One of the most prolific session musicians and producers in music today, John Bechdel speaks with ReGen about his career and upcoming new music from his numerous bands and projects.
An InterView with John Bechdel of MINISTRY, False Icons, Ascension of the Watchers, and NUKES
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
For 30 years, John Bechdel has steadily built up a reputation as one of the music world’s most professional, versatile, and reliable talents, both as a musician and as a producer. The list of bands that he’s participated in as a member live and/or in the studio is impressive enough, including the likes of Killing Joke, Prong, Fear Factory, Murder, Inc., Abstinence, and Brain Brain; he fronts his own band, False Icons, and collaborates closely with Fear Factory vocalist Burton C. Bell in Ascension of the Watchers, but he is perhaps most visible as the keyboardist for industrial/metal giants MINISTRY, having first joined the band in 2006 and finally playing an active role in the songwriting process for the AmeriKKKant album released in 2018. On top of that, his credits as a session player, producer, remixer, and general technician have earned him credits as diverse as the aforementioned acts, Static-X, Her Vanished Grace, the late Davy Jones of The Monkees’ fame, and Jones collaborator Johnny J. Blair. Having produced the sophomore outing from industrial/rock act CHMCL STR8JCKT, he helped elevate the group’s sound into a new level with his advanced production savvy. In 2018, he was the subject of Darryl Hell’s Killing the Joke documentary, examining Bechdel’s life in music and as a family man. Most recently, he’s become a member of No Devotion Records’ NUKES collective alongside veterans of the scene like Chris Connelly, EN ESCH, Erie Loch, Autoclav1.1’s Tony Young, The Blue Hour’s Brian Hodges, and more. And all of that is barely the tip of the glacier that is John Bechdel’s intensive musical resume, which grows ever larger with new music on the way from Ascension of the Watchers, False Icons, MINISTRY, and at long last a solo release; suffice to say, he is a busy man, and ReGen Magazine was fortunate enough to be allowed some of his time to speak about his career and upcoming pursuits.
You seem to be constantly busy, and you most recently produced the second album from CHMCL STR8JCKT, and I’ve heard you’re working with them again. Is that correct?
Bechdel: Yeah, I’ve got six songs mixed for the new album; they’ve tracked 10 songs, and I’m knocking them out as I can. I’ve also taken on another band called Malice Machine that I’m producing and I’m an auxiliary member. Things are exploding for me right now.
What was it about CHMCL STR8JCKT’s music that you decided you wanted to work with them?
: What’s funny is they’re big MINISTRY fans and they sent me some material and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But I started working on it and, you know, there was a little bit of talk about how they were going for a WaxTrax! Vibe, but I don’t really work like that, so I didn’t really think about it when I was working. Initially, they sent me a couple of songs from their first album, and we were talking about remixes. And then they sent me material from the new record, and I started jumping in. At first, I didn’t know what to think of their content, and it took a little while to kind of get to know them. We gradually built a relationship and ultimately, they came out to my studio here and we began production on WRTCHD THNGS
. That’s how we got rolling. Mixing CHMCL STR8JCKT has been a real learning experience for me.
That’s interesting considering the reemerging interest in WaxTrax! Records and all the bands from that era, bands getting back together, newer bands inspired by those sounds and that era – we do seem to live in an age of nostalgia.
Bechdel: We (MINISTRY) did the WaxTrax! tour last spring, so I think that was a big part of this reawakening interest in WaxTrax!. They had a Q&A session after the documentary and before the bands played. I remembered a young person who asked a question in Texas about the idea of WaxTrax! coming back and the answer was that you really can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. It was something that happened, and you can’t recreate those things or go back in time. Everybody would say it’s not the same, it’s not like it was.
That brings me to this topic, we still see a lot of that in our MINISTRY fan base – ‘Why can’t they get Chris Connelly and Paul Barker back in the band?’ Even if we did that, hypothetically, it doesn’t mean that it would be the same. People change and bands change, time moves on. If that’s the era of MINISTRY that you’re attached to, keep listening to those records and watching the video In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up. It’s there, it’s been captured. Al often says that when we talk about what kind of direction we want to go with new MINISTRY material. Sometimes we talk about, ‘Hey, let’s give the fans what they want, let’s make that MINISTRY album that everyone’s waiting for.’ And he’s like, ‘No, I already did that. I’m not going to make another Mind…, …Rape and Honey, Psalm 69.’ That’s not how he operates. Now some bands do; they get a formula that works, and they keep going with it. They shuffle the parts around and if that works, then hey, great. Al’s not one of those people. Even if we made that happen, those people would be the first to say it’s not the same – can’t win.
You mentioned also working with a band called Malice Machine?
Bechdel: It’s a duo that goes by the names Syn and Ammo – Ammo is a female drummer and Syn is a vocalist/guitarist and also bass player; he’s currently playing bass in False Icons. They live very close to me; it’s ironic they’ve lived here for five years and they’ve heard about me, but we’ve never connected. There’s no scene here out in the woods. Every time they reached out to people about what they were doing, industrial dance music, people said you need to talk to John Bechdel. Five years later, we’ve finally made the connection. They live 15-20 mins from here. Their particular style of industrial dance is really top notch – the music, songwriting, the style. They did a record, ironically on the same label that CHMCL STR8JCKT started out on – Machine Man, run by Chris Bollinger. They were technically label mates, and there was some communication between the two bands about doing some shows together, things like that, and here we are. Suddenly, it’s coming together and we’re building our own little WaxTrax! out here in the woods. We’ve got a lot of new bands. Interestingly enough, there’s a guy by the name of Sean [McCallus (sp)]; he has a band called Smite the World, and he does a music festival here in central PA, in Williamsport called Smite Fest – one in winter, one in summer. We just played our second winter Smite Fest. It’s an amazing festival; he does it at the Red Roof Inn in Williamsport, so people can book rooms and stay the weekend. He does it in the convention room; he runs two stages back-to-back, 30+ bands over the weekend. It’s well organized and everyone there is having a great time. It’s really exciting to see in this area something like that. There’s not a whole lot going on as this is country music territory and most clubs only book cover bands. It’s really hard doing original music, especially the kind of music that we’re doing. Malice Machine did a record; they were a little disillusioned that fans would just fall from the sky and everything would fall into place. As you know, it doesn’t quite work that way, so here we are and they have 30 or 40 songs they’re throwing at me. We’re working in five song increments. I’m trying to pick and choose the ones that really stand out; they’re all good. I think this is something really special. I’m impressed and I’m not easily impressed. I’m an old school guy that kind of hates everything. People ask, ‘What are you listening to these days,’ and I have to always say, ‘You mean that was written after the ’80s?’ (Laughter) Not much.
Malice Machine is going to also be performing some shows with CHMCL STR8JCKT, False Icons, Smite the World; we’re looking to branch out of Smite Fest and there are a few other acts I’ve been working with – Suicide Puppets out of Harrisburg, they’re just tearing it up right. They’ve been around; Norm Shirk, who’s the front man, has been doing this since the ’90s, and Suicide Puppets has been around at least 20 years, so they have just never given up. They’re gigging constantly. They played Club Reverb with Wednesday 13 and The 69 Eyes, they’ve played the Chameleon Club, all over the Harrisburg area, and they’ve been branching out. A gentleman that we met through Smite Fest, David Nearhoof… he’s a solo act, old school analog kind of guy, doesn’t work with computers; he’s got a project called Staticat 9. And there’s a band called Pulled Under that I produced and performed with in the late 2000s into the 2010s. We were poised to take off, but you know how sometimes it is with personnel and personalities clashing and unfortunately, we couldn’t keep that band together. It was a very exciting project and I was sad to see that one go.
Regarding False Icons, it has now been 12 years since the last album, and you mentioned Syn is now the bassist in the band. Obviously, you’ve been busy with all that you just spoke about. What has sparked you putting some focus back into False Icons now?
: Well, first of all, following our initial release, we were very active performing and we did some mini tours, we did an East Coast tour, and I put together a five song EP, which we never released officially, but it has some very strong material that showed quite a bit of growth and development from the first album, God Complex. These songs were darker, heavier, and we’ve been performing those songs and promoting them really over the last 10 years, but False Icons hasn’t performed since… well, we did two shows this year, but before that there was a two-year gap. We were not really active; however, I’m always writing in my studio and I’m very, very excited to announce what I’ve been working on. I’ve been very busy. As far as False Icons, I have a lot of new material. Some of it I had put together last year when I was also working and collaborating on the new MINISTRY; I just wanted to have a lot of material, so I put together maybe 20 or more ideas. The logic there was if none of this piques Al’s interest or ends up kind of being a MINISTRY song… not that they sound the same or that I was trying to write anything particularly MINISTRY, but I did study certain MINISTRY songs, studied certain elements of those songs, and when we did the WaxTrax! tour, we brought back some of those WaxTrax!-era songs. Some of the initial ideas that I was working on with Al for the new album were in that kind of vein and he was saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve done that.’ So, I have quite a bit of new material that’s more suitable for False Icons. Those songs I’ll be finishing up; it’s not quite as dark and heavy as that EP I was describing, but at the same time, it’s got very defined False Icons elements. Some of it is showing more maturity and a little bit of melodic attributes. We’re looking now at a self-release or maybe a label, but a lot of bands are all struggling with that right now. You have to be able to self-promote nowadays, even if you are on a label. It’s like you’re already doing everything anyways. Even though I’ve been so busy with MINISTRY, I’d decided that it had been a long enough hiatus and False Icons is really something that’s very true to me; it’s my baby so to speak. It really allows me to show what I can do. It’s a band, but I’m the primary songwriter, so it’s a chance for me to really do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is have and produce my own band on top of all these other things that I do and being part of these amazing other bands that I’ve been with over the years. I have to just be able to juggle my time. I’ve raised a family and bought a home in that time. I’ve been really busy.
You’ve also been working with Burton C. Bell in Ascension of the Watchers, and you were one of the many bands to fall under the cloud of PledgeMusic’s failings over the last two years. What can you tell us about the status of the album?
: First of all, the album is complete. It’s a monumental album; we have triumphed over a lot of adversity. Like False Icons, Ascension of the Watchers was formed at the same time – Burton came here right after the Digimortal tour cycle with Fear Factory with a guitar and presented some ideas to me. At first, I was thinking this was going to be something like Fear Factory. Then he started playing, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is not going to be like Fear Factory. I’m not sure what to make of this,’ but then suddenly, I could hear a lot of ideas. That’s how I work – I have to listen to something, and I know when something jumps out at me; there’s some kind of connection, and if that doesn’t happen, I usually tell people that I’m not the guy. I did hear some really interesting influence, and now it all makes sense. I stayed with burton during the Fear Factory rehearsals. I couldn’t help noticing the only metal records in his collection were Black Sabbath; other than that, it was all goth/industrial – Godflesh, Nick Cave, stuff like that. I think he and I had, even though it’s in the same genre, some different influences. There were some things that we did have in common and I think the style of music was jumping out at me. I was thinking about Joy Division and early Cure and that style of things. I had all these DAT tapes of drum loops and I’m like, ‘Look dude, if you sit down and go through all these and jot down which ones you like, I’ll sample them and we’ll put them into a map and start building up these songs.’ I have this huge collection of vintage synths and really hadn’t had an opportunity to use them on any of the metal stuff I’d been working on, so to me, it was really exciting. I could go back to the ’80s and early ’90s when some of the music I was doing was much more synth and sampler based; I have these massive libraries of classic sounds like the Fairlight and Synclavier and Emulator… what a perfect opportunity to use those. I immediately jumped in and I go, ‘So, who’s going to produce this thing,’ and he says, ‘Well, you
are.’ (Laughter) He also did some collaborating with MINISTRY on The Last Sucker
and performed as a guest vocalist on that C.U.LaTour
. Al signed both Ascenscion of the Watchers and False Icons to his label 13th Planet and produced both records. Finally, those things were realized. You never know if your creations will ever get released, so it was exciting.
Then, I got very busy with MINISTRY and in between tours was working on False Icons and some Ascension of the Watchers tours – even together with False Icons – so, both bands are very active and are working together. When Burton wanted to make another record, we’ve been working on that – I hate to say it – off-and-on for the last 10 years. Even though it sounds like we haven’t been busy, we have been. Some of these songs had been put together as far back as 10 years.
Now, when it came to PledgeMusic, I personally am not a big fan of crowdfunding. That’s why I built my own studio, because I just wanted to be able to make music and not have to rent a studio and be able to have access whenever I felt creative, to be able to make music… that was a personal decision that I made. Not everybody has their own studio and not everybody has a lot of money, so I understand that crowdfunding works for some people. This was something that Burton decided to do. Ascension of the Watchers is his baby. I’m a very important part of it, but as far as executive decisions regarding band matters, I leave that up to him. He decided to go with PledgeMusic, and our drummer Jayce Lewis, who’s producing the record, had worked with Gary Numan and they had a successful Pledge campaign. There were some rumors early on that Pledge could be in trouble, but they decided that they were going to move forward and hope that things worked out. Unfortunately, we got into the tail end of Pledge and got caught up in the subsequent bankruptcy. I’ve been very proactive with Burton in trying to ensure that we do everything in our power to try to fulfill and do what we can for the people that Pledged, because we did ask for money and people gave us money. The album did get made and its better than any of us imagined going into it. Jayce has done an amazing job – he has a great studio in Wales. He is an amazing talent. He and I have chemistry working together, so the album will be released, and we are going to do everything in our power to make the Pledgers happy. I have been a driving force behind that; I just feel we have to do something. From what it looks like, we will be able to honor many of the Pledges. It’s been complicated, but we are putting forward a good faith effort and I’m pretty sure there will be some news very soon on that front. You won’t be disappointed. It’s incredible and the production on it is astronomical.
I’m sure a lot of people, myself included, are looking forward to it. ‘Ghost Heart’ was a magnificent track!
You’ve been such an active part of MINISTRY live for many years, and AmeriKKKant was the first album on which you got to participate in the songwriting. So, to now have such an active role in shaping MINISTRY’s sound going forward, what was that experience like?
: It was really exciting, but what made it a very comfortable experience was that I’ve already had a working relationship with Al for 10 years at that point. We’re very comfortable working together, we’re very compatible, we have a lot of similarities with our roots, which are not in metal – we were into bands like Fad Gadget and Cabaret Voltaire and early industrial music, so we had a lot of common ground there. This was at a point when I was honing my skills and it used to take me a long time to complete tracks and complete work on remixes; it was very arduous. I would have early ideas that were very strong, but needed work and development, which took time. I’ve honed those skills over the years and now I can work quite quickly. It was interesting; I live in Pennsylvania, so I had to fly into L.A., and I typically go right to work – this was no exception. I arrived in the evening and Al was like, ‘Get in here, you’ve got to hear this,’ and this was some of the early AmeriKKKant
material. We were working with our engineer/producer Michael Rozon. They put me on the spot and played me a song, and I was like, ‘Yeah man, I totally hear this Nord sound.’ Ironically, it was they only synth they had in the control room; they were using it for a controller, so I jumped on it, started programming, looking for this sound that I know I can create on the Nord. It was a little bit glitchy… it was old and a little bit temperamental, but I persevered and immediately got the sound I was looking for, and we started tracking right then. Al looked around the room and said, ‘See, I told you this guy is good! Why do you think we fly him in from Pennsylvania?’ (Laughter)
I can absolutely see and hear Al Jourgensen shouting that. And I understand that a new MINISTRY album is currently in the works, and the band has been touring quite a bit. There is the cliché of a band writing an album while on the road; does that apply here?
: Technically, we started working on new material last spring. The WaxTrax! tour got thrown at us and that took precedent. We rolled with the punches. We were already scheduling studio time, and I was already planning to go out and work with Al on new material, and the WaxTrax! tour coincided with that, so we took advantage of the situation by bringing back songs like ‘Burning Inside,’ which we thought might never get played live again. We have the original tape transfers and those tapes are pretty old and deteriorating, and we were able to get all of the MINISTRY albums into ProTools. So, you can hear some of the flaws in the tape and there were some spots where we had to do some wizardry to reconstruct some of the songs. It was a really exciting process. You could hear, for instance, Trent Reznor’s vocal track on ‘Supernaut,’ you could hear him wheezing in between things, his breathing, his headphone bleed, and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, this a little time capsule.’ It was the same thing with some of Chris Connelly’s tracks and Al’s early tracks; you could hear Al’s original vocal for ‘Burning Inside,’ and it’s like… that was 30 years ago. Getting into that headspace, Al and I kind of freestyled together. We would load up some sound banks and we found some kind of really interesting sounds where some of it was very WaxTrax!. we were both playing at the same time. He would do a take, I would do a take, and recording and putting together some ideas… not a whole lot of preconceived ideas about what direction we wanted to go in; we talked about it, but at the same time, we sort of sketched, just creating. Out of that came some interesting ideas that may or may not make it onto the record; keeping the creative juices flowing. That was just really exciting – me and Al in the studio together working. Then we had to get into tour mode and during the tour, we’re talking about what directions to go in, we’re listening to different bands, and talking about what influences we want to use. Now today with modern tech, you can make a record on your laptop and we’ve all got music software and the hardware is very portable now, so I’ve been writing, mixing, remixing, producing, and recording on tour in my hotel room and on the tour bus. That’s been a paradigm shift for me. Usually on tour, you have a lot of downtime and unfortunately, you can get really bored. When I’m home, I have my studio, but I also work, so the sad irony is that when I’m home, I don’t always have the kind of time that I would like to be in the studio, and when I’m on tour, I have all the time in the world, but don’t have my studio. But that’s all changed now. I’ve been able to really take advantage of the downtime. I’m not really big on sightseeing. I’ve been around the world, been to every major city on the planet. I’m just happy in my hotel room on my laptop working on music, that’s what I love to do. So, we’ve been kind of able to do both. Al is not really that kind of guy; I don’t think he has a laptop. He likes to be in the studio; he’s old school. He bought an SSL because that’s what he’s familiar with and has that in his studio, so he’s more comfortable working [at home]. We’ve had to kind of push this record back a little bit because we got offered the Slayer tour – couldn’t really turn that down. You just roll with the punches. We will be showcasing one of the new tracks on the upcoming run.
A great many people tend to be producers of their own music, and while I don’t wish to decry any of them, I do at times feel – and I know this sounds a bit snobbish – that they are missing out on what an outside producer, someone who is experienced and actually fills that role, can bring to the table. Of course, you work on both ends of that, and I don’t think anyone could listen to your own music that you produce and say that. So, speaking to you as someone who not only produces your own music, but also other artists, what are your thoughts on the role of the producer in music nowadays?
: That’s a great question. When I was in college in the early ’80s… I already had bought my first synth in ’81 at 17-years-old. Then working at college on modular synths, MIDI had not even been invented yet – I remember learning about programmable synths and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s great,’ because then, you can store save your sounds. Then I learned some came with preset sounds and you could just push a button and there it was. At first, I was horrified… like anyone can just buy a synth and push a button, and I’m here learning to program. That blew my mind. But then, I thought about it and that just means you have to up your game, because now you’ll be competing with someone who might not even know how to program a synth, who are also playing synths. So, I looked at that like a challenge and it’s the same thing with laptops – anyone with a laptop can be a producer, but they don’t necessarily have the fundamentals. I studied physics and engineering and all aspects of sound and acoustics and things like that. I think that gives me a certain benefit. At the same time, that doesn’t mean someone with no experience can’t make an amazing record on a laptop, and it happens every day. I just mean I have to work a little harder. For me, working with plug-ins and not having to deal with patch bays and MIDI interface and splicing tape… it was fun, it was great, but as digital tech became available, it took a little while as a lot of us stayed true to analog mixers and tape. The first digital recorders were kind of cold and sterile, and they didn’t have a lot of low end. But times have changed, and now there are hybrid systems. People are going back to analog boards, but using digital recording, and people are investing in old vintage tube compressors and pre-amps to get that warmth back. People have been combining the best of both worlds, and I’ve been more than happy to give up tape and interfacing and connecting all these devices, which is time consuming and can inhibit the creative process. Now, I just have plug-ins at my fingertips, and if I’m in bed, I can whip out my laptop – I have a little MIDI controller, so I can capture an idea. I’m embracing all this tech and welcoming anyone who wants to do it.
Now, I think that there’s probably more music out than ever, which is not a bad thing, but at the same time, you sort of have to weed through it a little more than you used to. Before with the traditional model of record labels, only a select few people who were lucky enough to get signed to labels ever got heard; if you were unsigned, you were pretty much unknown. Now, you don’t even have to leave your home studio. I live in the woods now, but I don’t feel isolated. Globalization has made it so much easier. You and I are talking on Skype. I’m working and collaborating with people all over the world by transferring and sharing files. It’s an amazing time. I’ve always been on the cutting edge, the forefront of tech. I was in college when MIDI was born and transformed the industry. I’m a very technological guy.
I just keep going and going. I’m 55-years-old. I’m at the top of my game – my production skills, my studio, my synth and programing skills, everything has just been really developing. I just am continually learning. I learned a lot from Al when he produced the first False Icons record, and he learned from Adrian Sherwood. I’ve worked with some great producers like Steve Albini and Terry Date. I’ve observed their techniques and observed which mics they use and have just been always wanting to get into production. I think at one point, I was thinking how much longer can I be this touring musician? Here I am still touring the world at 55.
What else are you working on that you’d like to tell us about?
: Well, I guess this is it, this is the time and the place. I have been talking about this, and it’s not officially out, but I am working on a solo project. It’s already been recorded and produced, and this is something really special. False Icons also is me as the primary writer and producer, but I work with a band – a bass player, drummer, keyboard player, and I welcome contributions from them and it’s a live collaboration. This solo project is 100% me – I do all the vocals, play guitar, programming keyboards, production, engineering, absolutely everything. It’s not as heavy and edgy as False Icons. In the ’80s, I was more into electronic music, but I was into killing joke also, and I had the opportunity of working with them on Extremities Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions
and touring that album. I was in my mid-20s, already traveling the world and playing… things happened very quickly after I got out of college and moved to New York and started programming and working with producers and getting into the scene, playing in bands. I have boxes of cassette tapes of things I did as far back as the early ’80s – listening to them and going like, ‘This is amazing, this song could be happening today,’ and I’ve been actually bringing back some of these keyboard lines and ideas that date back to the ’80s. I was into Depeche Mode, and there’s clearly an influence there, but this is my own sound. I don’t think that you’d hear it and be like, ‘This sounds like some band.’ No, this is pure JB. This is something very near and dear to my heart and can’t wait for people to hear it.
That sounds excellent! And I also understand that you’re part of the NUKES collective on No Devotion Records, and that you produced the band’s introductory single, ‘Death Sky.’ Would you tell us about how you came to be involved in this project?
: Mario Cabada reached out to me and at first, like so many people I hear from, I was very polite. He asked me if I had any unreleased material, and I’m like, ‘Probably?’ He told me about his label and then very shortly after that, talked about this collaboration that he was putting together. Often people mention things like that to me and I always say the same thing – ‘I’m awfully busy and I don’t like to commit to something I can’t dedicate the proper amount of time to.’ I put some feelers out. I talked to Chris Connelly and En Esch, and they said, ‘Yeah, this guy’s pretty cool.’ So, I finally said, ‘Send me something,’ and I really liked it and just jumped in headfirst.
And there’s also talk of him putting together a DJ collective with you and Jim Marcus as well; is there anything you can tell us about that?
Bechdel: Well, I’ve done a couple of guest DJ things. I’m a little apprehensive, but it might be the perfect launchpad for my solo material. A lot of DJs are also composers, so maybe that would be the thing to propel my solo career. It’s very exciting so many things.
You mentioned listening to those tracks and thinking that they could be made today, and we did touch briefly on the current waves of nostalgia. And it all seems to break down just what these genres are – for instance, this year’s ColdWaves lineup features a lot of what seems to be referred to as post-punk, and they’re not industrial per se, but the industrial scene is embracing it. At what point does category or genre matter?
Bechdel: Just last night, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m so sick and tired of bands throwing out all these terms like new darkwave, old coldwave, retro future EB-something.’ I get it. If you’re unknown and people ask what you sound like, maybe tell them some bands that are big influences, and nowadays, a lot of bands do that. But I’m really tired of the labels. Al hates that too. When people talk about industrial music, he’s like, ‘What even is industrial music?’ And when industrial blew up, everybody wanted to be industrial, and if you were caught playing a synth, people accused you of trying to sound like Trent. It’s like, ‘Nah, synths were around before Trent. We were playing them before Trent. He didn’t invent the synthesizer, you know.’
‘Unlistenable’ has to be one of my favorite Al Jourgensen songs from the Surgical Meth Machine album. ‘MINISTRY?! I hate fucking industrial bands!’ (Laughter)
Bechdel: (Laughter) Yeah!
And I understand naming influences and having some kind of base denominator for the average person, but whenever I hear people mention that it’s necessary for radio airplay, I absolutely question it. Even radio is not what it used to be, and the idea of having to cater to a ‘genre’ or ‘category’ seems really antiquated to me… but like many things, I seem to be wrong.
Bechdel: For a long time, and I noticed this about 10 years ago, but listening to the radio… OMG, every band sounds exactly the same. It’s as if they all sit and listen to the radio and go, ‘We have to sound like this because they’re on the radio.’ I couldn’t even differentiate any of these bands and that’s not a good thing. So, now we have not only genres and subgenres and micro-niche, and it’s not a bad thing – if that’s what you’re into is somehow categorizing music, then whatever. Now, Killing Joke is a classic example of a band you just cannot categorize; the only word they’ve ever used is post-punk, and what the fuck does that even mean? It means nothing. It just means it happened after punk. Punk, I guess was maybe early-to-mid ’70s or late ’70s. I think that might explain why Killing Joke, being one of the most influential bands of our time, never really got the commercial success they deserved here in the U.S., because music execs never knew what to call it or where to categorize it. And how unfortunate that because they couldn’t fit into some category, they never had the kind of commercial success that many of the bands that were influenced and inspired by them had. Just to say, the fact that they’re still going and it’s the original four members is a testament to them and what they have to offer.
On a side note, ReGen once referred to Killing Joke as a post-punk band, and someone had angrily commented, ‘Killing Joke has never been post-punk, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’
: (Laughter) I was a huge Killing Joke fan. They were not well known here in the U.S.; it was only ever a handful of people, maybe even still. It’s one of those bands that if you’re in the know and really cool, people know them. I still like that and I’m kind of glad. I remember how mysterious they were back in the day, how all we had was albums. You might be able to read in NME
and you might be able to see a picture or learn something about a band. But I loved how there was a lot of mystique, like they didn’t have a band photo on those early albums, they didn’t even have the names of the people in the band; it was just Killing Joke and that’s all you needed to know and I loved that. It’s a funny story – when I was in Brain Brain, which was my first touring band with Martin Atkins, we’d be driving late at night and I’d be blasting tapes and he’d be like, ‘Who’s this?’ I’d be like, ‘It’s Killing Joke,’ and a little later, ‘Who’s this?’ ‘Oh, it’s Killing Joke.’ Like, that’s all I was listening to. He goes, ‘I think I met them in the PiL days,’ and then lo and behold, about a year later, he was drumming for them and that’s how I got the in. I told him that I was totally down and I got the opportunity… they offered it to me, and it was very challenging. I thought, ‘Oh, this will be easy. I know these songs. It’s punk rock, just make noise.’ No, they’re all very classically trained and very advanced songwriters and performers, and I was so honored to work with them in the studio and on tour.
I have to mention this, relating to what you said about being in the know about Killing Joke. When they opened for Tool back in November 2019, I was at the D.C. show on the final night of that tour, and I was literally (as far I could tell, and with the exception perhaps of the merch girl) the only person wearing a Killing Joke T-shirt.
: Some of the things I was picking up on was that I don’t think many Killing Joke fans can afford Tool tickets. A lot of the feedback that I got… Paul Ferguson posted some hilarious comments of Tool fans saying, ‘I checked out that band Killing Joke… they’re horrible. I can’t believe anybody’s ever bought their records. Yeah, let’s just go get a beer during that, it’s only 40 minutes, maybe go get a Tool shirt,’ and he would post these things. A lot of reviews were like, Killing Joke was so underrated, and it’s just too bad that they didn’t connect with the Tool fans like they hoped. It was still an amazing tour for them, no doubt, and I’m glad they did it. I feel like they really deserved it, I think – doing an arena tour in the U.S. for Killing Joke, even though maybe it didn’t get the attention that it deserved, I’m glad that it happened.
Some years ago, I’d had the opportunity to InterView Mike Garson, who is best known for his work with David Bowie, although he’s worked with numerous other people like Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt, and Nine Inch Nails. I’d asked him who other than Bowie had the biggest impact on him, and he said, ‘Well, it’s always going to be Bowie.’ It was obvious, but there was simply no other answer.
So, on that note, who would you say of all the bands you’ve worked with has had that sort of impact on you? Would it be Killing Joke?
: You mentioned Mike Garson. I just recently looked him up because a good friend was doing some work with him and mentioned him and the name didn’t jump right out at me, but I checked him out and I was like, ‘Yeah, very impressive.’ Okay well, I think you’ve already answered that question, and not to take anything away from any of the other bands I’ve worked with. I don’t think I would have been as prepared for any of these other challenges had I not worked with Killing Joke. I was a MINISTRY fan before I was in MINISTRY. I had heard Fear Factory and had been into them before I was in Fear Factory. Prong I was not as familiar with; that was a foray for me getting into metal because I was not really into metal. But honestly, Prong wasn’t necessarily a metal band when they first started; they very experimental and alternative. I don’t think they jumped in. When metal got big, I think the labels said, ‘Oh, you’re a metal band.’ We talked about labeling.
I think because of the passion that I had for Killing Joke and then working with them… Jaz was very demanding and had a very high standard, so I had to work harder, way harder than I had imagined to be in that band. At one point, I almost walked away; he was really abusive, he would kick and spit and throw things and push and shove. I kind of set boundaries – you can do whatever you want, just don’t touch me. I continued to work so hard that we would work all day in the studio and then I would go home and work all night. This was in London and I just never gave up. I wrote a journal and I would talk about… well, here’s a funny story. During that Brian Brain tour with Martin, Trent came out and played horns and he brought out some other friends with horns and they were our horn section on the Ohio dates. Trent had slipped Martin a demo tape, which he ultimately gave to Steve Gottlieb, which ultimately got Trent signed. I was doing music at that time and people were saying, ‘Hey, there’s this new band and it reminds me of the kind of stuff you’re doing – it’s called Nine Inch Nails.’ I picked it up and I was like, ‘It’s not really like what I’m doing, but it’s really cool.’ One of my friends from college, Charlie Clouser was at a party and I played him NIN, and he was like, ‘Eh, not feeling it.’ When I was waiting for the Killing Joke gig to happen, there was a year of downtime and it was unclear whether it was even going to happen. Martin told me, ‘Remember that guy Trent? He’s NIN.’ I didn’t make the connection; I just knew NIN, and he told me we had worked with him, he played horns with us. I’m like, ‘Oh, that guy.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, he’s looking for a keyboard player,’ so he put me in touch with John Malm and I sent them my bio and pictures, and they were like, ‘Yeah, you’re in man.’ So, for a few days, I was in NIN. This would have to be early 1990 during the Pretty Hate Machine
era. Then a few days later, they told me it’s not going to be happening. Back to Killing Joke, when I was in London and going through some of these struggles, I was thinking maybe I could still get that gig with NIN, and martin said that he’s no easier to work with than Jaz. So, I tossed it out and told myself, ‘Look, if I can do this, I can do anything. What am I going to do? Say I had an opportunity, but it was too tough and decided I couldn’t do that?’ Not me. So, I told these guys, ‘Look, I’m going to do everything, I’m going to do all the work necessary.’ I had some additional time to rehearse, which was beneficial.
After that, I never had to audition for a gig in my life. I just had to say I was in Killing Joke, and they were like, ‘You’re in.’ That would have to be the band. I had a whole new appreciation for their skills and Geordie is hands down the greatest guitar player ever. He’s so unique, the way he kind of bends the strings and the notes, the chords he uses… he can make it sound heavy and melodic at the same time. You’d think he had the multi-track to do that. No, he can do it all – one man with one guitar. Unbelievable!
That’s got to be it. Not to take away from Fear Factory, MINISTRY, and so many bands I’ve been so proud to be a part of.
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Ascension of the Watchers
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NUKES/No Devotion Records
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Studio Photography provided courtesy of John Bechdel and Kevin Snell (CHMCL STR8JCKT)
Live Photography by Tabetha Patton (MizTabby) and Fillip Poffe, courtesy of Side-Line Magazine (used with permission)