Having steadily built up his reputation as one of the industrial scene’s most effective and reliable drummers, Bradley Bills speaks with ReGen about the creation of his latest album, touching on its themes, recording, his growth as a producer, and more.
An InterView with Bradley Bills of CHANT
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Five years wasn’t always such a long time to wait between album releases, but with the expediency of the digital age, one could argue that waiting five months is too long for some. Of course, in the five years since CHANT’s acclaimed Brave New Apocalypse, band founder and front man Bradley Bills has kept himself busy as one of the most reliable and in-demand drummers in the industrial music scene. He’s lent his skills both onstage and off to the likes of KMFDM, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, Caustic, Evil Mothers, Pigface, The Joy Thieves, and The Skatenigs, showcasing his dynamic sense of rhythmic precision and sonic bombast behind the kit, while also occasionally going even more primitive with the banging of random metal objects in true industrial fashion. However, it’s with his band CHANT that his musical skills are presented in their utmost, as he has demonstrated across his growing discography a propensity for social commentary and political satire that has brought his songwriting as much adulation as his tribal drumming. All of this has culminated in this year’s release of HYDRA, a record that finds Bills at the height of his powers as both a performer and a producer. In a conversation with ReGen Magazine‘s editor-in-chief, Bills spoke about the process that went into the creation of HYDRA, touching on his growth as a producer and bringing to life the percussive force that defines his music, along with the formation of the new live lineup. As well, he touches on the album’s cinematic qualities as movie soundtracks and sound design enter into the discussion, and more seriously his recovery from a serious accident earlier this year, the current social and ideological divisions plaguing the U.S. during the global crisis, the importance of voting, his top 10 list of favorite drummers, and so much more.
It has been quite a while since the last CHANT album, although you have been very busy in that time.
Bills: Yeah, I think it’s because I get opportunities in between that I just don’t want to say no to, and it goes back to the original purpose. I created CHANT partly because I wanted to be in a band that would be able to continue if someone else quit, so I didn’t want to just be the drummer, and then the singer quits. And now, I got to start a whole new band all over. But the other part was to create something that showcased my drumming in a way that maybe other bands that I really admire would ask for me to play for them or a more established band. I took that really seriously, because that’s who I wanted to play drums for. And so, when I get these opportunities, then it makes sense to put creative work on pause and take the opportunity to play for all the bands I’ve got to play for.
Well, that seems to be working because I’ve actually lost track of how many bands that I’ve seen you play for, and obviously CHANT puts on an amazing show. As far as HYDRA is concerned, because you have been busy drumming for other bands, was there any kind of difference in the writing process for you in terms of allocating your time? How did that process work for you on this album?
You conceived of this several years ago and look at what we have now.
That actually leads into this next question, because in the past, you’ve worked with other producers – you worked with Sascha Konietzko, you worked with Chris Telkes, and I think you worked with Martin Atkins at one point. This is the first album that is completely mixed and produced by you. What would you say were the biggest leaps that you learned? Obviously, it’s not just one thing when you’re continually making music over the years and you’re constantly improving, but if you could say there were major lessons that you really applied to this album, that, that you feel elevated CHANT to that degree and that level?
Bills: Oh, thanks. Working with Chris Telkes, and Sascha in particular, on the last two records – Chris and I had become really good friends, and throughout the entire process, I just sat and learned. He wasn’t from the school of producing, of, ‘Look, you’re hiring me to do this, and I’m not going to give you my secret sauce,’ right? He taught me everything he was doing. So, I understood really what EQ and compression did rather than volume control some of the basic things about mixing. With Sascha, he just continued to tell me, ‘You get it as far as you can get it, and then you give it to me.’ I think I got it to the 10 yard line, maybe the five yard line with Brave New Apocalypse, and then I would turn it over to him, although ironically, and I think I might have said this five years ago in an interview, the funny thing is you listen to those mixes, and they’re good. But then you send them to somebody like Sascha, and they come back, and they’re just explosive. I’m like, ‘What did you do?’ And he’s very coy; like, ‘I didn’t really do anything, man, I just did this and that.’ But because we had become friends, he’s open to telling me some of the things that he does.
Are you familiar with the Japanese musician Tōru Takemitsu?
Bills: No, I have to admit I’m not.
He was a score composer. He did a lot of movies in the ’60s and ’70s. He scored Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, and he was one of those avant-garde composers who, yes, he could do traditional Japanese theatrical stuff, but he also did jazz and electronic stuff. There was an interview with him in which they asked him what his philosophy of writing music for movies was. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘I don’t think it’s my job to add music. I think it’s my job to take away music.’ Many of his scores are rather sparse and there’s not a lot of music, but when it is there, it’s really big and grand and full. Kurosawa’s Ran is 160–minutes–long, but Takemitsu’s score is literally only 44–minutes–long. What you said, just made me think of that philosophy that it’s not about filling the space but leaving space.
Bills: I’m a John Williams fan. I’m a kid of the ’80s. The American Film Academy gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award, and Steven Spielberg was talking about their 30 year career and history working together. One of the interesting things he said was that he shows a reel of E.T. and says, ‘This is a clip, this is how our movies are when we bring them to John. We sit down and look at the reels, and we decide where music’s not going to be.’ That’s one of the most important things, figuring out where music will not be. I’m a huge fan of soundtracks, and I took that approach. When I initially started writing the music for this record, I wanted it to come across like a Blade Runner or Vangelis kind of grand thing. That opening track ‘Urgency’ is really the overture to the record, absolutely. I meant it to be very soundtrack oriented with heavy drones and I definitely was inspired by Tristan from Author and Punisher, and some of the stuff HIDE is doing, and getting into analog since I got a Bass Station II from Novation a few years ago; I’ve really been diving into that and learning more about that and I wanted I wanted this massive soundscape for the opening. Other music was in my head, like this pattern to ‘President God’ I think has been in my head for six or seven years. It just took a very long time trying to program something out that sounded like what was in my head. But I definitely took a soundtrack approach to some of the songs, and once I had it, I would work it into some more direct song approaches. With any of my songs, you know they’ll be six- or seven-minutes-long, and then you try to whittle them down to only include what absolutely needs to be there to say the message. And again, I think that’s something else that I think I’ve gotten better at over the series of writing more songs and making more records is how do I get to the direct message and how to edit myself. I don’t really need these four bars, or having the courage to just knock them out, save a version, and knock them out – if you don’t miss them after a few weeks, then you didn’t need them in the first place.
It’s a really fun topic to talk about – the merging of music and movies and soundtracks because they’re both really powerful mediums. The love of my life is a horror queen. She knows so much about horror movies. She runs a horror promotion company here in Austin, Texas, and she was pointing out that in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, no one is murdered onscreen.
And there’s not much music in that movie, either.
Bills: You get into sound design, which of course, a lot of industrial bands have lifted stuff off of.
You talked about ‘Urgency’ being an overture and the sound of that distorted klaxon alarm… I describe it as like the reverberant echoes of a factory in decline. That just immediately puts me in that in that state with the album. About the title HYDRA, there is obviously the many headed serpent in Greek mythology, and there are also connotations to water, the constellation, etc. So, what did that title evoke for you that you felt it best conveyed this concept that you were going for about this ‘President God’ character?
Bills: I think it does go back to the Greek mythology at first, and the idea that if you if you cut off one head, then another will appear, and if you cut off those, then two more appear. HYDRA is a metaphor of the idea, not the man, so the album title is about the idea of the hero, and that just because you kill the hero, you don’t kill the idea; in fact, that’s what causes the idea to spread. On one level, it tells the story of the rise of a demagogue and a hero whose idea spreads and becomes the catalyst of the tyrant’s fall. It’s all fiction, right? But the album, really, also tells the story of one person’s conscience – the hero deciding that I’m just not going to live normal life, only participating in consumerism and social media to vent; it’s time for me to get in the game and become an activist and actually do something. In the world, it could mean just being kind to those around you and making a difference in their lives. But it was definitely already in my mind when HYDRA started that I have an issue with folks that complain on the internet, but they’re not going out and voting, especially locally. They’re not doing things that we really need to do as a society to protect our democracy. So, HYDRA becomes a metaphor for an idea, and then, of course, I start loving the idea that the record can hopefully mean – there’s the literal story, but I hope they can come to mean something to the listener, and it may mean something different to them. I love that idea. So, you know, I almost immediately, before I even had all the songs written, started playing with turning the Y upside down and it dividing over and over and over again, and running like a stream and becoming something more than the idea.
It’s interesting about how other people will have different interpretations because it’s not obviously leftist or overtly right wing; there is a clear sense that you are presenting ideas and allowing people to interpret them as they will. But at the same time, and maybe this is because I consider myself a progressive, we do seem to have the problem now of… I don’t know if you can call it cognitive dissonance. For instance, when MINISTRY says to go out and vote, and some fan says, ‘Yeah, I’m going to vote for Trump!’ He’s not telling you who to vote for; he’s just saying, ‘Go, vote! Do it.’ And then they take that almost as an affront.
I agree with you, but I think it’s true, though, because I believe it’s a one party system. And yet I still vote because, and this is part of my optimism, but clearly not everybody in in each party is on the same page. Democrats vote against their own, Republicans vote against their own, third parties don’t have a chance either financially or in the electorate; clearly, there’s more to it than just the one party.
Bills: And I’m fully aware that HYDRA is going to be received by some as a political record. But I’ll maintain that I don’t consider CHANT to be a political band. I sing, I simply observe, analyze, and report. So, my albums are the output of what the world is feeding me. I just wanted to close in to say that, for those that say… I mean, I found it hilarious, but people recently are realizing that Rage Against the Machine is a political thing.
Well, the argument can be made that even their lyrics are open to interpretation, but I would argue that Rage Against the Machine were more straightforward about their intent. And then there’s the consideration that many people really don’t pay attention to the lyrics.
They say that truth has a liberal bias, and it does seem like even the most conservative artists all tend to agree that there are injustices that need to be addressed, and that if there weren’t, then why would we talk about it? As far as HYDRA is concerned, it is a very lean sounding record, every track flows very well, and it’s concise at just under 47 minutes. I suppose you could call it a concept record, because you do have the idea of types of characters and thoughts going through it. That’s very unusual these days; it does seem like we’re in an age now when everybody is all about shorter releases, like EPs and singles. Was there ever this concern in making this album, especially because it had been five years since the last CHANT record? Was there ever a thought to maybe do a shorter EP, and then continue on from there, or was it always just intended for this to be the full album experience?
Bills: I’m from the age of albums, and I can’t imagine Dark Side of the Moon or The Downward Spiral coming out one track at a time over the course of a year. Those albums are so special to me because I got home with the album, put on my headphones, and I listened to it all the way through, and it took me on a journey. I’m not comparing myself to those artists at all, but when I do approach writing a collection of songs, that’s my hope is that the songs will have a cohesive element that will take somebody on a journey from beginning to end. I’ve wanted to do that with all my records, and hopefully, I’m getting better at it. I think the earlier ones…. I don’t listen to them very much, but if I do go back, I can tell what I should have cut out. So, when I start to write a collection of songs, I hope they have a cohesiveness, but I don’t ever think about whether or not I’m going to do an EP or an album or a double album. I just decide that I’m going to write until I feel like I have a good collection of songs. I think when I wasn’t as experienced, as I remember on the first record, I just remember not knowing how to do things and thinking, ‘Well, I need some short songs,’ or, ‘I need a song that’s more dancey,’ or, ‘I need a long epic song.’ I didn’t want to purposely write a song to fit, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. Now, I just kind of write.
So, you were your own record exec. Because it’s always the record executive who says things like, ‘Well, we need a single,’ or, ‘We need a dance hit,’ or that sort of thing.
I’d say it worked; at least, it did on me. Usually, when I listen to a new album all the way through, I give myself some space to gather my thoughts and first impressions, and then I’ll come back to it later… perhaps even much later, several days or a week or longer. But with HYDRA, I have to say that I left it on a loop.
Bills: That’s a good sign. Thank you.
You mentioned Myke Bingham, and Alvin Melivin has played live with you and is on one track, but the primary guitarist on HYDRA is Jack O’Hara Harris, who was once a member of Bloody Knives. How did he come to work with you on this album, and what do you feel his style brought to the table to really enhance your vision?
Bills: Bloody Knives is from Austin, so I’d seen Jack play before. I didn’t really know him that well, but when I really got to see him let loose… we were fortunate enough to play the same ColdWaves together, and it was a year that CHANT got to play instead of me being up there to play for another band, and although we played on opposite nights, they didn’t see us, but we saw them. Like I said, I’d seen Jack before, and from his approach to guitar and his genuine stance onstage, I could tell that he’s the real thing. There’s no faking it; he’s just totally lost in his guitar, like I know I get lost in my drums, so I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to see what it would be like to have him on a CHANT record.’ First of all, Preston Maddox and everybody in Bloody Knives were so kind, because CHANT had some cancellations on the way back to Texas when we were doing these mini-tours in 2016. They basically said, ‘Why don’t you hop on our shows with us? We’re playing some smaller venues, but we think you might be able to fit on the stage.’ So, they basically helped us get back home by giving us a chance to play their shows, and we kind of bonded over that. A year went by and I kept in touch with Jack, and I said, ‘Hey, when I get around to playing another CHANT record, would you be willing to play on it?’ He said, ‘absolutely,’ and I found out that Jack used to play drums. So, he is a drummer as well. What we did was when I finally had these songs ready, there were some that I knew what guitar I wanted, while others I had no idea and, frankly, didn’t have much space for a guitar because I’d already been tinkering with these songs for over a year. Jack came down to my place for a weekend, and this is for the tech nerds, but he has this big two 18-inch speaker cabinet – one of the speakers has a small tear in it, and the other is in fact a giant Peavey amp from the ’80s. We put that in my closet, and I put an SM57 on the torn cone, an SM58 on the good one, and a really nice Sterling room mic about five feet into my bathroom, which has a lot of natural reverb. That’s how we recorded the guitar. And it just sounds massive; three tracks of it sound massive.
It’s always the bathroom. I’ve heard so many musicians talk about getting that natural reverb from the bathroom.
Bills: Yeah, we captured it that way, and what was fun about working with Jack was that we literally constructed guitar parts kind of on the spot. I would tell him kind of what I was going for verbally, which is kind of how I worked with Alvin. I would hum and say, ‘I’m looking for this,’ and maybe some song references. Except for the chug on the chorus, the guitar on ‘Primetime Annihilation’ was played in totally different spots of the song. So, I found all these guitar parts, and then what I did was I would take what he did over the weekend, and I would literally craft a guitar part out of what he played and find out where it fit in the song, almost like a puzzle. So, that’s how that one worked out, whereas on HYDRA, it’s kind of off this ‘Five to One’ riff by The Doors; it’s got that bass going, and I said, ‘I want some guitar kind of like that, that’s a little Hendrix, and a little industrial.’ Jack was like, ‘Well, I don’t really play that way,’ but then, he was sitting on a stool, and he just stood up and tore into it. It’s my record and my song, but I can listen to that song ‘Hydra,’ and just home in on the guitar and think, ‘Man, this guy’s just shredding it!’
I do describe the guitar in that song in my ReView as a chainsaw assault, and that’s the sort of tonality that immediately resonates with me. And all of this leads into something I wanted to ask. We lost Neil Peart this year, and although we’ve lost so many musicians this year, what I always loved about his playing… I had to describe it to someone once that he was one of the few drummers whose playing was as melodic as the other instruments. Of course, how could drumming be melodic? But that was the only way I knew how to explain it, and that’s how I feel about CHANT live. What is the challenge for you as a drummer? Is this something that factors into your playing and your writing?
Bills: Well, obviously, Neil Peart was probably the single biggest influence on my drumming growing up. Undoubtedly, right? And in fact, I would say that I was a prog geek until I discovered that MINISTRY VHS tape In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up, and saw Rieflin and Atkins playing, and that took things in a totally different direction.
And we lost Rieflin this year too.
Bills: That’s right. So, two of my top 10… I have a top 10 list, and those were two drummers on it. But Peart was a huge influence; he was such a compositional drummer and Rush was a very compositional band. So, when I started CHANT, I really only played the drums. I knew my major and minor scales from marimba and xylophone and the short piano lessons I took when I went to music school, which I didn’t finish. I was too punk rock for that. I wanted to go play gigs, and I wasn’t disciplined enough at the time. But almost every song on the first and second records all started with drum riffs, and then music would get piled on via a synthesizer on top of it. That’s probably why then, it was a little far between records, because I’d hear all the stuff in my brain, but I didn’t have the musical knowledge on how to retrieve it. I didn’t hear, ‘Okay, that’s a fifth up, so if this is in C…’
Then you go to the G.
You and I have discussed before the difficulties with drums as a live instrument to sound right in studio recordings, and you’re constantly improving your methods to record drums and get the right sound. As we mentioned, playing live is not going to really happen right now because of the pandemic, but many people are putting on livestreams and recorded performances. Is this something that interests you in CHANT? What possibilities do you see to maintain the excitement of a live show while we’re stuck in this crisis?
Bills: I think the challenge to try to translate a live CHANT show into a streamed concert is exciting to me because it’s going to be a challenge, and I like to be challenged. Recently, they streamed the Pigface concert at Thalia Hall in Chicago that I got to play on, and unfortunately, the night of the stream, I couldn’t attend. But I’ve been trying to watch it, and that was one of my favorite shows that I’ve ever played in my life; I think that Martin said that it was one of his favorite Pigface shows. Talking about my top 10 drummers, Martin Atkins and Danny Carey are on that list, so here I am playing with them. That’s incredible to see how they did that concert. I urge your readers to check it out, because it really translated; those magical moments that Pigface creates really translated well in a live video. Now, they had the audience there, so it was an actual live concert, but I think it can be done. I’ll just have to wait and see how I can do it to where I feel like it can translate and it’s something powerful and energetic that translates over a livestream. I’m still working back to my drumming, and sometimes I’m a little analytical for my own good…
Well, we are all our own worst critics, right?
Bills: Yeah. Am I playing drums to the level that I was before I fell and cracked my neck right at the beginning of this year? I shifted some discs in my neck. I’m not in any pain or anything, and it could’ve been worse, but it definitely has messed with my comfort level in being able to hit an immovable object. I think the years of me banging on metal with mallets is probably over, but I can definitely play drums. I just want to make sure that I’m at the caliber that will exceed what I did on the last tour in 2015 and 2016, certainly before I would ask that anybody chip in any money to see it. I’ve got to make sure that it’s something I can really stand behind that I’m really proud of, but yes, I’m totally down to doing it at some point. Once my drumming is back, Jack and Myke – depending on their schedules and what commitments they have with other bands or music projects – are interesting; they’re both drummers, as well as playing bass and guitar on this record, so hopefully, we can have a full CHANT band at some point to do some shows, whether they’re streaming or live once this all ends.
I’d done an InterView with Burton C. Bell of Ascension of the Watchers recently, and he said that it was a crime that music was not considered essential.
Bills: Oh, it’s an important thread in the fabric of our society; there’s no doubt about it. I did participate in an interactive Zoom call a few days before the Pigface show, and Steve Silver, Martin Atkins, Curse Mackey, and Charles Levi were all on there, and we were talking about that from a really positive angle. As artists, we have a chance to now further develop streaming and make it something. Levi actually said something interesting, that it could be a cool thing like the NFL football games or the NBA basketball games; people probably thought, ‘Man, I don’t want to see a game on TV. You’ve got to be there to see it.’ Maybe it was like that when TV first came out, but now, when the Superbowl happens, a moment happens and you hear your neighbors cheer, and that’s an exciting thing. Levi brough that up, and it made me excited. If a band that has a following can do something like this, it brings the community in. I talked about the analogy of missing CDs and record stores, because it used to be that you went in to discover new music, and when a new album came out, you had to go to the store to get it, and when you were waiting in line to get it when it released at midnight, you’re in line with fellow fans of your favorite band. That’s how you met some of your friends in music stores, and now we consume music on an individual level and there are people that are so young that they don’t really remember record stores. I just hope we don’t reach that point. Maybe streaming will have a huge emotional connection with them and an importance for them, and they consume it on an individual level, but connected in a chat room with everybody, and I think we can push it really far as artists to make that a special bonding thing. But it would be sad to know that there will be people who don’t really know what it’s like to be at a show. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to be at a show without a phone up in the air. It’s always going to change, but it won’t take away what Burton said; it’s such a vital and important thing. He’s right, it should be considered essential.
It’s necessary for sanity if nothing else.
It’s interesting too, because it worked the other way around for me. I’m not into sports at all, and growing up, I’d wonder why people were into watching sports on TV. It wasn’t until I got older and actually attended a few sporting events that I understood what it was all about. Perhaps it will be the same for people who grow up only knowing livestreams, and maybe they’ll reach a point where somebody puts on a live show that they’ll go and be blown away just because it’s different. It won’t take away from the livestreaming, but it’ll make those actual shows that they go to more of a special experience.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Bills: I do want to comment on why I’m releasing it the way I am. I feel that the message of this record intersected with the urgency of the moment, so I felt compelled to release this as an independent release while we’re having this national conversation and on the eve of the national election. I kind of dreamed that this was going to be the one that I’d reach out to the labels that all my friends are on and that I’m a big fan of, and really partner with them and work with them, but I know that it would put this out in the spring, and I just wanted to get it out. So, I think that’s the reasoning behind it, and I’m confident that hopefully, this will have a message that will resonate and that people will say, ‘Okay, I’ve heard it, and now I’m going to tell other people about it because they’ve really got to hear this.’ But I’m totally focused on this. There are going to be music videos – videos, plural – that go along with these songs. That’s why the general release was October 30; it’s just like throwing the rails down on the train track as it’s speeding along. That’s why the CD was pushed out a month, but anybody who purchases a physical CD or the vinyl, which will come out I’m hoping by January with a lot of other bells and whistles, I’m going to make sure they get a download card e-mailed to them; even if I have to do it myself, I’ll make sure they have access to it. This will be kind of a very unique D.I.Y. self-release that’s going to be rolling out with associated art and messaging along with the album on into the beginning of 2021, and we’ll see where livestreaming and performances take us past that.