A couple of weeks ago German director Wim Wenders was at Reckless Records' Wicker Park store, shooting footage for a documentary on music scenes around the world, and between takes he decided to do a little record shopping. One of his purchases was a new box set of CDs by Chris Connelly, who happens to be the store's manager. "He actually bought the box first, and then recognized my face from it," says Connelly.
Connelly's face is familiar to many in town, and not just from behind the counter at Reckless. An Edinburgh, Scotland, native, he started his career in the mid-80s, singing in the dance-rock group Fini Tribe, but soon got involved in Chicago's industrial-music scene. In 1987, after meeting members of Ministry in the London offices of Wax Trax, he was invited to join Ministry offshoot the Revolting Cocks, which brought him to the U.S. Since then he's also worked with Ministry and groups on the Invisible Records roster like Damage Manual, Pigface, and Murder Inc.
By the early 90s, though, Connelly had also launched a solo career: inspired by Scott Walker, David Bowie, and Robert Wyatt, he began embracing more eclectic orch-pop, glam, and singer-songwriter fare. The box set Wenders bought (one of a limited edition of 500 copies) collects his late-period solo discs for Invisible: 1997's The Ultimate Seaside Companion (Revisited), 2001's Blonde Exodus, 2002's Private Education and the two-disc odds-and-sods set Initials C.C., 2004's Night of Your Life, and a signed copy of last year's Lounge Ax, Bottle, Elsewhere--'94-'01, a mix of unreleased live and studio material. "It's a nice appraisal of my tenure with the label," he says. "Putting it together was like looking through an old photograph album."
In a sense the box closes a chapter of Connelly's career. For the past two years he's been retooling his writing process, working on longer, more free-floating tunes that tinker with improvisation and unconventional song structures. He passed a home demo of some of that material earlier this year to Joan of Arc's Tim Kinsella and Town and Country's Ben Vida; the three had previously played together in Everyoned, an experimental group that also includes Town and Country's Liz Payne and TV Pow's Brent Gutzeit. "Tim and Ben, these were the go-to guys for me," Connelly says. "They're old friends, and I really like their approach to long-form and improvisational music."
"He approached me and Ben, but he had the ideas pretty firmly realized," says Kinsella. "He knew he wanted to make a record of these new songs that were really long and repetitive, that gave you time to sit and lose yourself in them. He was also excited about making a couple of the songs more like collages or abstract sound pieces. Mine and Ben's job was really just to get him where he wanted to go."
In the hopes of capturing a bit of the atmospheric vibe that Connelly was shooting for, Kinsella proposed recording part of the album outdoors. So in late June he, Connelly, Vida, and engineer Graeme Gibson hauled a Pro Tools rig and a host of instruments--cello, zither, bass, vibes, congas, and more--to a private campsite by Lake Wandawega, near Elkhorn, Wisconsin. They set up on a basketball court near the water. "It was set up like a normal studio, but with no roof," Connelly says. "It created a really weird, strange ambience--a creepy, almost Blair Witch-y feel."
On the first day the four men tested the equipment and tracked spare, sketchbook versions of the songs. The following day they brought in 11 more musicians, including Califone's Ben Massarella, Make Believe's Nate Kinsella, and Joan of Arc's Todd Mattei and Joe Tricoli. They took multiple passes at each song, with most of the arrangements improvised or developed on the fly between takes. The only hiccup was the weather--on-and-off storms forced the musicians to stop and cover the equipment with garbage bags. "Anytime I would feel a drop of rain on my face, I was so paranoid about the mikes being ruined," Connelly says. "But it gave my singing a real sense of urgency."
A week after the Wisconsin trip, a smaller group reconvened at Bridgeport's 4deuces studio for more recording, which involved cutting many of the songs from scratch one more time. "Most of the versions we did in the studio were one take," says Connelly. "It's a very rare situation where everyone is so unified about the purpose and understanding of the music that improv works so smoothly. We really lucked out."
With Gibson's assistance, Connelly, Kinsella, and Vida then took the nearly five hours' worth of material and began merging tracks to create the album. "It was a little like editing a film would be, I imagine," Connelly says. "You have a lot of choices to make about what takes to use, and the selection was very subjective. It all sounded good, but a record is only so long, so you have to make some hard decisions about what to use. Ultimately I think we ended up with something we're all really proud of." On the final album, titled The Episodes, Connelly's usual compact lyrical forms are chucked in favor of long, winding verses--the three-part, 20-minute "Son of Empty Sam" was constructed out of more than an hour of material. The backing tracks are an ethereal mix of drones, repeating figures, and wistful melodies.
Connelly is currently shopping the album, which wrapped up around the same time he was finishing another project: a memoir of his early years in Chicago's industrial-music scene. The book, tentatively titled "Concrete, Bulletproof, Invisible & Fried," is due in February from SAF Publishing, a British company that has released books on the Soft Machine, Shirley Collins, and Suicide. Connelly describes it as part band diary, part fish-out-of-water tale, written in the spirit of Michael Winterbottom's Factory Records biopic, 24-Hour Party People. "That movie brought humor into a musical situation that was viewed as very pompous and serious," he says. "Similarly, what Ministry and the Revolting Cocks did was viewed as very serious and bloodcurdling and strict, but it was so goofy and so silly at the same time. I wanted to show that side as well."
He'll have plenty to keep him busy before the book comes out: he and his wife, filmmaker Shayna Connelly, are expecting their first child in October. He also wrote the score for Leftover Voices, a film his wife wrote and directed that she plans to begin showing on the festival circuit next year. He hopes to have The Episodes out by spring, and he's confident it can find a home despite its unusual sound. "I actually think that's actually going to help," he says. "This is more radical than anything I've done, and in my mind more interesting."
Due to an editing error, last week's column mischaracterized the contents of Fred Armisen's forthcoming DVD. Drag City has tentative plans for a Laura Kightlinger comedy CD that will be released separately, not as part of the Armisen disc.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.