Mar 2016 28

One of the hardest hitting and most visually striking projects in modern music, CHANT’s Bradley Bills speaks with ReGen on the development of his art and music and his observations of industrial music and the world at large to culminate in his latest album, Brave New Apocalypse.
 
CHANT - Bradley Bills, 2015

 

An InterView with Bradley Bills of CHANT

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

From its modest beginnings as a “self indulgent drum project” in 2004 to becoming one of today’s most exciting and dynamic acts, the tribally infused percussive assault of CHANT is a force to be reckoned with. Originally gaining renown in his native Austin, TX, Bradley Bills has gradually built up his repertoire of martial rhythms and socially and politically charged lyrical themes with 2007’s That Which Divides and 2010’s Strong Words for Strong People, collaborating with the likes of Martin Atkins (Pigface, Nine Inch Nails, MINISTRY) and Chris Telkes (Nocturne), and honing his live chops to create an audio/visual spectacle that eventually garnered the attention of KMFDM, with CHANT subsequently joining the Ultra Heavy Beat on not one, not two, but three consecutive tours from 2013 to 2015. Bills would also join such industrial heavyweights as Die Krupps and Evil Mothers onstage, providing his uniquely bombastic and energetic drumming to those bands and building up his reputation as one of today’s hardest working and most sought after musicians. The project’s third album, Brave New Apocalypse – released in 2015 via WTII Records – represented what was up to that point the best representation of CHANT’s live percussive power in a studio recording, aided by numerous collaborators including KMFDM’s Sascha “Käpt’n K” Konietzko and Jules Hodgson, CHANT live members Kristopher Robin and Alvin Melivin, Adam Donovan of Seek Irony, and Evil Mothers’ Patrick McMannis. Bills was kind enough to speak with ReGen several months after the album’s release to speak about the development of his craft and the evolution of his lyrical themes, touching on his observations of industrial music, the world at large, and the role that art and music plays both for CHANT and in people’s perceptions.

 

Your last album, Brave New Apocalypse seems to be the closest that CHANT has come to achieving the band’s live sound in a studio recording, and that had been a major challenge for you on your past releases. Tell us about how that came about and what the major developments you personally made to get that sound.

CHANT - Brave New ApocalypseBills: I think that with the trajectory of making the album, the best asset on the second record was that my buddy Chris Telkes had seen me live in Texas several times. With getting Sascha involved on the third album, he of course – because we toured together – had seen me live. They knew where I was coming from with the live perspective. As far as my goals, I’m just getting better at what I do, I think. When I wrote the songs for That Which Divides, I didn’t know how to mix or produce or anything, so I was at the mercy of whoever I could find to do it, and they hadn’t necessarily seen me live. That was back in 2006 and 2007, so as we’ve been going on with this, I’ve been learning through friends and through experience, as we all do as we work on music projects, just trying to hone the craft and get the music to sound as aggressive as I want it to sound.

You’d also had several other guests on the album, including your live band mates. As you are the main songwriter and had mostly on the past records done most of the instrumentation yourself, how was the presence of these guests affect the sound of the album?

Bills: I think bringing live instruments – having a real guitar instead of a digital sample, or having a real bass with a real amp instead of a synth bass – is something that I’d always wanted to do, and it just makes it so much bigger sonically; especially if you know how to capture that in a recording. It’s something that I’d always wanted to do, and by the time I was working on Brave New Apocalypse, I’d forged relationships with people and thought that it would be cool to hear Patrick’s signature bass on this song, and also taking, for example, what Jules does and say that I’m looking for a very bluesy David Gilmour type of guitar; you just think of Jules as chugging stuff out like what he does with KMFDM and The Spittin’ Cobras, but having toured with him, I know that the guy can play anything. Part of the experimentation with CHANT is bringing people into those elements and seeing what happens. I couldn’t be more pleased as it gave every song its own flavor. I write everything and program everything from scratch, with the exception of some guitar solos. The bass lines I completely wrote out on piano, and Patrick replicated it using a bass cabinet in my closet, and it shook the house so much! It was fantastic! Of course, Alvin was rehearsing for the live tour and was helping to design the lighting rigs, and he’s a fantastic musician. I don’t really play guitar, so it just made sense to have him take part, and he does have his own style. We’d form the guitar parts together and then layer them on. The whole process of collaboration is something that I enjoy, because I’d been in about 14 bands prior to my even deciding to do CHANT on my own, so it brought those memories back and I really enjoyed it!

Because Kristopher and Alvin were involved more on this album, do you feel that there’s a groundwork for them to contribute more and make CHANT more of a band in the way that people perceive it?

Bills: I’ve had discussions with them early on in their involvement, but the hard truth is CHANT is my therapy and it’s turned into something that is very necessary for me to write alone to convey everything I experience and the lens and the filter of what I see going on in the world. I think the writing will always remain 100% me, with the exception of the final production and contributory phases. I’m getting better at being able to say, ‘Those four bars aren’t really needed,’ and when you hear a mix of what could be the final mix on your record and some parts are actually completely gone, you’ve already lived with that song for either months trying to craft it. On the first album, I knew I needed to do it myself. Now, I’ve been able to step back from that, and it’s good to do that and be patient and keep listening to it until you can hear it in that new way. I think I’ll always do that and I’ll always bring somebody in to do that. The track ‘Adoration’ was originally a bit longer and had a bit more dirty drumming going on before Sascha assessed it; I was actually even on the fence of it, and it was one of the last tracks I wrote and threw on the record. I almost didn’t want to play it and I wasn’t sure if it was even worth anything. He turned that into an explosive track. He did some fine tuning, saying, ‘You really don’t need those eight bars in the middle’ and ‘Let’s take this whole layer of noise out; you don’t need it.’ It opened the song up, and of course, he’s a genius so he knew how to really make it slam! I think I’ll always bring somebody in for the final phases, but the writing will always be 100% me.

Brave New Apocalypse seemed to have a pervasive theme of repetition, cycles, and things coming back around and repeating… tracks like ‘Repeat Repeat,’ ‘All the Same,’ and ‘Cycles’ – was this a conscious theme for the album?

Bills: I don’t know if I would be so bold as to say that it’s a concept record, but the title Brave New Apocalypse came to mind before the record even existed. It was based off of a discussion with a friend of mine; I’d already written the track ‘Universal’ for an EP the year before, and I was caught on the theme that everybody who is alive today, their religious beliefs are inherited from somewhere before. It’s inherited and taught and learned, and a lot of the time, you look at certain religions and realize how new everything is and that nothing lasts forever. Any kind of tyrant or empire has crumbled and nothing has ever lasted forever in our history; we’re all passing through it and everything is cycling. There’s a level of that, and on a personal level, it’s about relationships. I had just been through a major change in my life. I desperately did not want to write a breakup record, but at the same time, I experienced the end of something that was a huge part of my life and took up most of my life. ‘Repeat Repeat’ is a personal song about finding love again, but not wanting to repeat the same mistakes. ‘All the Same’ is definitely in the same vein as ‘Universal’ in the look at religion. A friend of mine had coined the pretty funny term that he was an apathetic atheist. (Laughter) ‘I guess I’m atheist, but I’m not prepared to argue about it because I just don’t care to; I’m completely apathetic.’ I’m not religious, but I was raised with religion, and I’d say that all religions – including being atheist – when practiced properly should lead to the same place, and in the end, it’s an interesting track of the human condition trying to find what they consider to be salvation. And we will never agree on it as a species because salvation, freedom, safety and security are all such personal things to us as individuals, but it means something to all of us. That just fascinates me. I’m fascinated with the debate between freedom and safety, and what it all means, like on an older song like ‘Point and Click.’ I’m fascinated with what salvation means to some people, and how religion is so hijacked. It’s like we all know it, but the world keeps spinning and cycling anyway, and there’s not much we can do about it.

It’s a really personal album to me, and it’s built totally on the idea of building new things – things ending and always having a new beginning, so I think it’s a very hopeful record. I think it’s relevant to a lot of the things going on in today’s world; not that I have any particular wisdom, but it is a reflection of what I was paying attention to, and I think it’s nothing new, so hopefully, the album will have lasting power because of that. The song ‘Manifesto’ critiques the media for how they cover mass shootings, and it seems like we have a mass shooting every week! I wrote those lyrics as if to say, ‘I’m waiting to be the next scapegoat.’ You know? ‘Look at what these lyrics made me do!’ It’s meant to be a dangerous song, but again, I believe in individual responsibility. Art can be an influence, but we have to take responsibility for our own actions.

With the proliferation of the internet and the interconnectivity of people with their different viewpoints and ideals, do you feel that there is a possibility for a greater understanding between people? Obviously, this isn’t the case with fundamentalists and the likes who are responsible for terrorist attacks like those in Paris, Ankara, and Brussels, but for the average human being, what are your thoughts?

Bills: CHANT is aggressive, but there’s always a little hint of hope in my lyrics. At heart, I think I’m an optimist and I’m very hopeful, and giving every single individual on the planet the benefit of the doubt and not judging them based on the species in general, or religion in general, or where they come from in general. I think hope is in the individual, and it’s the world that is chaotic. I think social media has the ability to bring us together just as much as it has the potential to further divide us. I think the most dangerous thing that I’m perceiving lately about social media, and this isn’t me discovering something new, but it’s so easy to make somebody into a critic and to make somebody feel like they’re making a difference. They are the two most dangerous things I see within social media, because first of all, I have friends who say they are very political and post stuff on Facebook all day long, but I know they don’t go vote and they never really, truly get out of the sidelines at all. And this includes bands as well; ‘Hey man, I’ve got 20,000 likes!’ Well, are you really affecting or reaching that many people? That’s part of what the song ‘Bring Me the Head of the Music Critic’ was inspired by; it was me seeing somebody critiquing a review of somebody else critiquing a record or a live show, because everybody was critiquing the way this person was doing his job to review the show. Everybody’s a critic, and I thought it was pretty funny, and it got me thinking about the idea of why do we do art? Why do you do what you do for ReGen? Why do I do what I do for CHANT? At the end of the day, you have to do it for yourself. That’s kind of a punk rock idea, and it’s an industrial idea, and I miss that about industrial is the punk rock and the commentary on our world in the music.
I think that there will be moments when it seems like the world is becoming more globalized and unified, and then there will be an ebb and a flow where it seems like things are really divided, and I think we’re going towards a really divided time.

This does bring up memories about that Austin show article in which the writer criticized KMFDM quite heavily.

Bills: Yeah, and if anybody could have commented and risen to the defense of KMFDM, it would be me. I’ve seen about 70 KMFDM shows over the course of the last two years, and to me, that is the most consistent and hardest hitting band out there. But of course, first of all, what do I have to add to the conversation? Secondly, KMFDM does not need to be defended. (Laughter) You don’t see Käpt’n K feeling the need, and part of why I’ve been so fortunate to get to know him is that he knows who he is as an artist, he knows what he likes to do, and he doesn’t need to make apologies for it. It’s not just because he’s been successful; I think he’d be doing the same thing. Besides that, our crews have become friends, and the whole band is full of awesome people, and we just really like to tour together.
A weird thing happened when I received a very cryptic e-mail from… I suppose it was a fan or someone who follows me online or something. This person had asked me why I didn’t make a commentary on the tragedy in Paris. I like these kinds of things because it makes me think about it, and I’ve certainly put some thought into it, but I refrain from posting political stuff on my band page because I don’t want to come across as political – I just use it and address it in a different way, and I think getting involved in a bunch of conversations on Facebook would drain my energy, rather than possibly creating art out of it instead. Just because I’m not putting something on social media doesn’t mean I’m sitting on the sidelines by any means, and just because you’re posting on social media doesn’t mean that you’re actually in the game. It’s an interesting concept.

You mentioned missing the punk rock and the commentary on the world and what’s going on, but do you feel that it ever really went away? It has seemed like the ‘industrial’ genre as a whole could not exist legitimately without that, and with newer bands continuing to address similar topics in their own way, in what regard do you feel it’s actually been missing?

Bills: I don’t want to critique anybody and this is just coming from the standpoint of musical influences, but I think that what we think of as industrial over the last decade… after the ’90s, it took a turn and blended with EBM and there were a lot more bands driven by the four-on-the-floor aggrotech, and there seemed to be a little less influence from Throbbing Gristle, Pigface, and that kind of industrial. I just mean that I’m influenced musically by the early ’90s stuff. Some of my stuff is borderline danceable, and I love listening to it, but I just find that I don’t tend to write that way, or if I do, it never quite crosses into aggrotech or danceable territory.

The other thing is that I listen to so much music other than industrial. I listen to everything under the sun. I recently saw Author & Punisher play a festival with Neurosis and GWAR. Neurosis just blew me away! I hadn’t seen that band in so long, and they were fucking fantastic! Industrial seems to be more than a musical style to me, and fashion is certainly a part of it, but it isn’t just that. If you look at early industrial musicians in the ’90s, they look like punk rockers with the ripped jeans and even white T-shirts. (Laughter) The first thing I think of with industrial is making music (or art) with sounds and tools that were never intended to be musical; that’s the first thing that comes to my mind and I try to generate as much of my own sounds as I can and layer it to create a more singular sound. That’s probably why I like the industrial genre, because as a songwriter… well, I started off as just a drummer, but as I came to look at things in the way of writing songs, I like this medium because there are no restrictions. If you’re in a blues band, you’re in a blues band. Yeah, there’s blues/rock, but with industrial, there’s a lot of freedom. I think I’m getting better at what I do, and maybe that’s why each album I’ve done has its own character, because I’m continuing to find new sounds and new ways to create them. Isn’t that part of what this genre is?

What is something that you would like to see or hear personally as part of the next evolution of music – not just industrial music, but as the next evolutionary step for the art form?

Bills: Wow! That’s a great question, and I don’t know. I’ve got a song off of my first record that was a poem called ‘Reaching for Something New.’ It was written with that in mind, that everything’s been written and everything’s been done, and you feel that way, but you have to come to the realization that to keep from being bored, you have to be honest with what you’re doing and what you want to do, even if it’s been done before. There are a million punk bands out there, yet new punk bands keep coming up. Why? Because that ultimate raw feeling is still there. Punk music – or rather the spirit of it – is not going to die. You may not be able to recapture the moment it was invented, and we may not ever really be able to capture the iconic bands that were first banging on metal and figuring out how to make new sounds. I saw Youth Code open for Skinny Puppy, and that’s a great example of going back to basics, but they mean every fucking word they say, and you can tell when you see and hear that band live. There it is, right there, of really being behind what you’re doing. It’s okay to worry too about what your image is, and that’s part of the fun of it, but as long as you make sure you’re 100% behind what you’re doing.
I’m a huge Nine Inch Nails fan, and I think that comes across in my music, but I would argue that a bigger influence of mine has always been Peter Gabriel and early prog/rock stuff. His live show is still one of my most favorite live shows that I’ve ever seen.

You have no idea how refreshing that is for me to hear, because I’ve always maintained that prog/rockers were the first musicians to play with new technologies and really infuse a level of theatricality in live performances that are so intrinsic to industrial music.

Bills: There’s a YouTube video of him performing ‘Supper’s Ready’ live – there are seven or eight sections over the course of a 20 minute song. There’s a section near the end called ‘Apocalypse in 9/8,’ in which he comes out in this robe and weird triangular mask, and I would argue that when you watch it, it’s super dark from 1972, but it’s borderline Ogre; it’s super cool. Pink Floyd was doing exploratory recordings that were definitely industrial-esque in the early days, and I’m super into that and the live show theatrics. If I had the budget, and if I was more of a physical performer or if I was more comfortable with it, then I would like to see CHANT going more in that cinematic direction live.
You really should’ve seen my early shows; people in Texas had been seeing me as early as 2003 or 2004, when I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do. There weren’t even vocals back then for the first few years; it was more of a trance/DJ/drone kind of thing, but then I thought, ‘No, I really want songs.’ But from around 2004 to about 2010, it was just me playing solo. Chris joined after touring with me on the Ego Likeness and Lords of Acid tours, and he’d join me onstage and play drums on a song. He just was the first person to take it so seriously that I thought, ‘Wow, this is a guy I might want to bring into this, and who I could see still doing this after 10 years and not giving up.’ He does it because it’s in his DNA and he continues to grow, so I feel very fortunate to have him and the current lineup, so we’ll see how the live show continues to progress.

The special edition of Brave New Apocalypse also contained the cassette and booklet of The New Way (The True Founder Series). Without revealing too much, since part of the enjoyment is the discovery, what can you tell us about this presentation – what is it, what inspired it, and what is the next step?

Bills: Well, with every album I do, I make a limited edition, usually in 100 copies; for That Which Divides, there was a hand-cut metal book encasing the liner notes. Those are long gone. For the second album, there was a nine poster set – one for each song – in a kind of box set. For this one, I kept thinking about what I wanted to do, and part of the inspiration behind songs like ‘Universal’ and ‘All the Same’ with their religious overtones was the idea that religion is a product and that this new age scientology ‘join us’ attitude… you know, I’m very fascinated with cults and the ability to get somebody to believe in something. They’re after your belief. They say they’re worried about your soul, but what they really want is your belief, so this had me thinking about what I could do for a limited edition. I thought that we could make our own sort of new age religion or cult with a kind of comic book track, and on the cassette… at first, I thought I could do a hidden track, and there are some indications pointing to additional stuff. What I can say about it is that there’s a buddy of mine named Eddie Rotten – he’s a voice actor, and I wrote him a script and asked him, ‘Hey man, would you be willing to do some voiceovers for this project I’m working on?’ He knocked it out of the park! It’s a cool listen, and if you read the liner notes of the cassette, and you really look closely at the lettering and you can probably figure out that the tape points you to another website where there’s a lot of extra stuff.
I love that kind of stuff; I love art, and I’m an album guy. Dark Side of the Moon, The Downward Spiral – I can’t imagine those being released as MP3 tracks one-at-a-time and not having the art or the visuals that came along with them. A lot of bands don’t or can’t do it because of budgets, and most stuff is just digital now, but everybody I talk to still really likes having a physical copy, so I thought, ‘Why not do a limited edition that sends you on a little treasure hunt?’ It helps make it more fun.

I have noticed the resurgence of cassette tapes, especially within the noise/industrial scene, and my co-host on the ReGen: Digressions podcast had observed that cassettes are cheaper to produce than vinyl.

Bills: (Laughter) Yeah! Andy Deane from Bella Morte for his The Rain Within project released a cassette, and it has a very ’80s Purple Rain kind of look to it; it’s super cool! I put one of the tracks on the album on the cassette, and it sounded like an instant remix – it’s the same mix! But because of the way we panned stuff and the warmth of the analog tape made it sound completely different, which was an unplanned surprise, which I thought was pretty cool!

CHANT has toured with KMFDM three times, you provided a remix on the Salvation EP, and he worked with you on Brave New Apocalypse, as we’ve mentioned. It’s clear that you have a good working relationship with the Käpt’n. What do you feel is the most important thing that you’ve learned from working with him in the studio?

Bills: It’s hard to put into words. I think getting to do the remix for KMFDM and getting the files from him and seeing how he layered his sounds was almost the best gift I could have received from him, because I did the remix right around the time I was finishing programming and writing some of my songs from the record. I think seeing his approach to how he layers sounds and how he isolates the sub-bass from the other instruments, which is something that I’m still learning, was just very helpful to me!
As far as what he did for my track, when we discussed it, I was asking him for his opinions and we had a relationship going where I had about seven songs done six months earlier, and I asked him, ‘Well, I’m looking for somebody to produce this; do you have any suggestions?’ And he said, ‘Well, how about me?’ (Laughter) He said, ‘You know I’ve seen you live and I know what you’re going for. I’m not going to try to change your sound and I’m going to try to make it sound like you.’ So that was really a slam dunk! We started trading ideas back-and-forth, and that’s really how it materialized. I have to admit that while I’m getting better at what I do, I’d sent him ‘Cycles,’ and when he sent it back… it was explosive compared to my mix! I asked him what he did, and he’d kind of laugh and say, ‘I didn’t really do anything. I just added a little bit here and a little bit there, but I didn’t do very much.’ (Laughter) I think a lot of this has been learning how to really hear things, and I’ve been going back to listen to records from 20 years ago, and I can hear them in a completely new way now.

You’ve performed at ColdWaves as a drummer for Die Krupps and Evil Mothers, and now you’re performing there later this year as CHANT. Brave New Apocalypse has been out for several months. What else is next for you?

Bills: Remixes are on my mind, and I know it sounds like they should come out at the same time, but I take on what I can financially when I can, but I’d love to see a music video or two come out. You may see some more art come out for this album, and I’d love to tour more on it because I’ve really enjoyed playing these songs live. We’re hoping to get back on the road more, and maybe we’ll bring back some more material from those super early days that I talked about that the greater U.S. never got to see performed live because I stopped playing those songs to make way for the newer albums; I may go back and look at that. I’m actually in the middle of writing some new music, and I have a few remixes on the docket for some artists that I’ve asked if I can remix them, if they’d send me some tracks, and as soon as I can find some time in my days to do them. I’m playing around with maybe having one or two tracks that are publicly delivered and free-for-all; I think that would be really fun to do, and since I own all my own publishing, I don’t have to get clearance from anybody, so that’s a nice freedom to have.

Going back to the subject of finances and art, it can be argued that while it’s nice to have the support of a record label, the fact that artists and bands now invariably have to rely on their own money and ingenuity to create and release music seems to lessen the pressure of having to release something new every few months or once a year at least.

Bills: Well, as far as the technology being available to digitally release your own albums and reach a potentially wider audience, that’s nothing but a good thing. I’m certainly not anti-label, and this whole decade’s been a learning process of getting better at what I do and since I can be at heart a shy guy, getting myself out there and approaching labels and such. I don’t think that not having a label has ever held me up, but Brave New Apocalypse was released with WTII Records and I can’t speak any more highly of Bart Pfanenstiel and David Schock and all that they’ve communicated with me and worked things out to be involved in this; it’s been great working with them. At the end of the day, you have to be an artist and see what your personal goals are and what your artistic goals are, and follow up. For me, I had a pending tour and I needed revenue for it and to get things going; had I not had the opportunity for the tour, maybe I’d have not released the album as quickly, and I might have had a music video right along with the album and the whole packaging, but that’s more of a marketing thing. For me, I just do what I can when I can. It’s a good question, and not being anti-label, I think that being on the label and being part of that community… well, it’s a weird topic because the music industry hasn’t quite figured it out, because labels can’t front artists as much anymore, so they can’t really make as much art as they want to. At the same time, I think the rule of any business is that if somebody’s giving you $10,000 to make art, they’ll want a say in it – it’s very rare that anybody has a relationship where someone fronts enough money to make three music videos per album and the artist wouldn’t have to answer to anybody in order to sell the product. That’s a push and a pull that has existed even before the digital age, but it exists now, so it’s all the same. Artistically, it’s been good for me because I’ve been able to put out the things that I want to put out without any hindrance, but then again, with the labels I’ve spoken to, there really wasn’t any restriction on the art I wanted to put out anyway, so I’m not sure if the financing would’ve been necessarily there for me anyway.

 

CHANT
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