In the course of four albums released during a decade together, Stabbing Westward has carved out its own place in the industrial-gothic rock scene. Facing a number of challenges—battling endless critical comparisons to Nine Inch Nails, experiencing personnel changes and infighting, and losing a major-label recording contract in 2000 among them—the band re-emerged with a new vision and different sound on its fourth album on independent, German-based Koch Records in 2001. “This is really a brand new beginning for the band,” bassist Jim Sellers told Vox Online about the changes in the group’s outlook, adding, “We’re a brand new band, almost.”
The origins of Stabbing Westward date back to the mid-1980s, when Chicago-area musicians Christopher Hall and Walter Flakus joined forces; by 1990, the two began recording some original compositions with Hall as the vocalist and Flakus on keyboards. Later, the duo was joined by Stuart Zechman on guitar, Jim Sellers on bass, and David Suycott on drums. The full lineup of Stabbing Westward began to attract attention for its gothic-industrial sound, and the contribution of the track “Violent Mood Swings” to the Cyberflesh Conspiracy compilation in 1992 helped the band secure a recording contract with Columbia Records. With interest in industrial music reaching a peak in the wake of Nine Inch Nails’s hugely popular Pretty Hate Machine, expectations were high for the Chicago band’s debut.
Recorded in England in six weeks, Stabbing Westward’s debut, 1993’s Ungod, drew inevitable comparisons to Nine Inch Nails for its harrowing, introspective lyrics and wall-of-sound production. Later, some members of the band would be critical of their efforts on Ungod, particularly for its lack of emotional and musical subtlety; at the time, however, the group promoted its debut relentlessly. It scored a key opening slot for Rage Against the Machine at the influential CMJ Music Marathon in 1993 and followed up with gigs with Irish band Therapy? and Depeche Mode throughout 1994. Despite its best efforts, however, the group failed to get tracks from Ungod on the radio, and the album sold only about 48,000 copies inabout 48, 000 copies in the first three years of its release.
After the release of Ungod, Stabbing Westward faced the first of its key personnel changes. Mark Eliopolous joined on lead guitar and Andy Kubiszewski took up the drums while also helming the band’s electronic programming; later on, the band enlisted Derrek Hawkins as its live touring guitarist to flesh out its concert performances. With the new lineup, the band returned to the Chicago area to rehearse songs for its crucial sophomore effort; after recording a demo, the group traveled to Woodstock, New York, in May of 1995 to record Wither Blister Burn & Peel.
Upon the January of 1996 release of Wither Blister Burn & Peel, the band leapt once again into a round of interviews and concerts to promote its latest effort, which the members of Stabbing Westward believed would be their breakthrough album. “We definitely made a conscious effort for everyone to face the reality that we were not as good as we wanted to be or thought we were,” Hall candidly told Billboard In April of 1996. “And live, we sucked. We were terrible. We weren’t ready as a band; it took a year and a half of touring before we really got it together and honed our craft.” The hard work paid off, and the band’s second album quickly outsold its debut, in part due to the addition of the video clip for the track “What Do I Have to Do?” on MTV’s Buzz Bin. Although the emphasis on emotional turmoil remained the band’s calling card on Wither Blister Burn & Peel, “We made a decision to not be so afraid of pop music,” Hall explained to Billboard. “The band has a history of being a dark, Revolting Cocks, industrial band. We found we were on a oneway track, and we couldn’t break away from what people thought we were.” New addition Kubiszewski, who wrote “What Do I Have to Do?,” added, “This record is more about healing, while the first record was really full of sh**. It was lazy and easy and like ‘Oh, look at me, I’m the victim, you did this to me, you should feel guilty.’”
Eventually, Wither Blister Burn & Peel reached number 67 on Billboard’s album chart and earned a gold record for sales over half a million copies; “What Do I Have to Do?” reached the top ten on the magazine’s Album
For the Record …
Members include Mark Eliopolous, lead guitar; Walter Flakus (born c. 1968), keyboards; Christopher Hall (born c. 1968), vocals; Derrek Hawkins, guitar; Andrew Kubiszewski (born c. 1964), drums; Jim Sellers (born c. 1967), bass guitar.
Group formed in Chicago, IL, 1991; released first album, Ungod, 1993; achieved gold record status with second album, Wither Blister Burn & Peel, 1996; released third album, Darkest Days, 1998; switched from Columbia Records to Koch Records, released fourth album, Stabbing Westward, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Koch Records, Loch-hamer Straße 9, 82152 Planegg-Munich, Germany, website: http://www.kochrecords.com. Website —Stabbing Westward Official Website: http://www.stabbingwestward.com.
Rock Tracks chart. The band also heightened its profile as the opening act for some dates on the Sex Pistols reunion tour in 1996 and toured with Kiss as well. With rival act Nine Inch Nails undergoing an extended period of inactivity, it appeared that Stabbing Westward had a credible claim for being the leading gothicindustrial rock band of the day.
With a gold record and a reputation as an energetic live act, the band entered a Los Angeles recording studio for its third album, Darkest Days, with high expectations. “The last record, no one expected anything out of us because our first record sold so few,” Hall commented in Billboard in March of 1998. “And [with the first record] the thought of us actually being on the radio was foreign to us, so we had no pressure or preconceived ideas. This record, we felt the pressure.” Unfortunately, the tension within the band translated into delays as its members argued over which songs would make it on the album. “It just sort of occurred to us that we have three writers in the band, and it took a little while, egowise, to get used to that,” Hall admitted to Billboard, explaining, “There were vicious battles between the three main writers in this band. Over mixes, songwriting, songs, lyrics, music, production, everything. It was a battle every time.”
Released in April of 1998 after six months of preparation and three months of recording, Darkest Days did not match the critical or commercial success of its predecessor. A Q review noted, “Stabbing Westward’s faceless guitar-powered dark electrónica has a whiff of the Internet porn [aficionado] about it: a like-minded crew of guys who’ve decided to combine their disaffection and computer knowledge by knocking together a few gloomy tunes in a friend’s garage.” A critic from Pitchforkmedia.com revived comparisons with Nine Inch Nails in a review of Darkest Days, commenting that “There’s no denying that the comparison between Nine Inch Nails and Stabbing Westward is analogous to the difference between an original Picasso and the print you get of it in the mall. The original is all heart and soul; the print is mass-produced to satisfy a need.”
While the band promoted Darkest Days by opening for Depeche Mode and touring with British act Placebo through 1999, sales for the album were only a fraction of the band’s previous effort. To make matters worse, the band found out that it was being dropped by Columbia Records; the announcement was made on the very day Stabbing Westward was going into the studio for another recording session. “It was really freaky, being cut loose like that,” Jim Sellers admitted in an interview with Vox Online, “but at the same time we felt a tremendous burden being lifted. Here was a great opportunity for us to make some choices and decide where we wanted to go.” Within a few months, the band signed a deal with independent, Munich-based Koch Records and returned to the studio to records its fourth album. Released as Stabbing Westward in of June 2001, the band supported its album by touring with the Cult.
De-emphasizing the programmed music that weighed so heavily on its past albums, the group produced a more mainstream rock sound on Stabbing Westward. The focus on emotionally charged lyrical matter, however, remained the band’s hallmark. “The dark elements that have made this band so fascinating over the years are still very much in evidence,” a Metal-Is review noted. “What they’ve done is realign them with more traditional alternative rock values, while also being fully aware of the need to sound as contemporary as possible.” Q was somewhat more frank in its assessment: “Stabbing Westward are chasing middle-of-the-road American rock radio, and they’re likely to catch it; whether long-term followers will warm to this smooth new direction remains to be seen.”
(Contributor) Cyberflesh Conspiracy, Cargo, 1992.
Ungod, Columbia, 1993.
Wither Blister Burn & Peel, Columbia, 1996.
Darkest Days, Columbia, 1998.
Stabbing Westward, Koch, 2001.
Billboard, April 13, 1996, p. 1; March 7, 1998, p. 9. Q. August 1999; August 2001.
“Biography,” Stabbing Westward, http://www.stabbingwestward.com/bio.html (December 11, 2001).
“Stabbing Westward,” antiMUSIC, http://www.antimusic.com/fucu/aom/2001/july/index.shtml (December 11, 2001).
“Stabbing Westward: Darkest Days” Pitchforkmedia.com, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/s/stabbingwestward/darkest-days.shtml (December 11, 2001).
“Stabbing Westward: Stabbing Westward” Metal-Is, http://www.metal’is.com/cms/crp/crpArticle.asp?cid=1085 (September 7, 2001).
“Vox Online Interviews Stabbing Westward,” Vox Online, http://www.voxonline.com/alternative/sw_2001/sw_interview.htm (December 11, 2001).