Megan Walters sits down with various members of the Chicago collective known as The Joy Thieves to gain some further insight into the collaborative spirit that drives this enigmatic and energetic musical entity.
An InterView with Dan Milligan, Matthew Clark, James Scott, Mimi Wallman, Eric Liljehorn, Mike Reidy, and Chris Connelly of The Joy Thieves
By Megan Walters (MWalters)
In the short space of a year-and-a-half, the Chicago industrial and alt. rock collective known as The Joy Thieves has been on rapidly rising trajectory. Releasing the This Will Kill That debut EP, followed by the Cities in Dust EP, the band was already presenting a collaborative versatility and eccentricity that is rarely heard outside the Windy City music scene. Members of MINISTRY, Revolting Cocks, CHANT, W.O.R.M., I Ya Toyah, Stabbing Westward, Marilyn Manson, Blue October, 16volt, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and so many more have thrown their hands into the creative brew that is The Joy Thieves, and with the March 2020 release of A Blue Girl, and today’s release of the new Genocide Love Song EP, there seems to be no stopping the band’s aggressive momentum. In this special contribution to ReGen Magazine, writer Megan Walters sits down with various members of the group to discuss just what it means to be a Joy Thief and what keeps the flames of creative energy burning so brightly; producer/songwriter/drummer Dan Milligan even hijacks the InterView at one point, gaining further insight not just for us but for himself as to what makes these musicians tick, and shedding a blinding light on the social and political climate during the COVID-19 crisis.
You’ve released two brand new EPs in the past two months. Can you tell me a little bit about them?
What inspired you to release Genocide Love Song just two months after you released A Blue Girl?
Milligan: Two weeks ago, my uncle was diagnosed with COVID-19. I found myself feeling extremely angry about it, because his infection was a direct result of the policies (or lack thereof) of the state where he was living. Iowa’s governor downplayed the severity of the situation from the very beginning, and the result was that cases of COVID-19 were exploding across Eastern Iowa, making it the area of the country with the fastest growing rate of COVID-19 cases. When Iowa’s governor went as far as to threaten the workers of Iowa to return to their jobs (many of which were completely unsafe) or risk losing their unemployment benefits, I just started to snap. It is completely clear to me that these short-sighted acts by the state were absolutely responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak that ultimately took my uncle’s life.
I reached out to Chris Connelly, who was also feeling infuriated by this deadly trickle-down that faces our country. And like he does, he completed the song I had sent to him by writing and recording the vocals for what became ‘Genocide Love Song.’ It felt important to release it as soon as possible, so that’s what we did.
Now that you have had four releases, what advantages/drawbacks have you discovered from working as a big collective, rather than a four- or five-piece band?
Scott: I agree with Dan. The collective approach has worked out incredibly well; more so than I would have thought. It has been overwhelmingly positive. All of the contributors seem to have put their best feet forward in terms of creative output, engineering skills, and attitude. With this amount of people involved, you would expect there to be a stick in the mud, but that just hasn’t been the case!
Clark: I love the push. When I hear what another Thief did and it kicks my ass, I want to kick its ass! Many of us have worked together for years… a lot of years in many different ways. I am pretty sure that we all make each other a little bit better.
Does this method imbue the music with anything special?
Milligan: This is a tough one, because for better or worse, it is simply the way the music was made. The end result couldn’t have been created any other way. So, I suppose the answer is yes. The method itself became the ‘special sauce.’
Clark: I literally just try to do my job. I don’t focus on the final outcome. It really is so nice to be part of a project where everyone else does their job as well.
Do you think your listeners will notice this?
Milligan: In one way, I hope so… and in another way, I hope not. Obviously, I want people to connect with the music The Joy Thieves make, and to notice how many different people came together to create it. But it has always been my goal to have The Joy Thieves sound like one cohesive unit, which can be tricky when you have this many people involved.
Clark: I just like throwing Dan curveballs to keep life interesting. I am sure he appreciates it!
There is an overall cohesive sense of nihilism in the lyrics. Is this a deliberate group expression, or maybe just a common theme on people’s minds?
Milligan: For the most part, I have very little to do with the lyrical end of things. There are so many Joy Thieves who write lyrics so well, so I tend to leave that in their capable hands.
From my viewpoint, it’s about half-and-half. As we create, there are rarely any preconceived notions about things we want to write about. So, in that sense I’d say that it was simply something that was on everyone’s minds individually. On the other hand, I selected these particular songs to be released together as one musical statement, because they just truly seemed to belong together. So, looking back… that may have been my contribution towards that result.
I’m really curious what each lyricist will say about this! James? Mimi? Matt? Eric? Mike? Actually, hold on one minute. While we’re here, I have a few questions for them myself! I’m going to hijack this interview for a minute, Megan! You don’t mind, do you?
(Dan Milligan takes over)
James, talk to me a little about your lyrics for ‘Destroy.’ The only thing I truly know about that is that you and Destiny wrote and recorded it together one night at your studio. Any light you’d like to shed on that song?
Mimi, what was the inspiration for your lyrics for ‘The Capsule Answer?’ You seem to have taken several topics and knitted them together into one narrative, which I love. How did these topics initially tie together in your brain?
Matt, I imagine most people will be curious if ‘A Blue Girl’ was written about anyone in particular. Care to talk about that? You also created the vocals for the bridge section with the help of our friend, Lana Guerra… tell us how that happened.
Eric, a while back (on the way to one of the many concerts we’ve gone to together over the years), you explained the term ‘Dysfunction Masturbation’ to me… tell everyone what that term means to you and why you chose it as a topic for a Joy Thieves song.
Liljehorn: I don’t know the lyrics for the other songs, of course, but I would not label ‘Dysfunction Masturbation’ as nihilist. I’m actually quite the opposite spiritually. I do disavow to any religion however, and that’s what the song speaks to. ‘I’ve made my own religion’ is my way of saying I’m not in your religion. And I tend to learn, as many do, by repeatedly making mistakes, which I associate with both dysfunction and masturbation – something you would love to be able to stop doing, but can’t.
Mike, you wrote and recorded the vocals for ‘Dead Weight’ quite a while ago, but what do you remember about the inspiration for the writing of that song? I don’t think I ever told you this, but we purposefully chose ‘Dead Weight’ to be the very last song on ‘A Blue Girl’ because even though it contains a lot of desperation, it also seems to end on a note of optimism. Do you agree with that, or no?
Reidy: I was actually on a weekend run playing some shows in the Midwest. Dan had given me the track a few weeks before and I had given it a few listens. So, I figured what’s better inspiration than being on the road. Watching the scenery race by at 80mph gets you thinking.
The lyrics came from thinking about my own personal situations going on in life, and watching that American landscape pass by me and thinking of all the millions of people along the way who are going through their own things. We all have issues. But it always seems that nobody gives a damn.
But somebody does. You. Otherwise you wouldn’t have had the thought. Sometimes you find yourself in a place so dark, you know you never want to go back. Yet somehow you find yourself there and you finally come to a point where you have to let go of the things that keep dragging you back there. That comes to the realization you can’t lie to yourself or to another individual. So, it’s best to come clean, drop the dead weight, and move on.
And yeah, the lyrics definitely came from a dark place. But the resolution is more of an optimistic one. You’re only truly free when you let go of everything.
Okay, Megan. You can have your interview back now!
(Megan resumes the InterView)
This is the first time Joy Thieves have done anything overtly political. What’s the driving force behind suddenly going in this direction?
Scott: I would feel like a bit of a fraud if we didn’t have any political leanings on this record. Now is not the time to remain silent. In times of upheaval and division, art has played an important role in advancing the public discourse by challenging the status quo. I feel that we have lent our voices in support of those fighting for a more just society on this record.
Clark: I can’t write political… even when I was in L.A. and roommates with D.H. Peligro of the Dead Kennedys (most political band ever?), we talked political and played KISS songs. Not my gig in songwriting; glad someone else covered that base! See, everyone has a job!
What’s the most surprising thing about you?
Milligan: Hmm. This is probably a question that’s best answered by someone who is not me.
I think many people are quite surprised when I tell them how truly introverted I am. When you picture a person who makes their living performing on a stage, I think most people just naturally assume that that person is completely extroverted, and that they desperately crave the spotlight. In reality, I am the exact opposite.
How many cartwheels can you do in a row?
Milligan: I haven’t done a cartwheel since it was one of the requirements for the mandatory ‘gymnastics’ portion of the P.E. program at Franklin Middle School, so I’m going to go with zero. This is even more true, because there’s no way I would even try these days. I mean, I’m 6’5″. If it went off the rails, it could be really destructive.
Clark: How drunk am I?
For Dan, have your insect nightmares diminished since ‘Honeycomb and Silk?’
Milligan: Thanks for asking, Megan! Actually, after having them for several years in a row, I haven’t had even one since the release of This Will Kill That last year!
Also, how often do you bump your head walking through doorways?
Milligan: Most of the time, I’m okay, but it’s those older houses and buildings you have to watch out for! Those doors, and ceilings are just so short compared to how they build them now.
And since you mentioned, I did bump my head on an airplane door last week.
For Chris, your lyrics are almost always so obtuse that it’s difficult to get a sense of what you’re actually thinking about at the time, but ‘Badlander’ has a noticeable feeling of pessimism and contempt. Were you trying to get your emotions through in a more direct way with this song? Can you control how well your message comes across in your lyrics?
Connelly: I will say this, that the ‘Badlander’ is an antagonist who occupies the ‘badland,’ but would not exist outside of it; could not… like a parasite that exists solely because it can thrive in the toxic environment in which it was created.
‘Badlands’ are defined as a type of dry terrain with particular forms caused by erosion. What is the connection between the terrain and being a ‘Badlander?’
Connelly: We poets have to think of new ways to write about the same shit all the time; ever since there was a hierarchy. I am quite pleased with myself that I can keep reproaching. I notice that I am an observer in the lyric, and that was not a conscious writing choice. I actually pictured myself in the ‘arena’ if you like, also trying not to be noticed. The ‘Badlander’ is male, alpha male – predator and fearsome. But I also notice how I ‘decorated’ the set. It’s detailed. I threw in a church just to get a dig in at the Catholics, and that sort of failed establishment that is still so buoyant!
Ever been to a region considered a Badland?
Connelly: Observe – the whole song is viewed through a mirror by the observer, in an attempt to not look the antagonist in the eye.
The Joy Thieves banner photo by Matt Gerber, courtesy of The Joy Thieves
“A Blue Girl” video and stills by Erik Gustafson – courtesy of Erik Gustafson Cinematography, and Joel Lopez – coutesy of Lumbra Records