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.
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.
Bills: 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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.