With new albums by Derision Cult and .SYS Machine, Dave McAnally invites ReGen‘s readers into the nooks and crannies of his creative process.
An InterView with Dave McAnally of Derision Cult & .SYS Machine
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Dave McAnally is one busy man with several musical projects under the banner of his South Street Dungeon imprint. Whether in the socio-politically charged industrialized metal of Derision Cult, the rootsy bluesy rock of Jefferson Dust, the post-grunge alt. rock of Purgatory Line, or the shrill electronic pulse of .SYS Machine, he presents a full range of artistic expression and productivity that continues to evolve with each release. This year’s release of Charlatans Inc. marked his fifteenth album as Derision Cult, pushing forth an onslaught of hard rock and metal guitar riffs set to a scathing industrial thrust that bears the finest hallmarks of the sound pioneered by the likes of MINISTRY and Killing Joke. As if that weren’t enough, he is about to unleash the latest opus from .SYS Machine, titled Graceful Isolation, further showcasing his growing repertoire of collaborations with the likes of Kimberly of Bow Ever Down, John Norten of Blue Eyed Christ, and remixes by such luminaries of the contemporary underground scene as The Joy Thieves, Assemblage 23, SPANKTHENUN, and more. McAnally speaks with ReGen now about his most recent creative efforts, digging deep into his process and philosophy, along with some ruminations about the state of society, live music, and the joys of fatherhood.
Let’s start with Derision Cult, for which you recently released, Charlatans Inc., the band’s fifteenth album. Looking back over 15 records, what are your thoughts on how the band’s sound and style has developed?
In what ways do you feel it’s gone in directions perhaps different than you initially envisioned?
You’ve called Derision Cult a ‘journalism project,’ with the lyrics being reflective of current events; socially conscious and political charged lyrics are fairly common in industrial and metal and underground music in general. Over 15 albums, what would you say has disappointed you the most in the things you’ve observed that have either not changed or have taken turns for the worst?
McAnally: That’s a good question! Yeah, I’m never going to be a ‘boy meets girl, girl breaks boy’s heart, here’s a bunch of sad kid thoughts about it’ type of person – nothing against people who write like that, but it just isn’t me. Derision Cult really became a way for me to think more macro and comment on broader issues. I’ve been doing this across three presidential administrations now. Issues come and go. But I wrote a track called ‘The Trump Sonata’ in 2016 when it looked like Trump was going to be the Republican nominee in 2016, basically laying out why I thought he’d make a horrible president. For me, it wasn’t so much his ideas or anything he wanted to do (most of which were the exact same things Hillary Clinton was saying ought to be done 10-15 years before when Trump was a Democrat too), but more the tone a guy like him would set for the nation. That track unfortunately played out exactly how the warnings described. I’m not a big pro wrestling fan, but I think the psychology and the business model of it of it is really fascinating, what with heels and faces, and using positive and negative reactions to drive asses to seats (or to screens as it is). It’s no surprise to me that Trump is a big pro wrestling fan (he’s in the WWE hall of fame). Right away, I picked up on what he was doing in those debates – he was playing the role of the heel. He wasn’t trying to make people think, he was trying to make them feel. Cheap heat sells seats. I was really disappointed to see how well that strategy worked. Michelle Obama said at the DNC that year, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ I really wish that was the case, but it wasn’t. Exactly what Trump needed to happen happened. Everything got political, even laundry detergent. I worked in the ad industry for years and I saw firsthand what that election did to brands and how political identities suddenly became so closely intertwined with your identity as a human being. Trump didn’t start that phenomenon, but his campaign strategy exploited it and with social media and all of our connectivity, it was really sad to watch families get ripped apart, friendships destroyed, all over pro wrestling politics. I’m a pretty fiercely independent guy, so I’m not all that concerned with what’s a Republican or Democrat idea, supporting my home team, and all that people get caught up in. But at the end of the day, I’d rather disagree with you over some issue in Washington and still be your friend than disagree with you and have you hate me for it. It really sucks that we went that route.
Conversely, what has transpired that has given you some hope, even in the smallest degree?
I often ask this of bands like KMFDM, Killing Joke, MINISTRY – bands that have, like Derision Cult, been observing the ills of the world and ‘reporting’ on them in their music over many years. There must be some frustration that arises when certain things don’t seem to be changing, people still aren’t paying attention, etc. How do you deal with that?
McAnally: Well, I stopped drinking this year, so I don’t do that! In all seriousness, I think as artists, all you really can do is speak your truth with your art. Whether that art speaks to other people or resonates in some way is kind of up to the art. The Facebook whistleblowers showing up a few weeks after Charlatans Inc. came out was a fine bit of serendipity, I suppose… and I’m 99% certain they weren’t Derision Cult fans that suddenly got an inkling (most of what they’re blowing the whistles on are pretty open secrets to anybody in that world anyhow). That’s about all the art can do. In my personal life, I have things I do to try to make the world a better place with the resources I have, and I suppose I process that frustration through that work. I and a group of doctors from Iowa charter a school in Haiti. When that part of my brain is booted up, I’m focused on kids and their parents not starving or dying from ‘fever’ and equipping these kids with tools they can use to potentially escape the extreme poverty they’ve been born into. Keeping a foot in those realities of our world sort of has a way of making the troubles we’re dealing with seem small, and the differences we’re making on that front are literal matters of life and death, so I keep it all in perspective.
Besides Derision Cult, you have other projects on your South Street Dungeon imprint. Even though all are in different genres, tell us about your writing process and how you determine or at what stage you decide a song will be for a specific project?
McAnally: Yeah, some are more active than others; some are one-off things that didn’t really fit with one project or another, but they were things I wanted to share. I’d say Chicago Gypsy Lounge and Delta Shines were like that. Every now and then, I’ll start something for one project, and it ends up in another. There are a couple of Purgatory Line tracks we’re working on that I started with Derision Cult in mind. Jefferson Dust is more my love letter to The Rolling Stones, Tom T Hall, Townes Van Zandt, The Drive By Truckers, Cheap Trick, Waylon Jennings, and Tom Petty, and those tracks are autobiographical, so I pretty well know what I’m writing for in that realm.
You work with Doug Havlik in Hell’s Own Drag, while in Purgatory Line, you work with Matt Kettmann. Tell us more about your working partnership with them, in what ways their individual processes and styles complement yours?
In what ways do you feel your own way of working in Derision Cult or .SYS Machine has changed because of their influence, if at all?
You’d told me that you were rather pleased with the comparison to Lemmy Kilmister with regards to your vocals; surely a gritty and roaring tone like that is not easy to maintain, so in what ways do you keep your voice strong and in check?
McAnally: I think everyone has to learn that it isn’t sustainable the hard way! Then when you do, you’re like, ‘Welp… new plan,’ and either figure out ways to pull it off or go in a different direction. One thing that happened, when I quit drinking, suddenly my voice got more powerful, which seems like the opposite of Lemmy’s strategy! But I really got myself sorted about things like how to use vocal fry and controlling your throat from a Broadway singer of all people – Dee Roscioli (she played Elpheba in Wicked, and more recently Cher in The Cher Show) is my wife’s best friend and my daughter’s godmother. If you ever hear somebody who can properly sing opera and project the kind of volume it takes to fill a hall, it’s very apparent there are techniques at play that mere mortals don’t readily know. She and I had a conversation about how the pros project and how to use different parts of your throat and how to properly breathe. She has some songs that she’s really got to dig in and get throaty on, and on Broadway, you’re doing two-shows-a-day six-days-a-week. So, you’d better know what you’re doing, or you just plain won’t survive. I took a lot of what she told me about and applied it to what I do. If I were to go play live or do a bunch of shows, I’d have to really, really lean on those things. In the studio, I just have to explain to my wife why my voice is a little hoarse.
You have a new .SYS Machine album coming out in December, Graceful Isolation, featuring some new tracks and remixes by some impressive names. First of all, three of the five original tracks feature Kimberly of Bow Ever Down. How did you come to work with her? Was she involved in the songwriting – lyrics or otherwise? And in what ways do you feel her presence strengthened the songs?
Secondly, tell us about the various remixers and how they came to be involved? How did John Norten (Blue Eyed Christ) come to master the album?
With everyone in isolation and struggling to make ends meet, maintain contact, etc., what helped you to maintain your creative momentum and stay engaged as an artist, especially on multiple projects?
McAnally: I think creativity was a great tool to help through the anxieties of the last year-and-a-half for me. I tell people a lot of the riffs on Charlatans Inc. started life as sort of a heavy bag in the basement; I’d go down to my studio and just bash out thrash riffs for a half hour and record it every day for a few months. The company I was working for on the onset of the lockdowns more or less got wiped out, and so I started a consulting business, which has been very successful, but it also required a lot of time and energy. I learned all about the ins and outs of owning an LLC, hiring contractors, accountants, and all that jazz. I felt like Jesse Ventura in Predator after a while – ‘I ain’t got time to bleed!’
Obviously, performing live was not possible, and many turned to livestreaming. I’ve asked many about their opinions of this, but now as we approach (hopefully) vaccinations and the quelling of the pandemic, what do you feel are the major lessons we learned? Or to put it another way, what do you feel artists, labels, venues, the industry as a whole should take away from the experience and use or think about going forward?
Will we see Derision Cult or any of your other endeavors going on a tour any time soon? What are your plans for live performance?
McAnally: You know, the more I get asked about that, the more my wheels are turning! I don’t have any plans on the Derision Cult front, but as momentum builds, it definitely starts getting me thinking… and collaborators help too! If money and time were no object, there’s a dream team backing band that was involved with that .SYS Machine album, so we’ll see. I may do a handful of solo acoustic gigs with the Jefferson Dust stuff. I enjoy that. Just locally, I’ll go out with an acoustic and a banjo and do some of my stuff and a few Townes Van Zandt, Tom T Hall, old school ’60s Bowie, and Waylon Jennings songs. It’s fun and I like to think I bring something different to the night than your typical coffee shop affair. But cranking some amps and getting loud never lost its appeal to me. I actually miss that quite a bit.
Outside of music, what are you enjoying most right now? Watching movies? Reading? Anything at all… what is giving you the most joy to counteract the darkness of the world?
McAnally: I have the consulting business, which keeps me busy, and I really enjoy that work, and then spending time with my family. My daughter is becoming quite the artist (she’s 7-years-old), and we’re going to be taking a painting class together, and I’m looking forward to that. It’s fun watching your kids embrace creativity and find their own paths; even cooler when you get to go along for the ride with them.
What’s next for you?
McAnally: .SYS Machine’s Graceful Isolation comes out next month. I’m really looking forward to getting that out into the world and sharing it with everyone. Greg Rolfes of Eleven12 did the artwork for it, so the physical albums will really be something. I’m super excited to get those in my hands! Beyond that, I’ve got a few irons in the fire to tend to. The next Derision Cult album will probably take a good chunk of next year working on and off. Charlatans Inc. has been getting a great reaction, and the process of it really inspired me for how to evolve the sound and take it to a new place. In between that, there’s the Purgatory Line and Jefferson Dust stuff.
Anything at all that you’d like to add?
McAnally: Thanks to everyone for their support!
Derision Cult / .SYS Machine / South Street Dungeon
Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, Bandcamp (Derision Cult), Bandcamp (.SYS Machine), Bandcamp (South Street Dungeon), YouTube
Photography by Greg Rolfes of Eleven12 Design & Photography, and Dave McAnally – provided courtesy of South Street Dungeon