It’s incredible to think that a band initially formed by two childhood friends in the mid-80s would be delivering one of the most captivating records of their career more than 35 years after the band’s inception. However, Stabbing Westward has always been a band that has defied the odds. Formed in 1986 by Walter Flakus and Christopher Hall, the band went from underground cult sensation to dizzying heights during the alternative boom of the mid-’90s with critical and commercial success thanks to such songs as “Shame,” “Save Yourself,” “So Far Away” and “What Do I Have to Do?”. To this very day, these songs remain anthems of heartache, dejection, rage, betrayal, and depression for an entire generation of rock fans. With two Gold albums and numerous hit singles, Stabbing Westward fell from grace with the 2001 self-titled album amid personal and professional turmoil, disbanding the following year and leaving a void in modern music that was somewhat filled by Hall’s later work in The Dreaming. However, it was the release of that band’s ‘Rise Again’ in 2015 that the seeds were sown for a reunion. That album saw Flakus once again making music with Hall, with Stabbing Westward guitarist Mark Eliopulos joining The Dreaming onstage in Chicago for a set of past hits.
In 2019, Hall and Flakus came together again to release the ‘Dead And Gone’ EP, the first new Stabbing Westward material in 18 years. Written and produced by Flakus and Hall over the course of three years, and recorded in multiple states and time zones, these new songs capture the very essence of the Stabbing Westward sound. After adding longtime bandmate Carlton Bost (Orgy, Deadsy, The Dreaming) and drummer Bobby Amaro (Orgy) to the official lineup, the band stood ready to emerge from the shadows once more. As the creative energy began to flow, they recruited the talent of veteran producer John Fryer, who was instrumental on early albums “Ungod” and “Wither Blister Burn + Peel.”
21 years since the last full-length Stabbing Westward album was released into the wild, and the wait is finally over. ‘Chasing Ghosts,’ is slated to drop on March 18th, 2022 via COP International Records. The remarkable album features ten gripping tracks that incorporate the band’s characteristic sound with a modern sheen that picks up right where they left off. Most importantly, this album serves as the only record in their catalog by Flakus and Hall, the band’s founding members, crafted without outside interference from labels and executives. Totally unfiltered and firing on all cylinders.
Christopher Hall recently sat down with Icon Vs. Icon for an in-depth look at Stabbing Westward’s history, evolution, and the long, strange road to their “most pure” album to date. Additionally, he offers a unique perspective about the role die-hard fans have impacted the band’s trajectory.
Music has played an undeniable role in your life. How did it initially take hold?
It happened really early, like fourth grade. My dad had a trumpet lying around the house, so I picked it up and started playing with it. He showed me how to play a couple of songs, and it spoke to me. So from that summer on, I was a band geek! [laughs] I was in concert band, marching band, choir, musicals, whatever! It was just was what I loved, and those were my people. I was never a jock or popular; nothing like that. Music was my language and my way of understanding that world. It was the friends that I had and my whole world, all the way through college. So I just went with it!
Stabbing Westward was very successful early on in your career. What lessons did you learn that have continued to resonate with you throughout your career?
I learned that everyone will spend all your money if you don’t pay attention! [laughs] I also learned that it doesn’t need to cost half a million dollars to make a record or a video. Yeah, it was totally different in the 90s. At the time, CDs were going for $15 bucks a pop, and there was no real alternative to buying music other than listening on the radio. We went to London to record our first album, which cost an absolute fortune! Around 2000, when Napster caught on, and people realized they could have music for free, budgets got slashed. That’s when the whole world changed, and everything started crashing in on the music industry. At the same time, it created this revolution among artists where we all bought our own equipment. I’m sitting in my home studio now, in the guest room of my house, and I can record an album here. Because of everything crashing in 2000, we all went the route of buying our own studios. Some of us even learned how to use them properly! [laughs]
After Stabbing Westward broke up, I interned for three years with a producer. I started by getting coffee and tacos. From there, I started beat detectiving the drummer’s drums to make them tighter. Then I started auto-tuning vocals. As my producer sank deeper into opioid addiction, I ended up becoming the producer, but he taught me so much. Taking those three years to learn how to record was the biggest lesson. “Don’t count on other people or other people’s money to do what you can do yourself if you can do it better.”
Over three decades into your career, your voice sounds better than ever. How does your vocal capability of today compare to those early years?
It’s stronger, for sure. A lot of the music written in the 90s by the band wasn’t written for my voice. Walter [Flakus] and Andy [Kubiszewski] would just write music, and then I would have to sing on it. A lot of times, Andy wrote things too low, so I didn’t have as much power. Walter would have random keys like F sharp, like on “Save Yourself,” so I’m up in the stratosphere trying to hit these crazy notes. Now, I have taken a little more control. It’s like, “This is the zone for my voice. This is the sweet spot. Let’s try to write within my sweet spot.” The whole time after Stabbing Westward with The Dreaming, I wrote in my sweet spot, so I was able to work on my voice and make it stronger and whatnot. I also think that we didn’t know who we were in the band’s early days. We were trying hard to fit in with a genre that we weren’t. We were not industrial. We liked industrial and wanted to be a part of that scene, but we weren’t. Musically, we were a rock band. Vocally, I’m not an industrial singer. I’m not Skinny Puppy growling into a harmonizer or something like that. So, I battled that! I believed that my band wanted to be more industrial and wanted to be harder even though I was softer as an artist. I was more of a Depeche Mode singer than a metal singer, but I still tried. I overcompensated a lot and screamed a lot! [laughs] People were like, “Wow! You’ve got a great scream!” I was like, “It really hurts!” [laughs] I tried hard to be what they wanted me to be. Now that I’m older, I don’t give a shit anymore! [laughs] This is who I want to be. This is how I want to sing! Walter doesn’t tell me how to sing, so it’s cool. When the band was more people with a record label, producer, and A&R guy, they were all trying to figure out the flavor of the month and steer you towards that. Now, it’s just us, so this is how I want to sing. Finding that point in your life is very important. It’s like, “This is who I’m comfortable being!” It went from trying to sound like other people to fans liking my actual voice without trying so hard. That’s cool because that means I can be me, and it’s cool!
Having seen you live many times throughout the years. I’ve always been impressed with your ability to connect with the audience in such an intimate way. You make it look so easy. Was there a moment when it all clicked for you?
I don’t think I’ve found that moment yet! [laughs] I’m still searching for that. I’m terrified when I’m on stage! It’s like the weirdest combination of adrenaline, thrill, and insecurity at the same time. I feel like some old fat dude up on stage trying my best to entertain these people! If there were thought bubbles popping up behind me on the backdrop of the stage, it would be funny! Half the time, it’s “Suck in your gut!…” “I hope the lights are working okay…” or “Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that burrito before the show!” [laughs] There are just so many random thoughts going through your head. It’s those rare moments when you connect with the audience that is so special. I try to be an entertainer, which I kinda feel is what my band wants from me. It’s like, “Go up there and be David Lee Roth!” They want you to be one of those guys who’s like, “Make some fuckin’ noise, people! Come on!” [laughs] I can’t do that. That’s not what I do. I try, but I feel I’m at my best when there is no crowd, no band, and no stage. I close my eyes, and I am in the song. I am singing what that song is about from way down deep. Feeling it, remembering the pain that triggered that song, sinking into it and pushing it out like Poison, not the band, then opening my eyes and realizing that, oh shit, there’s 5000 people here! [laughs] I basically just had a breakdown in front of all those people. Doing that song after song after song, That’s the best night. You can’t think about what you’re going to do afterward, like catching a flight at 5 o’clock in the morning, and definitely don’t think about the burrito. [laughs]
When Stabbing Westward initially took off, how difficult was it for you to find your footing?
It was hard. When we came out with “Ungod” in 1994, it took two years before anyone could recognize a song or the name of the band. We didn’t get to grow organically at all. Front 242 was our very first tour. It was like,” Okay guys, congratulations on signing a record deal with Columbia. This is Front 242. You might have been idolizing them since you were thirteen. You’re gonna go on tour with them now and open for them in really, really big places. I know the biggest place you’ve ever played was 100 people, and it was mostly your friends, but you’re going to have to do this now!” You’re thrown into it, and I was not that kind of frontman but trial by fire, ya know! [laughs]
The next tour we did was freakin’ Depeche Mode at outdoor, summertime amphitheaters. These were huge places that weren’t quite packed when we went on because it was us, Primal Scream, and then Depeche, but it was still a big enough crowd that it was terrifying! And, it wasn’t our crowd. It was a crowd of Depeche Mode fans, who were way more polite than KISS fans! [laughs] When we opened for KISS, they would boo you and yell at you. I would have to explain to them gently, “Listen, if you boo us off the stage and we leave, KISS isn’t coming out immediately. They are getting their hair and makeup done, so they aren’t coming out until exactly when they’re scheduled to come out. So, if we leave now, you will be standing here in silence for the next hour and a half. Go buy a t-shirt! Ya know, I don’t go to 7-Eleven and bother you while you’re fixing the Slurpee machine, so don’t bother me at work!” That was my whole thing with KISS, but the Depeche fans were open to it. They weren’t hostile, but you’re singing songs that people have never heard to people who’ve never heard of you and trying to sell it. That was hard. “What Do I Have To Do” built up on the radio for a little while, and we did a tour right when the record came out. They wanted us to play songs off the new record. Now, we can get up and play four or five hits, and it’s a cool show, but back then, nobody knew any of the songs.
So, suddenly, we are playing these shows, and people are coming and when we play “What Do I Have To Do,” everybody knows the song. It was like, “Oh, My God!” It’s like we are at one of those concerts where everyone knows the song, and people are jumping up and down singing along. It was like, “This is cool. I could do this!” [laughs] The more that the year went on and “Shame” became a hit and people bought the record, you would play the other songs off the record, and the crowd would know them. Then that’s when it got fun! Before people know the music, you’re a salesman. You’re knocking on someone’s door saying, “Hey, check out my cassette!” You’re trying to get people to listen to you, and that’s super hard work. If you are the guitar player or the drummer, you just play your parts. If you’re the singer, you’ve gotta sell it, man! I’m not a very good salesman; I’ll admit it! [laughs]
While Stabbing Westward has been active over the past several years, ‘Chasing Ghosts’ is your first full studio album in 21 years. Did you have any reservations about getting back into Stabbing Westward mode?
Yeah, for sure! I had reservations because I had another band that was not gigantically successful, but it was incredibly fulfilling. My other band would write a record every year and a half. There was even a point where The Dreaming was touring 250 days a year. We were playing little tiny clubs. We bought a van, and we were out there doing it! This was before I had kids, of course. It was fulfilling because it wasn’t about being on a label or making money. It was about playing music with a bunch of friends. That was very cool. I knew that it wouldn’t be that anymore if we transitioned from that to Stabbing Westward. It would be a business. It would be about making money. It would just be bigger where you can’t do those little club shows. I was nervous.
I was like, “If we do any Stabbing shows, I don’t think we’ll be able to go back to the other band.” How do you go from getting $1000 bucks a night playing for 150 people to earning $10,000 bucks a night playing for a packed theater? How do you go, “I want to do some of these other dates where we can maybe buy a pizza on the way home. What do you think about that? Sound like fun? No? No?” [laughs] So, I knew my band was going to die, and that’s what everyone wanted, so I was okay with it. When I saw the enthusiasm of the audience, I was like, “Who am I kidding? This is what people want; this is what they have been waiting for.”
The reluctance came in new music. We weren’t sure we wanted to make new music. We knew we wanted to write new music because I’m constantly writing and need to express myself, but the few times since we’ve gotten back together that we tried to play a new song at a show have met with mixed results. You’re on stage and say, “You guys want to hear a new song?!” The crowd goes crazy. However, as you start playing the new song, you notice a certain glow on the faces of the audience. If you are watching a band and then start scrolling through Instagram, the singer can see you! It’s something where you have to be above the crowd looking down to really appreciate. It’s probably not just you. Probably no one else in the room knows the song and attention spans are not what they were in the olden days. Now, everyone is like, “Now I have something better I can do.” They tune out. They will wait for the song out as they scroll, and the energy in the room just drains. Unless you come out of that song with “Save Yourself” or “What Do I Have To Do,” it’s hard to get that energy. That was the fear of playing news songs.
Then people started clamoring for it. We got a record deal with COP International, which is a really big deal. The plan now is that we’ve had two singles out for a while now, and we’re going to play a benefit show in Chicago in April. We’re going to add those two songs from the album to the setlist. At this point, I don’t feel like it will feel new because, hopefully, people have been listening to them on Spotify, YouTube, or whatever. Hopefully, it won’t feel like we’re playing a brand new song that no one has ever heard before. It’s not going to be like, “We’re going to play this obscure B-side by RUSH!” [laughs] We’ll see how it goes. That’s the fear; as much as people say they want new music, everyone wants to hear old music. I am as bad as anyone else. I love The Cure and Depeche Mode, but I don’t listen to their new music. I go back and listen to “Disintegration” or “Songs of Faith and Devotion.” We all go to our comfort zones of what we liked in high school or college. We embrace that and go back to it. My Spotify playlist is from 1983 to maybe 1991. The only exceptions are Gary Numan and ACTORS. I don’t blame people for liking what they grew up with, so that’s what we give them, but we will show them some new music at the same time.
Stabbing Westward is a very different band today than you were back in the day. The music industry has changed, technology has changed, and I would imagine that the relationships in the band have changed. What did the dynamic look like as you went into the creative process for what would become ‘Chasing Ghosts’?
It was ugly! [laughs] It was not good! Covid made it so that we couldn’t even get in a room and jam together. Our wives were all like, “No! You will all die! You are all very old and frail!” [laughs] I think I saw Bobby [Amaro], our drummer, three or four times. We got together and recorded some drums. I saw Carlton [Bost] a handful of times because we all live in L.A. Walter was living between Seattle and Chicago, so I never saw Walter. There came the point, halfway through 2020, where everything shut down in L.A., and you couldn’t even really go anywhere. At that point, we went to Maui for about six months. I was unplugged in my mind. The kids were doing Zoom for school, and it was like ‘Groundhog Day’ in terms of getting them to do Zoom, hanging out at the beach, and coming home to have dinner. It was all routine. As it turns out, while I was in Maui, apparently Walter and John [Fryer] were mixing the record! [laughs] I was getting emails that I didn’t read/ So, the record was pretty much mixed without much involvement from the rest of the band. That created a bit of weirdness. I still haven’t heard a big chunk of the album past the demo stage. It was all done in good faith. It was just like, “Let’s get it done.” Those two work very well together. I’ve heard “Ghost,” and I’ve been editing the video for it. I’ve listened to “Ghosts” about 7000 times over the past five days! [laughs] There’s a little section where I’ve been trying to get the guitar to come in at the right time. So, I’ve been listening to the same part over and over! [laughs] It was complicated with Covid; it truly was.
Relationship-wise, relationships didn’t change, and that is, I think, the problem. It’s like the writing partnership that Walter and I had in 2000; he paused it. Twenty years went by in which I became a producer, produced and mixed other people’s records, wrote five records for The Dreaming, and became a full-fledged songwriter, which was what he and Andy were in Stabbing Westward. When we got back together, Walter unpaused it in his mind, and I was still the singer who put vocals on top of his tracks. He couldn’t reconcile his mind around the fact that he had stopped doing music for twenty years, but I had continued to grow and got pretty damn good at it while he was working in radio. I felt I was overcompensating to convince him that I could contribute. Stabbing Westward has always had a weird relationship dynamic. You have Andy, Walter, and I. You’ve got three chefs in one kitchen, and everyone wants to be the head chef. It’s like, “Okay, you got lunch. You got dinner. I guess I’ll do brunch?” [laughs] Mimosa, anybody?!!” [laughs] With that said, it worked. I think the record is really cool.
How do you view your creative evolution, and how does this new album fit in?
I’m constantly evolving. I’m always trying to get better. I think this record was an evolution for Stabbing Westward because it was Walter and me for the first time ever. We are the guys that started a band and had a vision for the band when we were kids. In the months before we got our record deal, we lost our guitar player and our drummer. We ended up with Stuart Zechman and David Suycott, who were the guys who played on “Ungod.” They were brand-new to the band, and we barely knew them. They swung the arc of the band in a completely different direction. When those two guys left, Andy was the drummer and the guy who wrote “What Do I Have To Do,” “Sometimes It Hurts,” and dozens of other songs. He wrote over 50% of the music for the band after he joined the band. He was way more in line with the electronic, Depeche Mode-ish quality that we wanted to be, but he also vastly influenced the arc of the band and the direction we went and whatnot. That is the music of Stabbing Westward, but to the two little kids that started a band in high school, it was always not what we wanted it to be. It was always cool, and it was our band, but this was the first time we had pure opportunity to do what we wanted to do. This is what we want to do; we want to be this combination of electronic and rock, and it was super rare. That was the most significant evolution — making the decision not to let anyone push us in a different direction. We fought John really hard. He was like, “You guys are a rock band with keyboards.” We’re like, “No! We are not! That’s not what we want to be. We want to be an electronic band with guitars. That’s completely different!” [laughs] So, there was a battle there where we usually would have laid down and listened to a manager, record label, or A&R guy. This time it was just us. He and Walter battled it out, and Walter feels that he got the record we wanted, so I think that was our biggest evolution. This is the most pure, original idea of Stabbing Westward that you will get.
How has Stabbing Westward’s connection to its fan base influenced you creatively?
Actually, it’s really confusing! The album title, “Chasing Ghosts,” is kinda based on that thought. As we were writing songs, one of the arguments would be if a particular song was Stabbing Westward enough! [laughs] He was like, “Is this The Dreaming, or is this Stabbing Westward?” I was like, “What does that mean? It’s a song that I wrote.” He was like, “Well, fans are expecting a certain thing,” to which I replied, “Who gives a shit what fans expect! This is our music. We need to write for us, and they will follow.” You don’t ask what they want to hear because they will say, “Save Yourself.” He disagrees because he is in radio, and he knows that people listening to the radio are the point, not the person programming the radio.
We did the “Dead and Gone” EP, which is “Dead and Gone,” “Crawl,” and “Cold.” That was the EP we did before we got our record deal. “Cold” and “Crawl” were the two songs that I produced and wrote, and “Dead and Gone” was Walter’s song. The reviews by fans were that “Dead and Gone” sounds like a Stabbing Westward song, and those other two sound like songs from The Dreaming. They didn’t know who wrote them, but they heard it. They heard that influence, and that’s a negative, by the way! Not a positive! [laughs] So, my takeaway was I can’t write songs in this band because they sound like me! [laughs]
At that point, I was freakin’ pissed! I was so angry, and I don’t think I talked to anybody for six months. That’s why the record went on hold for a little while. Then we spoke to John. I said, “John, you’ve got to help me with this. I don’t know what to do.” He said, “Well, you need to let go. You wrote these really cool songs, and you need to give them to Walter and let Walter do what he does. That’s Stabbing Westward.” So, that’s what we did, and that’s because of the fans. The fans sort of pushed that into happening, which, in a way, is an absolutely positive thing. It’s hard to take criticism. It really, really is! [laughs] It’s like, “So, what I do, you don’t like. So I can’t do that anymore.” [laughs] It was weird. That’s why Walter took over the mantle of pushing the album through and ensuring it stayed true to the sound.
If you think about “Save Yourself,” “Shame,” “So Far Away,” “Waking Up Beside You,” “Violent Mood Swings” and all the songs that he wrote that I put the vocals on, those are the classic songs of Stabbing Westward. “What Do I Have To Do” was a huge, massive song for the band, but that was 100% Andy’s, so we’ll never be able to recreate that sound but the rest of it we can do. I think the fans have a larger than life on Stabbing Westward without knowing it because we’re constantly thinking, “What are they going to like? What do they want to hear?”
You’ve been hard at work producing an album for ‘The Hunger.’ So what else lies in store for you musically?
Yeah, that’s what I’m doing right now! I’m mixing and producing that album. I love producing and mixing because I don’t have to write the songs. I can just say, “This is totally messed up! I’m going to fix it!” [laughs] Then those guys are like, “No! No, that sounds perfect!” [laughs] I’m on the other side of the coin from where I usually am, which I think makes me a little bit more sympathetic to them. I’m trying to make the writers and the band feel like their ideas are being heard. I’m just like, “This is what I think sounds good, but if you want it the way you sent it, then we can do that too.” So we’ve been finding really good balances. I enjoy producing because it’s fun to take my skills and make someone else’s music better. I’m hoping that we’re going to write another Stabbing Westward record at some point, even though this one is new. Some of these songs are already two or three years old for me, so I’m ready to write some more stuff!
You’ve carved out a remarkable career for yourself by following your passion. Your story can inspire a lot of people. So what’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
I don’t want to be an inspiration to anybody! That would be terrible! [laughs] Buy a good van to live in just in case it doesn’t pan out! [laughs] My wife and friends think I’m crazy because all I care about is music and my children. That’s it! I never had a fallback plan. I can’t go be a radio programmer or be like Bobby, who runs a drum school. I have no parachute with what I do. I do music because it’s the only thing I understand!
Be crazy? Be obsessed? Risk being homeless to follow your dreams? I don’t know! [laughs] I wouldn’t think of myself as an inspiration at all! Okay, in all seriousness, just be honest. The one thing I have is brutal honesty about what I write. For example, the morning “Ghost” came out; I got so many text messages from people asking, “Are you okay?” I was like, “Yeah, why? What’s up?” They’re like, “I heard Ghost.” I’m like, “Did you like it? I haven’t heard it yet!” [laughs] They’re like, it’s good but are you okay?” And I’m like, “Yeah, but why are you asking me that?” They’re like, “Have you heard the lyrics?” I’m like, “Yeah, I wrote them.” They’re like, “So, are you okay?” [laughs] And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m fine. That was a couple of years ago, but, yeah, I’m good.” Then I went back and listened and thought, “Wow! I really put it all out on the table there!” [laughs] I just wore my heart on my sleeve, and I think that’s necessary even if it gets you in trouble at home! [laughs]
With that said, I want to thank you for your time and all years of blood, sweat, and tears you’ve poured into your music.
I appreciate that! Thank you, and I hope we talk again soon!
Stabbing Westward’s ‘Chasing Ghosts’ will be released on March 18, 2022 via COP International Records. Presales for Chasing Ghosts are on sale now — Click Here!
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