Oliver Chesler, aka THE HORRORIST, is a famous Techno/ EBM musician from New York. Everybody knows his hit ‘One Night In New-York City’. We had the chance to interview him after his live show at the Rockerill festival, a festival curated by Elzo Durt and his label Teenage Menopause Records, which was taking place in a decaying steel factory (originally called Cockerill, hence the name Rockerill) in the Belgian industrial town of Charleroi.
Reflections of Darkness [RoD]: Oliver, we're here in the Rockerill, where you've just played. How would you present yourself to people who don't know you?
Oliver Chesler [O.C.]: Just a musician, a singer-songwriter. I do lots of different things, from cheesy love songs to terrifying techno tracks. You know, before I made my own music as a teenager, growing up in NY, it was early rap. I was like 13 and I had friends who had a drum machine. And then, just because I was into drum machines and all that, it was also natural to pay attention to synths. My father was a college professor; they closed the music department and they just dumped all this music here in the basement. Then I had puberty and I fell in love with this girl. She really tore my heart out. I was in a friend's car, we were driving to the gym and his little sister had the DEPECHE MODE ‘Black Celebration’ song playing.
RoD: When was that?
O.C.: It must have been when it came out, in 1986. And by the end of the drive, that was it: it was completely different. It changed my life.
RoD: What was the name of the girl?
O.C.: It was Sandra, she was the one with whom I later ended up winning a contest and meeting DEPECHE MODE... That was my first girlfriend.
RoD: Yes, you ended up in DEPECHE MODE's movie called '101'!
O.C.: Yes! I became so obsessed with DEPECHE MODE. I was ready to do anything to meet them. And there was this contest. I went out there and the reason I won was because I looked really weird (Note: he had a punk look at that time) but also the screen test when they asked me: “Why should you be in this movie?” and my answer was “Because DEPECHE MODE is the biggest band of all times!” (laughs) I still think so but you know... it worked! Then six months later, Sandra had a psychiatrist and he gave her a cassette from FRONT 242's 'Official Version'! For me, it was DEPECHE MODE but really fucked up and crazy and at that age, I was totally taken. I became so obsessed with FRONT 242. I tried everything to make this music but I only had some crappy keyboards and I never could come close to it. Now, when you listen, no one has ever been able to come close to it. There was a lot of hard work behind it and a lot of people, adults, working on it. And that led me to doing a cover of FRONT 242 later (Note: 'Body To Body') and to becoming obsessed with EBM and all that. And then something else happened: just like rap had taken over New York extremely, techno later did. There was this DJ, Frankie Bones, who brought the raves from the UK to New York, really early on, like 1990? And the cool thing about that scene was: unlike with FRONT 242, here all I needed was a drum machine and I could play at these events and be better than anyone else. So it was by luck because I was only one out of 20 people making techno that year. This literally launched my career, just because there was this new thing happening in New York. Right place, right time! And then that was it for a long time. Six years went by. And then I was like: “You know what? Vocals are missing!” I'm better than I used to be and also, computers would now record audio along with the music. So, I started doing this and started my label Things To Come and on the second record, I did a song called 'One Night In New-York City', which was a joke. I had never expected anything of it...
RoD: You created it like a joke?
O.C.: You know, I never drank or took any drugs before I was 25. So, in 1995, I was 25 and it all makes sense in the timeline. I was on New Year's Eve and I had all my friends from high school there, that I hadn't seen for a while. They were all taking ecstasy and I thought: “There's no way I'm gonna take drugs”. I had a very negative view on drugs and drinking. So, it took them until 2 o'clock in the morning to convince me to take it. So, I finally take it and we walk into town. And as we're walking, I'm sort of falling behind and I was like “Oh My God!”. So, that led me to 6 months of only doing drugs, and then I overdosed... and I thought I would never be able to do it again. So I went to write songs about it while it was fresh. But it was really like, you know, just a DAT machine, a Roland TR-909 and two keyboards and me telling a story. There was no real thought about it. Then for one year I tried to give the song to Lenny Dee, from Industrial Strength Records, a techno label from Brooklyn but nobody wanted it. Then I was told there were records with different stuff on it, like compilations, so I just put the song on one of them and it was pure luck...
RoD: And it worked!
O.C.: Yeah, it worked. I think life is like that. Most of the time, if you're doing a lot of stuff, you're gonna get lucky sometimes but you have to do it for a while...
RoD: And then it really worked in Germany afterwards?
O.C.: What happened is that Chris Liebing, who was becoming a super star DJ, came to New York. I had no idea of who he was. He wanted to come with us to a party where we were playing and we took a cab and you know, we didn't even treat him that well... But after the show, he really wanted the song. He said: “It's gonna be a hit”. So, it became a hit because Liebing had this management team around him that made it a hit. They put it on the charts, they paid for it. And it's the combination that was a success. Then, because we were douchebags, we had a falling out later and there's never been any sequel to this with Chris. (laughs)
RoD: And then you had your first album?
O.C.: Yes the first album as THE HORRORIST was in 2001, where I just put all the songs I had done up till 2001 that were good (Note: the album is 'Manic Panic'). Then I moved to Berlin, and said “Let's do albums and be more serious”. Berlin was tough, it was really hard to make music there. So I went back to New York and I was a bit depressed, you know, crying about my childhood... I decided to go to a psychiatrist and that's what funny. She was cool and she said: “Let me hear your music” and she did an amazing thing. When she heard my early music, which was all about “I hate this” and “I'm gonna kill you”, she said: “Oliver, this is all about yourself! You were singing about yourself. You hate yourself and you're singing about it!” So, I was like “You're right” and then I wrote ‘Joyless Pleasure’ and all my new stuff, which is much better because I'm being honest and people can really relate to it. And then things really changed, you know. Different kinds of people became interested in my music. You know, when you play at a techno party, all you need is a beat. But don't get me wrong: I love techno. It's perfect when you're working out, or having sex... There is a time and place for that music. But it's not like sitting down with my headphones on and listening to the 'Strange Love' 7 inch a hundred times...
RoD: DEPECHE MODE is really very important for you!
O.C.: When I went on tour with them, I saw the most amazing success you can imagine. Of course, it's the kind of thing you want to do when you're 17 years old. There were so nice times, people can't imagine. I was with my girlfriend and they would talk to me. Or Martin would be singing on the bus for us... Crazy...
RoD: Do you still see them now?
O.C.: I see them sometimes but I don't call them and all that. There was maybe for two or three years that they would do things and invite us. But now it's just like, if I see them, that'd be nice. Like the time when I saw Jeff Mills, the famous DJ and he was hanging out with Martin Gore, so I said “Hello, Martin, do you remember me?” and he recognized me and said “Hey, Oliver!” It was great!
RoD: He recognized you!
O.C.: They all recognized me and then Fletch had a label and he had that band called CLIENT. They played in New York and they wanted me to do a remix so they came and Fletch said: “Hey, I know your records” and that was unbelievable. Of course, it's Fletch, it's not Martin, but it's still cool! (laughs)
RoD: Let's talk about your stuff. You are preparing a new album, right?
O.C.: Yes and this new album is super focussed. It's the hardest thing I ever done.
RoD: What kind of direction is it taking?
O.C.: What I want to do is an EBM album, a proper EBM album. What I've done up to now is a mix of techno and other stuff. The equipment I have been using is a lot of software. But now I have bought analogue keyboards, with sequencers and all this so now I can do a real EBM album. Now, if I can have Jean-Luc De Meyer in my studio, I can even make a FRONT 242 record!
RoD: Let's do it!!
O.C.: I wanna do it, I'm really tempted. But I want to be prepared and to do it right. Everyone records him but no one's really working on his vocals. They just let him do whatever he wants, which is good, but I want to push him into doing a really good song. So I want to pay him because I want to be able to tell him “Try again, come on”. It's only possible if he's working for me at that moment. Something like that, that's my idea. But on the way, I'll do this EBM album. The hardest part will be the vocals. It's very difficult to get really good EBM vocals. Like NITZER EBB, the vocals are so simple but so brilliant. It has to be right. That's why I don't like most of the things I hear now. I already have one track which is awesome. I don't even play it live because I really want to save it as a surprise...
RoD: When can we expect something?
O.C.: I'd like to start with two or three singles from it after the summer and have it out maybe for my birthday in January 2015.
RoD: And then you have your side project, SCHADENFREUDE?
O.C.: Oh yes. These songs are 100% modular and they sound so good. And the girl who sings...
RoD: Yes, Andi...
O.C.: She's really brilliant.
RoD: Is she from New-York?
O.C.: She's from Virginia. She's 26 and she wrote a book on postpunk photos and that's how I met her. She asked me for some photos and we met. But the funny thing is: she knows every single record I know. She is obsessed with this time period. I don't understand: it's before your time. It would be like me being obsessed by something that happened in the sixties or the seventies. But she's obsessed. I'm like a relic to her, like a time capsule... (laughs) But to get back to EBM, there is no big EBM scene anywhere but there is a big EBM scene in the world now. It may not be me but somebody is gonna make a big kickass EBM album in the next few years. It's coming, for sure!
RoD: What about GESAFFELSTEIN?
O.C.: He's close, yes! But there's no vocals. It's still dance music because there's no vocals. I want vocals.
RoD: What about RADICAL G?
O.C.: Yeah, he's a good friend of mine.
RoD: A very nice guy.
O.C.: Yes! I did one track with him (Note: 'Here Comes The Storm'), but I want to do more. But it's hard to work when you're in different countries.
RoD: And what about your inspiration for lyrics, where does it come from?
O.C.: That has to come from real life. Anything that I've heard that's really good comes from personal stories. Every song I do that is good comes from my own stuff.
RoD: You're a cross-over between techno, EBM etc. Is it good or is it more a disadvantage?
O.C.: It's good. I like the little Goth-EBM parties. The best eighties EBM stuff was good because there were 12 inch remixes coming out like 'Headhunter'. The ones that made it big were the ones that were remixed, they had a dance beat. You could play them in clubs. Everyone is always talking about Detroit, but I'm more into Belgium, new-beat...
RoD: You also like SNOWY RED...
O.C.: Of course, I have 5,000 records, and I have a huge new-beat section.
RoD: What about Dirk Ivens?
O.C.: Oh Dirk, what a legend! I was so obsessed to meet him and I played a show in Italy and I met Eric...
RoD: Eric Van Wonterghem?
O.C.: Yes. He was playing with a side project (Note: MONOLITH). After the concert, we were just talking about different things and I said: “I like Absolute Body Control” and he said: “Well, I'm in Absolute Body Control”. I was so surprised! Then they called me to do a remix and they came to Berlin when I played live. Dirk is cool, you know, we're both like super-ego's... “I'm cooler than you!” (laughs) We played in Sweden at a festival and our flight got delayed so I was able to talk with them for 4 hours in a restaurant, so I got to know them. I learned all their secrets to make music... (laughs)
RoD: Do you realize that ABSOLUTE BODY CONTROL released their first stuff like in 1980, which is at the same time as DEPECHE MODE?
O.C.: Yes and let me tell you something: if Dirk had done just a little bit more, at that right time, maybe fix the English a little bit on some of the songs, they could have been huge! They had such a great live show. Everything was perfect. But he's been doing his own thing his all life, it's amazing!
RoD: And he's got four bands, so...
O.C.: Yes, but everyone would just want to have one hit and then, retire... (laughs)
RoD: And are there German bands that influenced you as well? Maybe DAF?
O.C.: Absolutely... DAF, EINSTÜRZENDE NEUBAUTEN and KRAFTWERK were always on heavy rotation in my house. These days I am obsessed with HAUS ARAFNA!
RoD: What about analogue versus digital?
O.C.: For certain things you want the real thing, like for bass line sequencing that's gonna sound authentic, you want analogue. You can do anything in digital but you have to work harder. You have to play with EQ, with effects etc. When you work with analogue machine, you just play with the level and it sounds good. You don't have to finesse it so much.
RoD: I'm sure you would love to go on tour with more analogue equipment...
O.C.: ...or even with another person! For years, when I lived in Berlin, I had a guy who played keyboards live. If someone would pay me enough, I would have an electronic drummer, somebody really playing keys, some real equipment, but right now, when you have to get on the airplane, you just bring what you can. It's a choice: helmets and lights or an analogue synth? Helmets and lights work better for this.
RoD: It's more important to communicate some energy... Sometimes, you play with a girl, I think?
O.C.: Yes, it depends. When I can, I bring someone with me. Right now, my show is playing live in Ableton (Note: a very flexible production and performance software) and I'm singing live on my songs. I don't have to prove to anybody that I can play music! (laughs)... coz I did make it, you know.
RoD: And you're a big specialist of all the new stuff, iPad applications etc... I saw the video in which you're showing all the things you can do with an iPad: it's amazing!
O.C.: It's a really good hobby. Yeah, it's amazing!
RoD: Wouldn't you like to do it on stage? You know, going into the public with your iPad and playing there?
O.C.: Did you see what they did to me tonight? The guys in the public picked me up and threw me on the ground! (laughs) They destroyed me! I'm gonna be covered in black and blue marks. I don't think my iPad would make it. Because of the sweat... You can't use it. But the iPad is great, especially for people like me who come from the eighties and had an Atari. It was 40 minutes just to make a beat. And now it's just at the touch of your finger...
RoD: Did you have an Atari?
O.C.: Yeah, an Atari ST and an Amiga, both.
RoD: With the Pro-24 from Steinberg?
O.C.: I forgot what the interface was. My first sequencer was a Dr. T's KCS and it was just a grid of numbers. But the strange thing is that Ableton's session view made me think of this sequencer. It's exactly the same, but much better obviously.
RoD: If you were in a radio show and I'd ask you to choose one or two songs that you really like?
O.C.: There's a song I play all the time when I want to impress somebody: it's 'Herzlos' by STRATIS. It's like the best EBM/Cold Wave track you can hear, and nobody knows it!
RoD: Another one?
O.C.: Ok, that's easy: SOFT CELL's 'Persuasion', the B-side of 'Memorabilia'. That is one of the sickest songs... Both songs could be in the movie 'Clockwork Orange', just demented electronic eighties songs.
RoD: What about your career. I saw that you were also working in the energy sector in New York?
O.C.: Yes, that's also a question of luck. When I came back from Berlin, I had no skills at all. I just took a job doing sales for a utility company selling energy efficient lighting. And there was an old guy who was about to retire, he became my best friend and he was a super wealthy guy and he suggested that we'd start a new business. So, for two years, we struggled but now, we have like 5 sales people and it's working great! If my contract gets renewed in 2015, then I won't have to worry about anything.
RoD: How difficult is it for musicians in the US right now?
O.C.: It's difficult everywhere! Nobody buys music anymore. It's all about live shows and you have to be f*cking good to make it!
RoD: Thank you very much, Oliver!
O.C.: Now it's time to party! (laughs)
For further information about THE HORRORIST
- his blog: http://www.wiretotheear.com
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thehorrorist
- his label: http://www.thingstocome.com
To listen to the complete interview on Youtube (audio + pictures):
- part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3J5Tp95-HMk
- part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJHezgmCbCA