Aug 2018 01

Social and political satire, anti-corporatism, and numerous references to The Simpsons; such is the sound and style of Chicago’s CONFORMCO, as ReGen speaks with Sean Payne and Chris Harris about their latest collaboration.
 

 

An InterView with Chris Harris & Sean Payne of CONFORMCO

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

Collaborations between established figures in industrial music are a significant part of the scene’s history; members of different bands joining forces, combining sounds, and infusing new elements to create something that stands on its own to strengthen the communal and creative atmosphere. Among the more contemporary examples is CONFORMCO – the merger of two of the Chicago underground’s most recognized and adventurous figures: Cyanotic’s Sean Payne and Project .44’s Chris Harris. With a sound that blends the pair’s modern production sensibilities with the funky dance rhythms and shrill electronics that defined the WaxTrax! era of the ’80s and early ’90s, CONFORMCO’s 2017 introductory “Eighty-Sixed” single and the subsequent Controlled.altered.deleted debut album in 2018 have been heralded as a spry homage to the hometown sound of North American industrial music; wrought with themes of sociopolitical satire and anti-corporate diatribes… complete with plenty of references to The Simpsons to augment the band’s inherent and irreverent humor. As Payne embarks on the Glitch Mode Decode Tour, he and Harris took the time to speak with ReGen Magazine, detailing the band’s history and creative mindset, along with some insights into their own social and political outlook, as well as some fond memories of fallen comrades, pinning the blame on Krztoff from BILE, and inviting their audience to join in on the snarky and cheeky fun that is CONFORMCO.

 

Let’s talk about CONFORMCO’s history – obviously, you two have been fixtures of the Chicago scene for several years; what prompted the two of you to start the band now?

Harris: CONFORMCO kind of started by accident, and we have Krztoff form BILE to blame! Krztoff was in Chicago for a week before heading up to Sanctuary Festival in Milwaukee last May/June. He and I had talked about recording, just getting 12 hours, and see what comes of it. I asked Sean if he could engineer the session because he’s a bit of an Ableton wizard. Long story short; Krztoff got ‘sidetracked’ at a Psyclon Nine show and Sean and I were sitting there for a bit yapping, and I said I had some old school keyboard stabs I wouldn’t mind laying down… those were the orchestral hits that became ‘Eighty-Sixed.’ Sean, had it for a bit and built some samples and layers, and I had some lyrics and *poof*, it was a song. We both dug the song and both had some ideas, and in a few months, we had enough for an EP. It was painless (unlike doing a Project .44 record!). I don’t think either of us planned on this actually being a band. It was just something fun that seemed to blossom.

Payne: It’s a happy accident borne from two dudes who like drum machines and The Simpsons references.

 

 

Did you have any particular goals in mind for the project, and if so, in what ways do you feel the single and album achieved or surpassed them?

Harris: I don’t know about Sean, but we both talked about ‘just having fun with it’… no pressure, relaxed. I think we both have been the head, the decision makers for everything – in Cyanotic and Project .44 – and this gives us an opportunity to not have to do every little thing and just have fun.

Payne: Learning to write with less layers and more urgency is something I’ve been trying, and it seems to be working. The old school industrial beats are always in my brain and these past couple of years, I’ve found it really fun writing with basic elements – brass samples and drum machines with too much reverb and bass plucks ended up being the starting template for every song. It was really fun to build songs from those three main elements.

What was the songwriting dynamic between the two of you, and in what ways does it differ from your other bands/collaborations?

Harris: To me, ‘easy’ would be the best word. ‘Hey Sean, I have this idea,’ and we lay it down, whether it’s a key line or beat, and we work the arrangement and get it to a point where it works. Sean does more of the heavy lifting on the editing, but we make decisions that we both seem to like. I have found it to be about as easy as it gets – Project .44 is a pain, in comparison!

Payne: I usually spend too much time nitpicking the details with Cyanotic. Learning restraint with CONFORMCO has been helpful to my musical output as a whole, I think. this was about having fun and making something for people to move to.

Part of the band’s appeal with audiences is the modern take on what we all like to call the ‘WaxTrax! sound,’ or more broadly the Chicago sound.
First of all, how would you personally define this aesthetic as you’ve come to understand it?

Harris: Well, we both love that old WaxTrax! sound, but it is 2018; why not use modern technology to enhance it? I mean, we can’t lie. Yes, it draws most of its influence from that great club era when Chicago was pumping out the music that ruled the dance floor.

Payne: I came to Chicago in 2005. The industrial music scene was just tales to me by then. I was a kid when this stuff was at its peak. I think it was at its peak because it wasn’t trying to be anything more than fun and stompy music with a social conscience. CONFORMCO is 100% a loving homage to all things electronic/industrial 1986-1992.

What are your feelings on the way this term or idea has been perceived and applied by people to other bands over the years?

Harris: Recently? I haven’t seen anyone doing this sound recently. It’s great to see RevCo and MBM and such doing shows again, but I haven’t seen anyone celebrating it, outright.

Let me rephrase the question – to you, what defines the aesthetics that we tend to associate with WaxTrax!, and with the resurgence of interest and even some of the bands from that era, what are your thoughts on the way newer bands are approaching or progressing from those ideas?

Harris: Good question. What is that sound, that groove? It definitely was attitude as much as sound; it was Fairlights. It was loops that banged over and over (due to lack of memory in those early systems!). It was vocals that didn’t have to be ‘pretty’ to be utterly engaging. I think in its roots, we pull from the same things mutually. As well, acts like The Art of Noise definitely influenced this project as much as they provided sounds early WaxTrax! recognized.

Payne: I like the resurgence of people caring about John Carpenter, but synthwave all sounds like a pink nightmare clone farm 90% of the time. I don’t think enough people are mining their love for the late ’80s electro/industrial and the general sick sense of humor in Robocop.

It’s funny that you mention the ‘sick sense of humor’ in Robocop – I’d agree that it’s a bit sick, but in a way, it was totally reflective of the time period. You and I have at times talked about the remake, but it leads to the larger question of why this sense of humor is lost on even those with a deep love for it?
To put it another way, the same issues of corporatism, nationalism, economics, etc. still exist today, and many could argue ‘same shit, different day.’ What do you think?

Payne: I think corporate satire is more relevant now than it’s ever been. The dystopian futures imagined in the Reaganomics era are now more fact than fiction.

I had the pleasure of catching the L.A. screening of the WaxTrax! documentary, and I may actually prefer your cover of Revolting Cocks’ ‘Attack Ships on Fire’ over the original, and not just because of Jim Marcus. How did this cover come about, how did you come to work with Jim on it?

Harris: Blame Krztoff again. In that session, I asked Sean if we could get the framework of that together to do a cover, and Sean’s production skills really shine on that. I can’t remember how or why or when we asked Jim to do the vocal, but I’m sure glad we did!

Payne: I think it’s just the case of really enjoying Jim’s stuff and looking for fun things to do while I was exchanging a Cyanotic mix of ‘Welcome to the Future’ by GoFight.

Besides Jim Marcus on the RevCo cover, Charles Levi plays live bass on the album, and he’s long been associated with Project .44. Clearly, his history and his signature playing style factors in, but what would you say his style and sound brought to CONFORMCO and helped to solidify the ideas you had?

Harris: With CONFORMCO, we let Levi run wild. He is put in a bit of a box with Project .44, fitting into established guitar riffs that sometimes overly define a track. Here, he just came in and riffed.

Any other guests coming into future CONFORMCO material that you can tell us about?

Payne: Nothing as of yet, but we’re always open to the idea.

Harris: Yes, there are!

 

 

You used quotes/samples from The Simpsons (from what is quite possibly my favorite episode) in ‘Eighty-Sixed,’ and even created Simpsons avatars for yourselves. Is this going to be a continuing theme in CONFORMCO’s future releases?
From your perspective, what is it about The Simpsons that sets it apart?

Harris: Yes. I think we both love The Simpsons, and the fact that the name comes from that, and the samples… well, let’s be honest, are infinite. Why not?

Payne: I definitely plan on that being a running gag of sorts. The name CONFORMCO is from a fifth season episode too. It’s the name of a brain deprogrammers company. I thought that was sufficiently awesome as a name for this project.
It’s been the guiding path of humor for me since I was seven-years-old. I think I learned a lot of comic conscience from watching The Simpsons, in ways. It just remains a timelessly rewatchable show at the Payne residence.

Both of you have tackled topics of corporatism and sociopolitical control systems in your respective bands; from a lyrical perspective, what about CONFORMCO’s music takes your thoughts on these themes to a different level than either of you have previously explored?

Harris: Perhaps it is more focused with CONFORMCO. When you see us live, you’ll see the imagery; it’s done in a more snarky way, not with rage, but with some mockery and a wink and a nod.

Payne: Snarky is the best word for it. That was the general tone with CONFORMCO and the last Cyanotic albums were much more sci-fi. It’s fun to switch up tones!

What are your thoughts on the presence of ultra right wing – sexist, racist, and nationalist ideologies that seem to be coming out of the woodwork, especially in the industrial scene?

Harris: I personally tackle politics a lot with Project .44, but I never want to ‘yell’ at anyone (even though, I guess I’m yelling a lot!). I think that kills debate, and it makes people shut down or leave the conversation. I’d rather put something out there and make some want to think about it, research it, talk about it – have a conversation. On the other side, with CONFORMCO, it’s a bit more cheeky, the presentation a bit more fun.

Payne: It’s all pretty terrifying, but that’s what happens when everybody can actively voice their opinion. At least there’s more of a vocal opposition too! I like industrial music to have a general social conscience. A lot of acts forgot about that for a long time – music in opposition of the elite.

As we see newer generations coming up and dealing with the same issues of corporate control and failed governments, what are your thoughts on their potential to bring about positive change? Or do you think we’re doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes?

Harris: Volunteerism seems to be on the rise; activism surely is – will there be follow through? Will people only accept news from their social media feed or will they explore? I think we’ve lost old fashioned debate, and that’s a shame.

Payne: I think every generation has its faults, and we will face an interesting point in human evolution and the dependence on technology very soon where we will advance or fall. I can count on man’s hubris!

Certainly, neither of you are strangers to performing live and the touring life, but from what you’ve observed, what aspect(s) of touring have become more difficult (both for you individually and in a broader sense)?

Harris: To Sean’s credit, he still tours a lot with Cyanotic. I do not. I will do a festival here and there and what not. It’s tough to tour; it’s grueling and aside from that hour you’re on stage, it sucks.

Payne: It’s interesting because we’ve just kept at it with Cyanotic over the years, where I’ve had to keep it active with a release or a tour every few years. My first tour was when I was 20, and now I’m 35 and heading out on this cool summer tour. I’ve learned not to indulge and get as drunk as I would out of nervousness. I don’t feel nervous much anymore, so I drink less. I got rid of the people around me who were doing a lot of bad drugs and were just a negative influence overall. That’s been a huge regenerator for me to keep at this touring way.

We’ve lost a lot of people to suicide and addiction, and some have been saying it seems to be getting worse. Can you give your perspectives on this, what’s going on and why?
If it’s not too personal to ask, are there any particularly fond thoughts or memories you’d like to share about Jason McNinch and/or Jamie Duffy?

Harris: Tough question. I will say I loved both Jamie and Jason and Project .44 would not have existed without both of them. They were mentors while being contemporaries – just solid humans that would always help before you even asked. I miss both of them and wish I was smart enough to have a solution to a problem – or better yet, multipronged problem – that just seems to grow.

Payne: I think about the things I learned with Jamie every time I sit down to finish a release. We had a few years towards the end of his life where we were really working on some music we enjoyed. Part of keeping at this music has been as a sincere love for the people involved, like Jamie Duffy and Jason Novak, all the cool dudes from the generation we grew up listening to.

Will I see you guys at ColdWaves?

Harris: Let’s grab lunch this year. I feel like I never actually take time to relax around then.

Payne: For sure. I’ll be there as a touring member of C-Tec. I’ve been a huge fan for 20 years, so it will be particularly surreal to go immediately from this summer Cyanotic tour with KANGA, Amelia Arsenic, For All the Emptiness, and a bunch of guests, basically right into Coldwaves rehearsals a week after I’m home from that. I’m very glad for all of these concurrent happenings!

Is there anything you can tell us about the future of Project .44?

Harris: I was happy to hop back in, and had a real desire to contribute to the Electronic Saviors cancer benefit project as it is something that has touched me, like it has touched far too many of us. That lead to the song we did with En Esch, and we released it as an EP, as well with some remixes and another song we had finished. There is other material recorded from years ago, the Invisible Records years, that should be released at some point.

 

 

Sean… there’s the new Cyanotic release. What about RoboHop? Any other projects you’re involved in you can tell us about?

Payne: Yes, there’s the T2 release and summer Decode Tour with Cyanotic. I’ve got some RoboHop demos, but I’ve mostly been concentrating on CONFORMCO and Cyanotic these past few months. I’ll be a touring member of C-Tec in September, so come out for that! We’ll be at all the ColdWaves festival dates and surrounding cities.

 

 

After all of this, is there anything we didn’t talk about with regards to CONFORMCO or your other musical endeavors that you’d like to share? Any closing thoughts or statements?

Payne: ‘Now THAT’s psychiatry!’

 

CONFORMCO
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Photography by Bobby Talamine, courtesy of Bobby Talamine Photography – 2018 © http://www.bobbytalamine.com
Full galleries can be viewed at: http://blog.bobbytalamine.com

 

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