Tuesday, August 12, 2014

WHO'S LAUGHING NOW: a decade of Deathpile's "GR"

I talked about the movie "Maniac" earlier on this blog. About how it was basically a horrendous story, a grotesque and horrific misogynistic character at its core performing gruesome and despicable acts - and about how the success of the film was to make the viewer feel implicated in the action so as to feel the full horror. For convenience's sake because it operates and affects me in much the same way that film (and the original version) did, let's refer to Deathpile's "GR" as pretty much the audio equivalent. Only more so. Because it's based around a true story of utter horror, which makes it all the more frightening. 

Yeah, I know, power electronics artists singing about true crime and sexual abuse is about as powerful and disturbing this point as a bowl of melted ice cream. "GR" - a concept album about the Green River Murderer Gary Ridgeway written from his point of view - is one of the tiny percent of records in that vein that is as unsettling as you want it to be. Listening to the fancy new green vinyl reissue version of it I got in the post yesterday makes me feel just as uneasy and on edge as it did the first time I heard it a decade or so ago. 

I have a lot of time for Jonathan Canady's work. I dug Dead World, the industrial metal band he was in in the mid-early 90s as a teenager,back in the days when Relapse (who released their now pretty dated but still enjoyable enough "The Machine" lp) were still very much an underground concern. Angel of Decay, Nightmares, and his recent solo work are all highly recommended. His artwork and his late, great "Colours of the Dark" blog piqued my interest too.

But "GR", recorded by himself and David E. Williams, was the game changer for me. It's the work of his I keep coming back to. It's a record that presents difficult, horrible topics in a way that is utterly without titillation, without any sense that these horrible acts are being trivialised. Indeed, the most frightening moment on the record is it's calmest - "Known Victims", which lists those who suffered at this horrendous man's hands. It reminds you this is real. This isn't something you should enjoy, or take lightly. It's an audio documentary of a man's murderous descent into misanthropy and violence.

"GR" succeeds in being a compelling and ultimately affecting record because it channels the atrocity of the situation unflinchingly. It's hard to get through. It is a piece of art that I think genuinely reflects the darkest reaches of the human psyche in a powerful way, and without even a hint of irony.

And I wanted to talk to him about it now, in light of the fact that's back out there once again. I'm by no means the first person to ask him about it, nor is this the most in depth piece, but I felt compelled to ask him about it from the point of view of someone who has been spellbound by it. I'd urge you to read a more detailed piece in Mark Goodall's "Gathering Of The Tribes" too, and thank Jonathan for taking the time to answer these questions for me.

Firstly Jonathan, it's now ten years since "GR" first came out, so looking back on it in hindsight, how do you feel about the record a decade later?

I'm not really one to pat myself on the back when it comes to my own music but I think "G.R." stands the test of time remarkably well. Until David (keyboardist / engineer on the album) and I listened to the vinyl test pressing I hadn't heard it in years. I was expecting to hate it. Other than some of the lyrics making me cringe, I actually enjoyed hearing it again.

Can you remember where the idea to dedicate an entire album to the Green River murderer rather than just,say, a song or two came about? I presume it was a personal obsession/interest that lead to it obviously but what I'm getting at here is taking the step to write a whole album about it - was it something you felt needed a whole album to explore fully?

I can't take credit for the idea. Dominick Fernow from Hospital Productions saw Deathpile perform live in Providence, RI in 2002. After he watched our set he suggested we do a theme album on The Green River Killer as the suspect had just been arrested at that time. I thought it was a good idea so Dave and I agreed to do the release.

How long did the writing take? There was obviously a timeline of events you had to follow in order to tell the story, I'm curious was it difficult to do that, to condense so much information into a relatively short space? Were there any aspects you want to include in the lyrics but couldn't? Any material that wasn't used?

The research and lyrics took over two months to complete. In retrospect I can't believe I actually put so much time and effort into it. I relied mostly on The Seattle Times newspaper articles but also a couple of books, a magazine feature and a couple of TV documentaries. I wrote pages and pages of notes based on that research material. Then I made an outline and built on that from my notes. I broke the expanded outline into potential "songs" and then completed the lyrics after several drafts. So yes, it was a nightmare.

I included everything interesting that I had access to at the time and then added my own speculations as to what Ridgeway may have been thinking. The only material I didn't use was Ted Bundy's theories on the Green River case that were published in the book "Riverman" by Robert Keppel. I think Bundy's ideas were mostly bullshit but they did help me get into Ridgeway's head a bit.

Was there any specific books/documentaries you referred to for research during the writing? And kind of an aside, but have you read the "Green River Killer" graphic novel that came out recently and what did you think of it?

I had already read "The Search for the Green River Killer" by Carlton Smith and Tomas Guillen and actually didn't end up using it for the writing of the lyrics. The only other book out at that time was "Riverman" and it wasn't all that helpful. The Seattle Times was the main source. Some of the research and the voice samples on the album were from two different TV documentaries / news magazine shows but I don't recall the specific titles. Since I can't help you there, I will recommend the excellent film "The Killing of America." It has nothing to do with the Green River case but it's the only True Crime documentary you ever need to see.

I don't care for graphic novels and I have avoided almost everything about the case since the album was recorded. After some time had passed I did end up reading the chapters added to "The Search for the Green River Killer" after Ridgeway's confession, but that's it. At this point in my life I have very little interest in True Crime at all. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that the writing of "G.R." burned me out.
The album is obviously written from Gary's point of view, rather than just a retelling of events from a third party standpoint. On a personal level, do you think approaching the topic from that point of view and inhabiting that head space helped you understand Ridgeway any better? Or empathize with his victims any further?

There was so little detail about the crimes available I had no choice but to try to express what Ridgeway may have been thinking and doing. I am a fan of Peter Sotos' writing so I used some of his early work as inspiration on how to riff on the bland facts. I think I may have been able to understand Ridgeway a bit but obviously not enough if you think about the song "You Will Never Know." It was really all speculation based on the research and reading far too many True Crime books over the years.

As for the victims, since the majority of the album was (to borrow from the Adverts' song) "looking through Gary Ridgeway's eyes" I didn't empathize with them at all. That sounds pretty cold but I was still in the "young and angry" part of my life. I've matured into a kinder, gentler person since then. Funny but true.

Obviously it's not something that ever really gets discussed as in the power electronics/industrial scene I suppose a lot of us are , for better or for worse, unshockable, and the album obviously was intended to be an underground release; but as someone who made a record that I think handles a taboo topic very well ,here's a hypothetical question:  I was wondering how would you respond if someone who were to stumble across the album without really understanding the context were to accuse you of "glamourising" a serial killer in the work?

I don't think killing people and having sex with corpses in real life is very glamorous.

Finally, "GR" ended up being the final Deathpile full length (besides the "final confession" comp) - was this by design? Did you feel after that it was time to draw a line under the project because of the fact that you had maybe done what you'd set out to do, or was there a different reason to call it a day?

Dave and I knew we couldn't top the "G.R." album. As I've said before, I really wish Celtic Frost would have stopped after "To Mega Therion" was released.

For further information on the music and art of Jonathan Canady, please check out:

the album is available via Tesco and Freak Animal or digitally/streaming via Bandcamp

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