang four more. They’re very fast. Very loud. They were a really fun to do. And I’m still hoarse (laughs)!

How does it feel for you to get back to this political aspect presented in your creativity after you wrote the record like Graveyard Sex, which is very different?

The two things are connected. I think that the political is the personal, and I think that art is political. For example, in this country, because of the government’s handling of the pandemic, which was not good, when Bill was dying, I couldn’t visit him! This is political. I could have visited him if people had been more aware. If things would get safer here. if the government would make it more possible for us through safety to do that kind of thing, I could have flown and visited Bill before he died. But I couldn’t. And I regret that. So, I wrote instead. I think that artist needs to really be aware of that. Everything you do. Like if you’re an artist, in whatever country you’re living and you find that politically you’re not able to do what you want, as an artist you’d find the way! And in some countries, it’s just awful! Where people are not allowed…But there’s a resistance and people would do it. It happened historically!

An old friend of mine whose father grew up I think in Krakow was in a band that was so illegalin the 60’s, Like a rock band. I’ve lived in the U.K. and I’ve lived in the U.S.A, there’s nothing that bad, trust me. But at the same time, we, as artists need to be able to speak out. We need a voice. If we don’t like what’s going on, we need to be able to talk about it ’cause, it’s a language that people understand, it’s a language that young people understand. And, you don’t have to listen to the governments’ propaganda. You can listen to the music. It’s an outlet. And these days, being able to record at home, posting your stuff, and this can be used for something bad as well., I know, and it’s awful, terrible spread of propaganda, but you can make great political statements speaking up about what you think is unjust for free these days.

You can post in on Bandcamp or whatever and I love that. It’s very punk-rock to me. In the old days, we did cassettes ’cause we couldn’t afford the records. Now, we don’t need to do that. We don’t need to go out in the middle of the night and stick posters on the wall. That’s what we used to do. And if cops would find you – they’d chase you (laughs)! But we could just put it on Facebook now – it’s great (laughter)!

Coming from punk-scene, seeing bands like Crass, do you still feel like a punk-rocker ?

Yeah. Yeah. I do! I think that even more so now. The legacy that Crass left us is very useful. I don’t know if you’ve read it but there’s a really good book called “The Story of Crass”. These guys were hippies to begin with. They were not playing punk-rock, cause punk-rock didn’t exist at that time. This was art and music and free-form jazz or whatever. These were people discovering themselves through creativity. When they found punk-rock it was a really good voice, but they all were old hippies. Their music and their lyrics, even more so now, speaks loudly! They would always be asking the same questions. What they’re singing about is different. Whether they’re singing about Falklands War that had been over for 40 years or so, but it doesn’t matter. The message is still the same, and I think it’s a very important message to listen to. And it’s the same with a lot of punk-rock! It’s not about the loud music. It’s about the message and it’s about listening to people, respecting people’s creativity and working for yourself.

Photo credit: Jolene Siana

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Words by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.

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Dan Volohov is a journalist and writer from Russia. Found his inspiration in punk-rock he still continues exploring. From 2016 to 2018 he was a chief reporter at Moscow-based “Radio ULTRA” where he used to cover all sorts of alternative music and interview artists like Billy Gould and Michaele Graves. Since 2015, Dan has been writing for various publications including Distortion Magazine, XSNoize, Maximumrocknroll, Punk Globe, Peek-A-Boo, Metalegion, MetalAddicts, Atmosfear, JoyZine and RamZine.

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