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Tom & Donny, Head for Potatoes

I will get to the title in a wee bit, it’s worth the wait (sort of). I first met Bill Rieflin very briefly at Southern Studios in 1987, the day I also met Al Jourgenson and Paul Barker. But it was not until later that year, in the summer when I was staying at Julia Nash’s apartment in rehearsals for the (Rieflin-titled) “YOU GODDAM SON OF A BITCH” double live album by the Revolting Cocks that our friendship began. He was at the kitchen table, and though we did not know each other, we started talking as if we were picking up a conversation we had finished earlier. It was about, of all things, the experimental band THIS HEAT. I just blithely assumed that everyone knew this band that I adored, and, well, it seems I was right. We even discussed THIS HEAT bootlegs, then moved on to more general matters, like JOHN GREAVES, bass player from HENRY COW, like you do…

I cannot say that I had no idea we would have a musical relationship that would stretch over three decades—I knew right then that we would. A deep, close friendship that was as easy as it was fun, goofy and inspiring.

In the context of Ministry and Revolting Cocks, Bill was vital: not only as a calm voice of reason, but as an innovator, a catalyst during impasse and a calming presence in the eye of a frequent storm. If it was not for him, I probably would have become a drug addict. He reminded me, without ever saying anything, that the CREATIVE part was always the FUN part, and if it did not seem like fun, we could make it fun. And he did, and we did. Bill taught me how to look at the creative process not as a lateral story with a beginning middle and end; he taught me to ask questions OF the process, he taught me dynamic, when to make it loud, and when to remain silent. He also knew how to bring humour into any given situation.

When we were in rehearsals for “THE MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO TASTE” in 1989, we were sitting at Paul Barker’s living room table as he patiently taught me the keyboards to the song “DEITY” which was part of the live set. Rewinding the cassette over and over, we became very curious about the opening line Al sings in the song (which is, in fact, “eyes open, empty as halos”, but we didn’t know that, and Al was not there to ask). We decided that the opening line was, in fact, “TOM & DONNY, HEAD FOR POTATOES”, thus, the creation of our alter egos: TOM & DONNY. We never really decided who was Tom and who was Donny; they were kind of a singular entity for any and all hi jinx that may ensue.

As time passed, it became clear that our musical partnership could not be contained simply within the confines of Ministry, The Cocks and the numerous other projects it spawned. Things started to gain more of a shape for us with my first solo album in 1990, “WHIPLASH BOYCHILD”, on which Bill contributed so much, but I think the defining moment was the song “THE LAST OF JOY” which started as a beautiful piano melody he had written, to which I wrote some words. It was Bill’s idea to put some “crackles” on it: scratchy record crackles… so we went to the local Salvation Army (on Halsted Street), bought the first 78 record we saw (polkas!) and took it back to the studio, playing this record that looked like it had been dragged across a construction site by a dog on the studio’s own VERY high-end turntable, all in the name of art, it sounded perfect. It was at this time that I introduced Bill to the music of SCOTT WALKER when I asked him to learn “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg” (from the album SCOTT 2) with a view to putting it on “Whiplash”. This would become an obsession for the two of us.

Bill was there to coach me through relationships, hardships and breakups; he never judged, he listened, his patience with me immeasurable. He taught me things about music theory to help me compose, he gave me more eureka moments than I can remember, he taught me to own what I did, be proud of how I created, and he also took ideas and cast them in his own brilliant light, yielding some of my proudest compositional co-writes.

The two works that stand out to me are SHIPWRECK and LARGO. Both very different records, but both an amazing adventure in creativity from beginning to end. SHIPWRECK was a band effort, though most of the compositions were mine, we booked two straight weeks for rehearsals and preproduction before setting foot in the studio. The work was hard, but it was not like a Ministry record; it never got frustrating. The days were long, but they were filled with what you wanted to be doing, and everyone walked out of that studio so proud of what we had done. That record still stands up today, and I still get amazing compliments about it.

LARGO was born out of SHIPWRECK in a way, if circuitously, after a disastrous tour for SHIPWRECK (not because of the band or the music, just stupid record company and booking agency crap, the usual). We scurried home to lick our wounds and I was at an impasse, the music business was changing, my record company was in decline because of the heartbreaking demise of its founder, Jim Nash. Bill invited me out to Seattle to write, and LARGO was born. Hilariously though, his intention, and ergo mine, was to make this brilliantly polished pop record… if you have heard LARGO, you will understand that whatever our intentions at the outset, this is not what happened. The title track clocks in at about 50 BPM and is around 8 minutes long, a sedate meditation of disquiet on guitar and piano. It was almost as if we were determined to anger any Ministry fans with no attention span as much as we could. But, as with everything, we had no intentions of anything; if we had set off to write a slapstick comedy script for a movie, then, LARGO would have come out the other end as it was: stoic, austere, challenging and beautiful.

We spent weeks in Bill’s parents’ house with an upright piano and my guitar. We made exquisite corpses with chords and with words: there were days when it was harder, there were days of ferocious creativity, but all these sounds seemed to grow organically through us from this absolute silence. We wrote the album and we would not record it for a while: I left it to Bill to mix, because it’s not my thing, and I KNEW that he KNEW that it would be incredible.

During the composition and the recording of this, I stayed with him and his wife, Francesca. These were wonderful times, games, talks, long dinners, long walks that almost persuaded me to move to Seattle.

Things changed for us: we both became involved in other projects, our friendship remained strong and involved. He would continue to help me out with my records here and there, and he would come passing through with bands he was playing with: KMFDM and then R.E.M. and eventually KING CRIMSON.

The hardest thing for me was how his illness made it progressively harder for him to play until he could not do it. We resolved, some time last year, that I would come out and we would write, unfortunately his fatigue from fighting and from chemo and his pain made this impossible. But we talked when he was up for it: we talked about the records we loved, we talked about MOTT THE HOOPLE and ROXY MUSIC. He still laughed, he still put on his silly voices and made me laugh, his sarcasm and cynicism were, as always, on point as was his love for me, and mine for him.

Bill recognized something in me and not only did he bring it out, but he embellished it, as I think I saw in him too. I LOVE that we got to make this beautiful music together, and I am so grateful that this happened in my life. I am heartbroken that I will not get to do it with him again, but I still have the gifts he gave me that I use in my creative process every day. What a beautiful, kindhearted soul.

Release date for ‘The Heart Has to Ache Before It Learns to Beat’ announced, autographed copies available

Chris is happy to announce that THE HEART HAS TO ACHE BEFORE IT LEARNS TO BEAT will finally be available on March 31, 2020.

Forty years, twenty solo albums, numerous musical collaborations — this book contains the lyrics and poems to over 350 works, with a foreword by Shirley Manson.

To celebrate, Chris will autograph copies of the book for a limited time. Orders are being taken at Bandcamp, and books will start shipping before the retail sale date at the end of the month.

Buy Now via Bandcamp

ISBN 978-0-9664065-7-3
Paperback, 456 pages, published by Shipwrecked Industries.

‘Sleeping Partner’ Released, New Book to Follow

On November 11th, 2019 — Chris’s 55th birthday — he releases a new album, Sleeping Partner, in digital download and limited edition CD formats on Armalyte Industries.

Get Sleeping Partner

The track listing for the album:

  1. Maria Imbrium
  2. Picassa
  3. The Sun Is A Maze
  4. Obsession Stares Back
  5. Private Screening
  6. The Belonging
  7. Young Magician
  8. The Black Hive
  9. L.W.W.

And bonus remixes:

  1. Picassa (Fantome Tranquile Remix by Dan Milligan)
  2. The Sun Is A Maze (M-Descent Remix by Dan Milligan)

Also soon to be available is Chris’s book of lyrics and poems, The Heart Has to Ache Before It Learns to Beat, in paperback and digital download formats from Shipwrecked Industries. The book will include lyrics including those for Sleeping Partner, and other collaborative works of 2019.

Announcing The Heart Has to Ache Before It Learns to Beat

Coming November 11 2019, the publication of THE HEART HAS TO ACHE BEFORE IT LEARNS TO BEAT from Shipwrecked Industries, a four-decade retrospective of lyrics and poetry by Chris Connelly.

This book comes two decades after Chris’s last volume of poetry, Confessions of the Highest Bidder, was published, and brings together more early works, collaborations, and obscure, long-hidden gems, as well as his work with Ministry, The Revolting Cocks, Cocksure… and, of course, every solo album.

The book has a beautifully written foreword by Shirley Manson, one of Chris’s oldest and closest friends, and cover photography by Michael Begg.

ISBN and pre-order links will be available in early November — watch this space for more information.

Death It to Love

“Five tracks inspired by artists or artwork I have seen in the last year,” is how Chris explains his latest digital and limited-edition cassette release. “There are a lot of sounds recorded on location in Scotland, including a piano I recorded at the Museum of Transport in Glasgow.”

  1. New Tendencies
  2. Candid
  3. Graspering Whisp
  4. Mothmeister
  5. Saliva Beach (Death It to Love 2020)

Released by No Devotion Records.

Buy from Bandcamp

Be KIND, get Borderless Lullabies

Out today, 4 July 2019, is a special project to benefit Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), which works to ensure that unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in the United States have legal representation in their deportation proceedings.

Chris has contributed an original song called “Waiting for Clouds” to this album, on which Chris Bruce also performs.

You can help KIND ensure that no child stands in court alone by purchasing the digital album on Bandcamp.

Buy on Bandcamp

2018 in Review

Chris reflects on another 365 days gone by… were you able to keep up with all of his activities? Photo of Al and Chris by Derick Smith

It was another very active year which started off with SONS OF THE SILENT AGE playing the best of Bowie’s so called “BERLIN TRILOGY”: what a start to the year!! This was soon followed by the release of the solo album “THE TIDE STRIPPED BARE” in February to humbling reviews. April saw a startling WAXTRAX era succession of events where I opened as a solo artist for MY LIFE WITH THE THRILL KILL KULT, COCKSURE played a one off show opening for FRONT 242, and I was reunited with AL JOURGENSON, joining MINISTRY onstage, reviving our friendship and our dormant musical collaboration.

June saw the screening of INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT in CHICAGO for which I was a guest on the panel, and later in June I travelled to beautiful MONTREAL to do the same and play a solo set with the amazing DEAD DOG from Montreal.

Over the summer I recorded a vocal for the forthcoming FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY album, SONS OF THE SILENT AGE performed another sold out show in Chicago, and we went on to film promo shots for several BOWIE songs, many of which have now been shared online. (See the latest for Joe the Lion.) Another COCKSURE album was recorded, BE RICH, for Metropolis Records, followed by the band playing at all three Cold Waves festivals, in New York, Chicago and L.A.

November saw the release of the double album BLOODHOUNDS, again to humbling response, on my 54th birthday, no less. A week later I performed the entire NEW TOWN NOCTURNES album live for the first time, and the year was brought to a satisfying close by performing with MINISTRY three more times, in JOLIET and at the HENRY FONDA THEATRE in LOS ANGELES.

What next? Who knows, the year stretches out waiting to be filled with shards and fragments of my idiosyncratic creative life……

Available now! BLOODHOUNDS, Chris’s double album

For the second year in a row, Chris celebrates his birthday by releasing a new album! BLOODHOUNDS is available today, November 11, 2018, through Armalyte Industries. The double album is being released on CD, limited to 200 copies with a fold-out poster and lyrics sheet, as well via digital download formats.

Buy BLOODHOUNDS on Bandcamp

A video for the track “Ascension”, created by Gabriel Edvy, premiered yesterday on the ReGen Magazine website, along with an interview by Ilker Yücel. Check it out!

In addition, Chris has again been interviewed by Megan Walters about his latest release. Let us know what you think of Chris’s latest release, the video, and the interviews in the comments section below.

Double album, double fun? Chris and I once again sat down to talk about his new album—this one, his first ever double album BLOODHOUNDS—and all of the emotions, surprises and learning experiences captured within…

Megan Walters: So the album is named BLOODHOUNDS and there are multiple references to the name in several songs. What does the bloodhound represent to you? Did you deliberately include the term several times in the lyrics or did it just happen to be on your mind?

Chris Connelly: The title track, “Bloodhounds”, was actually the last song written for the album, and it was one of these strange afterthoughts that sometimes I suppose artists get when they think they might be done and then something else happens: something gets created and it changes the entire shape of the album or work — like if you are done with a painting and you are about to leave it to dry and you turn back and paint a black stripe or something on it, almost instinctively, and it changes everything. I wrote the song after experiencing a huge panic attack, it came pouring out of me, and it connected to other pieces on the album — it connected a paranoia, a fear of being found out, a fear of being pursued relentlessly and exposed. The bloodhounds are also around in “The Encyclopedia of Haunted Lovers” and “Ascension” to varying degrees. Although to look at, bloodhounds are adorable! One thing that sticks in my mind as a sort of reference is Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs, in that I am just referencing them in those songs, so as to suggest, along with all of the other things going on in these verses, the bloodhounds are lurking and sniffing.

MW: Do your lyrics ever surprise you—as they are being written or afterwards? Do you find your meaning or intent changes with lyrics as you go?

CC: Yes, emphatically. First and foremost because when I am writing, that state of mind is so far removed from any other state of mind I have that I find it very hard to recall actually writing anything. It’s usually a fragmented blur — I honestly can’t explain the process, which I am sure is tiresome for an interviewer! I can say that it’s usually frenzied, then still, then frenzied, then still, then sometimes I might have to come back to it if life interferes.

I think that a creative process certainly exists out of the norm of other processes — or at least it can exist, it’s not necessarily exclusive — but the best stuff, in my opinion, defies any normal trajectory. It exists in its own time relative to the universe, and I also think it can involve some kind of intuitive, empathetic telepathy – and I use that word hesitantly – but I have certainly written lyrics that have in time revealed themselves, almost like a manifest destiny. So, you ask, can the meaning change? I think not so much as they reveal themselves in time, and I think it’s personal to a great extent — or it perhaps casts its light on the people I am very close to, but I might not realize that in my conscious mind at the time.

MW: There are two songs on BLOODHOUNDS that are covers of your own songs—”AAISW” and “F-birds” were originally on Pentland Firth Howl. I noticed that the emotions in these songs are very different from the original, for instance, “AAISW” on Pentland sounds almost apologetic, whereas the new version sounds almost defiant. Did you think about this difference as you were recording? Do you feel differently about songs you wrote many years ago?
Pentland Firth Howl

CC: I actually rerecorded all of Pentland [Firth Howl] as an exercise. I have been doing that recently for the sole purpose of perhaps — as you suggest — viewing the song, or let’s say the object, from a different perspective. “AAISW” is “An Accident in Scottish Wilderness” and the inspiration, the idea of a car accident in a remote moor, on a winding road, something so incredibly violent happening in this void where no one will be aware of it, it is surrounded by layers and layers of stillness and silence. I remember when I was young, spending much of my time in the Scottish wilderness, I would play this game in my mind where I would look at whatever huge hill was in front of me, and see a thing of amazing beauty and peace, then I could flip it to become something so forbidding and terrifying. (You may remember one of the pivotal scenes in Ed Royal suggests this, and also in the poetry of my beloved STANLEY ROGER GREEN.)

So, in “Accident” (the one that’s on Pentland), you have the stillness, the suggestion of a threat — it’s daytime, and the space in the music suggests the openness. On the BLOODHOUNDS version, it becomes a lot more tribal, a lot more angry. Some of the perspective is from maybe a person close to the accident victim — “I could kill you for driving, but you thought of that first” — anger that they may have been warned not to drive, but did it anyway. I also wanted to reverse the openness and bring a frenzied anxiety to the song. I deliberately tried to use sounds that were almost shrill and dissonant to suggest what the tires might sound like, etc. at the point of impact.

The other song I chose was “The Fidra Birds”, which originally opened Pentland. The song was inspired originally by the traditional “Sinner Man” (Nina Simone version) where the protagonist might “run to the rocks, the rocks won’t hide you”, etc. So, being the party guy I am, I wrote a narrative about the double suicide of a particularly dour (fictitious) Scottish couple, around the time of Ed Royal, when I wanted to start writing narrative songs (which I did not continue with, I am too cryptic). The new version has the same lyric of course, but the music (informed slightly by “Bau Dachong” by the VIRGIN PRUNES) has a similar tribalism to it, like it’s partner “AAISW”. I also wanted to introduce the sound of mourning which is in the backing vocals. In my mind, I was thinking about these images of Scottish widows on the shore mourning a lost fishing boat — all half-remembered images, but I do find I have this amazing glossary up there and I love trying to match sounds to images, or my voice to images, or to feelings or textures. Again, I know I have talked before about my musicianship being the result of being a crap painter!

MW: How has your writing process changed over the years?

CC: I think there are certain things I do that I learned early on that I still use. I have a box of tricks, a box of tools, but the canvas always changes because I am more interested in trying something kind of preposterous rather than writing another song. I am very much inside myself now: there is a lot more spontaneity to my work these days because I trust myself and I don’t go to anyone to ask if what I am doing is good — it’s unimportant. There is a song on the album called “Farewell to Athens”, which is almost completely written spontaneously, and then it was done — I could not go back and change it, it would have been wrong. It is so much instinct these days, I have made so many fucking records at this point, and it’s always an adventure. Things also really changed for me when I started recording in my own studio, total autonomy.

MW: What do you think sets BLOODHOUNDS apart from other albums you have written?

CC: First of all, BLOODHOUNDS is a very deliberate double album. I had 80 minutes of material and it made sense, I was not going to prune it down and save 40 minutes for next year. This album is sequenced to be listened to in that order as well — I didn’t agonize over the order, but it was a eureka moment when I had “Bloodhounds” at the beginning and “Brush Stroke Blues” at the tail end, everything made sense to me. I also think that it’s the zenith of my lyric writing, I felt extremely motivated and inspired. I also found myself in this absolute treasure trove of imagery up in my own mind, I kept hearing things, and seeing things and feeling things and my pen kept moving. I think maybe it’s the end of an era for me that started with NEW TOWN NOCTURNES. When I say end, I can only hope that things will change and go in another strange direction.

MW: Tell me about the really cool, dark cover art. I think you look like a demonic Bond villain! Does the image have a meaning to you?

CC: That was DERICK SMITH and makeup by KAREN BRODY. We were doing a shoot and I wanted to have a cigarette in the shot — as an ex-smoker, I miss them so much, they were such a huge part of my make up! When Derick showed me the shots, we were not planning an album, but I said, “That’s my next album cover, BAM!!!!” I think it’s strong, I LIKE being a 54 year-old man who wears make up because I think it looks cool, it looks sexy and I think cigarettes are really fucking sexy and I miss them and know that’s not a great thing to say, but I love the charade. Derick is very good at capturing what we all LOVE about rock ‘n roll that just isn’t there anymore for the most part. I think the cover is defiantly rock ‘n roll and I love it.

MW: One of the persistent themes in your work over the years seems to be that of being a stranger in a strange land, a sense of not belonging or searching for a “home” that maybe doesn’t exist. How do you feel about this and how strongly do these feelings affect your writing? Does your writing give you a sense of “home”?

CC: Writing does give me a sense of home because it is my home. Unfortunately I don’t feel at home anywhere else. This is simply an observation — I am a very lucky man, I have not been booted out of Syria or run for asylum from a dictatorship. It’s just that I feel like I left Scotland and should have probably gone back and now it’s too late, I feel like I betrayed it, and I just don’t feel at home in America at all. I think that has a lot to do with why I am a bit introverted and hermetic, I have a very small circle I feel very comfortable with, but that’s just fine. I think this keeps coming up in the writing though, a yearning. The song “A Farewell to Athens” exemplifies this perfectly. (Edinburgh is sometimes referred to as the “Athens of the north”.) It was written spontaneously during a particularly bad bout of homesickness (I get it a lot) and it kind of explores the dilemma: do you miss EDINBURGH or do you miss being a YOUNG MAN in Edinburgh? Are you really homesick or just nostalgic? It’s a conversation I should have with my friends who stayed there. Sometimes I’ll drink a few whiskys and blurt out, “I SHOULD HAVE NEVER FUCKING LEFT THE FINI TRIBE!!!” and I MEAN it, I really should have stayed, and I know it’s ridiculous to say, but it was a perfect storm of ideas, experience, sex, hedonism, and learning that I never really got again — I suppose like someone who misses college or something. However, if the six original Finis could find some common ground, I would do it in a heartbeat — I love them all and cherish what we learned together.

MW: I pick up on a sense of passion and/or urgency on a lot of these songs. Although it’s not as stripped down as some of your other work, there is a real feeling of emotion in these songs. How do you balance letting these emotions show without covering them up with the power of the music?

CC: Well, like I said earlier, part of the FUN of what I do is trying to find sounds and notes and chords that reflect what I am saying. I have used this before in an interview but years ago, someone gave me a cassette of the album “AGUAS DE MARCO” by Antonio Carlos Jobim and — I think it was right when I was doing SHIPWRECK — I felt such an amazing emotion from a song that was being sung in a language I did not understand. Actually BOWIE pointed out the emotion expressed in music YEARS before voices and words were being used in classical composition.

BLOODHOUNDS is an emotional album, and it explores, I think, emotions that are on the level of a person my age as well, using a body of experience to contextualize the feelings, which because of that experience are more subtle and maybe more urgent. I am so much more aware of mortality, because of my age, priorities are different, I cling to youth, try to stay healthy — stuff many people my age do — but at the same time, I keep getting these inexplicable waves of vitality. I live in the moment, or at least I try to.

MW: What is your favourite song on the album and why?

CC: That’s hard: I will say “Bloodhounds” because it was born out of a bad, bad situation. I created something very positive out of something very negative, and realizing I COULD do that made me feel that all was not lost.

Happy birthday, Chris!