A model of restless creativity and a vanguard in the industrial music scene, Chris Connelly has traversed the musical landscape and made some of the most honest and challenging music of the past 20 years. With the breaking news of his upcoming full-length collboration with former Ministry/Revolting Cocks conspirator Paul Barker as Bells Into Machines, Chris reached out via email and shared some of his thoughts on his creative process, collaborating with a wide variety of likeminded musicians, and his role as an artistic hyphenate.
Chris, I am intrigued by the Bells Into Machines project – how did you reconnect professionally and personally with Paul Barker? Was there a sense of nostalgia working with someone with whom you have such a history?
Paul and I have never really fallen out of touch, though our work together has been minimal over the last few decades, it’s mostly because of not really living near each other, being busy with other things etc. Paul is family, so there is not much hoopla between us about working together; that being said, this project is being done so far over the internet, we have actually not talked to each other about it! As far as nostalgia goes, I can safely say Paul and I are very ambivalent about that strange emotion…
Your work exhibits a wide-ranging creative restlessness – how do you find balance between your song-oriented albums with more avant/emotional works like “Pentland Firth Howl” or “Forgiveness and Exile”? Do songs naturally group themselves into different albums or projects?
It’s a mixture of different things. I have a very finely tuned barometer, if you like, inside me which intuitively pushes me towards a certain path when I am writing. I think I am a very intuitive and physical writer, and whatever comes out is what comes out. The 2 records you cite: firstly “Pentland Firth” I have to admit was written during a period of intense homesickness; I was glad I was able to turn it into a piece of music rather than just moping around. “Forgiveness” is one of 4 albums I did that were basically based on one long poem, at the time I was more interested in words with accompanying sounds, rather than song. It was also the first truly political piece I did. As far as balance goes, it’s never a question of balance; I don’t think as an artist I feel personally that it brings a balance into my life - that stuff comes from elsewhere. It still feels to me the same as when I was a kid with blank paper and crayons - it’s always been there, sometimes I draw something I like, sometimes I crumple it up and throw it away.
You have a long and varied history of collaboration – what creative itch does working with others scratch?
Not an itch, I am just genuinely interested in working with different people. I think in my earlier days there was a lot of hit and miss, but that’s just the learning process. Nowadays, with nothing to prove, it’s a genuine pleasure for me, especially to write words to someone else’s music. I like where the music might push my train of thought. When I write my own songs, a lot of the time the words and music are informing each other as I write, but when I am sent a completely new piece of music, written by someone(s)else, it’s a different approach.
The David Bowie influence has been present in your solo work since the Wax Trax days. It seems only natural that something like “Sons of the Silent Age” would be an extension of that. How do you approach a project like that, where you are in essence paying tribute to someone else’s work?
Same way as you might approach a play if you are an actor, or a symphony if you are an orchestra - it gives me a lot of freedom. These songs were not written by me, however, I am very intimate with them. It’s actually been a real life saver in terms of me learning new disciplines. When I started doing it, I kind of had the idea that it would be easy because I knew the songs so well, but it’s given me new insights as to how brilliant of a songwriter Bowie is, and how good of a singer! I have to do a lot of vocal exercises, almost on a daily basis, along with stretching and physical exercises. The other great thing is being part of a team - there are 9 of us, and I am a huge fan of teamwork. We are all working together - no one needs to compete to have their songs played!
“Ed Royal” was a charming first novel, based I would presume upon your upbringing in Scotland. Any plans to continue writing fiction?
I started to write another book, then I had a second child, then I just got very busy with music again and I kind of literally “lost the plot”! I may do it again, I really enjoyed doing it, but part of the reason I did it was to try a new discipline. Having been used to songs and maybe long form poetry, I just wanted to see if I could do it, and it was an eye opener. I learned a lot.
You mention having your second child…how has becoming a parent affected your artistic life?
Certainly it has affected this, but if anything it has made me more aware and more prolific, much more aware of time economy. I have to do most of my work very early in the day so I can join the human race at breakfast time. As far as perspectives go, it has maybe accentuated a humanitarian instinct in me that I feel had been dormant for many years.
You have weathered the rise and collapse of the “alternative” record industry and if anything you have become increasingly prolific. To what do you attribute your longevity? What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring artists?
I think that’s a tough question. It’s so personal in a way; the creative “scene” if you will is populated by people who are either creative or who are just dabbling. What I do is not a chore or a struggle; and what I mean is what I DO, the writing part, that’s the thing I have that is mine. Everything after that, the recording, releasing of product etc, is just gravy. Nothing can teach you that…it’s like being born with red hair or being double jointed or whatever; it comes with you, just be yourself. I found I have been increasingly prolific but that’s because I think I am “learning on the job”. The more I learn, the more I hone this skill I am lucky enough to have - it’ll stay that way. Look at Francis Bacon, painting away til he died in his 80s!
Your “method” as an artist feels a lot like that which an actor goes through – is acting something that you have considered as an artistic outlet?
I don’t know about acting. I feel like “Sons of the Silent Age” is kind of a role, and the new album I am writing is very much little fictions. The methods may be similar, but I think it's just hard focused work that has to be done.
I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?
After writing, recording and releasing them, my music wanders off into the sunset - that makes me sound like a terrible parent! But seriously, I am only interested in what I am doing now. When a record is done, I forget about it and move on. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of them, but they have no relation to my life. When I play gigs and have to learn them, I get really grumpy…I hate relearning old songs, so the record I am writing right now is my favourite!
On a personal note, the “Shipwreck” album connected with me at a very important time in my life and reflects upon mortality in a way that some of the best art does. Any recollections from that time that are particularly salient or poignant for you today?
Thank you very much for that grand compliment!!! I was a very different person when I did “Shipwreck” in many, many ways. So no, that was 20 years ago. It was, I remember, not a good time in my life, and I am glad something so creative came out of it. And that band!!! What an amazing band!
Besides the work with Bells Into Machines, what else is in the offing for you?
Working on a new solo album with Matt Walker producing. He is in “Sons of the Silent Age” with me, and has been in the Pumpkins, Filter and played with Morrissey for years.