(From Choler, weekly music magazine, 10 May 2000.)
The Next Chapter
Industrial rock legends Martin Atkins and Chris Connelly hook up to write The Damage Manual
by Sean Flinn
It's a new band of old acquaintances. That is, the Damage Manual didn't exist prior to 1999, but its members have been kicking around music together, in one group or another, for the past 20 years. Drummer and producer Martin Atkins, vocalist Chris Connelly, guitarist Geordie Walker and bassist Jah Wobble have been involved in some of the most influential bands of the last 20 years, sowing the seeds of a partnership that is only now ready for harvesting.
The Damage Manual is the resultant supergroup (though the
band itself hesitates to call itself that), an industrial rock/post punk hybrid
with a pedigree that includes Public Image Ltd. (Atkins and Wobble), Killing
Joke (Atkins and Walker), Ministry (Atkins and Connelly), Murder Inc. (Atkins --
detecting a pattern yet? -- Connelly and Walker) and Pigface (Atkins and
On their own, Atkins, Connelly, Wobble and Walker have had at least as much success as the bands they've supported. Atkins runs Invisible Records, maybe the last bastion of "classic" industrial music and musicians (Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge, Skinny Puppy's Ogre and Einsturzende Neubauten's FM Einheit all call the label home). He also uses the band Pigface to collaborate with over 250 musicians from the industrial, experimental and alt- rock scenes (Trent Reznor, Frank Black and Flea and Jello Biafra have all played roles in the group). Connelly has a critically acclaimed solo career, having released three critically lauded albums and a book of poetry. Wobble, a once-close friend of the Sex Pistols Johnny "Rotten" Lydon (and whose first experience playing the bass guitar occurred when he borrowed the instrument from the Pistols' Sid Vicious), runs his own label, 30 Hertz Records, and fronts the Invaders of the Heart, working with the likes of Sinead O'Connor, U2's the Edge and Primal Scream. Geordie Walker continues on as the guitarist for Killing Joke, whose lasting presence has been felt across the punk, post-punk industrial and metal scenes.
But the four haven't worked with one another in years, which begs the question: why now?
"I'd been wanting to work with Wobble for a couple of years, and the time that worked for Wobble and I to get together, Geordie happened to be in the country [Walker, a Brit by birth, currently lives in Michigan]," explains Atkins, speaking by phone from his home outside London. "And I invited him down to the studio. I don't think any of us had too much planned, although I did know that I wanted everything that we did to be loop-based -- or click based, if you like -- so that if we were jamming on a riff for 10 minutes and something happened in minute number nine, I could edit the information from the ninth minute onto the first minute."
Atkins's low-pressure recording and production techniques gave the trio the flexibility to jam freely in the studio without worrying too much about the final mix, alleviating some of the pressures of the reunion and the recording process. Inevitably, it allowed Atkins, Wobble and Walker to forge -- or rather, reforge -- a collaborative unity that they hadn't enjoyed in years, with one another or any other musicians. The enjoyment the three experienced working together fueled a certain excitement about the project and gave the three the impetus to move it to the next level.
"We got together again because we had so much fun, and I think Wobble said, 'Look, this feels like a band.' So I took about 22 of the ideas that we'd worked on and sent about 16 of them off to Chris Connelly, and he really liked what we were doing. So I went out to Chicago to record his vocals."
Despite having constructed three-fourths of the Damage Manual's music before even conceiving of adding a vocalist, Atkins placed enough faith in Chris Connelly's lyrical abilities to give him free reign over his contributions to the project.
"I'm the kind of vocalist nowadays who -- whereas before, when I was working with Ministry or something like that, lyrically it was a collaboration," says Connelly, a transplanted Scotsman, over a brief phone conversation from his home in Chicago. "And working with Ministry, Al [Jourgensen, Ministry's front man] would maybe have an idea of what he would like to write about and maybe ask me to illustrate it or elaborate upon it. This time, I was left to my own devices. That's the only way I can do it because I start off with the germ of an idea, and it grows into something through my own thought process, which is very personal to me -- as it would be to anyone else.
"What I really loved about [the Damage Manual] was that, for the last five or six years, I've been writing my own melodies, and this time, the melodic part of it was already there. So I found I was being presented with almost a musical protagonist, if you like. And it took me into places where I normally wouldn't go lyrically, and that was really exciting to me. I'm actually real happy with what I've written, not in a kind of 'Boy, I'm so brilliant way,' but as a writing exercise, it was very valuable to me. It opened up a few doors that I've never opened before.
"The music and some of the stuff that's on the EP -- for example, 'Damage Addict' -- was, to me, suggestive of some kind of Clockwork Orange-y kind of wasteland. It seemed brutal to me, and I found I was writing very brutal lyrics. Not 'I'm gonna kick your head in' kind of lyrics, but I was accessing parts of my brain that were very cold, very gray. And I think there's a lot of power struggles in these lyrics and a lot of questions are being asked. And I think they're cryptic -- but I always am cryptic. But then there's some stuff that I thought was just downright hilarious. There's a lot of lyrics, like [in the song] 'Scissor Quickstep,' that I see as slapstick, sort of like Laurel and Hardy for the year 2000. There's a lot of dark humor in there, and I'm really pleased that this music sort of lead me down that path."
The results resemble Ministry circa 1988'sThe Land of Rape and Honey, with perhaps less mechanical precision, more texture and melody. "Sunset Gun," with Walker's loose, driving guitar line and Atkins' thunderous beats, is anthemic and boisterous, boasting a southern-fried groove that's damn near unstoppable. "Damage Addict" and "Blame and Demand" are both soaring, classic industrial rock, the likes of which haven't been heard since the heyday of Wax Trax! Records (once the premier label for industrial and experimental rock).
With the vocals added to the instrumental mix and with Atkins having added some finishing touches in the studio, the band had yet to play together with all four members, with Connelly and Wobble never having met at all.
"I didn't meet Wobble until after I'd done everything," Connelly says over the phone from his home in Chicago, where he's currently preparing to tour with the Damage Manual and laying down plans for a reunion with Revolting Cocks, the industrial party band he fronts along with Ministry's Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker. "I'd never met him before, until Christmas, and luckily we got along really well."
Lucky doesn't begin to cover it. The quartet will be deep in one another's business for the next few months, as the Damage Manual embark on a worldwide tour to promote their EP, One, and forthcoming full-length album (due out in early June). Connelly isn't worried, however -- not about working with Wobble or, for that matter, Atkins (an old touring buddy) and Walker, despite a history of past tensions and years of on-the-road infamy. The chemistry of these four musicians at this juncture in time is too good not to experiment with on the road.
"I think that us playing together is the basis of all the chemistry that there is," Connelly says, enthusiastically. "We've only actually played together once, the four of us. And actually, it felt great to me. I think it felt good for everyone else. I think that we'll be able to do this live really well. And yeah, we're going to be living out of each other's pockets for a long while. I get along well with most people, and I tend to have my head elsewhere anyway."
The going will be made easier by a hard-won degree of experience and maturity on the part of all four members, at least two of whom -- Atkins and Connelly -- have had their fair share of wild road experiences. Sine 1990, Atkins has headed up the monstrously large industrial ensemble Pigface (which sprang out of the lineup for the 1989-1990 Ministry tour), dealing with the logistical and financial nightmares of arranging for unrehearsed performances by hundreds of musicians spread out across America and Europe. Meanwhile, Connelly has toured with two of the most rowdy, aggressive and downright nasty groups in pop music: Ministry and the Revolting Cocks, both legendary for their road-trip excesses.
But Connelly, now a bit older than when he started performing alongside Big Al and company, is convinced that the road of excess has led maybe not to a palace of wisdom but at least to a place where the music matters more than the after-show (or pre-show) parties.
"We're all ancient now," he deadpans. "I think that has a lot to do with it. As far as touring goes, I first started to tour when I was a kid -- 21 or 22 -- and touring to me at that time was, yes, playing the rock show and enjoying all the fruits of the road afterward. And now, you know, I'm different. I'm way more excited about the music and way more focused on the kind of thing. And I can speak for everyone else in that respect."
Atkins agrees, adding his own interpretation of the group's chemistry.
"One of the things you should know is, I stopped drinking seven years ago. And that's part of my journey and part of my struggle. That's not a struggle for Geordie," he laughs, explaining away some of the tension that has existed between him and his former Killing Joke and Murder Inc. band mate. "He likes to drink, and sometimes it's difficult for me to be around people who are drinking heavily. But I think that I'm at a different point now. It seems that every day that goes by, I'm at a different point in my life. And I don't want to sound like someone from AA -- because I don't go to AA -- but it's different for me this year because I'm seven years sober, and I'm learning things about myself and how I go about things that I couldn't have learned five years sober. So I'm on my little journey, and Geordie's on his, and I'm happy that we are communicating, verbally and musically.
"And, you know, Geordie and I have had our moments. Like, 'OK, motherfucker, let's go!' And I think that's one of the things that makes this interesting -- because, we don't know where the energy is ultimately going or coming from. But there's definitely more energy at work between the four of us than between any four individuals that I've been around in a long time. And energy isn't always nice; it's not always productive. But I don't think it would be interesting if the four of us were all neat and tidy and punctual and had the utmost respect for everybody and everything. There are frictions within the four of us, and I think it's healthy, and it's part of the reason that this is interesting to me and to everybody else."
The subject of energy, comfortable and un-, brings up the topic of the Internet and online music distribution, both of which leave Atkins extraordinarily enthusiastic but wary.
"I think that a lot of the industry view the Web as like the 'get out of jail free' card. You stick something on the Web, and then people will say, 'Look! I made your record available to the whole world!' And really, I think you've got to look at the Web as part of the world. And the Web is a very useful tool to promote gigs. Like, for instance, we've got some people -- an Australian company -- that's going to film the last day of rehearsals and the first few gigs in England and broadcast some stuff over the Web. Well, that's great -- people across America can see what we're up to -- but the more you sit down and surf, the less likely you are to get up and go out. So it's a battle at the moment, I think, between keeping the record stores alive -- because they're important hubs of information -- and working with the Web.
"I mean, I would hate to see gigs disappear because, otherwise, how are people going to get shagged? And if people are not going out a getting shagged, then they're not going out and buying interesting outfits. So then a lot of the motivation and the confrontation of difference becomes watered down and elusive, instead of confrontational and invasive and stimulating. But having said that, as a record label, I don't think it's fair to say, 'Oh, my God! I've lost a hundred sales because of blah blah blah!' I mean, really, it's stealing -- maybe it will be controlled maybe it won't be. If it continues, then there just won't be any more bands. There won't be any more gigs, and the industry will collapse, and it will all be Internet based and great.
"The Web offers an opportunity for all of the artists on Invisible [Records] to be available to someone in Coral Gables, Florida, or the middle of Wyoming. I mean, as a small record label, you can imagine how frustrating it is to find this record store in Wyoming, and you shipped them 10 copies of the album I did with Ogre [1998's Bedside Toxicology, performed under the moniker Ritalin] and five copies of something else, and they don't sell. Meanwhile, the store in Miami has sold out, and kids are going in there asking, 'Have you got the new Ritalin album with Martin and Ogre?' And [the salespeople have to say], 'No. We're out of stock.' Meanwhile, there's a record store in Wyoming that's got too much stock. So I think that there are obviously massive, massive benefits to it.
"But I think that a lot of very small bands view the Web as their "get out of jail free" card too. Like, 'We don't have to deal with any labels, we don't have to deal with putting up posters, we just have to have a Web site.' But the problem with having a Web site is that there are so many Web sites, you need to do the equivalent of putting up posters, advertising in the local press. You've got to do events to attract attention, otherwise you won't be seen on the Web. If the entire world moves onto the Web, then everything that's true of the world will be true of the Web -- which is, you've got to jump up and down and set fire to yourself to even get a moment's worth of attention.
"So I think it's an interesting few years. It feels to me like 1976, with the punk-rock revolution in England. Everyone started their own record labels and fucked the majors. It was fantastic creative freedom. And I've got to say, it feels a lot like that for me now. The creative freedom of the studio, the vibe of the Damage Manual, the freedom of having my own label which -- you know, there's 160 CDs out on Invisible; it's not like I just started the label yesterday and I'm hoping to save up and get a fax machine. The machinery exists, and it feels to me, with everything that's gone on with the Web as well, that it's 'Anarchy in the U.K.' all over again."
Connelly, distilling the argument about as well as any musician, journalist or record executive, acknowledges both sides of the online music coin.
"To be honest with you, if someone wants to hear my music, I'm really thrilled. I'm really flattered if they take the time to do that. And I think that, speaking for a lot of bands who, perhaps, don't have the means to release records -- and I know a lot of people like that, who are just really happy that people want to hear them -- and for whom, perhaps, that will lead to something greater, fantastic. I'm glad that that stuff is up there. However -- brass tacks here -- this is my living, and I'd be really pissed off if it was being exploited.
"I'm a bit scared that music's going to become too -- well, it's already a commodity, but to go a step forward, where it's almost completely disposable. I mean, I think people don't really realize that when you go into the studio to do something, it's always a labor of love. I never really make money off my records. I scrape by. But I do it for a specific reason, and I work very, very hard at it. And I'd hate to see this being treated like a candy wrapper and just being looked at and thrown away. Like, you see these postcards that people give away for free. And they're there one minute and probably in the garbage the next minute.
"I'm not saying that art has to be treated with reverence, because I think that you shouldn't put your art on a pedestal. I think that's a very dangerous thing to do. But I do think it should be treated with respect. And I think that I speak not just for music but for painting and literature. It would be very sad to see it all falling in on itself and having what we consider valuable artists of our time stopping doing what they're doing or maybe just doing it and not letting anyone else be a part of that. That would be really sad."
For now, however, Connelly and Atkins remain determined to share their creative output with whoever shows up to see them play. But beyond the release of the full-length album and the world tour, neither offer up any hints that the project will continue. In the fall, Connelly will reconvene Revolting Cocks with Jourgensen and Barker ("They're reconvening in my house at the moment," he informs me with a chuckle). Atkins will go back to running Invisible and, if the past is indeed prologue, jump into more projects as soon as he can.
"I think that we're taking it one step at a time, but it feels really comfortable, even though some of the mechanics are difficult," Atkins says of the Damage Manual's possible future. "Like, what am I gonna do? Start another band? Who's gonna play guitar? Who's gonna play bass? Who's gonna sing? Of course, there are lots of options for everybody, but I think we're interested in exploring this. And just like you can only investigate the seventh year of being sober after you've been sober for six years, we can only make the second album after we make the first one. I'm very interested to see where this goes."