Although they made their claim to fame during the latter '90s as one of the industrial rock scene's dark, angry offspring, Stabbing Westward may be risking it all by abruptly changing to a more melodic, if not more organic, pop sound. With a surprisingly upbeat candor, lead vocalist Christopher Hall talked to ConcertLivewire's Tony Bonyata about why they felt this style change was necessary for the survival of the band. He also let us in a few personal secrets, such as real reason they bailed from The Cult's recent tour, his experience with lesbians girlfriends and what Playgirl wouldn't print in their spread of the band.
Livewire: I understand that you recently had to cancel your tour with The Cult and Monster Magnet. What happened?
Christopher: Well, I don't know what the official line is. But what really happened is that they weren't selling as many tickets as we thought they were going to sell. And we were going on really, really, early - like 7 o'clock at night - so we'd be playing for maybe like a hundred people. It was really just a situation that when you're opening, you're not getting paid very much and you're only playing for only a hundred people a night, or whatever. It just didn't seem to make a lot of sense to spend that kind of money to play for so few people when we could play for more people if we went out on our own.
Livewire: So The Cult wasn't really pulling the audiences in?
Christopher: No, not like they thought they were going to. They're still pulling in people, but it was a little bit of an older crowd and they were coming to specifically see The Cult. So they were getting there at like 9 o'clock. Although, again, I'm not really sure what the official parting line is.
Livewire: Well, the publicists are saying that the reason for the cancellation is that your drummer had to have surgery on his hand.
Christopher: He's got a little problem, but it wasn't bad enough that he had to leave. Now that we've had the last week off, he did have some stitching done.
Livewire: Are you planning on doing a headlining tour later this year?
Christopher: We're doing a bunch of radio festivals for the rest of the summer. Every town has their weenie roast type thing, you know, where they've got like twelve bands playing, or whatever.
Livewire: It's come down to weenie roasts, then?
Christopher: Exactly! (laughs) The KROC weenie roast in L.A. is, I think, the original big one. We just did that one, and it was amazing. Got to see STP, Jane's Addiction, Linkin Park and Staind. It was an amazing lineup! We were actually the first band.
Livewire: How was Jane's set?
Christopher: The Jane's set was actually not the greatest I've ever seen. I've seen Jane's probably about twelve times and they seemed kind of disconnected. Stone Temple Pilots actually made a surprise appearance and they were just amazing! I think they took the wind out of Jane's' sails a little bit.
Livewire: It's not healthy to follow STP.
Christopher: No! It was STP, then Blink 182, who promptly blew up the high-mid's of the P.A.s, then everything sounded [makes low muffled sound] like this for the rest of the set, and then Jane's Addiction comes out and its kinda like...but, you know, Blink 182 is a huge band right now too. All the little girls left right after them.
Livewire: Kind of like when Nine Inch Nails opened for Bowie and all the kids split the second the Nails' set ended.
Christopher: Exactly. I felt so bad for Bowie. As much I love Nine Inch Nails, Bowie's an icon, you know? If the little 15 year-old goth girls would just go back and listen to Bowie, they would see where all the music they listen to came from.
Livewire: That was six years ago. They're probably into him by now.
Christopher: Hopefully. Hopefully they've grown up a little and got some taste.
Livewire: Let's get back to your band. Why did you decide to title your latest album simply, "Stabbing Westward?"
Christopher: It was a decision made on two levels. The first one was, every time we titled an album the title seemed to get darker and darker. I mean we started with "Ungod," went to "Whither, Blister, Burn and Peel" and then we went to "Darkest Days." Every time someone would pick up one of our records in the store, they'd look at this picture on the cover, which is generally pretty dark, then they'd see this name "Stabbing Westward," which is pretty violent sounding name. Then they'd read the title, and they'd make all these assumptions before they even went to the listening booth. A lot of the things we write about are kind of love songs and stuff like that. It's not like it's Satan worshipping.
Livewire: Love songs, yes. But they are dark love songs.
Christopher: Yeah, it's dark music.
Livewire: But your new album cover seems to go against that idea. Although it's simply titled "Stabbing Westward" you've got this goth girl with smeared makeup who looks like she wants it...
Christopher: Or getting it! (laughs) Yeah, you're right, the cover is still dark. That's what I said, but some of the other guys in the band and our manager were like, 'no, that's sexy.' And our manager's a woman, so you'd think she'd have a female approach to it, you know. It just looked kind of violent to me. Although I was there for the shoot, and she was pretty sexy. (laughs) I think the intent was to be more sexy than violent, though.
Livewire: Okay, here's the big question. Why the change to a more melodic pop style for the album?
Christopher: I've been listening to the new sound of the band for two years. I was writing songs that were significantly more melodic - I suppose pop or whatever - a couple of years ago when we started working on the new record, so it's been a slow build up for me. I guess for a bunch of people who are fans of the band, and who've been waiting for it, to suddenly hear us sound like that, it freaked them out.
Livewire: Do you feel that you'll be alienating some of your hardcore fans who liked your music edgier and in-your-face?
Christopher: Absolutely. We do what we have to do. I did a lot of soul searching with this idea, because I knew as we were doing it that the people who are really into the harder stuff were gonna be freaked out by it. But I was thinking that a lot of fans would listen to it enough times and they would get it. I think that these are the best songs that we've ever written. I knew that by suddenly changing musical and production styles so drastically that it would throw people for a loop. People go into it expecting it to sound like something else, so it's really hard to approach it with an open mind. Which is the down side. I wish that there was a way that people could listen to it and forget who we were in the past, so they could just hear the strength of the songs, and the strength of the emotions behind them. Even though I was fairly certain we would lose the harder edge portion of our crowd, I didn't think that it was right for us to make a record for them. If we don't make the record that we believe in, then you're just kinda making a product for somebody. I don't feel good about that. Philip Morris does that. You know, they genetically design foods and tobacco and stuff to hook someone. That's not what we're about. We're trying to actually do music that comes from the heart, while trying to grow as artists. If we're afraid to grow as artists because we're afraid of losing our demographic or core fan base, then we're really doing it for the money rather than doing it for the honesty of it. It was hard decision, but I'm really proud of the record.
Livewire: How's the new material been received live?
Christopher: It sounds so good live. I think the band right now is at it's best. One of the biggest changes in our music was that we got rid of lot of the computer stuff. The computer stuff was cool when we were doing it for the first two, three records. but it started to become very limiting to us. It made it so that as a live band we couldn't really explore anything. We couldn't explore the very simplest of musical dynamics - we couldn't speed up or slow down during a song. We had to play at exactly the same tempo for the entire song, which means that as the song reaches the climax at the end, you can't speed up and get louder because the drummer has this computer click-track in his head that doesn't let him speed up. So it's really limited our ability to play together. No one really listened to anyone else in the band because we would all listen to the drummer, who was listening to the click-track and that's all we needed to know.
There's a whole technical side behind it that I think people in the audience really don't get, but they feel.
And so now, we've got this new guitar player, Derrek Hawkins who is sort of raised as an 'old school' guitar player. He's really into like Jimmy Page and Mick Ronson and the true guitar gods.
Livewire: I had heard that he was just your live guitarist for the tour. Is he simply part of the touring group or is he actually in the band?
Christopher: He's in the band. He just hasn't signed any paper work, because he wants to get paid every week. (laughs) Yeah, we don't know where that live touring guitarist came from. He played and wrote all the guitars on the record. It's just that when we were recording and did the artwork for the record, we didn't know if Derrek was going to tour with us or not. We thought he just might come in the studio and split, but he ended up liking it and touring with us.
Livewire: Do you enjoy the live experience over the writing and recording process?
Christopher: Yeah, I do. I like writing in the same way that I like paddling out to go surfing. If there's really big waves, I just want to be out there riding the waves. I don't want to actually have to paddle through them and get beaten up for a half an hour to get out to line-up in order to catch one wave. That's kind of like what writing is. It's the necessary pain that you need to go through in order to get on a tour bus and play in front of 10,000 people (laughs). I love writing, but the payoff of playing live is so much better. It's like Christmas shopping is fun, but opening your presents is better, you know? (laughs)
Livewire: Do you write most of the songs for the band?
Christopher: No, musically, everyone contributes. Walter writes a lot of music. Everyone contributes not only their own instruments, but people make suggestions on other instruments as well. And then I write pretty much all of the lyrics. Andy writes some of the lyrics, like the number, "Perfect" [from their latest album]. And if it's a cool song we'll go ahead and do it. So it's really kind of random. I pretty much cover the words and the melodies.
Livewire: The words that you use seem to lean heavy on the dark side. Are you an unhappy person?
Christopher: No, I love what I do!
Livewire: It seems that on your new album you're singing about love and relationships but there's something not right with it. Is that true with your relationships? Are you married, single...?
Christopher: No, I'm not married or single. Actually I have an awesome girlfriend right now. There's a couple of songs on the album that she helped inspire - one called "Angel" and one called "The Only Thing" - that are both pretty upbeat kind of love songs. My first love songs prior to that...yeah, I just went through a divorce at the end of "Darkest Days" and the girl that I left my wife for, a girl who played bass for one of our opening bands, ended up being a lesbian.
Livewire: That's an interesting twist.
Christopher: Yeah, when things are happening in my life like that, I just write like crazy.
Livewire: Well great art is often associated with pain.
Christopher: Yeah, but I'm hoping that there's a way that I can not have to work like that in the future. There's enough social situations and other things to write about, without me going out and dating psycho lesbian chicks in order to generate words. (laughs) I really like my current girlfriend, so I don't really want to have leave her to make another record.
You see, I never leave anybody. I always force people to leave me by being subconsciously really mean to them. And then they leave me and I say 'oh, how could you do this to me?' and then I write songs about it.
Livewire: And then they have to live with it when they hear it on the radio.
Christopher: Exactly. My ex-girlfriend's real happy when she hears our stuff on the radio. (laughs)
Livewire: You guys have been recording for, what, about ten years now?
Christopher: Even longer than that, I think, yeah.
Livewire: Any dissension between the ranks?
Christopher: Oh, yeah! (laughs) There's dissension between the ranks! Totally. There's a core of us that get along. Walter -the keyboard player- and myself have been friends since high school. Jim [Sellers] has been around since '91. Andy's kind of the new guy. Eric's kind of the new guy. Yeah, there's always stupid little power struggles. There's the never ending question of 'how can anybody wake up in the morning on the tour bus and complain about anything.' I'm always like, 'Wow, check it out, we're on tour. This is amazing. This is the best thing in the world.' And then you've got other guys that complain about the location of the hotel, the pool not being big enough, the coffee maker only having decaf, or the crowd is so ugly, and you know, I'm just like 'shut the f**k up! What in the hell do you possibly have to complain about?! You could be bagging groceries at Ralph's right now. You could be making a latte for me. Look at your life. You don't sleep under a bridge. What could possibly be that bad?'
Livewire: It sounds like you've got a very positive attitude, despite some negativity around you.
Christopher: Yeah, but that's the only down side. I think that's what stirs up the most problems in the band. People's expectations are too high. They see all this bullshit on VH1 about being a rock star and they think that's what it's supposed to be like, and it's not. Being a rock star is what we are. It's what we do every day. We get up and we play music for people who bust their asses to make twenty bucks to come and see us play. We should feel blessed that there are people who want to pay twenty bucks to see us play. Those people worked really hard to find a way to get there, to get their ticket and to wait in line. Think of the effort it takes to go to a concert.
Livewire: It sounds like you speak from experience.
Christopher: Yeah, I've waited in those lines! (laughs) Man, I wanted the see Cheap Trick so bad when I was 13. Right after "Live at Budikon" came out, man, I camped out to get those tickets! So I know what it's like to be a fan. To even, sorta-kinda, say that this sucks, is just blasphemy to me, you know? I mean, this is the greatest life ever!
Livewire: You've opened for a lot of different acts, such as Rage Against The Machine, the Sex Pistols, Kiss and Depeche Mode. Do you have any favorites that you've played with?
Christopher: I have a lot of favorite people. Martin Gore from Depeche Mode is one of the greatest guys I've ever hung out with. He's a really cool guy. Johnny Lydon from the Sex Pistols would sit down every night after the show in his dressing room with a bottle of wine and just tell the funniest stories. He would just hold court. He'd invite a select number of people to come in and hang out, and we'd just sort of sit there and laugh at his stories. If you had anything to add, he wasn't really all that interested. (laughs) But I was like, 'I'm just gonna sit here and absorb, 'cause I'm hanging out with Johnny Rotten!'
Livewire: That's probably the reason why his talk show didn't last.
Christopher: Yeah, 'cause he was the only one talking! (laughs) Gene Simmons [from Kiss] walked up to us - he met our keyboard player the day before on tour - and he's like, 'Walter, introduce me to your band.' And I'm like, 'oh, we're in your band now, are we?' Anyway, Walter, introduces us to Gene, who is towering over us.
Livewire: Because he had his high-heeled boots on?
Christopher: Even without his boots, the guy's pretty big - compared to me. I'm not a large man. So Gene's like, "So tell me, Chris, are you getting enough pussy on this tour?" And I'm like, "Oh yeah, you've got us set up, Gene." Pussy and Camaros, two things that are not on a short supply on a Kiss tour. Lots of '78 Camaros! (laughs) But we've opened for so many cool people. My favorite band we've been playing with lately is Staind. We've already done about twelve shows with them this summer at these radio festivals. At first I watched 'em from the side of the stage where the other bands are, and I really wanted to feel what it would be like to really see the show. So I would put on a goofy-ass hat and go into the audience and just sort of slide into one of the empty seats in like the tenth row and just watch. I think that guy is one of the best performers out there right now. Him and Scott Weiland from STP.
Livewire: Weiland is really something to behold.
Christopher: I've only seen him once, at the weenie roast in L.A. He's a psycho! (laughs) Some guy hit him with a beer, and he just went off on the guy! It was amazing! It's funny because just three weeks earlier someone had nailed me with a cell phone. The audience has this fucked up habit of throwing things at the stage thinking, "I'm gonna reach out and connect with the band." "Yeah, you just connected your Nokia with the bridge of my nose!" What are they thinking? It's that weird anonymity of the mob mentality where you feel that you can get away with things that you could normally never do. If it was just you and me, and you threw a cell phone at me, I'd come over there and kick your ass or I'd get my tour manager to do it for me. (laughs)
It's funny because that same asshole can throw a phone and break my nose, and it's not a problem, but if I threw my microphone out in the audience and it broke that same kid's nose he'd sue the shit out of me, and probably get millions of dollars for it.
Livewire: Well, you guys got it to spare, don't you?
Christopher: Oh yeah, 'cause we're rock stars [stating tongue-in-cheek]. It's funny because I was just doing an interview with PlayGirl before this interview. Sex talk with PlayGirl.
Livewire: Did you do a photo spread?
Christopher: Yeah, actually we did do a photo shoot for that - me and the band.
Livewire: You don't have it all hanging out, do you?
Christopher: No, I'd get all shy. It's just a little butt shot here and there. It's like PlayGirl has this fill in the blank question and they asked me, "Right now, in my bedroom there is ..." and I said an air mattress and a spare tire. And she's like, "What do you mean?" And I told her that I sleep in my truck. (laughs) I told her that we're on tour, so I'm in-between apartments. I don't have an apartment while we're on tour. I'm not stupid. I'm not going to pay L.A. rent if I'm not gonna live there. So I camp out on the beach when we have rehearsals and stuff, and I wake up and I go surf. I sleep in the back of my truck on an air mattress. I do have a PowerBook with a DVD player, though, so I can watch movies and stuff. But she was all freaked out and she said, "Can you give us a better answer than that because I don't want to print that you sleep in your truck." (laughs)
Livewire: You're Chicago boys.
Christopher: Actually, we're Illinois boys. Walter and I are from the Peoria zone, down in the middle of Illinois, right in the buckle of the Bible Belt. We got the hell out of there in the mid-'80s and moved to Chicago. Is that where you are?
Livewire: We're actually located in Lake Geneva, WI.
Christopher: Yeah, I used to go riding in Kettle Moraine. Busted an axle there one time!
Livewire: What prompted you to leave Chicagoland?
Christopher: The money! (laughs)
Livewire: You never really seemed to fit into the Chicago scene of the '90s, with bands like The Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Urge Overkill, etc.
Christopher: Nope. Although, I was in two other local bands that were in that scene. A band called Odd Man Out. We played the Metro and Avalon circuit and we were trying to get the same sort of attention as the Pumpkins did when they broke. We used to do shows with the Pumpkins and stuff.
Stabbing Westward was always more of a secret sort of side project. I mean, we're very much into the electronic, industrial thing at the time - more because we didn't have any musicians that we liked to play with. It was just a couple of us doing music in our little home studio situation. We'd play shows once or twice a month, usually sort of weird performance art sort of stuff. We'd build these really bizarre stages and just play with like two or three people - no drummer or anything like that. Then we got Chris Vrenna, the drummer from NIN [Nine Inch Nails], to play drums for us live and it turned everything around. And we were like, "Wow, we can be a pretty kick ass rock band if we choose to be, instead of this sort of Wax Trax industrial type of thing." So we started focusing on being a rock band, and we got picked up so quickly that we didn't really have time to nurture any sort of a local Chicago following.
Livewire: Who were some of your early influences on the band?
Christopher: That I'll admit to? (laughs) As a musician, definitely Cheap Trick and Blue Oyster Cult. I used to listen to all my older brothers 8-tracks. You know, like when I was a little kid, my older brothers had all these cool 8-track tapes. Except I remember he had Styx. I just never got the whole Styx thing. "Mr. Roboto," what the hell is that all about? Then I kind of got into my own music as a teenager, like Joy Division and The Cure and some more dark, English type of stuff. Then later The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Godz and more punk stuff. And I kind of carried that with me for awhile. And some dumb stuff as well, like Modern English, and Flock of Seagulls. Jane's Addiction was huge. When "Nothing Shocking" came out, we heard them play with The Pumpkins at the Metro. They had the cool tripiness of Zeppelin, but with someone who I could relate to more than Robert Plant. Robert Plant was my big brother's rock star. I needed one of my own - one that I could identify with.
Livewire: Let's just thank God that Zeppelin never had that click track to work from.
Christopher: Exactly! That's the thing that our producer sat down and showed us, because we weren't totally ready to make this record when we did it. Our drummer was like, "No, I have to play to a click track, otherwise I'll speed up and slow down." And with the advent of ProTools in the last 10 years becoming so completely ubiquitous in the music scene - I mean every one uses ProTools. Every drummer plays exactly in time. If you can't play in time to a click track then you're just not hired to play music anymore. So our producer got a metronome out and he put on a Zeppelin record. He showed us what the tempo was when the record started, but by the end of the song it was like twelve beats per minute faster. It was like the guy [John Bonham] had sped up and slowed down so many times in the song, but you didn't notice. It was like being on a roller coaster.
And then our producer played us Beatles records, he played T. Rex records and all these really vibey cool records with the same results. He's like "name your favorite record." Okay, Jane's Addiction. He put on Stephen Perkins - an amazing drummer who never plays in time. Nirvana's same way. None of it's in time.
But then he put on Garbage, and I like Garbage, but you can hear just exactly how clinically precise everything is. N' Sync and Britney are the same way - every note and every drum beat is exactly in time. Every single thing is perfect because they've used a machine. There's nothing dangerous in that. There's nothing rock 'n' roll in that. Everything was sloppy ten years ago and then industrial music made everything in perfect time by using sequencers. And that was inhuman and kind of cool, but it got so everyone does it now. Pepsi commercials sound like that now. There's no unique quality to it anymore. So we wanted to go against the grain again, if we could, by making it really, really human. I just think it makes for a more emotional record. It goes back and captures that original feeling of rock 'n' roll that has disappeared lately.
Livewire: Okay, it's the 'desert island' question. If you could take just one album, what would it be?
Christopher: How long am I going to be on the island?
Christopher: I would go for The Beach Boys "Endless Summer." I'd want to surf the whole time and I'd want to act like the island's cool - like I meant to be there.
Livewire: So you're a big surfer?
Christopher: Yeah, my girlfriend is a really rad surfer! When I was a little kid I nearly drowned in a pool, so I've been terrified of water most of my life. So my girlfriend is like, "You're one of the most intelligent guys I know. You're in perfect physical shape - you mountain bike, you rock climb - there is no reason you physically can't swim." So she took me to the pool, and I'm like, [in a high pitched scream] "No, no!" And she's like, "You're gonna fuckin' swim. You have to." So she teaches me to swim and I realized I'm actually pretty good. So then she's like, "Now we're gonna go surfing." And I'm like, "I'm not going in the ocean. Are you nuts?! I'll drown." But she took me out there and taught me how to surf in a day. And the very first day I stood up on a wave. And it hit me, "This is it. This is what I'm supposed to be doing." In fact, that's where I'm going today, Santa Cruz, as soon as I get off the phone with you.
Livewire: What happened with your deal with Columbia Records?
Christopher: It was a combination of a couple of factors. First of all, they're evil...no, I'm just kidding. (laughs) The people who first signed us with Columbia - nobody works there anymore. Not a soul, except for the president, who was one of people who said that the press can't discuss Ricky Martin's sexuality. So I'll just leave that alone, since it's pretty self explanatory. And there wasn't anybody left to really champion us. We were turning in demos to people that we'd never met before. We'd give this fat guy with glasses our demos, and he be like, "Yeah, this is nice, but don't you have some of those songs like you had on the radio before?" And we said, "But we already did that record. This is the new record."
Livewire: Wouldn't it be novel if the record companies actually hired executives who new something about music, as well as business?
Christopher: You would think so. We asked where he used to work? and he's like, "Dinty Moore. I was the head of marketing there." So when they had their yearly accounting meeting they were like, "we need to funnel more money towards Ricky Martin's wardrobe and Mandy Moore needs a bigger tour bus, so where can we cut some costs. Well we've got this rock band Stabbing Westward that nobody seems to know anything about." They ended up dropping about twelve bands that same day, to sort of balance the books.
Livewire: How's your relationship with Koch Records going?
Christopher: It's good. It's been a ride, because after being on a major label for so long, we had that sort of major label ideal, where it's like a bottomless bank account. We signed with an indie [record label] to have a more personal relationship with the label, so we could feel a little more in control of the situation. When The Cult tour thing happened they said, "We think this is a waste of money. You're not playing in front of anybody. You're spending a ton of money on the road. We think it'd be better if you saved your money for a better tour in the future." Since they don't have a bottomless bank account like Sony they were actually smart about handling money. Sony just throws money at the wall and sees what sticks - like my mom with pasta. So it's been unique working with a company that is actually wise and prudent with their money. We're dealing with intelligent people for a change.
Livewire: What's the deal with the Claudia Schiffer story?
Christopher: It's a funny story, but I missed the whole Claudia Schiffer part of the program, because I was more focused on David Bowie. Claudia Schiffer is a very attractive woman, but David Bowie is like a god. Here's the actual story: Placebo was opening for us. We're playing this show in New York City, and since Bowie and Placebo recorded this song together, the record company though it'd be cool if he joined them onstage that night at Irving Plaza for the number.
Livewire: T-Rex's "20th Century Boy?"
Christopher: Yeah, it was. So we're in our dressing room, which shares a common door with Placebo's. So you have to go through our dressing room to get to theirs and then to get to the stage. So we're in there hanging out, having our pre-show Newcastles and there's a knock on the door. I opened the door and it's fucking David Bowie! I'm like [in a confused, panicked voice], "oh, my God! Uh...uh...uh...could I help you?" And he's like [ in a proper English accent], "Um, yes, could you show us where the Placebo dressing room is?" So we got to talking and he explained that he was performing a song with Placebo, and I said [in a timid voice], "You're opening for me? Cool!" (laughs) So he does his thing with Placebo, which was really cool, and we're all busting ass to get ready to go on, and Bowie comes back and I started to chat with him. Well during this time, Jim our bass player had dropped trou' with his t-shirt half over his head, and was basically standing there with his dick hanging out, who by the way is the most well-hung of the band. If you could somehow super-impose his front onto my body...
Anyway, Claudia comes in and sees Jim standing there hanging out, and as the story goes, becomes an instant fan of the band. (laughs) She was really tall. Tall women freak me out. That's why I like Chinese woman, because they're very small.
Livewire: Do you think that you'll build on your new musical direction in the future or return to your harder, more electronic sound of the past?
Christopher: I think that there's a way to combine both. I think that there's a way to use electronic sounds. I'm not really sure. It's really hard to say until we get there. I don't want to say that we're abandoning everything that we ever were.
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