Nov 2013 26

Revolting against banality and delivering a percussive industrial onslaught, CHANT’s Bradley Bills speaks with ReGen about life on the road with KMFDM and the value of art in the modern era.
CHANT - Live in Baltimore, 2013


An InterView with Bradley Bills of CHANT

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Photographs by Jessica Jastrzebski (JJastrz)

Trash cans, satellite dishes, robotic keyboard stands, light towers – all part of the percussive industrial spectacle that is a CHANT performance. Hailing from Texas, the live duo of Bradley Bills and Kristopher Robin delivers an audio/visual experience that few artists are capable of executing, let alone conceiving, all set to Bills’ driving beats and lyrics that range from current sociopolitical affairs to matters of introspective and personal fulfillment. CHANT has the distinction of having been asked by legendary industrial/rock act KMFDM to join the Ultra Heavy Beat for the full run after only a few opening performances on the band’s KUNST tour in the spring of 2013. Never content to stay off the stage for too long or to deny fans more of what they want, KMFDM brought CHANT on the road again for the fall of 2013 on the We Are KMFDM tour, effectively garnering CHANT’s place in the upper echelon of modern industrial and continuing to spread the word and sound of this promising act. Performing double duty as vocalist and lead drummer, Bills took the time to speak with ReGen about CHANT’s progress over the course of two albums and two KMFDM tours, touching on the meaning behind his lyrics, the evolution of his unique stage show, along with letting us in on a few of his favorite artists and just what the value of art is in a digital age increasingly hampered by its own apathy.


This has been CHANT’s second time on tour with KMFDM in 2013. How has that gone for you?

Bills: It’s been absolutely fantastic; we’re having a really great time. I’ll be sad when it ends.

Not many bands can claim having actually been asked by KMFDM to join the tour more than once, and for the last tour, you were only supposed to do a few shows before they asked you to join for the full run; is that correct?

Bills: We were originally going to do about half the tour last time, and after a few shows, Sascha pulled me aside and said, ‘I’ve talked with my stage manager and tour manager, the whole team agrees, and I’d like to ask you out for the rest of the tour if you can make that happen.’ I said, ‘Let me make a few phone calls; I’m going to make this happen.’ It’s a great feeling. I had toured enough on my own; I was pretty cognizant of what we needed to do to be a good support opening band. If you’re being invited along, you have to be good with your crew and their crew, be on and off stage really quickly, and be really prepared. We were really eager to do it, and we were glad to be offered more shows.

Your live show is pretty intense with the light setup, the moveable keyboard stand, and the massive drum set that you and Kristopher perform on – and while you have been performing for some time, CHANT is still somewhat of an up-and-coming band, so coming out with such an elaborate setup guns blazing… how did your live setup evolve into what it is now?

Bills: Well, I was solo for about six years playing all on my own, and I originally did want to add multiple band members; and I might add more as time goes along as long as it fits. But I think it ended up unique by that line. I needed a way to be able to pull off a show on my own that I thought would compete with any type of opening band. The way I was writing the songs at the time using all the percussion – I’m a drummer first and foremost, so the drum set evolved around that; extending the racks, adding the satellite dish and the metal cans. It was all kind of a nod to old school industrial, which I’m really a fan of.

With the trash cans and other odd bits that you use, cEvin Key would no doubt be proud.

Bills: The keyboard stand… well, there’s one guy who is a tech on our tour – Alvin Melvin – who was in a Nine Inch Nails tribute band, and he’s an incredibly talented musician, but he’s also an incredibly talented architect. He’s an engineer; he went to school for it, and he designed that keyboard stand as a nod to Nine Inch Nails. He has several different ones. He’s designed them for quite a few people now. He built the stand and he was based out of San Antonio, so once I added Kris, I said, ‘We want that stand. We need a stand that has some character and fits the metallic part of the drum set.’ As for the lights, I’ve always done my own light show. We use software that InTech uses called DMX, and it works in ProTools or Logic just as a plug-in. It’s an effect that allows you to sync up their system with your software and you can program MIDI notes and trigger the lights. We wanted to do some kind of light panels behind us, and Kris is really the mastermind behind all the lights – he has taken the time to learn the light software, to program every single note and every single scene. It’s very laborious, weeks and weeks of preparation, but once you play the show, you hit the button and it all goes. It’s a great addition, and he has taken the live show one step closer to where I want it to be. To me, it’s still not there yet; I really want to do something incredible. I look at headlining bands, whether it’s Tool or Nine Inch Nails or MINISTRY, and they are the pinnacle with what I’ve seen them do with technology. I’m a huge Peter Gabriel fan and I don’t think anybody does a cooler or more dramatic show than Peter Gabriel. We have ideas, and the only reason why we haven’t done them is that we’re not on that level where we can bring it all along with us, but I think it makes for an exciting show and it’s something we want to do. I’m very much a live performer. I almost make albums just so I have a reason to play live.

What have been the biggest challenges in translating your live setup into the studio and vice versa, because there is a discernible difference between the two?

Bills: I think the reason why my second album sounds, to me, more like me live than the first album is because the producer was Chris Telkes, who is a good friend of mine.

That is the same Chris Telkes who was formerly in Nocturne, correct?

Bills: That’s him! Telkes is an amazing producer, and he had seen me in Dallas many times live and said, ‘That’s the kind of record you need to make! You need to make one that sounds like you sound live.’ I think we got pretty close with Strong Words for Strong People. Of course, he’s the one who worked on ‘Universal’ and the new song, ‘Low.’ Ironically, we did a Velvet Underground cover that hasn’t been released yet. Lou Reed just passed away recently; I recorded the song six months ago, so now it’s going to seem like I’m releasing it just because of that. Those songs, to me, I listen to them and they are just a hair closer to what we sound like live. It’s a challenge. I play everything the way I do live, but maybe because it’s such a visual show, getting that intensity captured in recording and getting the songs mixed so that the drums are just a little overdriven so that they almost distort will give that live feeling. As far as translating it to the live show, I’m just now getting to the point where I am writing songs and not really thinking of how I’m going to pull it off live. It was such a one man live show that I would almost write a song live and then would later record it. Now, I’m sitting in a studio writing a song and instead of slowing up and saying, ‘Wait, if I’m layering drums and trash cans and exotic instruments from Africa and Thailand, how am I going to pull that off live?’ I used to think that way, so that might have shaped the way I was writing music based on how I thought I’d be able to play live. But now, it’s the other way around; now, I’m just writing music… we’ll figure out how to do it live later.

Part of the appeal of CHANT is the sociopolitical issues addressed in your lyrics, which along with the unorthodox percussion is reminiscent of old school industrial. Can you tell us more about your own worldview?

Bills: I think from a human rights and a moral rights background, I’m very liberal like many artists are. I think from the standpoint of government responsibility, I think I’m really actually conservative. We’re in an interesting state in the United States now because, to me, the Republican party, which is supposed to be the conservative party, I consider them to be right wing/religious, but I don’t consider them a conservative government by any means. They’ve totally lost their base. I don’t think about all those things too much when I’m writing music. I’m a big fan of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report because I think what they do very well is that they look at the entire machine – the left wing, the right wing, the media – and they look at the entire circus of it all. That’s what’s on my mind when I write songs like ‘Point and Click,’ which is about the gun debate. I have two kinds of people who come up to me about that song, and that song is eight years old now. I had a guy come up to me, ‘I believe in gun rights. I’m so glad you wrote that song! Man, it’s awesome!’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s cool.’ But it’s a very sarcastic song, because I do believe in the second amendment, but my view is that you’ve got to be able to change with the times and still be able to preserve human rights. If you’re saying that there’s not a massive gun problem in the United States, it’s ridiculous; it’s ridiculous to say that there isn’t a huge problem. The song ‘Universal’ came about because I was really intrigued by the guy that took a million dollars of his church’s money and put billboards up all over the place about the end of the world. He spent his congregation’s money in May, and when it didn’t happen, he said, ‘Oh, we miscalculated by six months,’ and they took another million dollars to do October! And I see the circus and the ridiculousness and so that’s what ‘Universal’ is about – how each generation is convinced that the apocalypse is going to happen while they’re on the planet! I think it’s a pure fear of death. But this is the stuff that drives me and there’s a lot of thought into my lyrics, and that’s probably why I write really slow. I’m not putting out an album every year because it’s really got to mean something to me. Some of those songs are still really hard to sing onstage because there are the social and political factor in the songs like ‘Point and Click’ and ‘Universal,’ and especially in ‘Revolt.’ ‘Revolt’ is really about being yourself; there is the line, ‘I must revolt against myself,’ and I don’t want to be what people think I should be. I’m not into the rock star thing, and I don’t think I ever will be. I’m a performer just as somebody else is an architect and someone is a politician. There are those songs, and then there are really personal songs like ‘Hope,’ and ‘Blood and Peace’ is incredibly personal to me. It’s about communication in relationships and how they can fall apart if you don’t keep communicating and I’ve learned the hard way on that. Those songs were written at a time when I was just trying to dig as deep as I could. It takes some time to write, but they come from really personal places or just from observations of the social and political world. I don’t think I ever want to write anything too political to the point that it’s preachy. I’m just trying to observe it, and that drives a lot of what I write.

You take your time with your music and with your art and merchandise, and you now have USB drives, one of which includes the video for ‘Need,’ which had been for whatever reason banned from YouTube.

Bills: Somebody at the merch table asked me about that because I have a few of the thumb drives left that have it, and he asked why it was banned. I said, ‘Apparently, a sexy fetish murder scene of a girl strangling another and turning her into a doll to represent lust and desire is not condoned by YouTube.’ She said, ‘Say that exact thing to my boyfriend.’ So I said that to him, and they bought the thumb drive. (Laughter) I’m a huge fan of art; I love art. CHANT rose at a time when CD sales were constantly dwindling because you can copy everything – you digitally copy everything just about. Part of it is a reaction to knowing that people will probably always get my music for free. But if I’m going to put an album out, then why not do some really cool art? I grew up when vinyl was big and I loved seeing all the art that comes with an album. I’d ask people, and they’d say, ‘I’ll buy a CD, but I basically instantly rip it so that it’s on my computer, and I don’t know what happens to the disc. I don’t really want the disc; I want the media that’s on the disc. I want the art that comes with it, but not necessarily the disc.’ I thought that USB drives might be cool since I know that other bands had done that before. Every album I have, I put extra stuff on the disc, so That Which Divides plays like a CD, but if you put it in the computer, a whole art book comes up; Strong Words… all of the different posters comes up, one for each song. We always do a limited edition, and I’ll always put about a hundred of custom jobs. We did the metal books, and those aren’t around anymore. We did these big photo boxes with posters for Strong Words… and stuff like that. So, I like mixing art with it just because I’m a fan of it and I think it’s got a really good relationship with the music.

This relates to what many are still talking about in the digital age with regards to the value of music and if there are ways to encourage people to actually purchase and pay for music and art. What are your thoughts on this? As an underground artist, what do you think can be done to increase the value of music in the public’s perception?

Bills: I don’t think we’re going to see too much change in the public’s reaction to buying music, and I think that’s unfortunate. It’s a generational thing. I talked to an 18-year-old fan, and he doesn’t know what it’s like to get out of class on Friday and then rush to the record store to buy your first record, because you know your favorite just released the record, so you go to the actual record store and thumb through all the bins looking at all the different art on the records or CDs, and there are big rock & roll posters on the wall that you’re looking thing. It’s a social thing; it’s a hang out – there are people listening to music in the record store. He’s 18, and he’s never really spent time in a record store ever. Anybody younger than that, it’s probably the same. I definitely don’t ever see it going back to where you can release an album and there’s some way that you have to pay for it. I think you’re always going to be able to get it for free, and I think that the major label record industry should’ve wised up to that and seen it coming… or maybe they did, and just nobody wanted to do anything about it. But I don’t know too much about that since I’ve never been on a label. I think music has value. I think Trent Reznor’s famous statement of ‘It’s $10 or go fuck yourself’ is well spoken and dead on. I put out a record, a lot goes into making it, there’s a cost to bring art to people and to bring a show on the road, and I think if you’re a fan of it and you value it, you should be able to buy it. I know Apple got close to this with iTunes, but I would like to see some way that when you buy an album that you bought the right to have it always. I can’t count how many times I’ve bought the same Depeche Mode CD over and over again or having bought The Downward Spiral four times, first on cassette and then whatever. (Laughter) I don’t buy music as often as I used to either, and I don’t know if it’s because so much music and media come to me with social networking that it keeps me busy or that I’m always working on my own stuff. But generally, bands that I’m fans of and have been for years, when they put out a record I will go buy it. It’s probably an exclusive 20 to 30 bands that I’ll go buy it, even if I can go get it for free. I want a copy. I like holding it in my hand. I just think that’s just a generational thing. I don’t know that younger kids feel that way, because music to them means something different. It’s not going to the record store and being social with your friends; it’s being social in an internet environment. There’s a lot of meandering talk about it, and I don’t really have too many thoughts except that I would like to know that younger generations see the value in it and that maybe if the online purchase experience… like when Björk did that interactive album, or something like that… if there was a way to create a digital experience online that matched what it felt like to go to the record store and buy it, then maybe it would happen that way. But I’m not sure how that would come about.
The live show is definitely a visual experience and we put a lot of work into it. I told a friend the other day about some coworkers I had who were going to one of the shows when I was opening for My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. They didn’t know who Thrill Kill Kult was; they were going because I was a coworker, and they’re spending $25 on a ticket, and it was the first time that sense of massive responsibility hit me. If they’re spending $25 to come see me, how am I going to give them a $25 show? And I think that there are some bands that don’t think that way, but if someone is spending even $10… I mean, times are hard, man! People make hotel arrangements and drive to other cities, so you need to put on a show for them! That’s where that sense came from for me, aside from the fact that it’s just fun to do. I like putting on a bigger show and I’m a fan of it.

You recently joined Evil Mothers onstage at the ColdWaves II event in Chicago, and there was even a song in which you brought out trash cans and other bits of percussion that everyone in the band played.

Bills: Oh yeah, ‘Orisha!’ Well, it was a great experience; it was so fun. I’d met Paul Barker before a couple times because he lived in Austin for awhile, but I’d not met Chris Connelly yet, so getting to meet him and see those guys do what they do and see all the bands like 16volt and Skrew and BILE… the green room was so fun because everybody’s hanging out together with no attitudes. Hats off to Jason Novak; he created such a great festival to honor Jamie, and it was just so much fun and everybody was a delight to be around. I ended up working with Evil Mothers because the band was originally based out of San Antonio, and I first met Curse Mackey when opening up for Pigface. Curse Mackey has always since CHANT’s inception been a big supporter of me, helped me to get shows, made sure other people in the industry knew about me. Evil Mothers had not done anything for I think it was almost 14 years since disbanding, and Curse went on to become the lead singer of Pigface and do quite a few other things – he stays very busy – so he knew of CHANT and had seen me and knew what I could do. When the band did the reunion in 2011, the guy that used to play the big oil drums either couldn’t do it or wasn’t interested in doing it, so Curse called me up and said, ‘We’d really like you to be a member.’ I was really excited to do it, so when ColdWaves came up, I was happy to do it. All of those songs that we played were original Evil Mothers songs that the band wrote in the early ’90s. I asked him actually this time around, ‘Do I play anything near to what it was?’ And he said, ‘Well, you play most of the parts pretty similarly, but I think you have a bit more of an eclectic kit.’ I was a fan of Evil Mothers, and now I’m in the band. I remember wanting to go see the band in Dallas and I couldn’t for some reason, and I remember being pissed off about it.

So, what’s next for you and CHANT?

Bills: ‘Universal’ and ‘Low’ have been released, so if you’re on the mailing list, you can get those for free. Next will be the Lou Reed cover, and a little collection of songs; some remixes might come out of those if anybody’s interested. And then I’ll be working on the third record all of this next year. I know it takes some time because we’re constantly touring and I’ve still got a day job, so time is hard to carve out. But I do have a lot of song ideas, things are starting to develop very much along the lines of ‘Universal’ and the idea of the end of the world and everybody saying it even though it’s not happening. I’d like to have the third record in a year’s time, but I don’t know if I can get it done in that time because I want to do it right.


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