[ there's no place like home ]
Confessions of a Private Education
by Jordon Leigh

Of the multitudes of recording artists which populate the various strata of the contemporary music world, very few have either the verve or tenacity in sonic metastasis as the likes of Chris Connelly.

His arc of evolving talent is quite well known to the initiated: constantly shifting gears and mutating from the earliest of days in Rigor Mortis (later to become Fini Tribe) to the infamous Revolting Cocks, or side projects like Acid Horse (with members of Caberet Voltaire) and the one-off release The Love Interest. The heyday of the loosely fitting term "industrial rock" had all but wound up during the late Eighties and early Nineties, through which Connelly maintained a high profile within the ranks of Ministry and then shortly after crossing over to the postpunk experimental circus called Pigface, helmed by Martin Atkins and his label Invisible Records. In retrospect, this change would prove to be a blessing in disguise, allowing for Connelly to exhibit deeper lyricism as well as a far wider range of vocal skill more true to his own style rather than that of the atypical distortion blistered screams of metallic mechanical rage. Murder, Inc. followed suit, bringing to light a brilliant blend of Chris' angst-laden lounge crooning against a backdrop of Killing Joke-esque post-industrial noise rock. To the converted, this record remains a fan favorite not quickly forgotten; when later incarnations of Pigface (without Connelly) would play the album's title track, crowds would tend to fall into a chaotic reverie of shaking fists and shoulder-to-shoulder mosh pits.

Amongst the revolving melee of his interactions, collaborations and contributions to numerous projects and records, Connelly released his first proper solo outing, Whiplash Boychild, in 1991 after the wake of Ministry's A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste tour and Pigface's initial effort Gub. Those anticipating the chain-link fence bashing, dreadlocked, sinister vocalist to do more of the same were in for a rude awakening indeed. Eschewing the violent, metallic and overtly electronic overtones of prior efforts, what Connelly delivered instead was a melodic, poetic, often times beautiful affair, maintaining the truisms of underground music whilst flirting with the conventions of well intended pop. Many comparisons have been drawn countless times through the years toward the likes of David Bowie and Scott Walker (both of whom Connelly himself fondly admits admiration), but also slight reminiscences of early eighties Iggy Pop and sublime touches of lounge music. Connelly's 1992 followup, Phenobarb Bambalam, was a more extreme record; polarizing his songwriting between the excesses of angry post-rock and the melancholia of smoke-filled lounge balladeers, both exercised (and exorcised) with ingenious clarity. Aside from a live acoustic EP, Songs For Swinging Junkies, it would be two years before he would release another full length studio recording.

The wait would prove to be worthwhile. His third studio release Shipwreck laid out the perfect amalgam of the two previous records, delivering elements of pop, post-modern rock and endearingly touching lounge ballads that make your head swim. Connelly even went so far as to do "Spoonfed Celeste," a song that defies categorization aside from being deemed "neo-bluegrass." Stunningly beautiful with smooth production, the troubadour comes truly into his own here, with no apologies.

A vast, gaping silence of six years was left yawning in the aftermath.

[ chris connelly - phenobarm bambalam ]

Eventually, at the turn of the century, Chris returned to the place where his talents lay best: singing and songwriting. No longer on his longtime label Wax Trax, he released an album of new material on Chicago based Hit It! Records under the moniker The Bells. The album was titled The Ultimate Seaside Companion, which -- along with Chris -- featured his long running friend and collaborator Bill Rieflin as well as other indie luminaries such as Chris Bruce and Jim O'Rourke. Far and away, this record was a clear and distinctive departure from Connelly's past approaches to structure and production. Not merely handling the lyrics and general basis of his material, he wholeheartedly took the helm of his own ship: playing and directing the songs with acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, and even utilizing the harmonica at points. Having stripped away the artifice of so-called "rock production" and unconcerned with carrying the weight of his past reputation (under the pseudonym of a band rather than his own name), Connelly was able to quite simply get down to basics: writing emotive and sincere songs without the prejudice of an already established audience preying on his past. The Ultimate Seaside Companion's successes lay strictly within that regimen: pure, focused, honest songs done without the need and greed of the almighty dollar, MTV, or the overzealous "industrial" fan who still think of Chris Connelly as the dreadlocked, enraged duke of RevCo, Ministry and Pigface.

What happened next was probably, at least to this writer, the most surprising and unexpected move that Mr. Connelly could have ever considered at that particular point of his career.

Invisible Records' Martin Atkins was busy getting up a new project with his former PiL bandmate Jah Wobble, who in turn suggested Killing Joke guitarist Geordie Walker to round out the experiment's music section. As rumour has it, once things got going, they had attempted to get John Lydon to handle the lyric/vocal duties but were dismissed. Atkins (and appropriately so) suggested Connelly. The result was the Damage Manual -- which would put out one EP and one full length record. Simply put, this would, in a sense, mark the "return" of Chris Connelly to the "industrial" scene once again.

Later that same year, Mr. Connelly would release yet another album: the swooning, eloquent and near cinematic Blonde Exodus. Again utilizing the assistance of Bill Rieflin and continuing upon the path laid down by The Ultimate Seaside Companion, Blonde Exodus would deliver even more clearly the radiant and minimalist ingenuity of Connelly's songwriting ababilities -- both as a sublime lyricist and a heartfelt vocalist. In the midst of this period, Chris and Bill would also write and complete an album called Largo, which was released on Rieflin's First World label.

At present, Mr. Connelly has been playing live constantly and gearing up for the release of his latest body of work, Private Education. All that I have heard from it thus far has been wonderful, and it promises to deliver the same magnificence which he is so often prone to give to his listeners.

So, all of that said, you've had your history lesson if you are one of the uninitiated. If you are in fact familiar with Chris' work, then my apologies before cutting to the chase. I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with Chris about his music (both past and present), his writing process, a number of tangents and digressions, and well, let's just say his greatest fear.

[ chris connelly and the bells - the ultimate seaside companion ]
[ give a listen! ] "No More Changing
of the Guard" MP3

Greetings, Chris. And thank you for your time.

Chris Connelly: Hello!

As I understand it, you've been playing live quite frequently lately. Not merely the regular Chicago gigs, but off to Texas and the like.

Chris: I have been playing live frequently. I'm pretty portable.

How have the performances been going? Are you already doing strictly solo shows with just you and your guitar or are you backed with a band at this point?

Chris: I am not working with a band at the moment for many reasons -- some financial, some otherwise.

I'm going to take a few huge steps back here, if you wouldn't mind. What were your inspirations and influences when you began? And how much of it remains relevant to you now after all of these years?

Chris: Do you mean musically? Talking about musical influences is so boring. It's all pretty apparent, if it is at all interesting. I don't know... But as far as general influence goes, I am a product of my environment: the sounds and feelings of where I grew up, in Edinburgh, and I think I have always "felt" the same way. I think I was born or became this way quickly. I am just spending the rest of my life trying to articulate it. That's the challenge -- like a dog trying to get the marrow out of a bone.

Having been born and raised in Scotland, what was it like for you as a kid growing up there? Was there anything socially relevant that impacted you in the methods of your artistry?

Chris: Well, yes. To expand a little on the last question, I was born into a small Catholic family and lost my father at a very early age in a strange accident which impacted me the most. In fact, it shattered the family unit. My family are solitary grazers, all out on our own looking for something. Not to sound maudlin -- it is what it is. But I was always someone who could not sit still for very long. I liked to spend most of my time outdoors when I could, exploring, climbing, sabotaging. Although some TV was of paramount importance to me at a young age -- specifically Dr. Who! -- I really didn't watch much. I enjoyed reading and drawing and, when I was about ten, I was in an accident that left me with a very limited capacity to walk for over a year. It was then that I started listening to pop radio fanatically. Ask me any question about the British Top 20 between the years of 1975 and 1977 and I bet you I know the answer.

You've been living in the United States for something like 12 years or so now. Are you pretty fond of Chicago? I used to live there as well for a time.

Chris: I have grown quite attached to Chicago. I can't really think of anywhere else in the US I could live now.

[ chris connelly live ]

Tell me a little bit, if you would, about your early days in performing and writing music. What was it like getting on musically in Scotland? It must have been, say, the late Seventies or early Eighties, right?

Chris: I certainly don't mind talking about the past. I started playing music by myself in the late '70s, but didn't actually play a gig until 1980. I think that was with the first "incarnation" of Fini Tribe called Rigor Mortis. I was still at high school and so were the others. It just felt like something we had to do. It also meant I had at least a fighting chance with the ladies. It was a good time in music, records were coming out by Throbbing Gristle, A Certain Ratio, The Associates, Joy Division, and The Stranglers, as well as a barrage of independently produced cassettes and LPs. In short, no one was suggesting that you couldn't make records or be in a band, you didn't even have to be in a band. As the time went by, the band grew and the Fini Tribe proper was born. We grew together yet we were far, far too "arty" for Edinburgh, very pretentious. Not that we cared! We were teenagers, smoking a lot of pot, listening to Can, and Wire, and improvising live. these were such great times. I have never had as much fun since, but that's to be expected.

Then along came the sampler and our sound changed. We began to see that we had allies, musically, and by about 1984 bands like Test Department were starting to spring up. We still felt like outsiders and we still kept doing our rounds to the record companies. Our live appearences got rarer and more performance orientated; the music got more electronic -- although we still played everything live. We all shaved our heads and screamed through megaphones.

Ah yes. But still nothing like Nitzer Ebb, in any case. And then along came Alain Jourgensen and the Revolting Cocks debacle. Was that and the time spent with Ministry a fairly "buzzing" time for you? I mean, did you feel that this was opening some new doors for not only yourself as an artist, but also in the music scene in general? Because, as a teenaged listener, I was very much into Big Black, Birthday Party, and Einstürzende Neubauten, while everyone else around me was into thrash, punk or metal. Then this monster called Ministry comes along.

Chris: I have mixed feelings about my time with Ministry. It was really, really intense. If I hear other people in bands complaining, I sometimes have to roll my eyes. Ministry -- for me at 21 -- was like being dropped into a war zone or jumping onto a moving train, checking in "on time" for endless studio sessions. Not hours or days, but sometimes weeks. I don't know, man, I forged some wonderful friendships, but it was too crazy. I lost so much, as well. It sometimes hurts to think about it. I don't regret a second of it -- that's my life. But it left some nasty scars.

[ chris connelly - private education ]
[ give a listen! ] "Samaratin" MP3

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