Bryan Erickson of Velvet Acid Christ on keeping friendships to a minimum make time for music
Photo Courtesy Bryan Erickson
Velvet Acid Christ started as an offshoot of Toxic Coma, a project whose strange and unsettling recordings finally saw a wider release last year. Velvet Acid Christ was a decidedly more serious and musical effort rather than an attempt between friends to shock each other and make each other laugh. Velvet Acid Christ has explored a variety of sounds across its existence, with each album having a different sound or nuance from a core of broadly experimental electronic dance music sound with live instruments giving it a bit of an organic feel.
Toward the end of the '90s, Velvet Acid Christ released the Fun With Knives album and became a bit of a sensation in the gothic-industrial world. The act's central figure, Bryan Erickson, was very adept at tapping into dark emotional territories and making it an accessible, and danceable, even as his songs had the ability to get under your skin.
Velvet Acid Christ did its first tour in Europe around the time of the release of that album, and its first and only tour of the U.S. came about in 2000 with the band's sole live date in its home town to date. The entire time, Erickson has been a prolific songwriter with twelve albums under his belt, including 2012's Maldire. We recently had the chance to speak with the affable, intelligent and humorous Erickson about a bit of the history of the project, why this is his first live show in over twelve years and the fickle and seemingly arbitrary nature of success, underground or otherwise.
Westword: Before Velvet Acid Christ, the project had a different name?
Bryan Erickson: We kind of named it before we had songs. It was called Cyber Christ a long time ago. I ended up changing it because we wanted it to roll off the tongue better and we wanted it to be strange and abstract.
You are from Colorado? Where in town did you grow up?
I began my teenage descent into goth-emo-teenage-hood, whatever you want to call it, in Arvada, and then when I was in my teens, we moved to Westminster, and I've been here since.
What kind of music did you get into as a teenager?
When I was a kid, I was into progressive rock bands like Yes, Styx and Rush, and stuff like that. I was into New Wave, like Duran Duran, and stuff like that, because I grew up in the '80s. I did like the weirder stuff that was more abstract. I met some people in my teen years that introduced me to Sisters of Mercy, and that completely changed my musical trajectory. Then I discovered the Mission UK, The Cure and Skinny Puppy. That opened up a whole new world of electronic dance music, goth music and alternative rock, from punk rock to post-punk to goth to industrial dance music of the late '80s and early '90s.
Oh, sure, maybe stuff like Meat Beat Manifesto, Front 242, Clan of Xymox, Death in June...
Yeah. What's weird is that I got into Current 93, hardcore, back in the early '90s, and they became my ultimate band. Them and The Legendary Pink Dots. I still consider both bands that I have the most records from in my collection. Legendary Pink Dots are my favorite band in the universe. I make a dance-y, gothic, industrial music thing, and they make more of a weird, progressive musical thing.
How did you get started making music?
I was in my cousin's band when I was really young. It was kind of an '80s New Wave pop thing. It was just really awful. I was not a cool kid in the '80s. I used to wear military clothes in school; I was one of those weird outcasts. I moved around a lot, didn't fit in, that kind of situation. The guy in that band had a Jupiter 8 and a couple of [Roland] MKS-80s. I just remember he said, "These are four thousand dollar synthesizers." He would play them, and my jaw would hit the floor. "That's what I want to do! I want make sounds like this!" Guitars get kind of boring, honestly, and especially back then, I was fascinated with the way these synthesizers sounded. So that's where my lust for what became this began.
My original band was called Toxic Coma. It was me and my friends just goofing around trying to make music. We would get together every weekend and had to make each other freak out by writing the most obnoxious, strange thing we could. We would try to mess with each other's heads and make stuff that was so alien and otherworldly that you'd wonder what the heck was going on. It turned into a big, fun game between me and five people where we would try to out-weird each other and try to make the most bizarre, silly, funny or dark thing we could.
I always wanted to be more serious and therapeutic with my "issues." So the Velvet Acid Christ came from my desire to "cope." The Toxic Coma thing was more about being goofy. The VAC thing was about celebrating a strange life and all the strange things I like. I don't like mainstream pop music or mainstream television. I've always been into sci-fi, horror and fantasy and cyberpunk stuff and really dramatic stuff. I decided with my band I would take all the things in the world I like and try to incorporate them into my "therapy" session. That's kind of what my project turned into.
The thing is I don't do music to get girls or become popular. I do it because I love making music. And I like to make people think or experience feelings in ways that aren't typical. I feel like there's not enough people that do it like that. If you get too many relationships then you don't have time for your art. It's one of the reasons I've kept my friendships to a minimum. If you get too many obligations and you spend all your weekends and your free time with social events, you won't have time to do art. Which is why I've always been a loner. Which suits me because my childhood kind of pushed me in that direction anyway.
Did you play live pretty early on or has it been more of a recording project?
It's always been more of a conceptual art project. To this day, I don't consider myself as being in a band. I'm more of a songwriter and a producer. I always felt, "What's the point of playing live if nobody likes your music?" I always focused on getting the radio and clubs to play us. If they do that, then maybe we'll play live because I don't want to waste anybody's time forcing myself on people if they don't like it. I take the exact opposite approach.
I try to write the hits or catchy songs that are underground first. Not on purpose, either. It all kind of happened on accident. But when it started to happen, I realized, "Oh, wow, this could actually become something bigger." Which is hard because I've had a revolving door of people I've worked with. I've always been the nucleus, but everyone who isn't rich has to work jobs and take off work. A lot of them ended up having more social obligations and children, and they can't put the time into it to actually make it real.
It was never a band where one guy played the drums, one guy played bass, another guy played the keyboards and another guy sang and wrote the lyrics. Every person I've worked with has usually been pretty competent and can write a whole song by themselves. I can play every instrument, and I can arrange and compose things by myself. Technology makes that easier. You don't have to rely on people, and if you have the time and the desire, you can spend the time to learn some music theory and how this technology works; you can really pour your ideas into it and get fast at it and make it really work.
Does that mean you've been able to make your living just doing this?
That's what's really strange, I actually have been able to live off of this for the last fifteen years. And only because I don't have a band. I do pay people for what they do in the project, but I end up doing eighty percent of it, so I get the biggest chunk no matter what.
In 1997, I did an album called Fun With Knives, and it sold like forty-thousand copies. It's super huge, but I got a decent chunk of change. Most albums have sold between ten and twenty-thousand, and I've been making a record every three or four years. I still do my side project, Toxic Coma, and last year, I finally got a Toxic Coma album released, even though that band started first -- that's pretty funny.
Toxic Coma is more like a kid that keeps putting a Whoopee cushion under your seat, an audio version of that. We'll sample really inappropriate samples and twist things to make it sound really dark and wrong. It's way more messed up and weird. VAC is more inspired by horror films, my depressing childhood, my failed relationships and the struggles with living and the society we live in. Toxic Coma makes fun of everything and takes nothing seriously, except for fucking with your head. VAC is more relatable human experiences and a work of art.
In Toxic Coma we would sample car commercials in the early '90s and make it sound goofy and make them say really awful things. We didn't try to be cool; we tried to be really uncool. And we felt like if we could play it and people liked it, we weren't doing our job. We wanted to make so when we played it everybody would leave except for the people that understand why it's funny. I remember I played Toxic Coma for one of my girlfriends, and she had no idea, and she ran out of the room hysterical and shell-shocked.
Where was your first live show?
In Germany. What's really weird is that all the people in Colorado didn't come along. There wasn't any money in it in the beginning. So I had to beg people in Europe to play with me on stage. I got Ingo [Beitz] from Kalte Farben and Thorsen Stroht. We ended up opening for Suicide Commando, and that was my first mini tour, and we played all over Germany, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and a whole bunch of places.
How did people respond to the music?
Europeans are so much more conditioned. I hate to say it in a bad way, but they're a lot harder to impress, and I get the feeling they're afraid to dance in front of people and they don't move. They clap, but they don't get crazy. But if you make people in the States happy, they will go ape-shit and move around. It's a really different vibe. It's not just me because I've been to festivals and seen huge bands play there, and they get the same reaction I get. Especially the Germans. I don't think they enjoy my music any less; they just don't express their enthusiasm as vivaciously as Americans do. Americans are crazy, so you get a much different reaction from the States.
How did you meet Bill Leeb of Frontline Assembly?
I was a religious Frontline Assembly fan in the early '90s, and I went to every single show. Even before I had any records, I would go up and talk to him and ask him what he was doing. He was great. He helped me discover a lot of really cool bands like Aphex Twin. He just recognized me every time, but I don't know if he knew me. He'd always talk to me, and I tried not to be annoying, and tried to be nice. Finally I finished the first three VAC records, Fate, Pestilence and Neuralblastoma, after a year and a half of music writing hiatus. After that, we went to a Frontline show and I said, "Oh, what the heck. I'll give him CDs." And I did.
Then this guy Thorsten Stroht, who worked at Off-Beat Records and was doing the publicity on Frontline's tour, handling all the interviews and whatnot, called. I guess they listened to music [in the office] and mostly laughed at it. I guess they listened to my music, and Bill was laughing at it, and Thorsten said, "Wow, this is different." He kept listening to it, and fell in love with it. He took it to Off-Beat Records.
They didn't have anything but my email address, and they talked to these girls that knew me, and one them told me Off-Beat Records wanted to talk to me, and I thought she was lying to me. She gave me this phone number, and it was this weird, funky, European phone number. No one answered, so I kept calling for two weeks and nobody ever answered. The very last time I tried, a guy answered, and I said, "Oh...This is real. I've been trying to call you for two weeks." He said, "Yeah, we were on vacation. For three months." I guess in Europe, especially in Germany, they get long vacations. I can call Metropolis any time of the year, and they'll pick up on the phone. In Europe, there are times you can call for a month and nobody's there.
How did you hook up with Metropolis Records?
That's a funny story because before we signed to Off-Beat, I was selling VAC CDs through a mail-order place called Isolation Tank. We were selling them independently through Electric Deathtrip Records, which was my record label that I had back then. We actually signed Suicide Commando and Clinic. VAC took off, and I couldn't run the label, and everyone else decided they couldn't do it, either, so it ended.
I had some big SNAFUs with the label I had in Europe and some unfortunate business deals happened, and I got a good taste of the music industry sticking its boot up my ass. They were licensing my music to Metropolis Records, and I called up Metropolis and asked if they would buy out my contract. And they did, which is why I'm on Metropolis records. I've had really good luck since and everything has worked out with them.
Your first show was in Germany. Where was your first show in Denver?
I've only played one show in Denver at the Gothic Theater with Haujobb and Din Fiv. It was on my 2000 tour. The only tour I've ever done in the United States. We went from Florida, up east, across through Chicago, and then down to Denver, then Utah, to Phoenix, and then up the West Coast and stopped at San Francisco. I never really toured much. The reason I haven't toured since is because that was such a clusterfuck. I didn't make any money.
Also, when you sing industrial music, you do this whisper-screaming thing that kicks your voice in the ass. Whispering is one of the hardest things you can do to your voice because you're talking with wind and blowing all that air over your vocal chords and it dries them out and chaps them. When you do those guttural whisper screams, it kicks your voice's ass so badly. I think that's why Ogre in Skinny Puppy isn't screaming or rasping so much anymore. For this tour I have days off to recover my voice. People think it's easy, and I tell you what, it's not easy.
I'm sure with Skinny Puppy they got so big that they played show after show after show, and that tore Ogre's voice to shreds, and that's why he kind of changed. Because I'm smaller, I don't need to play shows every day. I don't want a tour van. I don't want all these expenses so I can book a lot of days off and rest my voice and not scream and stuff. It's the only way I can play shows.
I tried really hard not to be a local band. I never wanted that stigma. I used to be in the scene, and I used to DJ here and knew all the DJs, and I used to go out clubbing a lot, and I knew a lot of the local bands back in the day. To this day, watching them struggle is so depressing. It sucks being me because everybody wants me to save them and "discover" them. I just don't have that power.
I'm not a record label A&R, so I don't have that power. I can give people tips, but people get obnoxious when you have success and you make yourself accessible. It's more people that come out of the woodwork and try to get you to do things for them, which is kind of annoying because you can't enjoy yourself. When I go out to a club, I just want to talk to people about stuff I like. Music's my job, and I do it all the time, and during my downtime I don't want to go talk about it.
I don't know what makes some people successful and not other people. Your character, the zeitgeist and circumstance and all that right-place-at-the-right-time stuff -- trying to orchestrate that stuff for anyone is impossible. I feel that being famous or getting popular or getting success is luck, fate, and you don't have control over it. You can be really talented, but if you don't write the right stuff at the right time in front of the right people and have the right things happen, it's just not going to happen for you.
I am very lucky that the coincidences and events that happened after I gave my CDs to Bill Leeb. Hundreds of people gave their CDs to Bill Leeb, and not many of them got even as famous as I did. The way things happen are so random and strange, I don't know how to help anybody else with it, honestly. If this is what you're meant to do, give it your all, and if it happens, it happens. I wasn't trying to be famous. Any time I try to, I fail. If I just be me and do what I do; it seems like that's what works.
And obviously, you have a sense of reality. You're popular in one realm of music, but that doesn't equate to worldwide, pop stardom.
Yeah, I mean I was popular in the "EBM underground" in the '90s. But I'm not popular in the clubs now. Now I'm a dinosaur, and the people that will come to the show aren't in the scene anymore. They're going to be the people that liked me in the '90s and the early 2000s. I'm not even as big, clearly, as Skinny Puppy or KMFDM. We can't fill the Fillmore, but we could play the Gothic.
I think we'll get one hundred fifty to three hundred people in each town. In some of the smaller markets, more like a hundred. In larger markets maybe as many as five hundred. That's not super big, but I'm still relevant enough to go on tour and have it pay the bills. I don't have any illusions about my status. I'm not a platinum artist or anything.
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