October 9, 2018 Interview – Christopher Hall of Stabbing Westward
Nearly no path is linear in life, and even less so when it comes to a Rock-n-Roll band. A lot can happen over time that is impossible to predict, but when the dust settles, sometimes you can find yourself coming full circle. Doing just that, Industrial Rock band Stabbing Westward shocked fans when they partook in some reunion shows in 2016. After all, it had been fourteen years since the band performed together, and Lead Vocalist Christopher Hall moved onto The Dreaming, so could have anyone really foreseen a re-emergence of Stabbing Westward?
Funny enough, the special reunion shows snowballed into something bigger when Stabbing Westward embarked on a full-fledged tour in 2017, and now in 2018, return to the road for more touring in honor of the 20th anniversary of their most popular studio album, 1998’s Darkest Days. Bet no one saw that coming.
Nonetheless, it is a pleasant surprise for fans who have been spinning Stabbing Westward albums such as 1994’s underground classic Ungod, 1996’s Wither Blister Burn & Peel, the aforementioned Darkest Days, and 2001’s self-titled farewell album. It has been a long journey for Stabbing Westward, but they are back with a vengeance! Taking the time to talk about it all, Christopher Hall sat down for an in-depth interview covering everything from the early days of the band to the very strong possibility of new music coming soon.
CrypticRock.com – Putting together Stabbing Westward over three decades ago, the band has had its share of success and built a strong following along the way. Taking part in other projects as well, first tell us, what has your musical journey been like?
Christopher Hall – Consistent, which is has kind of always been my goal – to never have to do anything else. From the time I was five, I played the trumpet and I went to college studying Classical music. I was convinced I was going to be a trumpet player in the Chicago Symphony and be a university teacher; that was my goal. The Rock band thing was sort of a side passion that kind of took over. Ever since I was a little kid, all I ever wanted to do was make music. I had always thought – it never mattered how successful I was or if we had little bursts of success, or if I was just consistent -just as long as I could do what I loved to do without having do anything I didn’t love to do. For the most part, it has been a success for me.
CrypticRock.com – You certainly have had a very long career between Stabbing Westward and The Dreaming. Stabbing Westward was obviously the main focus for a long time. Releasing a series of records, attaining commercial success, around 2002 would come the end of the band. What were those years like for the band with 1996’s Wither Blister Burn & Peel and the major success of 1998’s Darkest Days?
Christopher Hall – They were cool. I wish I knew then what I know now! As it was happening, it was happening so fast and we were in it. Everything was new and exciting, but at the same time, it was super overwhelming. Now that I’ve been doing this for a long time, seen success, and seen leaner days, I wish I could go back and enjoy it. Just have more fun and be more present during the shows, etc., rather than constantly being caught up in the whirlwind of being on tour and making records.
It was really great; we saw the world, we got to go to a bunch of amazing places. We got play with a bunch of my heroes, Depeche Mode was a band I grew up just worshiping; we got to do not one but two world tours with them. To get to be around people like that and The Cure, I got to hang around Jon Lyndon of the Sex Pistols for a summer. Just all these bands we got to play with, that was amazing because they were all bands I grew up with. It was super cool!
CrypticRock.com – That sounds awesome. There was obviously a progression with the band’s sound. From the 1994 Ungod record to Wither Blister Burn & Peel to Darkest Days. After Darkest Days, did the record label want you to follow the same style moving forward?
Christopher Hall – There were so many things that happened during that eight year chunk of our career. When Ungod came out it was all about MTV. Alternative radio was a very new thing, it hadn’t fully established itself yet, so active Rock radio was still a big deal. Then when Wither Blister Burn & Peel came out, “What Do I Have to Do?” had really big success on MTV and on the new Alternative radio format.
By the time we got to Darkest Days, the band was a different group of people. The band on Ungod was a different group of people than Wither Blister Burn & Peel; the guitarist who did most of Ungod with me and Walter had quit. The drummer who joined the band just before we got the record deal, just before we had done all the demos, quit midway through the Ungod tour. Then we got the Drummer Andy Kubiszewski, who came to fill in for the drummer who quit – he became a major contributing songwriter to the band. He wrote “What Do I Have to Do?” before he was even in Stabbing Westward, we just sort of took his song, made it our own and played.
That one guy changing flipped a switch and the whole sort of sound of the band changed. His influence went even further on Darkest Days. I haven’t listened to Darkest Days in twenty years, until we decided on this tour to do the whole album. I went back and listened to it and said, “Wow, on that record we got really grunge,” which was weird at the time in 1998. We had 4-5 songs on the record that had no keyboards. No Industrial synth stuff, just straight-up three-piece Rock band; not even a type of Metal – kind of loose, sloppy indie Grunge, it almost sounded like Bush or something. That was the record when I think it started wobbling, thinking, “Who are we, what is our identity?”
Walter and I started as an Electronic/Industrial kind of band. Then as we absorbed new members into the band, their influences would spin the band off in different directions. On Darkest Days, it is really almost two different records. There are some very electronic songs like “Waking Up Beside You,” “Drugstore,” and “Save Yourself.” Then there is the really grungy Rock side to it as well. After that record, a bunch of external sources that had nothing to do with us – mostly stuff like Napster and people downloading music off the internet – that really screwed up the music industry hugely between 1998 and 2000.
At that time, the music industry was panicking because they were selling CDs for fifteen bucks at music stores. Fans were getting kind of mad that records were costing so much. Then all of a sudden the internet made it possible to download music and no one was buying it anymore. The record labels were freaking out. They were like, “If you are not Mariah Carey or something selling something like five-million records for us, we can’t have you on the roster.” I think at that point Stabbing Westward had two gold records, which for a small Alternative band, it was considered a success. At that point, with downloading, they were so panicked, they felt they had to cut everything from their roster that isn’t selling five-million records.
That is how we kind of ended up drifting on the fourth record and picked up by an independent label. In that process of getting dropped there is a lot of soul searching, people in the band questioning what direction we go in, etc. We had a manager pushing us to become more Pop. Ultimately that decision of – which direction do we go? Do we stay true to our music? Do we stay true to our fans? Do we even think about the bigger music industry? Is it a business or is it art? That whole thing is what I think ultimately broke up the band.
CrypticRock.com – Very interesting how everything developed. That fourth album, the 2001 self-titled release with Koch Records, that was a drastic change from what you did the past. It was really a great record though, it had some really strong songs on it.
Christopher Hall – It did. It’s a really weird thing for me to talk about. In many ways, I am kind of proud of it because I stepped up as a songwriter on that album and wrote a lot more. At the same time, the demos for that record sounded like Stabbing Westward. As we entered the studio, we had the record finished, and we were going into the studio with Bob Rock in Hawaii to record it with the same guys in the band – me, Andy, Jim, Walter, and Marcus. We hired a new manager, within a week, we were dropped from Columbia, Bob Rock was no longer doing the record. In the scramble to salvage what was left with it, we ended up signing with Koch Records. Our manager pushed us to get rid of the guitarist we had: that’s Marcus who is in the band now. Marcus was battling to hold onto the original sound of the band.
She hired a producer that none of us really knew, and she hired a guitar player who played in a band she managed earlier. His musical influences were very Pop, he came from an Oasis style. We were like, “Whoa! That is not who we are: we are an Industrial-ish Metal/Rock band.” It kind of became the situation where we were almost locked out of the studio and the tracks were laid around the original demos we had done. They just got really softened up and everything, sort of turned into a teenage movie soundtrack sort of thing. The songs are still good and I think, as a record, it is a pleasant enough record.
I have kids now. They go to school with other kids, and meet their parents who ask, “What band were you in?” I will play them a nice song off the self-titled record, because I don’t want them to hear the screaming banshee I was in 1994. (Laughs) That is the kind of record it is. Yeah, it’s a good record, but our fans have kind of counted on us to be a certain way. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown to respect fans – not just our fans, but the whole idea of fandom in general. The fact that, yes, I’m making music for me and a band ourselves, but if you have a group of people who loyally listen to what you make – they should not have influence on what you do – but you should be respectful toward what made them love you in the first place. You shouldn’t just flip the switch and ostracize a large group of people who have invested time, emotion, and money into believing in your music. I felt the self-titled album kind of did that. I felt like, in the desire to reach a large group of people, we turned our back on the ones who were there for us all along. That’s where I feel that record failed.
CrypticRock.com – That is understandable. In hindsight, it is a very strong album and something to be proud of in the whole grand scheme of the band’s story. After Stabbing Westward, you went onto be a part of The Dreaming for a very long time. Releasing three full-length albums and touring a lot with The Dreaming, you again tried something new. What was that like?
Christopher Hall – That was an adventure. It was cool because we stripped away the record label, tour bus, producer, and just did it ourselves. It was scary, invigorating, and exciting! We bought a crappy 1996 econoline van. It broke down every Friday, we flipped it over in a snowstorm once, and still made the gig that night. We played something crazy like 2,200 shows, played Warped Tour one summer. We were a hard-working indie band after being a band that would fly to Europe and tour on a double-decker bus with twelve crew people.
It was refreshing. I would show up at a gig, setup my gear, talk to the promoter, stand behind a little plastic table and sell t-shirts, and sign autographs and talked to anyone who came up to talk to us. I think it created a sense of humility for me, where I understood the power of the people who listen to your music. I can sing whatever I want, but if there is no one listening I’m just singing. I think that brought me closer to our fans where they are more of our friend and that was cool.
Musically, it was frustrating, because I still had to rely on other musicians that I brought in. Each musician brings their own sense of musicality, who they are, and what they think music should sound like. Every time I’ve ever had this grand vision of what I wanted to do, it’s always swept up in the band I’m in and become something new. The Dreaming went through many changes of being a Rock band, a Warped Tour Emo Rock band, then it became more Electronic and Metal. On the third record, Walter, the original guy I started Stabbing Westward with, joined the band and did a record with me. I felt now it’s come full circle. Now it’s me and the guy who started Stabbing writing the music we were writing in high school. It felt absolutely right and normal!
When we started writing music, I knew when he and I wrote songs together, that is what we were supposed to be doing. All the other time I was writing, I realized I was just waiting for that to happen again. This is my guy, this is the guy I write with. When he joined The Dreaming, it felt like it had come full circle. Then, once we started playing Stabbing Westward shows, it felt like, now what do we do? It’s basically the same band, other than the guitar player, who got up and played with us at a show in Chicago. Now it just felt like Stabbing Westward, it was awesome! We thought we should do this.
We started doing Stabbing Westward shows, then we came back to The Dreaming to discuss doing a record. We said we should have Marcus play on The Dreaming record. The thought process was, “If Marcus plays on The Dreaming record, then isn’t it just a Stabbing Westward record?” That’s kind of where we are at today. We have a whole record written. I kind of wanted to name it The Dreaming out of a sense of loyalty to what I’ve been doing. Then we started talking about it and thought, “We probably should just do this as a Stabbing Westward record, because that is what it is. To call it The Dreaming would be a bit dishonest. If the guys from Stabbing Westward are writing the music, then perhaps that is what we should call it.” We are still struggling with that, but it seems to be leaning in that direction.
CrypticRock.com – The idea of Stabbing Westward being back is an exciting one for fans – a lot of people thought the day would never come. So there is the possibility of a new Stabbing Westward record?
Christopher Hall – Yes, there is the likelihood. We discussed it a lot. We played Cold Waves Festival last year and the year before. Both times they asked us to contribute a song to a compilation record they sell to give to the anti-suicide charity they work with. The first time we did an old song that was off the original 4-song EP from 1988 that we never released. We re-recorded it and gave them that. We played it at the show, and that was the very first Stabbing Westward show we had done in twenty years. People were just so stoked to see us at a sold-out club in Chicago that no one cared they played a new song they didn’t know.
Then the next year, after we played around a dozen shows, we gave them another new song. It was a song we had written for the self-titled album that was too heavy for it. It was a really good song; we had written twenty songs, and only used ten. We played it and I thought people would be sort of excited to hear new music.
That was the moment it dawned on me, maybe people don’t want to hear new music. We put the song sixth or seventh in the set, played a bunch of songs they knew, people were pumped, then I said, “We are going to play a new song.” People cheered, then we started playing, and I saw everyone’s head drop down and started looking at their phone. Everyone started glowing blue as they started looking at their social media. I thought, “Maybe they are tweeting how awesome the new song is.” Then they never looked up again. (Laughs) I thought, “Oh no, they are just bored! They don’t know the song, so they are taking a quick break to check their Facebook or whatever.” We lost them, and it wasn’t until a couple of songs later that we regained the lost energy.
That was when I was like, shit, if we do a new record, is anyone going to hear it at a show? The Dreaming, they always expected new music, because that’s all there ever was. We mixed in some Stabbing Westward hits, but mostly it was all songs I had written over the past ten years. People expected that. But at a Stabbing show, people are in a mind frame of wanting to hear the songs they knew in high school or college. I think perhaps if we release some material, an EP or something, let people hear it, get it on Spotify, and get a chance to listen to it first. Then it’s not new, and you don’t know what’s going on.
Hopefully people are open to it, because I don’t want to sing the same old songs forever and ever. We will never be a band that says, “I’m tired of ‘Save Yourself,’ we are not going to play that anymore.” We will never be that band! We will always give the fans what they want, we will always play the hits and songs they want. It would be nice to occasionally toss in a new song. (Laughs) There is stuff I want to say and new stuff I want to sing about, I just don’t know how excited people would be to hear it.
CrypticRock.com – Understandable. Social media ruins everything. (Laughs)
Christopher Hall – I know! There is really nothing worse than giving your heart and soul on stage, looking out, and seeing people looking at their phone. It’s like, really? I can’t even command your attention with a PA and a light show, what do I have to do? No pun intended. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – It is very distracting and rude on all ends; a lot of artists are disgusted with it.
Christopher Hall – I used to kind of rail about it at shows. There would be people in the front row holding up their phone filming the show, which is going to sound like shit; you are so close to the band that the sound is going to be awful. All you are going to be getting is my crotch and nostrils from the front row. I am literally singing to this person in their face, and instead of looking at me, a foot and a half away, they are looking at a little tiny me on a 6-inch phone. It is like they are a jumbo-tron and they don’t even know it. Make a connection with me, not your phone! If you post it, no one is going to care where you were – you should be excited that you are right there and right now. Be present! I used to try and say that, but people would film me saying it. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – It’s so true! The other thing is, you are never going to watch it yourself, ever.
Christopher Hall – Right, ever. Wouldn’t it be better to be at the concert and remember the concert? If you are filming the whole time, you are not even there; you are not present in the moment. You are so obsessed with your phone and the act of doing it. I think now that is how a lot of people live their life through that lens and filter, it’s so weird. People get to choose what they do, it’s not wrong to challenge their belief system. Think about it for a minute. If you should think you should stare into your phone at a concert, cool. I am not going to yell at you, I promise. It’s your money, do whatever you want to do. The world has gotten crazy, hasn’t it? I don’t want to be the old man person.
CrypticRock.com – It’s not being out of touch. It’s something, if you step back and look at it, you realize social media is like an addiction. People have disconnected from reality and are completely enthralled in this cyber-world where many rely on a like or smiley face for self-justification.
Christopher Hall – Yes. It triggers a little hormone release in your brain, and it’s a little moment of approval – even if it means nothing. Honestly, how much effort does it take to double tap a picture? None. You glanced at it and you double tapped it. It means nothing. But, for the person who posted it, if they can get a hundred of those, suddenly I have value. I did it for a while for the band, but it really does become a bit of an addiction.
CrypticRock.com – Totally! It’s a truth everyone needs to at least consider. Last question, beyond music, we also cover Horror and Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of either genre, do you have any favorites?
Christopher Hall – I can’t really watch Horror anymore. I don’t know what happened, but I think it’s probably having kids. Once you have kids, things that were gross and demented become sadistic and, how can anyone do that? Violence in the world suddenly feels very different once you have children, because you always seem to manage to picture your kids being the victim of something very awful. I read a lot though. I am currently reading this guy Brandon Sanderson: I am going through his books as fast as I can. I read a lot of fantasy and Science Fiction. I haven’t got a chance to see hardly any movies at all. I think the only movie I’ve seen in the last year was Black Panther (2017) because it was on Netflix.