- Chris Connelly: Happily compared to David Bowie.
The industrial rock movement of the late '80s was, for the most part, a distinctly territorial happening that echoed from the American Midwest, particularly Chicago. Its blue-collar sensibility waged a noisy war between intellect and brute power. The resulting chaos was the sound of a post-adolescent generation that found itself caught between the new technologies of the future and an industrial economic past that was crumbling beneath its feet. It's no wonder, then, that the fans of the form were a boisterous and excruciatingly faithful bunch who single-handedly seemed to keep the entire genre afloat; rare was it to find a typical alt-rock college type or punk fan crossing over to immerse himself in the tumultuous, beat-heavy styling of the Revolting Cocks, Ministry, Pigface, or KMFDM. Industrial rock, apparently, was something that you had to live to entirely understand.
Chris Connelly lived it fully. As a member, at one time or another, of nearly every important band industrial rock produced (including the aforementioned Cocks, Ministry, and Pigface), Connelly rode the form through, from its ragged beginning to its vital end. A British transplant who still speaks with a slight Cockney accent that's influenced by what he's picked up from living in Chicago, Connelly remembers his industrial roots with fondness.
"At the beginning, when I got involved with the Ministry guys, I was 21, and at that stage in life, I think that you tend to be very serious," he says. "You've gotten beyond your teenage years, and you start to get a bit more philosophical, and so music is very important at that time for people. For me, I think that [industrial rock] reflected some sort of rage or anger, or some kind of friction that I was feeling -- or had always felt. So, ultimately, the music that I became involved in was the loudest I could find. It was the harshest that I could find. It was the most compulsive, it was louder, it was dirtier and more angry than anything I'd heard before, and it had that big mechanical beat."
The "mechanical beats" Connelly mentions were actually suggestive of the changes taking place in industry at the time. Machines, fueled by the growth of computer technologies, were virtually replacing people in the global economic community. Industry as we knew it was becoming extinct or, at the least, happily shedding its most costly bulk -- human labor. It was a chaotic period that ultimately played out to less tragedy than the times seemed to dictate. This turmoil was reflected in the music Connelly was making.
"One of the saving graces of the '80s -- and one of its greatest downfalls -- was the advent of so much technology and the idea of technology replacing people," Connelly explains. "That's why we made the music we did; we were a by-product of and a reaction to all of that, for sure. But what was flawed about the whole thing we were doing was -- and you always know when something is flawed, when a decade later people are making it kitsch and turning it into a retro thing -- that anyone who was serious about the music, which was reacting to this dehumanization in the world, was of course dying to use the available technology. Looking back on it now, it all seems a bit naïve, but the thing I most admire about what we did was that, the day that we got the technology, we started using it and tried to push it to the extreme."
Yet, as Connelly admits, extremes can become tedious as well as dated. As the beat-heavy industrial movement began to clean off some of its grit and eased its clamor into more accessible dance-oriented cuts, Connelly retreated, in stunning fashion. In 1991, he released his first solo project, Whiplash Boychild, and the record, an unexpected piece of spacey Anglo-folk pop, took anyone remotely familiar with his work by surprise. Whiplash was a sharp turn inward for Connelly. Gone were the screaming assaults and impersonal chill of mechanical music, replaced by the warmth of acoustic guitars, piano, dramatic readings of personal lyrics, and an unabashed adoration of moody pop sounds. Connelly says that Whiplash really wasn't anything new for him; with his first band, the relatively unknown Fini Tribe, he had a predilection for quiet melody.
"We explored a lot of experimental territory," he says of the band with which he played before moving to the States. "But as well as being quite abrasive, we'd explored more esoteric sounds, and Whiplash Boychild was really a continuation of that. It certainly was also a reaction to sitting for a block period of time [with Ministry and the Revolting Cocks], listening to something so incredibly loud that it began to drive you a bit crazy."
Connelly's solo work openly echoed other somber pop icons, such as American turned Brit Scott Walker and fellow Brit David Bowie. In fact, Connelly's voice sounded so much like the Thin White Duke's that Bowie became the most cited and assumed influence. "It's better than being compared to Weezer," Connelly laughs when asked about the endless comparisons. "I mean, hell, it's David Bowie! Of course, I like David Bowie. I love his aesthetic, I love the way he works, and he's got a beautiful voice and has written some damn fine songs. I can only take it as a compliment."
With his latest album, an extended musical drama titled Blonde Exodus, Connelly has created a well-constructed, cinematic work of art that should put the easy comparisons to rest.
"Blonde Exodus clearly has a theme, and the most fun was putting the pieces together so that they created the way the record should flow," Connelly says. "I had this vision when we were doing the record, and it was interesting, because I had the musicians who were working on the record do things that were a little out of the ordinary. I'd say to the piano player, 'Just hit the "G" for five minutes, like this: "ding-ding-ding-ding."' They'd think I was nuts. But I told them that they'd see when it was all done what I meant."
It's a nearly Mingus-like approach, in that the musical vision is not shared, but constructed from one person's ideas. On Blonde Exodus, Connelly works the aesthetic well, and the record is as solid as any that Connelly has issued in the past dozen years, which means that he's now got an extensive catalogue to draw upon for live performances.
"In our shows, we've been able to take songs from the earlier records and find that they matched the Blonde Exodus material well, mostly because all of my songs have dealt with the women in my life," Connelly laughs. "Which, as long as they don't ever wind up in the same room together, is a pretty good thing."
Twelve years into a well-received solo career, you'd think that most of the memories of Connelly's industrial noise days would be long gone. But industrial grit doesn't wipe away so easily, and Connelly says he still finds people a bit startled by his music.
"I think that that reaction is here to stay," he says. "I've learned that, whether it's conscious or unconscious, you can't make a gear change like that in something as narrow as rock music without people being sort of aghast. It seems to be all right for authors or actors or screenwriters -- people involved in other areas of culture -- but to change that much, that quickly, in rock is sort of like Michael Jordan quitting to play baseball. It's really been a head-turner. But the reaction I've gotten has been mostly positive, and that seems to have validated what I've done."