May 2020 15

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?

Milligan: Absolutely, Megan. The first one was A Blue Girl, which is The Joy Thieves’ second EP of all original material. It was released on March 13, which unfortunately happened to coincide with the weekend that the entire world had to go on lockdown thanks to COVID-19 – certainly not the ideal date for a new release, but that’s just how it happened! I consider A Blue Girl to be a companion piece to This Will Kill That, but it has a much larger lineup that includes people who have played with bands like MINISTRY, Revolting Cocks, Nitzer Ebb, KMFDM, Stabbing Westward, Marilyn Manson, and many, many more.
Today, we released the Genocide Love Song EP. It is one brand new song, along with a remix we did for it, and two remixes from songs that appeared on A Blue Girl – ‘I Blew a New Girl’ is a remix of ‘A Blue Girl’ by Howie Beno and Brandt Gassman, and ‘The Badlander’ Chib mix by Gordon Young.

 

 

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?

Milligan: As the ringleader, I’m in a very different position than most of the other Joy Thieves… but for me, it’s been almost exclusively advantages. In your standard four- or five-piece band, no matter how talented each member is, your resources are limited. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in a shapeshifting musical conglomeration like this, it’s a plus. At this point, there are between 35-40 Joy Thieves, and every single one of them brings something worthwhile and valuable to the table. So for me, being able to mix and match the skill sets of each of those people is kind of a creative person’s dream come true!
If I was forced to name a drawback, I guess I would say that occasionally, keeping track of all of the moving parts becomes a little overwhelming. That being said, it’s totally worth it.

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?

Scott: That’s right. Shortly after you, Destiny, and I had our initial meeting to discuss the beginnings of The Joy Thieves project, you sent me a couple of rough song sketches. Both Destiny (my wife, The Joy Thieves art director, and general all around badass) and I really gravitated towards the music that eventually became ‘Destroy.’ We decided one evening to get a little drunk and have a writing session to see what we could come up with. We initially started with some lyrics that she had been messing around with, but something that she had written sparked our political ire and we followed that muse. It was born out of frustration, horror, and our punk rock roots of pushing back against authority figures that try to legislate our personal lives.
I wouldn’t necessarily classify ‘Destroy’ as nihilist, but more of a protest song, calling out the current administration on their shortsighted, malevolent actions, and oh boy, things have not improved since writing that song. We decided not to pull any punches and call out the hubris, racism, misogyny, complete lack of empathy for the less fortunate, I could go on and on. Essentially, it became a protest song for 2020, and we’re proud of that. I do feel that it ultimately is a hopeful anthem promoting unity and looking forward to a future where hatefulness is no longer glorified.

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?

Wallman: I’m glad you noticed, Dan! (winks) When you came along with The Joy Thieves project, I had just gotten out of a terrible job in a corporate psych hospital (that shall remain nameless!) where I witnessed the horrible treatment of sick people who were shown no dignity and sometimes kept longer than they need be, imprisoned. I took the job because I bought the mission and drank the HR Kool-Aid, unfortunately, being an optimist who wants to leave it better than I found it. That system often wants to just throw pills at everything, but not everything needs a pill. Sometimes it’s a lack of love and support in the home. Sometimes it’s a normal person responding to extraordinary circumstances. Sometimes it’s a person caught in a culture that is unwilling to let them go, because they bully them into giving up their disability check when they get out. And yeah, sometimes it’s a person that needs that pill. But all of these people need their dignity when they’re being treated.
My theory was that the understaffing (which is rampant in healthcare) was the main source of the problem which caused job burnout, and workers to not perform their duties in a matter that gives people respect, even when they’re sick. Then I started thinking about what was happening in our country. How immigrants were being treated, and how people were treating one another. Prisons of every kind. Sometimes it can make a person want to escape the madness – ‘Here, take the Capsule Answer.’
A capsule is something that is a container, like a Pandora’s box, if you will. Whatever is inside can either help to heal you or take you down. That’s kind of why I stuck in the ‘good fences’ thing, which hearkens to the kids in cages and the Mexican border wall. That line comes from a favorite poem of mine called ‘The Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost. He asks if it is the fences that make us good neighbors, or are you a good neighbor by making that fence so that we can preserve each other’s sovereignty in our home? This idea that boundaries are both good and bad sometimes – it’s very much a paradox… like life is.
Personally, I think it’s very good to have boundaries. When one is a person in a psych hospital, alone and scared, it’s hard to have one’s own boundaries with people who are trying to help you. And when some of those people don’t give you the dignity you need, you don’t trust them. I saw it over and over and over, and it broke my heart. I had to get out of there. It was like a prison. When a child in pediatrics got a phone call from a parent, the hall worker would scream out their name and say, ‘STEP OUT!’ like they are in prison. These were children. Just awful. The good people don’t always outnumber the jerks. Sometimes you have to save yourself.
Anyway, then I started playing with that whole dichotomy of dark and light and some of the darkest parts of history. Like the ‘good Germans’ in Nazi Germany who turned in the Jews to their ultimate deaths, which made me think of the Russians who were interfering with our election process. And they made ‘good (bad!!! – this is high sarcasm!) press.’ And I really like that word ‘press,’ because it means pushing into a medium of some kind… like pushing buttons into the medium of the American mind with their fake news, ultimately pressing our fear buttons. It’s such an easy device for a country of people who have unexamined lives.
So yeah, when this opportunity came along, you caught me at a moment, friend. And I was happy to open the gasket and unleash the Kraken of frustration that I had bottled up inside of me for six months! Enjoy!

 

 

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.

Clark: Wow. This is a story. Ready?
A few years back I went to Dr. Sick’s (from The Squirrel Nut Zippers) wedding in NOLA with my lady at the time, Katzen Hobbes of the 999 Freakshow & The Human Marvels. She is still a great friend of mine. In fact, she is a Joy Thief, and she plays violin on an upcoming Joy Thieves song I sing with Phildo from The Skatenigs.
This was the first time I had met Dr. Sick and his new wife, but Katzen used to live there, and she is fairly recognizable, so we just kept getting hooked up. We even had access to the Country Club (no longer clothing optional… hmm). She was playing some shows with Lana, and we were having fun, so we decided to stay through Halloween (no brainer). Lana lives in NOLA, so this is how we met.
Fast forward. Katzen had a tattoo studio in my recording studio in Austin, Texas (totally legal I am sure). Lana came into town to visit and get a tat from Kat. I was laying vocals for ‘A Blue Girl’ and had I tried so many ideas for the bridge – guitar solos, poetry, screams… I hated it all! Lana has a very unique voice, so I said, ‘Get behind the mic and pretend you are my woman and you walked in on me fucking your best friend. I mean really fucking your best friend.’
That’s how that happened.
Same with Taylor from Purple & Black Syrup. He had just stopped by the studio and I handed him a guitar and said do something that is not in my wheelhouse. I think his guitar line is the major hook of the song – fucking organic!
Now lyrics? It’s a hybrid of two songs I wrote in the bad place (prison). Yup, I did some time, wrote some songs and authored a book. The irony is that I pulled those lyrics from two very pretty acoustic tunes – ‘A Blue Girl’ and ‘The Motion Where You Sometimes Ache.’ And yes, there is a blue girl… she was never mine.

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?

Milligan: Fringe types of music always seem to flourish during conservative political times. So, after the 2016 U.S. election, I found myself eagerly awaiting the arrival of a surge of anti-authoritarian, cutting edge new music. That summer and fall also happened to be when I was writing much of the music that would become the musical blueprint for The Joy Thieves. And while I can’t say that I was thinking about politics while I was writing that music, I do believe that the unsettling feeling of the time was informing many of the creative choices I was making.
In general, I’m not a political person. In fact, I had never released anything even mildly political before 2016. However, as I embarked on this new project, I made the decision to not avoid the topic any longer. Again, typically I don’t involve myself with the lyric writing process. But whereas in the past I might have steered a co-writer away from something overtly political, I decided to embrace it.
‘Destroy,’ the opening song of A Blue Girl is definitely the most political song we have released to date. And although it is just being released now, it was one of the very first songs we recorded. I’m not exactly sure why we waited to release it, other than it just felt right having it open up this particular collection of songs.

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
Website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube
Armalyte Industries
Website, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, YouTube

 

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

 

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