“I fear a world where people don’t read books anymore.”
Photograph is our feature wherein we ask an artist to reflect upon an album they’ve just released, including the ideas behind songs, the concept behind the record and any other incidental thoughts they might have had. This time we’re catching up with fellow Vancouverites Chris DeMarcus, Kerry Peterson, and Craig Jensen of Stiff Valentine (a year and a half on since our last chat) about the band’s fourth record, Empire of Illusion.
ID:UD: We’re interested in the starting point for this record. Especially when listening to it back to back with your previous albums, this is much more focused and that the Stiff Valentine sound has become very developed. There’s a variety in the style of the songs, but it’s still unified. We’re curious if that was the gameplan or it’s just been part a natural result of the recording process.
Chris: It was super-planned. The majority of the album is about books and literature. The plan from the beginning was take it from one angle all the way through. Start with rock, go to metal, go as far as EBM without going totally electronic, kind of to show off all the different things we could do. I wrote the core of the songs and then on about half of them the guests came in added to them. The first song “F451” is a good example, we had Craig play guitar on it in a style I wouldn’t ever play. Like, I had guitar parts and he came in and played the song comepletely differently than me. I started the shell and foundation, but there’s a lot more people brought in on it than before. I’ve been doing this for so long, so we just knew what to do.
Kerry: Some of these songs were already done and we’ve been playing live. “Suicide Execute” has been in our set for a while.
ID:UD: Do you feel like you guys have gotten better at being Stiff Valentine?
Chris: We’ve found a balance of power. It’s always been confusing, the band started as just my thing and we tried to approach running the band as a group but that didn’t work, we had so many people in and out. Galen was in Seattle, I moved to the valley, it was crazy. The idea was everyone put their money in and we’ll see what we can do, but then everyone is responsible for the money and it didn’t work. We flipped to me running everything top down, but that had problems to. We found a balance I think, in writing as well. Our communication is better too, if Craig does something and I don’t like it, it’s never been an argument but now we can work through it way better.
Craig: The three of us, me, Chris and Kerry have gotten way tighter, more honed in. We’re a band in terms of writing and contributing.
ID:UD: We noticed a lot more presence from Kerry, both with vocals and keyboards, was that something conscious in the making of the record?
Chris: Yeah. It’s a weird thing with pre-programmed parts, tracked and taped, and miming which is fine for entertainment, but we’re more musical people. People always think Kerry’s not playing, so I wanted to put her up front as much as possible on the record. I’d like to do more, but like with any album it’s never finished, but it ends at some point. There were times where I didn’t plan to have her on a song, but she came up with a lyric that just worked.
Kerry: I think I’ve gotten better with a lot of things vocally and in terms of my keyboard playing thanks to these two and having worked with them for so long. My husband as well, but you guys taught me 90% of what I know about my synth. They give me the freedom to try things live, and they’ll tell me if it’s not working, but I have so much freedom live, I wanted to bring that to the new material. With vocals I pick and choose what I can do. I’m a considerably better singer now from having worked with this project and doing different voices for the LRP thing now. It’s made it so I can sing a little more girly and bring that into it. I don’t think Chris was expecting me to bring that in. There’s a mix of my angry and my girl voice on this record which isn’t on any of the other ones.
ID:UD: A lot of the promo material for the record has been pushing the idea that Stiff Valentine is a duo composed of Chris and Kerry. Of course as you mentioned there’s a deep list of guests on the record, and people who have been in and out of the band in various capacities. We’re curious as to how much of the record is written with the intention of bringing in outside players to work on songs? Is it ever happenstance?
Chris: The promo stuff, it’s easier to understand because there’s so many duos in industrial and EBM. We’re this weird hybrid which is super hard to market. This song is rock and radio friendly, this song is old Skinny Puppy, how can that be pulled from the same record. I think the label just quickly said this is what we understand it to be, because Kerry has been in the band the longest. There is a basic core, and then Galen comes in and out depending on his availability. Then Jason (Bazinet) is around because we work on so many records. Everyone else was just added on top of that, I just asked them. I asked tons of people. Daniel Belasco, I met him at Terminus and sent him a song thinking he’d ad some vocals or whatever, but he threw on some 80s synths which was super cool. Steve (White of KMFDM), Eric from 16 Volt, what’s nice about them is they send me stuff and it’s perfect. It’s like there it is, super professional, you don’t have to edit anything. It’s half-planned, and half what are people available to do. There were lots more people I asked.
ID:UD: The record is very tight thematically, and the big theme is technology, and people’s interactions with it. That’s a pretty classic theme for industrial, and we wanted to know how you approached that, were you concerned about being able to say something new about those ideas, especially where it’s such a hot button issue right now?
Chris: Technology is always a trade-off I think. You gain something but you lose something. We believe that it’s just gain all the time, but we’re still trying to sort it out. What happens to someone when they’re completely immersed in technology, that’s the progression and the idea behind the album. It starts rocky and gets more electronic. I know it sounds cheesy and old school, but I fear a world where people don’t read books anymore. Like, we won’t even burn them, they’ll just decay because whatever you want to know you can Google it. But a hundred years from now, who controls Google? Will my copy of Farhenheit 451 disappear from my Kindle someday? The main thing is that Empire of Illusion is about the things we believe rather than what’s reality.
“It was supposed to be this road that lead somewhere from beginning to end.”
ID:UD: There are instruments that we think of as being traditionally “less electronic” even though at some level an electric guitar is as electronic as a synth…
Chris: …You plug an electric guitar into a tube and it should feel synthetic, but it doesn’t. Then again, “synthetic” is a combination of two things, like it feels organic and mechanical. On “Nu Mecha”, everything except the vocals was quickly programmed with soundtracking tools, like “click, click, click”. You can create cool accessible stuff, but to me it gets boring because I can hear that, how to make it. There are no acoustic guitars but lots of acoustic vocals and drums.
Kerry: I was happy that this was a balance of all of the things we like. [Chris] is more into metal stuff but he still grew up in the same scene that I did. I still have a soft spot for my dance music and I always will. It was nice to get a lot of that in there.
Chris: It’s a bad analogy, but it’s like “what would James Brown meets Nitzer Ebb with an angry guy singing sound like?”
ID:UD: Like Die Warzau, probably. *laughter* Did you find that thematically things were paralleling your working process for the combination of electronic and non-electronic sounds?
Chris: I’ve always been into mixing those two things. I get bored if it’s too much one thing or another. I want to make an album that everyone will like, but really I do all this stuff is because I get bored with all of the standard stuff. There’s a lot of nostalgia that comes with that, but new straight-up techno bands bore me. That’s a risk I run though, making things too complicated, the kitchen sink’s rattling around and it’s too densely packed.
ID:UD: We were noticing that individual sounds on the album were a lot more easy to identify in the mix on the record…
Chris: I could talk technically about that all day, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and people will always hear things differently. I mean, our ears are even shaped differently. With my ADD there’s always little things popping in and out.
Kerry: It was interesting to hear where you [Chris] put me in the final mixes. When I come in and do the vocals I do as much as I can and you chop it up. It’s always interesting to hear “Oh cool, now I’m over here, now I’m there…”
Chris: The goal was that every song should sound different – different genres, different mix styles – but it should all hold together.
ID:UD: It’s interesting that you’re talking about your ADD tendencies, as it does seem to hold together better than some earlier stuff. If you take the thrash guitar in “Incorruptible” and put it out of context next to “Nu Mecha” or even one of the other guitar heavy tracks, they don’t sound similar, but the record flows from one end to another without feeling like it takes any detours.
Craig: That was part of the plan from the beginning, to have it work as a record, not the first single comes out, then another, then a shitmix of a record. It was supposed to be this road that lead somewhere from beginning to end.
Chris: I wrote everything on this then scrapped it all. Craig came in and played guitar and Darren [from Vancouver thrash act Entropia] came in and played bass. Craig Huxtable [LBM, Ohm] brought some chaos, too. It was too dry before. It was the Craigs coming together.
Kerry: This was a “boys’ song.”
Craig: This brought me back to when I was first playing with Chris and Craig Huxtable in an earlier iteration of Stiff Valentine, just a rowdier sound, a lot of fun
Chris: This reminds me of that gig in Victoria where people were dancing on the bar and shit. I don’t really know why they went crazy but they did. The idea behind this is “party song”: big catchy chorus and pick slides. It starts out using Farenheit 451 themes but then it’s about drinking Fireball and 151. When I turned 21 in the US 151 was my drink of choice because I was an idiot. I put the Fireball lyric in there for Kaine [Delay of Left Spine Down]. I hate that stuff. I’ll drink it, but I hate it.
Chris: This one’s the nu-metal track. I know that’s a damning word. This is about Chris Hedges’ book Empire of Illusion. The main theme is how we constantly reduce everything to cost rather than value; we treat people as money rather than as people. I wanted Jason Novak [Acumen Nation] to sing on this, but he never e-mailed me back. *laughter*
ID:UD: This felt like a big transition from the first song. It’s a much more more traditionally industrial rock song: much more machine-like, the drum feels feel like classic Ministry: mechanical lockstep and clockwork.
Chris: We were practicing this today and I was saying to Craig “you should play all of the guitars on this set” because he has a more human feel. Sometimes playing the same riffs gets boring. Ministry fans love that. Jason [Bazinet] and Galen [Waling] are both drumming on this so you get these weird parts where there are two drum fills at once.
Kerry: The beats remind me of SMP.
Chris: Yeah. We’re all huge SMP fans.
Kerry: We played this at Terminus, didn’t we?
Craig: No, it just has that Combichrist intro.
Chris: This was supposed to start like an EBM song, but then “ha-ha!”, it’s actually a thrash metal song. It kind of has an Avenged Sevenfold riff. It used to sound just like Killing Joke.
ID:UD: It’s a huge song, probably the biggest Stiff Valentine one so far in terms of the arrangement and sound. That’s very much a Killing Joke thing: when they do their big songs they shake the earth.
Chris: Playing this one live is gonna be difficult just because it had so many people on it [Jason Bazinet, Steve White, Eric Powell]. This was kicking around for a long time. It took a lot of refining, but it didn’t get massive until Steve and Eric got on it.
Kerry: This is my favourite new song to play live. I finally get to put my nasty MiniBrute to use.
Chris: A lot of people think it sounds like Prong. I’ll do a pick slide and Kerry will do a filter sweep to follow it, but it’s hard for the [live] audience to tell what is what: when she goes “weeoooow” they can’t tell because they can’t see it. It’s a big problem with keyboards. Some people put a camera overtop or they flip it over.
Kerry: It’s hard to switch patches, though. I’ll switch the strings and then go back to the bassline and doing that on one synth is very difficult in terms of timing. If we’re ever in a position where we could play and I could have my other synths without it being too much of a challenge carrying too much gear… We’re usually opening for other bands, streamlining, in and out as quickly as possible so it’s usually easier to keep one synth.
Chris: On the tour we did with Jason you had the Moog and the sampler and it was awesome. But I got so rowdy onstage and the sampler went flying…
Kerry: …And the power supply broke.
Craig: I only know this one from a drum perspective.
ID:UD: How do you approach that as a drummer? There’s a drum loop, then Jason and Galen recording on it, then you have to come in and play it live?
Craig: We’re going back to having Galen on drums, but when I did play it I’d keep it with a more funky feel. I’d dial in and play along with in-ear monitors. I dunno, just hittin’ the skins, man.
“I Am The Liquor”
Chris: This is the Trailer Park Boys song. I am terrified that alcoholics are gonna love this song and drink themselves to death.
Kerry: I don’t think we’re glamorizing anything.
Chris: It’s kind of about my neighbours who act like Trailer Park Boys: partying til three in the morning and doing drugs with their kids.
Kerry: Abbotsford life. I’m disappointed we’re not going to be playing this live. I’m not playing much synth, but I love singing it.
Craig: I think this album would be great to play front to back if we had the right people involved.
Chris: You’d need the right crowd. Maybe in Chicago there’s enough people. *laughter*
Craig: Might be a bit long for some people.
ID:UD: It’s a very speedy record, though: it’s forty minutes long. That’s a tight record nowadays.
ID:UD: Who’s doing that Burton Bell [of Fear Factory] vocal?
Chris: That’s me. I don’t like to sing as much because I’m so pissed off, but I can so every so often I have to to show that I still can. There’s a tiny bit of vocoder barely in the background that gives it that angelic thing. It’s a more radio-friendly song, too, even though it’s about Greek myths.
ID:UD: This felt like a different song for you guys, in part because Kerry feels very present both in vocals and the big synths at the beginning.
Kerry: There was no way I could do my angry vocals to match Chris’ on this. Sorry. As soon as I switch from the yelling to the girly voice live I’m gone: the sound person has me turned down way too much so you can’t hear a thing. I’ve been learning to step back when I do my louder voice so they don’t turn me down too much, then leaning in right up against it when I do the quieter girl voice. It’s been an interesting learning experience, how to make both voices happen and be heard.
“Faith in Our Machines”
Chris: This is the turn where the record goes more electronic. This is my favourite song on the record. I like the lyrics, they were hard to write and they came out good. Alex King from BlakOpz contributed, Craig did some funk guitar. This would be an awesome song even without the electronics because the drums are super funky. And the laser toms! I love that sound, I really wanted to put it on a record.
This is all about constantly looking at data reports to make moral decisions. Lofty stuff. *laughter*
ID:UD: That’s interesting where risk analysis has become a much bigger deal in political science.
Chris: In political studies you have the philosophical side and the scientific side, every university saying you have to be qualitative. But even like Netflix, the algorithm sucks, but I swear it sucks on purpose. Does it suck so I end up sitting here watching garbage all day?
Kerry: We might ruffle some feathers with this one.
Chris: This song is about Faderhead.
Kerry: He was nice, I partied with him at Terminus. I’m not a fan of his music, but he was really nice to me.
Chris: It’s poking fun. I get bored with that stuff. I don’t see any type of depth in that kind of music. That’s fine, but it seems like there’s some importance I don’t see with Faderhead. I mean, it’s not entirely about him I guess, sample is supposed to sound like a gay porno as a nod to Claus Larsen. Like we’re poking fun at one guy and trying to have fun with another.
Kerry: Even though we’re making fun in this song, but like I said, I like dance music. I’d dance to it.
Chris: Yeah, we still made a song here, it wasn’t just to piss someone off. I have to play this stuff live, so it has to be as close to how I actually feel as possible. I can’t be pretending, it won’t be as good for me, or for the audience. I gotta believe in it when I’m screaming at you! *laughter*
Chris: The first draft of this song, I was like, this is the Decree song. And Gary Numan too. I’m a huge Gary Numan. I love his old stuff, I know a lot of people don’t like his new stuff, but I love it to death. The main thing is he does funk beats. That’s a huge thing for me. I wish upcoming goth and industrial musicians would listen to stuff like that. Me and Chris Peterson have a joke, it’s his joke, but you know you’re in trouble when you have a good song and it has a four on the floor beat, you feel like you cheated because it’s so easy. *laughter*
This song I did almost everything on my own, Kerry came and did some vocals but that was it. If you look at the credits of the album it’s all these other people, but this one is just me. A lot of people this “Oh they’re a rock band, they can’t do that stuff.” Yeah we can, I do the rock stuff because I want to push myself. I think it’s a big secret, it’s super easy to make EBM music. It’s not that it’s bad, but it is easier to make that style of music.
“Brave New World”
Chris: This book (Brave New World) is now. No question about it, we have arrived. I know some people that think that’s a good thing, I think it’s horrifying. It’s not gonna be 1984, we’re just gonna be completely distracted by pleasure in everything we do.
ID:UD: How do you guys (Kerry and Craig) relate to the themes of the record?
Craig: It’s Chris’ ship, he’s the captain and I’m his right hand man, Kerry’s there, we’re along for the ride. It’s Chris’ voice on it, but I still feel a lot of what he’s trying to say.
Kerry: Me too, and I think it’s because we’re all the same age, with similar upbringings. Catholic, the same kind of small town worlds. I get something personal from it, maybe not the same thing Chris gets from it.
Chris: It’s funny, I think the deeper you go, the more complex things get you find the same simple truths. When we drive on tour, it’s just me constantly talking, complaining. It’s like I have a band so I have someone to preach to. *laughter*
Kerry: It’s interesting because you (Chris) are a lot more political than I am. I’m more of a surrealist, I live in a little David Lynch bubble in my mind, but I always support you.
Chris: This is epic at the end. Gang vocals, Daniel Belasco’s huge synthesizers going, Greg playing slap bass on the bridge. That was the idea, everybody together now.
“This Must be the Place”
ID:UD: Not a Talking Heads cover!
Chris: No, but that’s a good idea! *laughter* Traditionally every last song has been a long epic song, so this is just me and Craig (Huxtable) doing that. This is another song that was written quickly, I wrote it and he added a lot of layers of sound and melody.
ID:UD: Good to see Craig Huxtable back in the mix with Ohm.
Chris: It’s funny because he was only going to be on the end song, and he was like “I don’t always want to be on the sappy last song no one listens to!” *laughter*