Christopher Hall and Walter Flakus of Stabbing Westward
The band, formed by Christopher Hall and Walter Flakus in 1985, enjoyed commercial success in the late '90s with a pair of Gold-certified albums, Wither Blister Burn & Peel in 1996 and Darkest Days in 1998, both of which brought them a string of rock radio hits, including "What Do I Have to Do?", "Shame" and "Save Yourself."
Hall and Flakus went their separate ways in 2002, but 14 years later, resuscitated the band, leading to an all-new EP in 2020, Dead and Gone, and what will be their fifth full-length album in the near future. Vocalist Hall spoke with Songfacts about the band's reunion, the story behind several key tracks, and how industrial managed to rise from the underground.
Christopher Hall: It was a series of events. None of us had talked for a very long time. My father passed away about six years ago, and Walter and I – the two founders of the band – grew up within about 30 miles of each other down in Central Illinois. When my father passed away, I flew home for the first time in about 20 years. Walter had heard what had happened and drove four hours down from Chicago for my dad's funeral without telling me he was going to be there, which was incredibly thoughtful of him because I was pretty much by myself.
So, we met up at the funeral, laid my dad to rest, and then we were in this small town that he grew up in, where my grandparents had lived. It was sort of my surrogate town because I lived in a tiny, small town. This is the college town there [Macomb, Illinois, home of Western Illinois University, where Hall and Flakus formed the band]. So, we went to all of our old favorite haunts – the bars where we hung out and favorite pizza place. We just hung out and swapped stories.
Walter had been traveling around the US for most of a decade and a half after the band ended – he started doing radio. He had become a music program director. He was back in Chicago running a big station in Chicago [WKQX] and I continued on touring the whole time we'd been apart. So, we had lots of stories to share and I think we both thought there had been bad blood between us – I'm not really sure why. But we put that to rest and laughed it off.
I was flying out the very next day, but before I left, I said, "Why don't we get together and work on a song? For old time's sake." He still wrote music even though he didn't have much to do with it. He was like, "I've got a couple of pieces of music with no vocals. I'll send them to you and see if you come up with anything." And I loved it.
It was such a blast from the past for me because I had been working with a half dozen other musicians since the band broke up and none of them really clicked as far as a writing partner. I still felt like I was doing all the heavy lifting in all my other bands. And when I heard these songs from Walter, I don't know if it's just because it's what I grew up listening to and it's what I'm used to, but it felt really good and really right after what felt like a decade of trying to re-create what Walter had been writing. So, I immediately got to work on them, and it was super-easy writing over the top of them because it's what I've always done in the past.
So, we ended up coming up with a bunch of songs together, and he basically joined my band, The Dreaming. He joined our band for one record.
We never really thought of putting Stabbing back together. We weren't really sure if we could. We weren't sure of the legality of it, where the other guys in the band were, stuff like that. I was signed to a little label, so we put that record out and toured for six months – played a bunch of Stabbing songs in the process because I knew that a lot of the fans coming to the shows wanted to hear them. So, we mixed our songs with Stabbing songs and a couple of covers to make it a fun night for the audience.
And then someone asked us in Chicago if we could do a benefit show as Stabbing Westward for the Double Door, which was closing very soon after that. They were having the Cold Waves Festival, which is a big alternative festival in Chicago, and they wanted us to do a show at the Double Door, which is a small club, as the opening of the festival party. We were like, "Sure, why not? It will be fun." We got a guitar player from Chicago who was one of the three or four guitar players from Stabbing Westward back in the day, and he jumped up with us. We put together a 45-minute set of all Stabbing material.
The place sold out – it was nuts. We played the same club as The Dreaming six months earlier, and it was 60% sold out. We had no idea that anyone even remembered or cared, so that was a bit of a shock to us.
But then I've also seen the same thing happen to bands in LA, like when The Cult got back together and did three nights in LA, but then couldn't sell 25 tickets in Oklahoma. I thought, "Well, maybe it's just because it's our hometown." Then we got asked to do a show in Philly on Halloween. We were like, "Well, now we're doing shows. Yeah, we'll do it!" We went and did it, and that sold out and was equally as enthusiastic. So then we were like, "Wow. Maybe there's still something here that people care about." We kept doing it and seeing what happens.
After about a year of doing that, we decided to write some new music as Stabbing Westward and see if anyone has any interest in it. We put out our little three-song EP and it pretty much sold out as fast as I could print them. That's when we decided we should find a record label to help us out, because that was a lot of work coming out of my bedroom.
Songfacts: Let's discuss the stories behind several Stabbing Westward songs, starting with "What Do I Have to Do?"
Hall: I write the same song over and over again, it seems like! "Shame" was very much me asking the simple question, "How can I keep going?"
I had lost someone – a divorce from my first wife - after we had gone on tour forever and ever. It was just, "How can I exist without you? How am I supposed to continue to keep living when all I can think about is you and you not being here?" I tend to come back to that theme quite often.
Songfacts: "Sometimes It Hurts."
Hall: The drummer [Andy Kubiszewski] wrote that song, but I know exactly what he's talking about. He had a situation where he broke up with his girlfriend and moved from Cleveland to Chicago. The night after it happened, he went out with friends and tried to drink the whole thing away – just tried to forget the whole thing. He completely wrecked himself and didn't remember how he got home, but he remembered the next day that it still hurt just as bad as the day before, but that he was incredibly hungover.
He put some really introspective lyrics in that one that I enjoy, like, "After all this time you'd think I'd understand the way you feel." He had a really unique way of writing. Andy wrote a lot of our lyrics and songs – he had a really cool way of writing that perspective that I didn't take. And to me, it was really refreshing and it added depth to the album. Otherwise, it would have been only one person's thought process.
Songfacts: "Save Yourself."
I just felt like everyone was looking to me for some sort of answer, because not only did we have "Sleep," but we had songs about mental illness and depression and dealing with hard times and loss and things like that, and everyone thought that since I had written these songs that I had found the answer. I hadn't. That's what "Save Yourself" is about. I know nothing. I'm right there with you, feeling the same things you're feeling. You have to figure it out for yourself.
At the time, it felt like a selfish song, like, "I can't help you, sorry." But I was trying to help them by saying only you can help yourself.
Songfacts: "So Far Away."
Hall: That's a song where you're in it and you're looking across at your partner and realizing they're still there – on the surface nothing has changed – but you can't seem to actually reach out and touch them anymore. Some wall has been built between you and you can't figure out how to bridge that wall. I think that's something a lot of married people with kids can definitely associate with.
Songfacts: "Dead And Gone."
Hall: Remarkably like "Shame," pretty much the same idea, oddly enough. The same question: "How can you go on when this favorite person in your life who was your last hope at happiness has left? Now that they're gone, how do you continue?"
The same question I ask every time... thanks for pointing that out, I appreciate that. [Laughs]
Songfacts: Why do you think industrial music became so popular in the 1990s?
Hall: It seemed like it only became popular for a very short little burst into the mainstream consciousness. It was always a thing - we loved it when we were kids.
I think the music that you grew up listening to in high school and college stays with you forever. As kids, Walter and I were crazy about Ministry and Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk and Front 242 and bands like that. Anything Al Jourgensen did we just thought was the greatest thing on earth. That was always just what we wanted to do.
We were both in other bands – together and apart – that were mostly cover bands. One band was like a new wave cover band. I was in another band that did a lot of Smiths and Echo & the Bunnymen type stuff. But Walter and I always secretly wrote industrial music in our bedroom. We would put together every keyboard and drum machine we had and bounce tracks on a four-track. That was our passion.
But alternative music happened at the end of the hair metal thing. Grunge kind of pushed hair metal away, and then as grunge retired, people looked for a new alternative to alternative. I think Trent Reznor just had perfect timing with the success of his first album [Pretty Hate Machine, 1989] and then with him doing Lollapalooza, and then Woodstock. They had this once-in-a-lifetime show at Woodstock that just blew them into the national consciousness. And they had amazing songs that were super edgy to be on the radio and made everyone feel edgy and dirty. When that happened, every record label in America - and this is what they always do, they're reactive as opposed to being proactive – they looked around and said, "Where can we get one of them?"
We had already been playing clubs in Chicago and selling out pretty good-sized local venues on our own. Labels came in and took a look at us, and said, "They've already got a thing happening." We rode the wave that I thought was a slow-rolling wave for 20 years, but Trent had peaked it at that moment, and that lifted us up much higher than we ever would have been able to otherwise. Our dream was to release a record on Wax Trax! and sell 10,000 records. The idea of being picked up by Columbia was both a dream come true and a nightmare. [Laughs] Oh my God... nobody asked for this!
[Stabbing Westward was dropped by Columbia Records after releasing three albums on the label, the last of which, Darkest Days (1998), sold over 500,000 copies. By the end of their run at Columbia, everyone at the label who championed the band when they signed was gone. Stabbing Westward moved on to an independent label, Koch Records, where they released their 2001 self-titled album.]
But in the first year, we got a tour with Front 242, and then over the next two years, we got to do two separate tours with Depeche Mode, so we were living the dream.
It was a very short blip. It was us, Gravity Kills, Nine Inch Nails. Machines Of Loving Grace had a little blip there for a while when the first Crow soundtrack came out. Tool kind of slid into that but then turned into something much greater and broader. Limp Bizkit and bands like that took some of that electronic stuff from Nine Inch Nails and added more of a rap spin, and Korn added a metal spin to it. But it still had a lot of those same qualities. And Marilyn Manson, as well. But to me, it was a tiny blip.
June 1, 2020
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Photos: courtesy Stabbing Westward (1, 2), @Pharmadiver/Kim Hansen Photography (3)
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