At the forefront of the ’90s alternative and industrial/rock scene was Stabbing Westward; now after a long absence, the band has reunited for a series of shows and festival dates. ReGen discusses with keyboardist Walter Flakus headlining ColdWaves, industrial music, and reviving Stabbing Westward.
An InterView with Walter Flakus of Stabbing Westward
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Initially formed in 1986 by Christopher Hall and Walter Flakus, Stabbing Westward would a decade later be at the forefront of the music landscape of the ’90s and early 2000s. Then compared to the likes of Nine Inch Nails and contemporaries like Filter and Gravity Kills, Stabbing Westward stood as a singular entity in the alternative and industrial/rock music scene, blending programmed rhythms and abrasive atmospheres with accessible song structures and lyrical modes that explored themes of heartache, depression, anger, and all manner of emotional turmoil. Signing to Columbia Records and releasing the Ungod debut in 1994, the band’s music would be heard in several prominent movie soundtracks, with the next album, 1996’s Wither Blister Burn & Peel propelling the band into the major leagues with top charting singles and MTV staples like “Shame” and “What Do I Have to Do?.” Darkest Days followed in 1998, reaching Gold status like its predecessor and unleashing the singles “Sometimes It Hurts,” “Haunting Me,” and “Save Yourself,” solidifying Stabbing Westward as a critical and commercial success. Changes in the lineup, record label, and management culminated in the self-titled 2001 album, which saw the band deviating from its industrial roots and favoring a less aggressive sound to explore the pop/rock accessibility that helped to define Stabbing Westward’s appeal, which unfortunately led to the band’s dissolution. Hall subsequently formed The Dreaming with onetime touring drummer Johnny Haro, exploring an electrified pop/rock sound hinted at on the last Stabbing Westward album, while the rest of the group went onto other creative pursuits over the years. Hall and Flakus would reemerge as a songwriting team following the latter joining The Dreaming in 2014, resulting in the highly acclaimed Rise Again, an album that many felt featured the original aggressive yet accessible spirit that defined Stabbing Westward. While on tour, The Dreaming performed at the Double Door in Chicago in the summer of 2015, with guitarist Mark Eliopulos joining the band during the encore to perform a set of the past band’s hits. The writing was on the wall, with Stabbing Westward appearing at the kick-off event to ColdWaves V in late 2015 and Dracula’s Ball in Philadelphia on Halloween, 2016. One of the headlining acts at this year’s ColdWaves VI in Chicago and ColdWaves L.A., Stabbing Westward embarked on a series of shows in the summer of 2017, with ReGen Magazine having the chance to catch up with the band at Baltimore’s Soundstage to speak with keyboardist Walter Flakus (with interjections from Eliopulos, Haro, and bassist Carlton Bost) about the band’s history and resurgence.
This wasn’t really a tour as much as it was a series of shows…
Flakus: Right, it was more of a series of shows, so we were doing weekends when we could, and everybody’s got other things going on. We really weren’t sure if this was going to work or if people still cared, so we’re just doing regional tours when we can and weekends; last night was the first night of this run in Cleveland, and that was a packed house with a great vibe. These shows have been great and I don’t think we’ve had a bad one yet.
As I’d mentioned earlier, I saw The Dreaming play in Chicago, and that was after you joined the band, and then for the encore, Mark came onstage and you performed Stabbing Westward’s hits.
Flakus: Yes, we did it in two halves, and it’s the only show we’ve ever done like that where we did The Dreaming stuff up front as an abbreviated set, and then when we came back onto the stage, we did Stabbing Westward songs, and that was the first time that Mark joined us…
Eliopulos: Yeah, and that was the first time we’d played together in like 17 years.
Flakus: That’s right, because you weren’t on the self-titled, which was the last Stabbing Westward record. So, it has been a long time.
Was that performance in any way an impetus for doing these shows?
Flakus: Well, it got the juices flowing because it was suddenly three original members, and then of course, Johnny played when Andy (Kubiszewski) broke his collarbone; he filled in for us on the Darkest Days tour for a whole summer, so effectively right now, we are 4/5 of the touring band from Darkest Days, and it felt really great. Everybody was getting along, but really, the genesis was that I was with Jason Novak, who puts on the ColdWaves festival, and we were at another show early last year, and he said that it was on his bucket list to have Stabbing Westward on ColdWaves, but he’d already announced the lineup for that year. I was like, ‘Well, that’s interesting because maybe there’s a way… what if we did a Stabbing Westward show for the pre-party kickoff, because I don’t know if anybody still cares about this,’ and what not, and maybe we could do something small. And the cool thing was it was for charity, which means it doesn’t have to be a success. And he said, ‘Really?’ So we explored that, and within a week, we put it together. When it was announced, it sold out in three minutes. I was not expecting that. I figured it would sell out by the time the show date would come around, but not that quickly. I was curious, so I tried to go online to buy the tickets – I couldn’t even get to the page before they were all gone. That was crazy! So we did that, and that show was amazing because here we are playing those songs for the first time in years, and so many people seemed to really, really care. The band has never played a set that long… ever! It was a great moment, and from that, we thought, ‘Well, we got this offer to do the Halloween show in Philly,’ and that was for Dracula’s Ball. So we did that, and thought, ‘Well, as long as people seem to care, then maybe we should just go and play some shows.’ The cool thing is now, it’s for fun. We don’t have to have hit singles on the radio and the pressure of making an album or having a single and all that kind of stuff. We can just do it because we like the songs, we like to play them, and people still seem to really care.
That does seem to be a pattern with some of the bands with a history coming back after a long absence. Gravity Kills got back together and have done shows and tours for some years, but has not released a new album. Front 242 has been doing that…
Flakus: Yeah, for decades. (Laughter)
With the way the market and the music industry is, does that also play a role in not necessarily needing to put out new music?
Flakus: My personal take is that I don’t know if anybody is looking for new music from Stabbing Westward. I think a lot of people like Stabbing Westward for what it was – those memories of growing up with the band when we were active before, and that’s what they want to relive now, and I get that and have no problem with that. I don’t know that anybody is looking for new music. For the ColdWaves compilation last year, we did toss out ‘Plastic Jesus,’ which was not necessarily a new song, but it was never released and it was totally redone, and we played that at Double Door, and that’s the only time that song’s ever been played live. There will be a new ColdWaves compilation this year, and there might be something on that.
Regarding ColdWaves, you played the kick-off party last year, headlining the Friday night of ColdWaves VI in Chicago, and performing at ColdWaves Los Angeles. Obviously, it’s for charity, but you’ve also played Dracula’s Ball and other festivals… what was it about ColdWaves that you as a band personally connected with?
Flakus: I love the charity angle. I think Jamie Duffy was a beloved figure in the music community in Chicago, and thinking about it this year with losing Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington to suicide… the music business can suck! It can be really tough, and we need to let people know that it doesn’t have to be that way and that we care about each other. That’s the beautiful thing about ColdWaves; when you go to a ColdWaves show, you feel that sense of community. You feel that sense that everybody’s there to support everybody, nobody is lesser than another person, and I love that vibe – trying to create something positive out of something as tragic as Jamie’s death. To be able to be a part of that and to have that community who likes our music and to share that is a really strong appeal.
As far as us playing again this year, I’d even said to Jason, ‘Really? You want us to come back? We just played the kick-off, why don’t we wait a year?’ For us, I grew up with WaxTrax! and everything that was industrial, so that’s my backbone and where I come from, and Christopher of course grew up with me listening to that stuff. We always wanted to be part of that, and we’d send tapes to Jim Nash and when we’d go to WaxTrax! and Frankie (Nardiello – a.k.a. Groovie Mann) would listen to our stuff from behind the counter, and we always wanted to be part of that crowd. We ended up getting signed to Columbia largely because they were looking for their Nine Inch Nails. That’s fine; we fit the bill, we got signed, and we made the most of it because we ended up with two gold records after that. But we never really felt like we were accepted by the industrial community that we loved and grew up in, so now to be on Metropolis with The Dreaming records and to play ColdWaves, suddenly…
It does feel like after 20 years, people are accepting it.
Flakus: It does! It does feel like we have a higher level of acceptance than what it was, and it’s pretty fulfilling for me on a personal level.
I’d had that discussion several times, and it seemed like there was that group of people who were saying, ‘Oh, Stabbing Westward isn’t real industrial,’ or ‘Gravity Kills isn’t real industrial,’ and that sort of thing.
Flakus: They along with us; we felt like outcasts for whatever the reason was, but obviously, the people bought the records. But it’s cool now to have people come out and have us on one night, Front 242 on the second, KMFDM on the third… it just feels like we’re finally part of this thing we’ve always loved.
You’d mentioned earlier that everybody in the band has other things going on – I know that Carlton seems to be in several bands at any given time, and you and Christopher (and Johnny) have The Dreaming, and I know he’s done guest vocals on some other projects. What else do you have going on when Stabbing Westward is not at the forefront of your attentions?
Flakus: The toughest thing is to juggle it with the thing that actually makes money these days, which for me is radio. I’m on the air and music director of the alternative radio station in Chicago, so that eats up an enormous amount of time. On top of everything I do there, when I have free time to lend to this, I have to take time off from the day gig to be able to do these tours. I know Marcus has a little one that he looks after, so that eats up a lot of his energy.
Eliopulos: Yeah, I’m Mr. Mom over here.
Flakus: And that’s the same with Christopher. Johnny is selling vacuums to the stars.
Haro: He’s not lying.
I didn’t think that he was.
Flakus: We were just talking about people he’s sold vacuums to.
Eliopulos: Yeah, he has a pretty good celebrity roster of clients.
Flakus: We all have lots of other things that occupy our time, and it’s hard to say whether it would be fulfilling to actually jump in a bus and do this for six weeks straight over and over and over again like we used to. I don’t know if that’s appealing. But it’s fun to play these shows…
Well, there has to be some kind of appeal, of course.
Flakus: Oh, this is totally a blast! Nothing beats being onstage in front of people who really give it back for the songs that you’ve created.
Working in radio, you must have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on musically today. What are your thoughts on the state of music today?
Flakus: Well, everything is cicular… uh, circular, secular?
Bost: I think you mean sexy.
Eliopulos: (Quoting Spinal Tap) What’s wrong with being sexy?
Did you mean cyclical?
Flakus: Yes, cyclical, so things come and go, and I think right now, things have been in a pop mode as far as popular alternative music. Everybody says that they want guitars to come back, but I don’t know that the audience is demanding that right now…
I like the guitars.
Eliopulos: So do I. (Laughter)
Flakus: It’s hard to say; it’s a different world now. There are people who will call up and request Stabbing Westward. I actually had a guy call up a couple of weeks ago, and he said, ‘Hey, I’d really like to hear something from Stabbing Westward.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ (Laughter) ‘Well, what song would you like?’ He said, ”Save You?” ‘Oh, you mean, ‘Save Yourself.’ Yeah, let me see if I can put that in for you.’ (Laughter) I played that back on the air, and I was thinking, ‘I wonder if he knew,’ or ‘should I have told him?’ I had a lot of people text me after that saying, ‘That was hysterical!’ But that’s a good example, because I don’t think the guy did know that I was in the band; people out there still care and make the requests.
This brings up a sort of silly question, because ColdWaves not only brings back a lot of long absent bands but also showcases newer bands, and there does seem to be a resurgence and a greater appreciation of the older sounds of ‘industrial.’ What are your thoughts on industrial music today?
Flakus: I will be bluntly honest in that I am not up to speed. When it comes to new stuff, I spend all my energy on the radio station, and being the music director and being alternative, I always try to be on the forefront, but I’m always thinking at the forefront of what is going to be popular on the radio. I hate to say that, but I don’t listen with those kinds of ears anymore; I listen with a more commercialized lean.
Does that factor into your own songwriting?
Flakus: I think… not really. I think my writing has always had a bit of a pop sensibility to it; that may have been one of the things that made us accessible and give us that radio success. Not just me – Christopher has it, Andy has it, Mark… I’m not so sure about him.
Eliopulos: No. (Laughter) I listen to math rock.
Eliopulos: Oh yeah, that kind of stuff.
Flakus: Maybe I’ll hear some tricks in the production that I’ll try to incorporate.
It does seem that industrial music pioneered a lot of production techniques, different kinds of songwriting, mixing, etc., and now so much of that is part of the landscape of mainstream pop and alternative music. There are alt. rock bands now that seem to incorporate technology in the same ways that Stabbing Westward did 20 years ago.
Flakus: Yeah, industrial is always going to be the bastard stepchild, and I think we all want it to be. But you’re absolutely right, and a lot of people have taken those tricks and a lot of production that is done these days stems off from what we and those guys were doing all those years ago.
And then, not unlike what’s going on with ColdWaves, there are the older bands coming back, like Stabbing Westward, and some that are still going strong and releasing new music. KMFDM just released a new album, about to tour with ohGr, and ohGr and Skinny Puppy are still releasing new music…
Flakus: Carlton, do you want to jump in on this?
Bost: Eh… I tend to gravitate to older Puppy myself, but that’s because when you’re younger, music attaches itself to your soul more.
Flakus: Did you say ‘Older Puppy?’ Because Puppy means young.
Bost: Well, I did actually see Youth Code with Skinny Puppy, and that was a good show.
Flakus: That’s another thing I do love about ColdWaves is that they do offer up that chance to see some of these younger industrial bands. I look at the bill and I don’t know who any of these acts are, and there are some that I saw at the show last time and I can’t remember their names, but I was like, ‘Wow, this is great!’
The Dreaming also just released a remix album; for you, Johnny, Christopher, what are the differences in terms of how you approach the music, especially since there was such a divide…
Flakus: In time?
Flakus: For me, there really isn’t a difference, because having not been in The Dreaming for the first couple of records that when I came back into the fold, I approached it just like writing a song with Christopher, which I have done for 30 years. It was just like riding a bike, that feeling of, ‘Oh, I remember working with this guy.’ We feed off of each other pretty easily, and the only thing that was different was the technology, because he lives in Los Angeles, and I live in Chicago, so there was a lot of DropBoxing. You know, put in this track, check it out… it works.
You brought up the technology, so for you as the keyboardist…
Flakus: Oh, it’s completely different than what it was. Back in the day, I’d have to have racks of samplers and bring out all these different synths and stuff; now, it’s all on the laptop. I think for touring, it makes all the sense in the world. When you’re in the studio, of course you want the toys and to be able to twist some knobs and have fun creating sounds. But here, when you can put it all on a computer, hop on a plane and fly to Texas and do a bunch of shows with a computer in my backpack and a keyboard in the case, it’s pretty easy.
So, what’s next for you?
Flakus: Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen here. With Stabbing Westward, we’re going to do this run of shows, and then the ColdWaves shows, and then we’ll do a west coast run in November. People are asking us all the time, and as long as they are, there might be something there for us to continue to do. As far as The Dreaming goes, we’ve been working on new music for the past year and we need to focus and squeeze that through. There will probably be a new record from The Dreaming in the next 12 months or so.
ReGen is a 100% volunteer run publication. However, there are costs involved in running a website - we need your help! Please donate so that we may continue to provide the best possible content to ReGenerate Your Mind!