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Thickest cranium in rock? Probably Martin Atkins, former drummer for Public Image Ltd., now de facto head of the industrial-rock conglomerate Pigface. Who else would devote insane amounts of time, money and energy to industrial music -- a subgenre that had its day bathing in the money hydrant during the mid-'80s with Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, and Nitzer Ebb?
Atkins, a drummer since the age of 9, who joined John Lydon and Jah Wobble in PIL nine years later in 1979, has banged his head repeatedly against concrete with Pigface and has overseen a multitude of other ventures, beginning with an early career detour into pop-rap under the name Brian Brain. Since its 1991 inception, Pigface has existed as a semiautonomous free-for-all of which Atkins is the sole anchor; contributors over the years have included singers/musicians David Yow (Jesus Lizard), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Michael Gira (Swans), En Esch (KMFDM), Genesis P-Orridge (Psychic TV), Ogre (Skinny Puppy), Steve Albini and Trent Reznor, but there have been dozens more. Through a tattered trail of live documents and studio parties, the band has helped Atkins give birth to a record label (Invisible), a collective of indie labels (Underground, Inc.), and numerous musical progeny. Since the mid-'80s, the British-born Atkins has based his enterprise in the industrial-rock nexus of Chicago.
Pigface albums are renowned for their wild inconsistency. The group's 10-year-old debut, Gub, attracted attention mostly owing to the Trent Reznor chant "Suck" -- seeing as how Nine Inch Nails was blowing up at the same time. Produced by Steve Albini with members of Ministry helping out and Chris Connelly adding vocals, Gub spawned Pigface's reputation for unreliability.
"You can't really expect to have that kind of focus when you're bringing in so many different people who come in for a day, contribute something, and then split. Whoever's producing is left with this almighty mess," Connelly says in a Scottish brogue as thick as a goose-down parka. The singer is back in the Pigface fold after a decade, though he says it feels as if he hasn't been gone a day.
Atkins has attempted to weed through the swamp of remixes, failed experiments, near-hits and near-misses with the new double-disc set Preaching to the Perverted: The Best of Pigface. Compiling the strongest moments from older studio releases on the first disc yields a surprisingly engaging and frequently accessible demolition-derby spin through the band's spotty career. The earliest material is from Gub, and the most recent hails from 1996, but it all sounds much older than those dates would indicate. Not stale as much as stuck in time, agrees Connelly.
"It's over," he declares of the industrial genre. "Done. Been and gone. I don't know how valid that music is, but I enjoy it on occasion, that really aggravated meeting between man and machine. It's also comical in a way. I get a good laugh out of it; I don't take it too seriously. It's just rock 'n' roll. Some of it's been updated a bit, and some of it has its feet firmly cemented in the '80s, which I think is hilarious."
But the less-predictable second disc of Preaching to the Perverted, with unreleased improvisations, remixes, and long-lost shady jam sessions with Black Francis and Joey Santiago of the Pixies as well as Dean Ween, is a winner in its own way. Though it runs through typical filler, like aborted interview clips and disastrous radio ID spot snippets, it ends with a real departure: Atkins' uplifting, gospel-inspired "You Know You Know You Know." It's never as fun as the chaos-ridden live Pigface experience (bolstered by several thousand watts of low-end reinforcement), which approximates the idiot energy Connelly and Ministry's Al Jourgensen explored when they first developed the P-Funk-fueled concept in the mid-'80s with their Revolting Cocks project.
"The reason there's so many good and bad points about Pigface records is because there's so much spontaneity involved, same as with the Cocks," Connelly observes. "There were some God-awful moments there and some moments of comic genius, but I wouldn't change it for the world."
In 1992, Pigface enlisted Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven, En Esch, and Mary Hoxley from Gay Bikers on Acid to join the fun, but the real discovery was Leslie Rankine of Silverfish, who surfaced on that year's Fook. Rankine had unfurled into a stilettoed songwriter of tough, seedy city stories. By the time of 1994's Notes From the Underground, she'd emerged as a potent force within Pigface. She later turned "Chickasaw," a dark, demonic rocker from Underground, into "Carondelet" from her solo debut Saltpeter, after adopting a new persona, Ruby.
"[Rankine] took her Pigface tracks and parlayed them into a solo deal," says Atkins. "Which is great -- Pigface exists for everybody to do what they want with it."
Pigface roared back in 1997 with A New High in Low, introducing new starlet of swine Meg Lee Chin in Rankine's place, followed the next year by the third in a series of largely disposable live albums, this one titled Eat Shit You Fucking Redneck.
With Chin's poetic theatrics and Connelly's more even-keeled solo material, there's a possibility the version of Pigface that visits Phoenix on Monday won't devolve into what Connelly slams as "self-indulgent wankery." Theoretically, he explains, the evening should exemplify how "everybody contributes to each other's 15 minutes of fame without it becoming a big dick-sucking competition."
When it seems as if Atkins' efforts are truly futile, he simply releases another album and rides out the pessimism. "But I've had my moments," he declares. "I try to take the high ground nowadays -- if in doubt, put in a bit more effort." In addition to serving time with Connelly during Ministry's metal-salad days, he helped run Murder Inc., which traded during the mid-'90s and included Killing Joke alumni Raven, guitarist Geordie Walker, and drummer Paul Ferguson.
As for Connelly, his cabaret-style solo exploits have been as ambitious as Pigface but with generally more enduring results. After stints with the pre-industrial groups Rigor Mortis and Fini Tribe, he went to work with Jourgensen, singing on all the Revolting Cocks' records as well as Ministry's Land of Rape and Honey and The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Tastealbums. His two early '90s solo releases, Whiplash Boychild and Phenobarb Bambalam, were Bowie-esque singer-songwriter records underneath the grime, and 1994's Shipwrecked, with its increasingly continental drift and high-art drama, was heavy with acoustic instrumentation and Scott Walker-affected delivery.
The term industrial vocalist makes little sense to him. "I'm just plying my trade, no matter how much of a sinking ship it might be," he jokes. But his recent records, including the deranged chamber music of his new Blonde Exodus album, indicate a quiet sophistication that Connelly is quick to shrug off. "I think it's a complete myth that people mellow out as they get older," he observes. "How many embittered old people do you know? I see them on the bus every day."
Connelly currently leads a grumpy-old-men metal-industrial band called Damage Manual with Atkins, Wobble, and former Killing Joke guitarist Geordie Walker that's obviously a by-product of their endlessly incestuous, intersecting paths. But at this moment Connelly may be best known as an infrequent member of the traveling circus of Pigface, the so-called industrial-rock supergroup, a description Connelly also finds comical.
"It makes me laugh, but I'm not going to argue. If that's what they want to call it, great. If they want to call it a self-indulgent dick-smoking competition, as I said before, then that's fine, too. No skin off my nose."