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The Incredible Shrinking Industrial Man: Stuart Zechman On Stabbing Westward

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Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Gary Suarez tells of the early days of 90s industrial band Stabbing Westward, while also revisiting the music that helped shape him in his teens.

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Stuart Zechman has agreed to talk, with no small amount of trepidation, about Stabbing Westward for the first time in nearly two decades. Like so many lineup changes in the 90s, his departure from the band lacked public explanation, an unanswered question made murkier in the music press and lacking a forum on par with the modern Internet. But first, evidently, the man wants some answers. “Why are you personally vested in this stuff?” he inquires, his tone more probing than outright demanding. “Why is this music important to you?” 

It had taken a certain amount of disclosure on my part and trust on his just to make this phone call happen, and already the conversation itself seemed in jeopardy, teetering toward collapse. Wanting some insight on the making of Ungod, his band’s 1994 full-length debut, I’d found him hiding in plain sight, casually discoverable on Twitter via a simple search. Despite no mention of Stabbing Westward in his profile or tweets, I’d identified him as the group’s former guitarist and songwriter and made my writerly pitch for some of his time. 

Zechman’s caution seems reasonable given industrial music’s contemporary respectability problems. Orphaned by a selective nostalgia, it hasn’t exactly received kind critical appraisals of the sort afforded retrospectively to other genres and subgenres popularized in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Though Nine Inch Nails continues to command a large global following, headlining major festivals and arenas, none of the artists that came before or followed them garner more than a fraction of the coverage. Save for a handful of godfather acts like Skinny Puppy or the rare breakout artist like Youth Code, you’d be lucky to read much of anything at all about industrial music today.

There’s another reason, though, for him to be cagey, one far knottier and more sacred that will require time to reveal — provided, of course, that my answer proves sufficient. I fumble with my words, describing at length a teenage awakening that began with Ministry’s Psalm 69 and rapidly spiraled into a feverish romance with KMFDM, Foetus, and just about anything associated with Wax Trax! Records, the seminal Chicago label. Obsessive liner note reading and constant consultation of the 1991 edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide led to a gig hosting a weekly late-night show on my college’s student radio station; I started a band, then became a DJ at Batcave, New York City’s foremost goth and industrial music club at the time. At this last bit of nervously nerdly explanation, Zechman lets out a small laugh. “So you and I oughta talk.”

~

zechman The Incredible Shrinking Industrial Man: Stuart Zechman On Stabbing WestwardStuart Zechman comes from the northeastern suburbs of Chicago, famously depicted in classic John Hughes films like 16 Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That Midwestern locale set the stage for a particularly life-changing experience. “Ministry played my high school homecoming,” he boasts. “They were there playing ‘Every Day Is Halloween’ — and that was new!” In that moment he sees parallels in what was happening over in Europe, the disparate yet undeniably linked sounds of art terrorists Einsturzende Neubauten and dance music pioneers Front 242. This was “meant to appeal to kids in Chicago,” and this incarnation of Al Jourgensen’s soon-to-be-big project — post-With Sympathy, pre-The Land of Rape and Honey — definitely spoke to him. 

Within a month, Zechman had moved to the city proper, broke but determined to make his mark on the burgeoning scene as a musician and sound designer. “I wanted my environment to reflect a fundamental premise of industrial music, which is that what is beautiful is not necessarily picturesque; what is beautiful is what’s true about us.” He spent hours upon hours practicing the guitar, sometimes with a metronome. Eventually he met Jessica Villines, a recording engineer and his then-girlfriend’s roommate, over whom he reminisces with affection and admiration. “Jessica was a monster of a talent, just an amazing individual, and a master of Akai products at the time… She is a really big part of why anything happened for me.” Through her he landed a job stuffing promos for Wax Trax! and an internship at Chicago Trax Studios, where industrial artists like Die Warzau, Manufacture, Pigface, Skinny Puppy, and Ministry itself made records. 

Though Zechman started out at Trax Studios in a gofer role, while there he met artists like Al Jourgensen, Paul Barker, William Rieflin, Sasha Konietzko of KMFDM, and Duane Denison of The Jesus Lizard. His presence at the studio, friendship with Villines, and identifying as a guitar player led Barker to recruit him for Lead Into Gold, one of several Ministry side projects. Unlike many of the scene’s principled noisemakers and art terrorists, Zechman stood out for having what he describes as “more of a technical skill and a perspective about melody and harmony.” A music video was made for the single off Barker’s 1990 mini-LP Chicks & Speed: Futurism, “Faster Than Light”, the premise involving a rotating roster onstage around Barker. The participants included Rieflin and Jourgensen — “wearing a sombrero and poncho, smoking a cigar like he’s in the cast of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” — as well as Trent Reznor and Martin Atkins, the latter formerly of iconic post-punk act Public Image Limited. “We run out of film,” Zechman remembers, “So I start playing the opening guitar lines to the song ‘To Hell With Poverty’ by the Gang of Four. And Martin Atkins just starts right in, on time, just right where he’s supposed to come in. People start singing it around us.” He considers it one of the greatest moments of his life. “I’m really happy that I’m finally talking to someone who would understand why that would be such an amazing thing,” he says excitedly.

Chris Connelly, a frequent collaborator with Ministry and related groups like Revolting Cocks, would later reunite Atkins and Zechman in the studio for his album Phenobarb Bambalam. Villines and Zechman had earlier co-written a song, “Stowaway”, for his 1991 LP Whiplash Boychild. “I enjoyed working with Stuart tremendously,” Connelly recalls, “[Phenobarb Bambalam] was a grievously dysfunctional record made in a shamefully dysfunctional situation.” Thinking back to the intense recording session for the track “Dirtbox Tennessee”, Zechman mirrors his sentiment. His part entailed playing a grueling cycle of sixty-fourth notes on the bass in an odd time signature alongside Atkins; “My left wrist is hurting so much from the fatigue of playing this song, and I just start to yell in pain,” he says. “And I know it’s being picked up on the tom microphones. I just don’t care — I’m yelling because it hurts so much to finish this song.”

“I do not remember much from back then,” Connelly acknowledges, “But he was a good guy to work with, that’s for sure.” He then notes that he hasn’t seen or heard from Zechman in some 22 years.

~

By this point in the early ’90s, just a couple years since departing the suburbs, Stuart Zechman was already fairly well embedded in Chicago’s industrial scene, so much so that Skinny Puppy frontman Kevin “Ogre” Ogilvie actually lived at his place with girlfriend Cyan Meeks for a time, apparently watching Hellraiser repeatedly. But he wanted more, holding onto the dream borne out of that homecoming show. Being a session player, even for artists he admired, was not what he had in mind. “I had ideas,” he says. “You can’t help but get ideas going through that kind of training and exposure to all of this creativity, that grounding in genre and great musicianship.” He’d advanced beyond fetching coffees to doing actual studio work and was keen to begin applying his talents to a band of his own. 

Zechman and Villines teamed up with Richard Patrick, then the touring guitar player for Nine Inch Nails and “a really gifted musician,” and drummer Jeff Ward, who’d played with Ministry and Lard, on a new project called Brand H a.k.a. Hatred Brand. Uncertain about who would handle vocal duties, the band even managed to get Ogre to lay down some of his own. “Nobody’s ever heard this,” he asserts. “I think I have cassette tapes that came right out of the studio’s two-track of the sessions.” Though that project didn’t pan out, it opened up another opportunity. “Eventually Rich said, ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing called Filter.’”

Along with Nils Teig, who’d later serve as the subject of Filter’s scathing single “Welcome to the Fold”, Zechman and Patrick hunkered down in a three-bedroom condo in Sunset Beach, N.C., to write and record demos. Unfortunately, a devastating computer crash wrecked the trio’s efforts and sent them back home to the Midwest. “We were just done, dead in the water,” Zechman laments. “I went back to Chicago because Rich’s parents did not want me around for Christmas at his house in Cleveland. I ended up running into Christopher Hall.”

Zechman and Hall had previously met, introduced through their mutual association with Die Warzau’s Jim Marcus and Van Christie, another connection courtesy of Villines. Marcus, working on a new project dubbed Oxygiene 23, had needed classical guitar and trumpet, parts that came to be played by Zechman and Hall, respectively. “Christopher Hall is, I think, the most talented guy I’ve ever met in my life,” he says, letting out a sigh. “Meeting him was like meeting one of these guys like Al [Jourgensen] or Paul Barker or Trent [Reznor], except he wasn’t one of them… not yet.” Stabbing Westward already existed at that point, and Zechman had even seen the band perform at the Metro and remembers being unimpressed with the group’s guitarist at the time. 

More or less bandless, as Patrick would press on without him, Zechman’s holiday encounter was a twist of fate that led Hall to invite him to fill the then fortuitously vacant guitar position in Stabbing Westward. As he lavishes praise on keyboardist Walter Flakus (“You can really hear his ability and his ear for patterns.”), bassist Jim Sellers (“I wish I’d been good enough, better as a musician, to be able to fully understand what Jim was bringing to the table.”), and drummer David Suycott (“[He] was just brilliant.”), it becomes clear that Zechman is telling a love story, one rife with heartbreak and teeming with passion. Stabbing Westward was the band he’d be looking for, the unit that could make a record out of all those great ideas banging around in his head. 

Conspicuously released the week of Valentine’s Day 1994, everything about Ungod, the album they recorded several months earlier, was deliberate — or at least appears so in hindsight. Zechman insists they shared a singular vision, buoyed by mottos like “Art Is a Disease.” “We called ourselves commandos. Like, we were nuts.” Their ethos led them to choose Columbia Records over an indie and fly all the way to England to record with John Fryer, then known for his engineering and production work for Clan of Xymox, Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode, and Wire, as well his critical contributions to the 4AD collective This Mortal Coil. (It may, however, be purely incidental that Fryer also had a hand in Nine Inch Nails’ debut, Pretty Hate Machine.)

“The reason we signed with a major label was because we wanted the record to sound good,” Zechman says, not mincing words. “We were not naive enough to believe that what we could do on a sixteen-track by ourselves would be the pinnacle of what we could do as musicians with this material.” With a major-label budget, the band recorded for weeks with Fryer, and Zechman got his hands on an Eventide H3000, a Marshall 9001 pre-amp through a 9010 power amp, a Korg A1 multi-effects unit, and a “shimmery, brittle” Roland GP-8. “I needed John’s expertise with H3000 at that point to try to pull out as much as I could out of that guitar, out of that rig.”

Stabbing Westward’s vision also extended to Ungod’s subject matter, deeply intimate topics and firsthand experiences expressed poetically yet potently. Drawing heavily from Hall and Zechman’s conversations and interactions, the lyrical content’s lack of creative obfuscation was both intentional and painful. “I am speaking for myself and not for the rest of the writers,” Zechman insists. “It was something incredibly personal, and it was about us. It was about our lives.” Their empathy is perhaps best exemplified by the title track:

“Chris managed to capture an experience that he and I talked some long hours about as friends. The song goes, ‘You are clutched tight in my fingers/ You caress my skin so light/ You are welling up inside me/ You have finally freed yourself.’ I have a long scar on my arm, and that lyric came after Chris and I had had those discussions, after I’d talked about some bad stuff that had gone on for me. Some bad places. The reason I named it ‘Ungod’ was because when this sort of bad thing happens to you, when you’re doing it, you’re sort of in the room with somebody. In this case, the ‘you’ is what I, you know, put on my arm. And what was welling up and what had finally been freed was what happens when you do that. I didn’t write this; Chris wrote this. That’s about something specific. That’s about my arm.”

Knowing the meaning behind “Ungod” triggers emotions left from my teenage listening sessions with the album, in my room with the lights out. Zechman’s allusion to that awful something validates what I and countless other Stabbing Westward fans shared with him in those private moments. In the track you can hear the tears choked back, a fist that clenches tightly, the violent slashes of sound at pivotal moments, the rhythmic ticking and buzzing like that of some creaking old clock. It conjures something grand and horrible, something that builds up until it demands to be released.

“We made this so that people could sit in the dark, turn off the lights, and put on headphones and be by themselves in this way.” he says. “We wanted to reach out and say, ‘We know.’”

maxresdefault The Incredible Shrinking Industrial Man: Stuart Zechman On Stabbing WestwardDespite its pedigree and origins in Chicago’s deeply impactful scene, Stabbing Westward was and still is considered part of a lesser industrial movement, a dismissal that astounds, given Zechman’s Wax Trax! session work and the band’s national tours opening for bands like Depeche Mode and Front 242. “It just doesn’t get more industrial than [Front 242’s] ‘Headhunter’, does it?” Zechman asks, rhetorically. “Stabbing Westward was created as a way of doing industrial music from a perspective of having been there in the beginning, thoroughly understanding what it was and being it.” 

It boggles the mind how the same people who had played with Paul Barker and Chris Connelly and Die Warzau during their most fruitful years could be the ones held responsible for industrial’s decline. “Chicago was just full of miniature Steve Albinis at that point,” Zechman laughs. “I had people that I never saw again, who I had shared a lot of musical stuff with. I had them walk away from what I was doing in disgust.” He lost friends who insisted that he’d sold out, made pop music, or had become “the Taco Bell version” of the music they purportedly loved. In his attempt to make an excruciatingly personal, fundamentally industrial album, Zechman had managed to alienate his peers. Connelly, when asked about Stabbing Westward, claimed not to know Zechman was even involved in the project at the time. 

“As we hit the early ’90s. there was a kind of theatricality that was going on with our kind of music,” Zechman concedes. “Trent Reznor would come out and sing about ‘something he never had,’ but he’d come out and there’d be the Hellraiser chains coming down from the lighting rig. There would be dry ice smoke and, you know, theater.” Indeed, Nine Inch Nails’ growing success following 1992’s Broken presented a vision of industrial to a curious mainstream, reinforced by music videos from them and a more overtly metallic Ministry making their way onto MTV’s specialty shows. With Ungod and The Downward Spiral released mere weeks apart, inevitably the two bands were bound to be compared, contrasted, and conflated. 

Surely this caused some amount of frustration for Stabbing Westward. During a video interview before an August 1994 gig in Tempe, A.Z., Christopher Hall and Jim Sellers couldn’t help but have fun at Reznor’s expense–perhaps a bit too much. Through it, Zechman sat mostly silent, lacking his bandmates’ boisterousness, occasionally letting out a one-liner like, “I don’t think we’ll be touring with Nine Inch Nails anytime soon.” Following the release of such a brooding album pitting man against machine, the members of Stabbing Westward seemed keen to distance themselves not just from that particular band, but from the Wax Trax! school where they’d undeniably studied. 

For genre classification purposes, it’s easy to call it an industrial band and then call it a day. But listen to the escalation of Ungod opener “Lost”, that bassline and tribal drumming–the product of Suycott bringing assorted Eastern percussive instruments into the studio–that summons a blood-red splash of guitar, and try not to think of Jane’s Addiction at its darkest. They were contemporaries, of course. Critics such as Chicago Tribune columnist David Rothschild picked up on the “ethno-percussive touches.” Far from making a verse-chorus-verse pop mockery of industrial music, they were actively trying to progress.

Playing against type, Stabbing Westward toured with Rage Against the Machine and Therapy? and cited Steve Albini and The Orb in interviews. Songs from Ungod appeared on the soundtracks to big-budget Hollywood movies like Bad Boys, Mortal Kombat, and Johnny Mnemonic. They performed on The Jon Stewart Show. They were fighting against deep subcategorization, a struggle that continued well after Zechman and the band parted ways.

As strongly as he’d felt about the material, so too did he feel about the way Stabbing Westward and Ungod were being presented to the public and positioned by their label. In a crucial first meeting with Columbia president Don Ienner, the band sat and listened as the executive excitedly played them the then-unreleased Alice in Chains song “Them Bones”. “You see the way we were being set up?” Zechman reflects. “Go out and do a million records! Go be Alice in Chains! Do it! Go!” Competition had already been core to the band’s process, from songwriting to live performance, something he acknowledges now as part of the subsequent internal problems.

Zechman found himself at odds with the label, their management, and, progressively, the rest of the band. “Look at how miserable the packaging was, how non-representative so much of the stuff that came out in the product management of that record [is],” he notes. “A lot of the stuff that came out was not really representative of who we were and what we were trying to do. It caused a lot tension within the group.” Backstage at a sold-out gig headlining The Limelight, the former New York City church that was a cultural locus for industrial and goth nightlife, Ienner and the band’s manager, Steve Rennie, approached them with an exciting offer: Taco Bell was putting out a CD and Stabbing Westward could be on it! The prospect of having their music in every one of the fast food restaurant’s locations seemed incredible to five young men more or less starving on a major label. “[Suycott] was fucking about to quit because we were so broke,” Zechman stresses. Going from subsisting on five dollars a day to a potential six-figure payday was a game-changer, and after all, the band frequently ate Taco Bell on the road. The excitement in the room was palpable.

But at that pivotal moment in that iconic venue, with an audience that got it eagerly awaiting their performance, Zechman balked. “I pissed in everyone’s Cheerios.”

~

“I haven’t talked about this with anybody, really,” Zechman reminds me, his voice softening, his speech peppered with pauses. I can practically hear him shrinking at the other end of the line. “I moved to New York without telling any of those guys… I didn’t tell any of my friends in Chicago I was leaving. I didn’t tell my roommates.” 

Creative differences, that hackneyed blanket excuse for so many lineup changes and band breakups, can’t explain away his behavior. Uninterrupted by further questions, Zechman speaks as if in a confessional, the phone giving him enough physical distance to explain, on his terms and with a tremendous sadness, how he came to part ways with Stabbing Westward.

At some point prior to this unannounced move, Jim Sellers came to him and read some papers. He wouldn’t be entitled to any of the band’s equipment, not even the guitar he played on Ungod, which had been modified by the legendary Geordie Walker of shape-shifting post-punks Killing Joke. “I didn’t care at all. I was like, ‘Take.’” It seems fitting that Sellers, the band’s bassist, was the messenger, having previously been “so supportive, a really great guy” who let him move into his apartment. Zechman remembers ranting to Sellers the Christmas prior to recording Ungod, using the falseness of the holiday season as a springboard to explain why everything sucked. He was unable to take any joy in the prospect of success, in being on the cusp of accomplishing their shared dreams. “Imagine being around that fucking every day. And all of what goes into that, that kind of psychology and that kind of problem.”

Things had changed. David Suycott was already gone and had been replaced by Andy Kubiszewski, who would soon take Zechman’s place in the songwriting partnership with Christopher Hall. The “ultra-productive, ambitious” union that made such potent songs as “ACF” and “Nothing” had frayed. In demoing material for what would become their follow-up, Wither Blister Burn & Peel, an irreconcilable dispute arose over the subject matter of a particular song Hall wrote, Zechman insistent then that they’d agreed he would be the one to write about that particular experience, not Hall. “It certainly was indicative of what kind of shitty relationship we had at that point,” he says dolefully. “That’s what a meeting would be like.” The personal nature of Stabbing Westward’s music, which made the band so meaningful to an empathetic and growing fanbase, also made conflicts like these intractable. “Ultimately, there was a lot of anger created because of things I did.”

It’s a puzzle begging for a cigarette and a long stare. Stabbing Westward was Zechman’s passion. He had a vision, he had the experience, he had the band. He lived, breathed, and adored it, but somehow it led to self-destruction, to implosion and expulsion. To him, leaving behind not only his band but the city where he had made his home and his mark seemed somehow to make sense. 

“I had heard a long time ago like about how Joe Strummer did this, and that’s how The Clash ended. I don’t know. Somewhere in my mind there was some reason why this wasn’t insane to do. So, I did. I shaved my head. After that I dyed my hair red and grew a beard, like a red beard. I dyed my hair platinum blonde. I was a platinum blonde throughout the rest of the ‘90s. I moved to New York in such a way that I was nobody and nowhere, and it was completely anonymous. I just left. I just completely left…

“The reasons, I think a lot of them have to do with me. I know that I could’ve been a lot better friend to people who are important…in that…band. I know I could’ve been a lot more understanding. I know that I could’ve let people have triumphs. Oh my Lord, you know, I had some stuff that was wrong with me.”

Zechman laments, wistful for what could have been, musically speaking. These were musicians whose work he admired and respected. From afar, he remained a fan over the years, incredible given some of the harsh words Hall and Walter Flakus had for him and for Ungod in the music press after the fact.

Reading interviews with the band after Zechman’s departure, his devotion stings and pains. In 1996, Wither Blister Burn & Peel became both Stabbing Westward’s first album without Zechman and their most commercially successful. Billboard, acknowledging the band’s chart wins, featured them in an April cover story that gave Hall a chance to vent. “This record is more about healing, while the first record was really full of shit,” he said. “It was lazy and easy and like, ‘Oh, look at me. I’m the victim, you did this to me, you should feel guilty.’” In extolling the band’s live shows with Kubiszewski in Zechman’s place, he added, “Our new guitar player is more concerned with playing the parts and not posing or stumbling about.” In an interview with Drop-D Magazine that September, keyboardist Flakus was similarly dismissive. “[Ungod] bordered on metal, mostly because the original guitar player seemed to want to be the focus of the whole thing. A lot of the songs reflected his attitude.” (Flakus did not respond to an interview request.)

dxc  rw371929 The Incredible Shrinking Industrial Man: Stuart Zechman On Stabbing WestwardAll these years and digs later, Zechman is somehow unflappably protective of his former partners in Stabbing Westward, almost menacingly at times. These were his brothers, and even though close to two decades have passed since they’ve played together, his love for them is familial, territorial, and wholehearted. He even stays tight-lipped about Richard Patrick, who in a 1998 online chat with Filter fans responded icily to a query about his estranged ex-partner. “Stuart? Probably in some cemetery by now.” About the only person he will defend himself against is Wesley Willis, the infamous outsider artist who calls him out on his song “Stabbing Westward”, claiming he owes his lady friend Tammy Smith $250.

“I never owed [her] a dime,” Zechman assures me. “That’s another story, though.”With Zechman out of sight and out of mind in New York, Stabbing Westward pressed onward, opening for artists like Kiss and The Sex Pistols and playing around the world. For their third album, 1998’s Darkest Days, they worked with Dave Jerden, the producer behind Alice in Chains’ Dirt. That album’s single, “Save Yourself”, sounds less like “Them Bones” than it does their earlier single “Nothing”, the guitar echoing Zechman’s high-pitched sonic squawk.

Stabbing Westward called it quits in 2002, less than a year after their final, self-titled, album. Reunion rumors came and went, but on November 15, 2013, Flakus joined Hall’s current project The Dreaming onstage at Vinyl, a 650-capacity club inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The setlist included six songs from their old band, none off Ungod. Earlier that night, in the very same building, Nine Inch Nails played a 4,000-seat venue known as The Joint. 

Too often, band lineup changes are treated like rock ‘n’ roll footnotes, a cursory sentence or reference in a Wikipedia article culled from a carefully worded, achingly professional press release or some bit of hearsay. But these are breakups, with emotional baggage, damaged reasoning, and expired friendships. How people deal with leaving or being fired from a band varies. In Zechman’s case, he seems to have built a life for himself. He’s married now and a father. Politics are a passion, as is English Premier League soccer. Music, at least the making of it, doesn’t seem to factor much into his contemporary life, though a New York-based project called The Prinxessa boasts of his purported involvement. Nothing’s unprecedented. 

Depleted, purged of words he hasn’t been able or hasn’t found a reason to say until now, Zechman sighs. “It takes a lot of trust, given some of the stuff that’s come out in print, you know; I know how this works. Just don’t let me down, man.” His insecurities laid bare fill me with empathy, much like he and Christopher Hall and the rest of Stabbing Westward did 20 years ago in my darkened bedroom, Ungod on repeat. No longer a mythical rock star in my mind, he’s shrunk down to my size, vulnerable and human. But as it was both then and now, he is not alone. 

~

Gary Suarez is a writer born and raised in New York City. He tweets.

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