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.
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.”
Stuart 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.’”