The Damage Manual
by David Slatton
Already written in rock history for work in such seminal bands as Ministry, Public Image Limited, and Killing Joke, the member of The Damage Manual collectively could certainly qualify as a supergroup, but don't tell drummer and chief protagonist Martin Atkins that...
Images of a pretentious tour bus caravan and live sets filled with instrumental solos by idiot savants gives Atkins the shivers. First and foremost Martin Atkins, Jah Wobble, Chris Connelly, and Geordie Walker consider themselves a band. And that's quite an accomplishment for these four headstrong musicians who have already had their fair share of commercial success.
Just co-ordinating schedules between them is tough. Wobble lives in London and owns his own record label, 30 Hertz Records; Connelly lives in Chicago; Atkins owns Chicago based Invisible Records, and Walker just came off recording a new Killing Joke album with the notoriously difficult Jaz Coleman. But despite the hurdles, the quartet has assembled in a remarkably short time the potential blueprint for rock music in the post-rock dawn of this new millennium. Rather than recreating their punk past, the band has used their pedigree to generate a new sound.
Aggressive, intelligent, and unexpected, their EP One and the recently released self-titled full-length (originally rumored to be titled Music To Be Murdered By), both on Invisible, smash the face of the pop punk formula so pervasive on MTV - ironically a formula they individually had a hand in creating. Despite the postponement of a summer tour [and a cancelled photoshoot with Outburn] due to continued processing delays of the band and crews' US visas, The Damage Manual vow to be back for a full US tour in October. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to speak with all four members.
How did you guys come together on this project?
Geordie: Well, Martin phoned me up. It was Wobble's idea.
Wobble: Martin called me and told me he was moving back to Britain, and he wanted to know if I could record a couple of bass lines on a DAT for him. I said, "You're coming back here, and we're both of that generation of musicians that actually write songs, we actually play, so we should team up." He said OK, but I think he was a bit surprised. Then he asked me who I thought we should play with, and I suggested Geordie. I said, "I've always wanted to play with him, he's the guitarist of that era I never got to play with." I'd have liked to. He's a very intense musician. So Martin made some inquiries, and lo-and-behold it turned out Geordie was back in the country as well. So, off we went. After two long nights in the studio putting down a lot of backing tracks and stuff, Martin took the tapes away.
Martin: It wasn't a calculated plan to start a band, it was an idea just to get together and see what happened. We basically just jammed in the studio. It was phenomenal. We got twenty-two song ideas from two days in the studio.
What were you doing when you got a call from Martin, Geordie? I hear you were working on a new Killing Joke album.
Geordie: Last year I went to London to start a new record with Jaz Coleman (vocalist) in a little studio under Big Life Records. And after ten weeks, I got out of there with four tracks, and I was completely fucking drained. I started to feel like this was a fucking job. And for some reason and with very little notice, Big Life Records decided to dissolve the company. About three weeks later I got a call from Martin, and he asked me if I wanted to go into the studio. Of course, I said, "Fuckin' yeah." So we got out of there at about five in the morning with twelve tracks written on the spot. Absolutely wonderful. I thought, "This is what it's all about, this is the way it's supposed to be."
How did the songwriting work in the studio? What was it like just jamming together?
Martin: I took some different synth loops I wanted to explore, with cross-rhythms... there's a loop that was called "fast loop for a slow song," now I think it's called "Denial"...and it's basically a slow song that pulls you in-very PiL Metal Box style - and there's a bunch of little ideas like that, that change into songs. I find that process interesting and challenging.
Wobble: When we got together for those original sessions, I didn't know what to expect. I thought maybe we'd end up with some hybrid, weird, instrumental rock album. So, I tried to be very open minded.
Geordie: Working with Wobble and these guys has that spontaneity which early Killing Joke had. You know, not overworking stuff or thinking too much. I think we let things land where they may. It's very much about chemistry.
Were you just making up riffs as you went?
Geordie: I had been stocking up riffs and bits and pieces for about two years, and some of them were right out of the blue that night. Martin showed up with these analog synth loops...he just looped away, and we went at it.
So are you satisfied with the way the tracks developed?
Wobble: I didn't like the mixing to start with when we were working to get the EP together, so there was some typical band arguments over that. And that convinced me that this really was a group, you know what I mean? Everyone was still arguing over how it should sound, which I hope was pretty good, but that tends to mean people really give a shit.
When did you come in Chris?
Connelly: Martin called me in Chicago.
So you didn't play with these guys...?
Connelly: I never saw any of these guys when I was recording. But I am a great admirer of Wobble's. I may not have done this if it wasn't for his involvement. I've always been a follower of his work.
What was your first reaction to the idea?
Connelly: I was excited, and thought it was a great idea. I couldn't really conceive of what it would be like, but I was thrilled.
Martin: It all happened fairly quickly. After we recorded, Wobble and Geordie said, "You know, We can hear Lydon's voice on this." And I said, "Well, I know exactly what you mean, because with Wobble and me playing together, of course it's Metal Box Public Image." But I had a much more recent and lengthier experience with Lydon. I was in PiL until '85, Wobble left PiL in '81, and Geordie never played with him. And I said, "Listen guys, I'm not sure I want to enter the new millennium playing with Lydon"' But I certainly understood. I heard John's voice on this as well. But I didn't want to be in a PiL reunion band. What happened was I said, "I know a lot of people who will say John should have sung on this. So why don't I send him a tape and see what he says." So I did, and he decided he didn't want to do it. Which I think is a comically good thing. You know, I didn't decide John. Lydon couldn't sing on this record, he did. That lifted all that shit off my shoulders. I think Connelly was my first call, because l heard his voice on this. But I didn't imagine, he would twist the songs in the way he did. I think his vocal performances are fucking outstanding.
Connelly: Martin was in the studio when I was laying down the vocal tracks. And it was really good, because he's not a singer. It was nice to have his input, because I was doing things I wouldn't have thought of myself.
How did you approach the lyrics?
Connelly: When I got the tracks it was pretty much bass, drums, and guitar. There was some synthesizer on "Damage Addict." I wrote after I heard the tracks. The music was inspirational to me and brought me out.
What are the lyrics about on "Sunset Gun?"
Connelly: Paranoia. Same as everything I write. Kidding, of course! It is something I've written about before. The opening line is: "From the moment I awoke in receipt of a blackmail note." It's not paranoia of anyone thing, you know. It's just when you wake up n the morning feeling that certain uneasy way. That's the feeling I wanted to evoke. The title actually comes from a Dorothy Parker book. She doesn't actually have a poem called "Sunset Gun," so I appropriated it. I've always liked her poetry, and I thought it'd be a great title.
What did you guys think of Connelly's vocals when you heard the tracks the first time?
Geordie: Connelly is a great singer. It's interesting with his understated vocals; it makes he overall sound of the band more powerful.
Wobble: He's got a strong voice. He doesn't piss about. He impressed me very much in rehearsals, as well. He stands there and goes straight to it. He's really got his shit together, yeah? And I can't say that about a lot of singers, you know.
So did it ever cross your mind that you guys had some sort of supergroup here?
Martin: What? The idea of calling it Wobble/Walker/Atkins/Connelly?
Connelly: We all made records before, but we decided to make one together. I don't think that's super ... I think that's just sensible.
Martin: The whole idea of a supergroup is offensive. The idea that it's only a project is offensive, because this is the wildest band, the most invigorating and challenging thing I've ever been involved in. It's much more intimate than Pigface, and I love Pigface, obviously, but it is difficult to have an intimate relationship with twenty-seven people on stage. The idea that goes with supergroup is that everybody's on their own tour bus, everybody has their own fifteen minutes to go mad on stage and show off their technical expertise. I can't think of one element of the supergroup concept that I want to have anything to do with. I mean, these are my mates!
Where did the name The Damage Manual come from?
Connelly: I came up with that ... the song "Damage Addict" used to be called "Damage Manual." The music had a very grey, repetitive feel to it, like turning the pages from some kind of corporate annual report. But it also suggested to me, you know, violence... like A Clockwork Orange, that kind of urban feel. So the repetition and the violence together suggested to me a damage manual, an instruction book for destruction.
So is this physical, mental, or emotional damage you're talking about?
Connelly: Well, they're all related. I'm always trying to write about the intangible, putting words to things that defy description. It's a power struggle; it's defeat; it's victory. It is an internal thing, but I think the only way I can write and make things physical is to make them physical in the writing ... kind of how a painter would paint what he feels. For example, Francis Bacon. I personally feel a lot of violence in his work. I don't know what he'd think of that, but I see an internal violence in his work. I try to do the same thing in my lyrics.
This isn't the first time some of you have worked together. Martin and Wobble played together in PiL, and Chris, Martin, and Geordie worked before on Murder Inc
Geordie: That was going to be a Killing joke album, but after Jaz got the horrors about switching record companies after this sad, little German guy had imported the Extremities album into Britain, and because he hadn't paid the value-added taxes, all our records got impounded by Her Majesty's Customs. So no one could get that album in England. We were going to move, and Coleman got the horrors, so we did Murder Inc. instead, and played about four concerts.
Connelly: I did the same thing in Murder Inc., where these guys came up with the music, and I wrote separately.
Martin: I don't know what we were doing in Murder Inc, I don't think we were as focused then as we are now. I think we are all further into it - I'm struggling for the words - we know what we're doing more. And I think we are able to look at the sound as a whole and give better input.
Since most of you guys started in the cradle of punk, I wonder what you think of it now after twenty years. Is punk still relevant?
Geordie: As an attitude it will always be relevant, no matter what it's called. But when you take a stand just against government, for instance, and contrive it, then all you have is a bunch of wankers, you know?
Martin: Punk like Green Day is dead, but if you are talking about anarchy ... my record label is a direct result of my involvement with punk in the 70's. Having your own record label and your own studio, owning the means of expression, owning the printing press, if you like, if that isn't a political statement, I don't know what is.
Does youthful anger still propel your music?
Martin: I don't know that anger is the right word, but there's an energy there. I think each of us has an energy. I mean, Geordie just stands there with his guitar and it just floors you. Same with Wobble. We all have an energy that isn't just throwing rocks at the establishment. We all have our different approaches. Wobble's shaking the foundations. I'm probably inside the building demolishing it from the inside. Maybe our approach isn't as immediate as screaming in your face, but I'm sure it's twenty times more subversive than a mad punk rocker throwing stones at a telephone booth.
Are you enjoying the idea of touring and playing live? Or are you sick of it after so many years?
Geordie: I am gagging for it. It's going to be a fucking riot It's the best part, playing live.
Wobble: I still like playing live, because it's very simple. It's like yeah, this is what I do, you know? And it is fantastic when you've been spending time running a label and all that bullshit. And then you go and play: "Oh yeah, this is what I do! I'm a tucking musician! This is great." It's really straightforward. Especially with The Damage Manual, because I don't have to book the bus or the hotels, that's Martin's job.
Connelly: It's the one thing I can do that I know I'm good at. I can sing and write and tour and I enjoy it. It beats the hell out of a lot of things, I'll tell ya. I've no problem with it.
The music has got a very original sound, but it's still familiar...
Connelly: That's one of the best things about this project is that everyone has very distinctive styles, and even on a song like "Blame and Demand," which is a three minute pop song, I recognize the players immediately. I love that. I love that we don't sound in any way generic. It doesn't sound dated to me. ..it's one of the reasons I got involved i the project.
Both Wobble and Martin own your own music labels, does that hinder you artistically?
Wobble: It drives you crazy sometimes, you know? It's the biggest problem in my life. I've tried on many occasions to hand it over. It's like a baby, a label is, only understanding the kind touch of the father. As soon as you hand it over to somebody else, it fucks up really quickly. So you end up having to do it yourself. I mean, it takes time, I'd rather not run a label, but if you want to get your music out there without interference that's what I had t do, you know? On the fantastic side, I don't have to talk to many suits.
You guys are all so busy doing your own individual projects, I have to ask: is there a future to this band?
Martin: Oh, my god, there's already an offer from Australia and New Zealand. We've had offers from Japan to tour. I cannot wait to begin work on the next album, because it only feels like we've been scratching the surface, and there's an awful lot more to come from the four of us.