ELAINE WALKER INTERVIEW WITH BOSTON SOCIETY OF MECHANICS
By Adam Jensen - December, 1996
1. What is your definition of "industrial music"?
I used to think industrial music was Neubauten, Nitzer Eb, Front Line Assembly, Front 242, Noise Unit, Skinny Puppy, etc. Nowadays it seems to be NIN, Ministry and Marilyn Manson. The style has changed quite a bit, but the common denominator seems to be a certain element of aggression and anger, a certain attitude, looped beats, and synthesizers. There needs to be a proper mix of ugliness and beauty. It's music for thought, not music for zoning out.
2. How long have you been writing and performing in Boston?
I moved to Boston in 1986 to go to Berklee College of Music. I studied electronic music while I was there, and wrote a bunch of music for a project I called Blue Cartoon. I never performed it with a live band in Boston, but I did do a few B.C. videos with a photographer/videographer named Norm Francoeur which lead to meeting John Zewiz of Sleep Chamber. Norm was also doing the videos and stage props for SleepChamber, and John needed a model for a new video called "Synthetic Woman". I had no idea who Sleep Chamber was at the time, but I helped him out anyway. John Zewiz heard my Blue Cartoon tape and wanted to be my manager. Norm also wanted to be my manager, but I decided I didn't really have enough going on yet that needed managing.
I started going to Manray around that time...1990 or so...and was discovering industrial music. At some point I had ditched my 80's sounding Blue Cartoon project and started writing music for Zia. Norm was helping me build some stage props for the live show, and I was looking for band members. Around that time I became a huge D.D.T. fan (Lisa Sirois and Noel McKenna). They pretty much WERE the Boston industrial scene at the time. At one of their shows at Babyhead in Providence, RI, they asked me to join. They wanted to add a melodic aspect to their music, and thought I could fill that role. Noel took care of the drums and vocals, Lisa did all of the samples, and I wrote the melodic synth parts. Norm came along with the deal, and actually used some stage props for the D.D.T. shows which were originally meant for Zia.
At some point in 1991 I started writing drum and synth tracks for Sleep Chamber, but wasn't a part of the live show. I was behind the scenes, and just doing it as a friend to John. A lot of the songs we worked on together are on their album "Siamese Succubi". After one of their California tours, he fired the keyboardist, and I filled in until he could find a permanent member. I never really fit in with the "bondage" scene, so I tried my best to look like one of the guys in the band. Somehow, even to this day, some people think I was a dancer in the band. I played a keyboard and an octapad, and added some microtonal flavor to their music. I did a lot of improvising which was fun. John Zewiz was always very generous and fun to work with. He's still working hard to this day with Sleep Chamber and he's brilliant at marketing the project.
About a year after I joined D.D.T. I had my first Zia show with Lisa and Noel in the lineup. Noel played drum sounds on these to large plastic street lamps which were filled with X-Mas lights and had MIDI triggers on them. Lisa improvised on a couple of different analog synths and a sampler. She eventually started playing the samples from her Macintosh Powerbook by clicking on different parts of pictures she created for each song. She had a TV monitor plugged into the computer so the audience could see what she was doing. Raziel Panick from "You Shriek" played the synth parts on an octapad and MIDI triggers, which was the same equipment I was playing in D.D.T. In Zia, however, I wanted to just sing and have the other band members play the music. Since then Zia has had numerous lineup changes with a total of 13 different band members.
3. How do you feel your music fits in with the Boston industrial scene, and how do you feel your music fits in with the scene on a national/global level?
I think we have the "industrial" elements I was talking about earlier, and the industrial scene in general had been needing more female participation, so the more girls, the better! Boston itself was a thriving grunge/rock/metal scene, and still is for the most part. At one point we decided to ditch the DAT backing tape and play all-live with acoustic drums in order to gain more respect in the Boston scene as a real live band. It turned out to be a great idea, and it's much more fun to play all-live. We can now play with more diverse bands and still somehow fit in. It helps to spread the word about electronic music when we play with different types of bands and different crowds. The speed metal bands always love us for some reason!
4. What kind of response have you gotten from the Boston audiences?
It started out really strong, and I think on the whole, the Boston music "scene" was thriving more then. More people went out. We also had more of a stage show with props, my duct tape outfits, and we did the whole "cyberpunk" thing. People loved it, but it got old as soon as Billy Idol released his "Cyberpunk" album. And when the World Wide Web became the big deal, "cyber" was suddenly cheesy. We got a lot of positive feedback when we made the transition to playing all-live, but we also did away with the stage props, and are thinking of bringing them back again to get more people out to see us.
5. What issues do you deal with and what ideas do you try to convey through your music?
Well, I'm a big space enthusiast, and a lot of our songs are about space travel, space migration and science fiction. I've also interspersed topics about Mother Earth, etc. For instance, the song "Mother" is about a Mother space ship that is having atmosphere control error, and life support system failure...we cannot abandon ship...we'll die with her. It also can be interpreted as Mother Earth and our polluted atmosphere. If we don't eventually space migrate, we will all die right here on Earth, our mother ship. It all boils down to the survival of humanity. Space migration is our only salvation, so I'm obsessed with it. On our first CD/EP I wrote a multimedia program which is an encyclopedia of American space travel. When you first open the program I talk for about three minutes about my thoughts on space-migration, etc. When you try to quit, it urges you to sign up to a few different space societies.
6. What is your view of the history and origins of the industrial scene in Boston?
When I first discovered industrial music in general, D.D.T. was the local band to see. There was also Sleep Chamber who used lots of synthesizers and samples, but instead of angry political music, it was "bondage" music... background music for the female dancers during the show. So, although I wouldn't call them industrial, they were a part of the scene because they played with industrial bands most of the time. Holy cow from Providence was around in the early days with a very tribal feel, and they're still going strong. Big Catholic Guilt from Boston and The Clay People from Albany, NY were the metal-industrial bands to see. They had screaming melodic vocals and guitars with a metal feel on top of industrial synths and samples.
Cop Shoot Cop came to town once in the early days and Zia played with them at the Rat. Chem Lab from NYC came to Boston every now and then, and D.D.T. and Zia played with them a few times. In Boston there was also Flail and Blistersoul. All of these bands played together all of the time. In fact, we played together so much we were getting sick of the same line-ups all the time.
It was also very incestuous. Zia lineups have included members of several of these bands. There was Raziel Panick from You Shriek, Tim Osbourne of Big Catholic Guilt, Brian Gillespie of Blistersoul and Concussion Ensemble who was another band that we played with a few times. I was in Sleep Chamber and of course D.D.T. A typical show would be You Shriek, Zia, D.D.T., and Big Catholic Guilt. Raziel Panic would have to play with You Shriek and Zia...I would have to play with Zia and D.D.T....and Tim Osbourne would have to play with Zia and Big Catholic Guilt. There were times when Zia, D.D.T., and Sleep Chamber would play together in one night and I had to play with all three of them! I would have to change my costume and my image slightly for each band. In Zia I would try to be a "cyber princess", in D.D.T., a bloody burn victim with a machine gun, a bullet belt, and a machete in my boot. Then I would wash off the gross makeup and put on a slinky dress for Sleep Chamber.
Industrial Park introduced themselves a couple of years after it all started, and they always put on a big production. Institute of Technology was a big part of the scene, although we never managed to play with them.
And then, something happened...the Rave scene. Techno music. My closest friends were betraying the industrial scene and going to "Rave nights" at local clubs. I hated it at first. The first time I went to one of these rave nights, there were a couple thousand people...all like zombies...dancing with their eyes glazed over...and the beats were repeating and repeating and repeating. Where was the song structure? Where was the melodic movement... the tension and release? I was amazed, and I was really depressed about it.
It seemed as if half of the industrial kids started going to Raves, and the half that hated that music regressed back into the gothic genre.
I had worked so hard all those years to help electronic music be recognized as a valid type of music, with real songs, just like music with any other instrumentation. But now the songs were gone, and what was left was this repetitive music with weak samples and boring four note melodies repeating over, and over.
After a couple of years, techno music improved drastically, and the sounds became fatter and fatter, so that at least I could appreciate it as sound scape music, and not worry about the fact that there were no interesting melodies. Techno has branched out so much now that there is a huge variety, and I like a lot of it now. Boy, did it ever kill the local industrial scene though.
Even D.D.T. started becoming a techno band, and it got to the point where I stopped working on the music because I wasn't interested in writing repetitive dance music. Instead of officially breaking up D.D.T., Lisa and Noel started another project called Bionic, just this year. D.D.T. just sort of fizzled out.
Zia is about to release our first full length CD in the Spring of 1997. It will be released on Fifth Colvmn Records and distributed by Caroline. They picked us up March of '96 when the label we were on had fallen apart. Fifth Colvmn re-released the CD/EP "Shem" that our old label had originally released.
7. What is in store for Zia in the near future, and what direction do you feel industrial music, as a whole, taking in the future?
I started writing music that I felt was more accessible, and more song oriented a couple of years ago...about the same time I felt the industrial scene was dying, or at least taking a dive. It may make a comeback someday, and a lot of people are trying, I know. At any rate, my tastes change from year to year, and I know that all of our albums will be different. Our CD/EP was drastically different from our first 9 song cassette. It was less "industrial" and more song oriented, more funky, less robotic. Our upcoming CD is also song oriented, and there are a few tracks which are really slow in tempo, and the album is pretty mellow on the whole. It just happened to be the mood I was in when I wrote the songs, and I think the next album will probably be a return to a more aggressive style. That's just a prediction. I never know what my music is going to sound like until I write it!
Industrial music, just like any other genre, is branching out into sub-genres. For the most part, though, it seems to have moved from all-electronic styles to guitar oriented music. The industrial music I grew to love in the early nineties had little or no guitars, and now guitars are a prerequisite for a few industrial labels that I know, and prevalent in most of the well known "industrial" bands. Ministry, for instance, went from being all-electronic to having heavy guitars. When we first started hearing Ministry's new material and NIN at Manray, it seemed odd to be dancing to "guitar" music. Now there's a whole new generation of kids that discovered the "industrial" scene through NIN and Ministry, and still more who heard Marilyn Manson first. They might not even know who Skinny Puppy or Front 242 are!
Females in industrial seem to be going the more song oriented, less aggressive route. A lot of us started out with growling vocals, and a very industrial style, but seem to be moving on to something else. Ruby's new material is pretty mellow and groovy, and I know she used to have a more aggressive style.
At any rate, there are still gobs of young programmers writing music in the old school style...dark, angry, and all-electronic. I get tapes in the mail all the time, so I know there probably will be a small but steady underground industrial scene for a while to come. Some of us are trying to break out of the underground with radio friendly electronic music. I think it's still new and fresh to write all-electronic-aggressive-pop music. Someday it may hit the mainstream! Stay tuned...