Disecting Chemlab

This interview was conducted with Jared Hendrickson (lead) and Dylan Thomas (keyboards) of Chemlab before their show at the Atlanta, GA Masquerade on 5/15/94. Chemlab was currently on tour with KMFDM and Sister Machine Gun, although KMFDM played during the day in Masquerade Park. Sister Machine Gun and Chemlab played in the evening in "Heaven" inside the Masquerade. BTW, the interview with Dylan Thomas is sort of abreviated, since my apartment got broken into and my portable tape recorder inclusive the interview tape was taken before i had transcribed the whole thing.

 For those not familiar with Chemlab, they classify themselves as angel-dustrial. Their music is in the cross-over industrial vein, using keyboard and guitar. Their debut release was the EP "10 Ton Pressure". The current release is "Burnout at the Hydrogen Bar".

Sound Constructors: How did you get into Chemlab

 Jared Hendrickson: I lived in DC for a number of years. I think i figured out over the space of ten years that i was in thirty... thirty-three different bands. Just trying out different things. Playing some guitar. playing some percusiion. Breaking a lot of stuff.

 And Dylan was working on some music. And right around the end of 89 beginning of 90 he asked a number of different people in the DC area: "Well, you know, i don't want to sing, I don't like singing, being up front. Who should i have do all that chore, that lovely chore. And, so a couple of people pointed my way saying, that's the guy you want to get. Which i think is pretty funny but anyway...

 Uh... So he just played some of the stuff that he was working on and i turned him on to a bunch of different music he hadn't heard before. And we just started playing.

 It was pretty cool. We recorded most of the stuff for 10 Ton Pressure. All the pre-production work was done in his apartment. But it was never really supposed to be released.

 SC: How did the release come about then?

 JH: We put it together on tape in his livingroom the way we wanted to hear it. And sort of blindly tried to figure out our working relationship as well. There is this guy in DC who owns a nightclub who wanted to start a record label. He liked our music and said "i'm starting a record label. I'll fly you guys out to the west coast to go work with this producer."

 SC: The first album seemed more electronic and with Hydrogen Bar you brought in a lot more guitars.

 JH: [10Ton Pressure] was totally electronic because we didn't have the facilities or the capacity at that point. We didn't know the people that we really wanted to have working on something like this. We did the best that we could being the two of us--actually there was a thrid guy, joe frank, but he's out of the picture.

 The new album is a much--not necessarily calculated, but a more realized vision of where we wanted to be going. Really mixing the dynamics of the computer and the dynamics of the guitar as the two major forces. Not letting the guitar dominate all the time, not letting the computer dominate all the time. Except that the computer would dominate at least in a subliminal fashion because we write all the songs on the computer. We don't write songs on guitar.

 SC: So you are mostly using the sequencer for your writing work?

 JH: Yeah... And Dylan will build up the basis of a song. He and i will get together, i'll mumble some stuff in his ears and he and i will try to arrange some basic structure for it. He'll go work on it for a while. I'll go work on some lyric ideas. We'll get back together adn try to throw the lyrics on top of it.

 It's a very bizarre process because its diametrically opposed to the natural fashion in which i work, in terms of creating music which is to get together in a rehearsal space and you just start playing. You jam on a certain riff and it feels good, and you do a variation on it and then you play it for 45 minutes because it feels so good. And out of you have a song that is slowly built.

 And [with the sequencer] its very geometric, it's very mathematical in a way. It's hard sometimes to keep the passion in there. And the passion and the soul is so important. And that's why people are afraid of the computer. That's why people are afraid of the future. That's why people are afraid of this kind of music. Because so much of it is soul-less and passionless, and that's not necessarrily a bad thing.... I love music without a soul. I love music that's hard and cold, like sticking your face into a freezer. That's great. But a lot of people are freaked out by it and that's really unfortunate. Because the computer it here to stay

 SC: While we are on the subject of soul-less, do you believe in the use of quantization, or is the sequencer just another recording tool?

 JH: No, we definetely quantize. I like that precision. You see, thing about dynamic for me is taking the chaos of the guitar. Like the Rolling Stones. Do you know what every band follows? They follow the drummer. The Rolling Stones follow Keith Richards on guitar. They don't listen to Charly Watts at the beginning of the song, Keith Richards sets the tempo and has done so for so many years. Very bizarre.

 For me, i like the precision. And to take the precision and to pit it against the chaos of Keith Richards guitar, the chaos that is imbodied in the guitar itself. To take those two forces, the dreconian (?) precision of the computer that never forgets, that never lets you forget. And if you fuck up everyone's going to know. And you take these two forces and make them work together.

 SC: Do you use anything sequenced for you liveshows?

 JH: Sure. We're running an ADAT. Eight tracks of material.

 SC: From the last live show i heard, it sounded like the guitar was more predominant than on the album. Is that part of the live performance? Or what was the approach for recreating th music live?

 JH: To go in there and do what feels good.... And if that means that the guitar comes up louder, ok, but it won't always be like that. We're not setting outselves up to be guitar rockers all the time. It's too easy.

 SC: It seems like a lot of electronic bands....

 JH: ..are going in that direction, yes. But it's going to be a nice big swing in the other direction pretty soon. It can be just as hard, just as agressive. It can make you dance just as much. But it will be a different approach. IT's just that you have to get past people's fears seeing a keyboard on stage.

 You know, the White Zombie tour, we would set up our stuff for our set. "Ah, these geeks, they have keyobards. They must be morons." And then you get out there and you play a good show, hopefully, and they like you despite themselves.

 SC: How is the response different on this tour. Last time you were more in a guitar oriented crowd. This tour is more electronic in terms of setting the scene.

 JH: In terms of hitting into our market strength audience, this tour does us a great deal of service. TheWhite Zombie Tour didn't do us any dis-service; it expanded our fanbase beyond what KMFDM could do. It's approaching the market from two different angles. And we got to have fun both times, so that was cool. But of course, [supporting KMFDM], it's much more the heart of our target audience. Which is cool, because it solidifies that crowd and those are certainly people i want to have be into us. But by the same token, i don't want to alienate White Zombie's crowd, i don't want to alienate Daisy Chainsaw's crowd or Dandelion's crowd anymore than i neccessarily want to court those people.

 We want to do what we want to do. People always want to know what's up with the next album. Maybe you'll hear a lot of guitars, maybe you'll hear a lot of keyboards. You will almost certainly hear lots of keyboards. But i feel like whatever is gonna come down is gonna come down and its great that we get to go on these tours and expand our audience and get the right market and that sort of shit. But at the heart of it all, it's got to be fun.

 Escpecially when you'are out on the road, you live in such total denial and deprivation. It's insane, its' ridiculous. [pointing at a bag of chips] Here's my meal for the day. But that's cool, because you've got to be enjoying yourself, you've got to have fun. The whole industry is built on exploiting people having a blast.

 SC: I understand that when you recorded Hydrogen Bar, you went to Chicago's Wax Trax studios. To what extend did you have the tracks already done? Ddi you do a lot of creative work there, or did you have it all on file and just did the recording there?

 JH: We did a lot of creative work there. We were not as prepared as we should've been. We did a lot of pre-production work in production--down to writing two songs while in the studio.

 SC: Which two songs?

 JH: "Codeine" and "RivetHead". Which were essentially based on two different sequence loops that we brought in as ideas. "Maybe we'll get a chance to work on them." That's all they were. I didn't have any lyrics, we didn't have it arranged, we didn't have it built into some sort of cohesive form. So there was a lot of creative work done there and i don't mean that facetiously.

 SC: What is the purpose behind the sutures? Is it just something experimental to throw between tracks?

 JH: Sure. Because to a certain extend, people would be too freaked out if we did a whole album of sutures. But we may very well do a whole album and just call it Sutures.

 SC: Was each suture suited to go particularily between two songs? Or did you just have a suture and decided to put between two songs?

 JH: It's a combination of both. We'd go in with a couple of basic ideas and then run with them all from there and see what happens. You need to leave a certain amount of room for the creative drive. I know that with the next album it's coing to be much more set in concrete in advance. The sutures actually are very funny things. It's a place where we can just play around. Which is nice.

 SC: I noticed you used some stuff from Ten Ton Pressure for the Sutures on Hydrogen Bar.

 JH: All of them. Every single one.... Because i have 10 Ton Pressure so much i'd love to take the piss out it. Isn't weird? But we're playing "Filament" and "Blunt Force [Trauma]" tonight. And hopefully you'll be able to hear a lot more of the keyboard loops.

 It's something that we're working towards. On tours you don't always get the sound that you like. The sound that you trust, the sound that you trigger off for vocals and guitars, the sounds you know you want everybody to hear, which is a blend of guitars, keyboards, vocals, drums, triggers, loops, samples and the ADAT. It's really like mixing two bands at once.

 SC: How do you go about creating your sounds?

 JH: Factory presets in a lot keyboards are nothing special. You can sample stuff of CDs and we do periodically. I want to do a cover of Frank Sinatra's "The Summer Wind" and record it in the subway tunnels down below Times Square because there are a couple of turns that are very ferocious. And the trains squeel around them and i think it would be great to have that in the background. And maybe some sheetmetal on top of that.

 Creating sounds is very interesting. It provides a much wider spectrum, sonically, to draw from. Just sampling from CDs gets a little predictable.

 You'll have to wait till the gearhead gets here. I'm an old man. I preach the gospel, i'm not the gospel. What i mean [with that] is that in this scenario the frontman is used as a cipher and i decode myself for you. Put the hooks into people, profess certain knowledge. But the knowledge you really gain is inside to Dylan's doing. How the music is made and breaking down the barrier between you and the computer. So i'm just a way of drawing people in and once they're in, i can hit them over the head.

 SC: When you work on songs, Dylan is mostly on the computer and you give your creative input?

 JH: "Loops this here, slow that down, truncate like this, let's put in the chorus here, let's build up the verses this way." I'm not a gearhead. I love the gear and i have tremendous respect for what [Dylan] does. Because he is the wave of the future. And me, i'm along for the ride, so i get turn people on with it, too.

 SC: So what do have on the ADAT?

 JH: It's the thickening agents. There's certain percussion on there. And certain loops, just because Dylan doesn't have enough hands to be able to play six keyboards at once.

 SC: Do you have any soundbytes on there?

 JH: Sure. like on "Chemical Halo" the "see you in hell." That one is on there. Dyaln is busy doing so mauch shit. I mean, we could have it all on a couple of Akai's that the drummer would trigger, which is something that we are thinkng about. But i'd really have to say that i'm not going to be an apologist for tape. I think its great and i think that there is nothing demeaning working with tape whatsoever. I'm sorry, Milli Vanilli did a great deal of injustice to people who play with tape. If you're a drummer and you play with tape you have to be a fucking professional. You'd have to have been playing with a metronome before you ever get behind a tape machine. Diatribe's current drummer only recently was able to pull that together in time for their live shows. But he said "when i first started working with it, it was so hard." It is very strict, because it never forgets and if you fuck up, you're going to flam, you're going to hear double beats. If anything you've got to be more of a stone-cold professional on your instrument to play with tape then to able to speed up when you feel the drummer speeding up for the choruses, slow down a little bit--no, it's always like this, every single night and if you can't do get the fuck out of my face. Any band can speed up any time they want to, but i fucking dare you to play 108 bpm every single night, right on time. If you don't know what you're doing, get away from me.

 I hate people who gave Trent [Reznor] a hard time at the Lollapalooza sho where the fucking box burned out and he couldn't play--wasn't his fault... too much heat. And people say "keyboards... faggots.. they play with tape, they're not for real."--Fuck you, man. Fuck you and all your Blind Mellon ass faggots. You can go die. Because if you're going to play with tape you gotta be good.

 SC: Do you feel that the tape limits you?

 JH: Of course it does, it totally limits you. It's a limitation you have to enjoy, you've got no choice. If you don't like it, you've got to do everything, trigger sampled loops. The drummer we have now used to work with Tool and Die. In Tool and Die, he did that. They didn't have tape at all adn they did some complex shit going on, as opposed to some simple basic pop songs like we've got. And he's really good and he can do it. We just need the equipment to do it.

 But i've got to tell you, with all those Akai's there's a chance for the sounds to freeze up. Someone turns the power of right before the set, you've got to reboot everything. You haven't got a good hard drive. You're in trouble for fucking memory, you know. Fuck the drummer having to load disks. Fuck that. tape is okay. Tape has its limitations, but within the limitations you learn to make it very fluid. Basically, because you have to.

SC: What gear do you use and how do you go about creating your sound?

 Dylan Thomas: I've got a bunch of samplers. I've got an Akai S1000 and for the old album we had a bunch of Emax's. I got the Akai to upgrade my sounds, since it's better quality.

 The way we approached it, though, i had the guitar player play hours and hours of stuff on DAT. Just effects, whatever he wanted and same thing for the drummer. The I took tapes of it all and reformed snippets into melodies. And then sampled all that and played sequences of that in the studio and then had them come back in and play the live melodies that i had made up from them playing. Then i combined them both, so its a nice live sound, but its also got a sequenced sound to it. So its not quite the live rock thing, but its also not the kind of Front Line Assemblyish.

 SC: For the purely artificial sounds, do you mostly use sample based techniques or do you do any synthesis?

 DT: I had a bunch of Moogs and Arps and shit. I just made up my own stuff and sampled it. Some of the sounds you hear on the albums have filter sweeps and changes that go through the sequence and those were live keyboards where i'm changing the dials. It's something i like to do and i wish i could do more of. The new keyboards don't let you do that.

 SC: Yeah, except for the K2000...

 DT: I just got one of those like five six months ago.

 SC: Do you use its capabilties, or is it just a sample player during the shows?

 DT: I've been making up sounds on the synthesis program of it. I haven't gotten too deep into it, though. I still have ways to go before i have whole banks of my own sounds. But its a nice board, it's got everything. SC: What kind of gear do you use for your sequencing?

 DT: I use a Macintosh. I had this long talk with this English guy, who wanted me to use Atari. But i like to do graphics programs and other things and the Atari just doesn't let you do that. And the Mac's got a lot of Harddisk recording capability.

 I used Master Tracks Pro, but i'm trying to get updated when we get the budget for the next album. I'm trying to get something like a Mac Quadra, cause i've been using an LC which is garbage.

 SC: For harddisk recording it doesn't quite cut it.

 DT: It doesn't even cut it for sequencing, but i'm trying get a Quadra system and maybe Cubase Audio. And maybe something like ProTools or SoundTools. I have an ADAT right now and Steinberg makes an interface for Cubase and the ADAT so that you don't have to use a track for SMPTE. So i could actually have 16 tracks digital for a quarter of the price of what 16 tracks digital normally costs.

 SC: When you went to Chicago to do the album, did you do most of the processing in the production phase, or were the sounds already processed?

 DT: A lot of the samples were sampled with effects. Some Boss predals and i had a harmonizer at home. I try to sample with effects, the only thing is once you do that, you limit it to that. So sometimes i'd sample the same sample twice, one clean and one with all the effects for when i'm at home writting. When i get to the studio, they've got four harmonizers and like twelve thousand dollar EQs. So i can sit there for a couple of hours and screw around. We just did a plethora of everything, there was no set way. Plus we learned a lot when we went into the studio. We went in kinda half knowing what we wanted to do and half not knowing how to do it.

 SC: I read in Nexus6 that Critter Newell had you use some of his sample libraries.

 DT: Well, Critter has worked with Ministry and those guys and has done like a million remixes. The only sample library we got from him was like, we went to Blockbuster and rented like ten hours worth of movies. It was kind of stupid. We spent about a thousand dollars watching ten hours of movies. But we went through and we would say which samples he would pull out. So we made a little library of our own that way.

 SC: Is that mostly soundbytes or movie sounds?

 DT: Mostly sounds, no talking. Like electronic noises or clanks and percussive sounds. [Critter] was the producer and engineer, but more engineer. He didn't change the music or add any sounds. I'm definetely not into using other people's sounds. I've taken some sounds from CDs and stuff, but i'm definetely not into taking an obvious sample from someone--hey, there's a Skinny Puppy sound, i've got to have that.

 SC: When you use the ADAT for live work, who triggers it?

 DT: I trigger it all. I have a big rack with my samplers, the K2000, a mixer and the ADAT.I can start it with a remote. It doesn't let me control what order of songs i play, which is kind of unfortunate. We've trying to cut down what we use on tape for the last three tours now adn we're getting less and less. A lot of the tracks or only for us on stage, not for the house. It's a lot of click-track stuff, like kick and snare we keep on tape but it's for us on the monitor instead of a click-track. Because click-tracks sound like clicks and you can get that bleed into the audience. The drummer has a separate click track that comes in before each song so he can count of.

 We're trying to cut it down even more so that the drummer triggers loops from his drum kit, that we would have on tape, so that there is nothing on tape. That way we're going to be able to do any song we like, but that's going to take a lot more equipment. We're trying to get away from being a DAT band, but it's ineviatable in this kind of music, unless you have like four keyboard players. I don't mind tape, i do mind being stuck to a certain set. We've thought of sequencing on stage but that antoehr problem in itself.

 SC: The DX7s are used only as controllers, right?

 DT: We use them because they are built like houses. They're heavy and metal and i dropped them a million times and they work fine. The new keyboards are plastic and too expensive. So everything else is rackmounted.