If Stabbing Westward has a guiding muse, it's a donkey named Eeyore. According to lead singer Christopher Hall, "I was depressed a lot growing up, and I just thought I was this miserable Eeyore-ish person." By way of underlining his claim, he adds, "I think I got that word out of a Sylvia Plath journal."
Plath eventually succumbed to her self-destructive impulses, but Hall and his bandmates (keyboardist/programmer Walter Flakus, bassist Jim Sellers, guitarist Mark Eliopulos and drummer/programmer/backup vocalist Andy Kubiszewski) are still wrestling with their demons. In Hall's opinion, Stabbing Westward's music is a way of reaching out to sufferers like themselves--men and women who are trapped within the dark sides of their psyches and would like to find a way to understand their emotions.
"I try to make people feel less alone," he says. "I finally found out I was suffering from clinical depression at around [age] twenty, after a very arduous high-school and early college experience, and now I write songs about either the disease of depression or about relationships I've had, most of which have fallen apart because I've spent basically five years on the road or in the studio. I try to give in-depth descriptions of what it's like to suffer from depression so some people out there might think, 'Oh, my God, he just described exactly how I feel' and they'll come to realize they're not freaks. And instead of blaming what they're feeling on circumstance or on other people, they could find out that they are clinically depressed or may have a chemical imbalance that can be treated."
In the beginning, Hall's approach to music was neither angst-ridden nor especially theoretical. "My dad was a classical trumpet player who taught me how to play the trumpet when I was four," he says. "I started out with 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' and then was just busting out in Christmas carols or themes to whatever TV show was on at that time. My dad realized, back when he actually still really cared, that I had a musical gift, and he encouraged it. I was going to these tiny schools in Illinois where they never had enough people to put together a proper band, so I went away to music camps in the summer."
Because he grew up in Nowheresville, Hall had little access to the sounds that would shape Stabbing Westward's sensibility. But the situation eventually changed. "I was exposed to that kind of music when my parents got divorced and I moved with my mom to Peoria for a year--which was the biggest city I had ever lived in. We had cable TV, so on MTV I heard the Cure, Joy Division, New Order and bands like that. I went to school, and I was this weird little kind of redneck kid, and the goth/new-wave kids took me in and introduced me to new types of music and did weird things to my hair. They shaved half my head, and then I was this little Robert Smith.
"When my mom remarried, my stepfather kicked me out of the house and I moved into my dad's trailer in Cuba, Illinois, population 754," he continues. "By that time I had already mutated into this goth/new-wave kid, and my dad cut my hair down to a crew cut. But my friends sent me mixed tapes, and I got things through mail-order." In 1982, when he was a senior in high school, Hall met Flakus at a Western Illinois University music camp, and the seed that eventually sprouted into Stabbing Westward was planted. "We decided to form a rock band halfway between the Cure and the Who," Hall says.
The pair subsequently relocated to Chicago, and their group became a part of the city's underground scene. By the end of the decade, Stabbing Westward and Smashing Pumpkins would take turns opening shows for each other. Columbia Records eventually signed the collective (Hall calls the deal "blind luck"), but Ungod, its debut for the label, was a commercial failure that led to the departure of two members, Dave Suycott and Stuart Zechman. "Jim, Walter and I had been together for ten years," Hall notes, "and those guys came in and pissed in the soup and left." Radio programmers considered 1995's Wither, Blister, Burn + Peel to be a considerably tastier broth, giving airplay to a handful of tunes. But Hall thinks that the outfit's latest disc--Darkest Days, produced by onetime Jane's Addiction helmsman Dave Jerden--is its most epic to date. "It's our Lawrence of Arabia," he declares.
True enough, the morose sentiments expressed in Darkest songs such as "The Thing I Hate" and "Torn Apart" are nothing if not grandiose; they suggest a bad breakup that never ends. Musically, however, the album lingers in the murky areas frequented by Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor--flashy icons who make Stabbing Westward seem low-key by comparison. But Hall has no intention of emulating their flamboyance. "They're doing what they're doing to be successful. But the only way I can do it is the way I do it. I am a real person, and I have to present myself as me. I'm the same person who wrote those lyrics--not a cartoon character who wrote fictional lyrics. It's not my style to create an alternate persona. Then, when I'm offstage, I'd still have to be in costume and in character."
Hall insists that he isn't always in a bad mood when he's writing songs--"but when I write really happy stuff, it usually sucks. My unhappiness isn't about being in a band, though. Being in this band and making music are some of the few things in the world that truly make me happy."
Because relatively little of this delight comes through in its music, Stabbing Westward tends to attract transitory fans--listeners who gravitate toward the act during angry, emotional periods only to drift away when times improve. The upbeat nature of today's trendy styles also contributes to this phenomenon, Hall believes. "Everyone's into ska and swing music right now, because everyone thinks it's cool because it's happy and they sing about getting laid and getting drunk."
But like the Eeyore he is, Hall knows that the good times don't last forever. "Everyone is going to slip and fall sometime, and they'll need a shoulder to cry on," he says. "And we'll always be there when they do."
Depeche Mode, with Stabbing Westward. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, November 29, McNichols Arena, $22-$38.50, 303-830-8497.
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