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God Save Chris Bickel

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As an 8-year-old Chris Bickel and his mom eat breakfast at a Bob Evans restaurant in Louisville, Ky., in walks the most recognizable celebrity of the area, Colonel Harland Sanders. By the late ‘70s, Sanders is very feeble and near death, but this is the closest Bickel has ever come to meeting someone from television. He is star struck.

Two assistants seat Sanders nearby. Soon after, Bickel hears moans coming from the colonel’s table. He looks over to see the assistants leading Sanders away, and it becomes apparent to young Bickel that Sanders has soiled himself. “That left a lasting impression on me,” he says.

Years later, in the mid-‘90s, Bickel stands onstage at a now-defunct downtown club dressed as Colonel Sanders. As the front man for In/Humanity, his previous punk band, Bickel is about to commit one of his most infamous acts. Mimicking a ritual called the “Frankenberry mosh,” made popular by another local band, Bedlam Hour, Bickel taunts the crowd with a box of cereal. But as open-mouthed kids run to the stage to partake in the bizarre custom, Bickel dispenses with the cereal and deviously deposits live crickets into the mouths of the unsuspecting audience. “You’ve never seen people flip out that way,” he says. “That got a good reaction. We were looking for a reaction, and we got it.”

Bickel has always been one to challenge the status quo, and his music is a vehicle used to incite and intrigue. But like it or not, Columbia has a lot to be proud of with Chris Bickel.

 

 
Bickel performs as Teabag Balzac, lead singer of Confederate Fagg. Photo by Scott Bilby

Bickel’s side project, a metal band called Confederate Fagg, just released a remarkable debut album. And his primary band, Guyana Punch Line, was featured in Spin magazine as one of the 10 punk bands to watch in the new millennium. Living up to that, GPL is supposed to release its third album, Direkt Aktion, early in May and is set to tour extensively to support it. An independent filmmaker will be following the band on five dates, including a stop at New York’s Knitting Factory, to make a documentary about Bickel’s philosophy of “Smashism.” Lastly, the S.C. Arts Commission issued Bickel a grant to complete a recording of his avant-garde, experimental solo project, Anakrid. Anakrid’s Reality is Elitist and other Smashist Manifestos will be released in June or July.

Bickel recently discussed his current projects at his home in Olympia. Sitting in a wheelchair in front of his broken Galaga arcade machine, he talked candidly about his role as the anti-hero for many estranged and disjointed music fans. Like a pair of soiled britches, Bickel’s music has no doubt made its mark. Following are excerpts of the interview.

Free Times: It seems you’ve got a lot of stuff going on right now with your music. Do you like to keep yourself busy? Is that generally the rule of thumb?

Chris Bickel: Yeah. I think that, just the fact that I’m too poor to afford therapy ... [trails off]. I was the classic depressed teenager, and eventually I found out that the one thing that kind of kept me out of the hole was to just be constantly busy, and usually I’m a little too busy. I’m always juggling one too many things, but somehow I’ve kind of stayed on top of it. And that, I guess, is what’s led me to where I am right now.

FT: So, is that how music came in, as a form of expression?

CB: Yeah, totally. That ties back to the whole therapy thing. It’s sort of a primal-scream therapy type thing. Some people can pay $100 an hour to lay on a couch and have some guy nod his head and say, “Oh yes. Tell me more.” I just have to make myself look like a jackass in front of a bunch of people and scream my head off.

FT: But people respond to it.

 
Bickel onstage at Confederate Fagg’s CD release party. Photos by Scott Bilby

CB: Yeah, and I think it all goes to the same effect. Someone walks out of a psychiatrist’s office feeling relieved, and I walk out of a show feeling relieved, like I got rid of something and can just leave it there.

FT: Well, let’s start with the most recent project, that being Confederate Fagg. You’ve just released your first album. What are your thoughts on the finished product?

CB: Well, I think considering we all got drunk and wrote a bunch of songs really quick and recorded them all in one night, that it came out extremely well.

FT: To shoot it off like that, it’s a remarkable-sounding record.

CB: All of us grew up listening to this genre of music, and it’s one of these things that’s almost second nature. So when it came to writing songs, we would ask ourselves, “What would Ratt do here?”

FT: (laughs) So what was the inspiration behind forming Confederate Fagg?

CB: It was really just the name that came first. It just occurred to me one day a couple years back, when [there was] all the flap over the Confederate Flag. It just struck me as something that would be really funny and would piss off a lot of people if there was a band called Confederate Fagg that presented themselves in such a way that they were very proud of their Southern heritage. Because that would just make most of the diehard “heritage not hate” people just cringe.

FT: So you had the name, and then you just began drafting people for this band?

CB: There was a party somewhere off of Rosewood, and I’d gotten really drunk and somehow I ended up at this party. I didn’t really know many of the people there, but Jay [Matheson] was there, and there were some instruments that had been set up. I think a band had been playing there, and the instruments were sort of left in this room, and I ran into Jay and said, “Hey, let’s play some songs.”

We’d never played together. We didn’t even know that we would know any of the same songs. But we found two other guys and we just started calling out all these old rock standards. It was the most fun I’d had in years, and everybody really got into it. So we talked about the idea of doing a band that just brought the fun back to rock and roll, at least in Columbia. At the time, there [were] a lot of shoegazing-type bands, and things had gotten a little stale. So we wanted to do something that put on more of a show. It wasn’t so concerned with trying to play the songs properly or play all the notes or be in key, but just to have a lot of attitude.

FT: So how did the guys react when you told them you wanted to pose it as a gay metal band?

CB: They were really into it. They loved it.

FT: Doing something like this in such a conservative area as Columbia, or even the Bible Belt, what’s been the reaction?

 
An activist of a different sort, Bickel poses with anti-abortion activist Johnny Gardner near the State House. Bickel’s punk band, Guyana Punch Line, is a vehicle through which he tries spreading his Smashism ethos. Photo by Kevin F. Langston

CB: Well, when we first started, we made it a point to try and book ourselves into venues that had more traditional Southern values. You know, like frat bars and things like that. We thought if we’re going to do something that’s provoking, we might as well go out and provoke. And the first couple times we did that, there were definitely a lot of glares and a lot of whispering, and we knew that things were being plotted. We were like, “Well, I guess we’re going to get our asses whipped at some point tonight. It’s just a matter of when.” But strangely after we played, I guess because we spoke their language musically, there was no problem at all.

You know, I’ve played in punk rock bands for years, and there’s always this thing in the punk scene with unity and bringing people together and all that. But punk rock is inherently, I think, an elitist form of music, whether punk rockers will admit it or not. The thing with this band is that when we play a show, we have gays, straights, rednecks, punks, yuppies — it runs all genders, all sexual orientations, all classes. We have lawyers down to janitors that come out, and everybody has a really good time together, and there’s rarely ever any trouble or ill will. There’s just people having fun. That, to me, is where the greatest success in the band lies.

FT: How did you come up with your individual names? [Editor’s note: The stage names of the band members are Teabag Balzac, vocals; Spanky Swatnasty, guitar; Lady Miss Mango Chutney, bass; and Packer, drums.]

CB: I think the first day we got together to practice, everybody came up with their own name, and that was it. Not a lot of thought was put into it.

FT: Well, I heard there was something involving David Lee Roth. Wasn’t there a David Lee Roth reference in your name [Teabag]?

CB: (laughs) Well, not really. When Howard Stern had me on his radio show, he had the intention of having me discuss the act of tea bagging. And I’m not a huge Howard Stern fan, so I didn’t really want to give him what he wanted. So, rather than have him lead me down the path, I decided to come up with a bullshit story really quick, and I told him the name Teabag actually came from me having played in a gay tribute band to Van Halen called “Eruption: A Gay Tribute to Van Halen,” and that the name Teabag came from the bridge in “Panama” where David Lee Roth says, “I reach down between my legs and ease the teabag” — which, of course, is not what he says, but I thought it was a funny story. And Howard Stern got really mad — well, his listeners got really mad. They were calling in [and saying], “He doesn’t even know what it says in the song. It doesn’t say ‘teabag.’ It says ‘ease the seat back.’” Of course, I knew it said that.

FT: How did you wind up on the Howard Stern show?

CB: It’s still a mystery. They contacted us through our web site.

FT: So do you look at Confederate Fagg as more of a side project to Guyana Punch Line?

CB: Yeah, Confederate Fagg is more for fun. It’s nothing that any of us have taken real seriously. It’s just something we do to have an excuse to get drunk and act ridiculous. Guyana Punch Line is a band I actually take very seriously.

FT: Now, this is your most recent punk band since being in In/Humanity, right? Is Guyana Punch Line more of a continuation of that?

CB: In a way, but In/Humanity was maybe a little more chaotic in its approach. And I think, at the time, we were doing something that hadn’t really been done at all. Now it’s interesting, a few years later, to see so many bands doing exactly what we were doing then.

FT: What would that have been?

CB: It’s hard to put my finger on it. Just some aspect of the music where it’s really fast and brutal, but it’s not so concerned with being tough. There’s this element of passion to it that is this chaotic frenzy, and it seems that I hear a lot of bands now that have copped certain stylistic things that we did with that band.

FT: Could you list a couple?

CB: I’d rather not.

FT: Where did the idea for Guyana Punch Line, the name, come from?

CB: Well, it’s an old joke from the ‘70s that I remembered as a kid: “Why are there no jokes about the Jonestown Massacre?” — Jonestown being in Guyana. “Because the punch line is too long.” Of course, [it was] referencing the line people stood in to get the punch laced with cyanide to commit suicide. So, the Guyana Punch Line would be the line you wait in to get the punch in Guyana.

FT: Do a lot of people get that reference?

CB: No — nobody. I’d say one out of 100 actually say, “Ah, clever.”

FT: Now, you’ve got a new record out with Guyana Punch Line, too. How many does this make?

CB: This will be our third.

FT: What are your thoughts on the new material?

CB: I’m real happy with it. It’s sort of not new to me anymore, because it’s stuff we actually recorded a year ago, but we’ve had so many snags involved with getting the record out. Any problem you could possibly imagine has happened, and finally it looks like it’s going to come out. It’s supposed to come out May 12, but now it’s got held up again — another mastering problem. So we might or might not get them back from the pressing plant in time for our tour, which is going to be a real drag if we don’t have the new record to sell on our tour. But we’ve got our fingers crossed.

FT: So you wrote this long before the “war on terror”?

CB: It was kind of right as that was starting up. Most of the songs were written right after 9/11, but it was kind of right as all the scary shit was going on with basically everyone’s civil rights being thrown out the window with all the new anti-terror policies that had been enacted. So, a lot of the songs on the album are sort of a paranoid reaction to all that. In retrospect, seeing everything that’s happened since with the war, I think we should have been more paranoid with our writing, because I think it’s a really scary time that we live in.

FT: Care to elaborate on that?

CB: Well, I could probably go on all night. Let’s just say that we live in a time where the Bill of Rights, the electoral process, the Geneva Convention and all these things are just not taken seriously by our government, and if the government doesn’t take those things seriously, then why should any of us take them seriously?

FT: Do you feel this is an important time for Guyana Punch Line to increase its exposure and maybe take it to another level?

CB: I don’t know if we care that much. Our number-one priority is just the act of creating something, and we have a lot of fun doing that. Of course, we’d always like for more people to come to our shows or buy our records. If they do, they do. If they don’t, they don’t. We’re not going to lose sleep over it. We’re not trying to get on MTV. We’ll see what happens. We’re going to do a lot more touring than we have in the past, and if people are interested and catch on, then great.

FT: Now, it’s hard to talk about Guyana Punch Line without bringing up the subject of Smashism. What exactly is Smashism? Is it something you created?

CB: More or less. I didn’t come up with the word, originally, but I think I came up with the philosophy. The word itself comes from this band The Screamers, who were this late ‘70s San Francisco punk band that never put any records out. I managed to be lucky enough to have a bootleg recording of one of their shows, and there’s a line: “I get so sick of the masses and their fascism/Makes me crazy, wanna try a little smashism.” And I just thought that word was brilliant, so I decided that since nobody heard it from this band, I’d have to resurrect it.

It’s sort of an all-encompassing philosophy. You could put a lot of different meanings into it. I guess one of the tenets would be that in order to create, you must first destroy. But it’s probably a lot more than that. I don’t know. It borrows a lot from Dadaism. The Dadaists had this sort of catch-all philosophy that basically anything that they thought was righteous they could place under the banner of Dadaism, and I think Smashism is sort of the 21st century equivalent.

FT: And you live by this?

CB: Yeah, I’d say I try to put Smashism into practice at least once a day.

FT: You also have this avant-garde project that you’re working on. Tell me about that.

 
Album art for Bickel’s solo experimental project, Anakrid

CB: I’m really excited about it. Actually, tonight, I’m going in to the studio to record the last track for it. Stuff that I’ve worked on off and on for like 10 years. I’d say it’s influenced by John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen, but it doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done. It uses a lot of field recordings, found sounds, bizarre instruments to make these compositions that I think are the audio equivalent of surrealist painting. All the music has surrealism in mind.

FT: Are there plans for a release?

CB: Yeah, I actually got a grant from the Arts Commission, which has partially funded it. South Carolina tax dollars at work, putting out some weird music.

FT: So you’re in this gay metal band, you’re in a punk band and now this experimental, avant-garde project. It seems like your musical preferences are all over the map, but they seem to lean more toward the brash.

CB: Yeah, that really has always been my interest, musically. Stuff that sort of falls outside of the mainstream. At a very young age, when I first started listening to music, the first thing I listened to was heavy metal, because as far as I knew that was the most extreme form of music out there. And it’s almost laughable now to think of Ratt as being cutting edge or anything, but when you’re 11 years old and you don’t really know what’s going on in the world, it is cutting edge. But then I found punk rock a couple years after that, and then I became interested in 20th century classical and jazz and avant-garde, but I still like Duran Duran, too. And I wouldn’t be opposed to having my next project be full-fledged New Romantic. You know, Adam Ant style.

FT: So, you were able to apply your diverse tastes to [former local record store] New Clear Days. Now, what was it like running a record store in town?

CB: It was fun. I miss it. At the time, when I closed the store, I was really sick of it. Not so much that I was sick of music or sick of selling music to people. I was really sick of all the bullshit associated with running a small business in this state. I was fed up, and at the time, I wanted to make my first movie, which I started on after I closed the store, and a couple weeks into it, I had all my video gear and all the footage I’d shot stolen. So, I scrapped it. I was really upset. But, getting back to the record store, at the time that I closed it, I was really sick of it, and I let it go, and it’s sort of a regret I have now. I wish I’d have just taken a two-week vacation and come back to it, because I think Columbia is lacking a store that specializes in the oddities that I specialized in.

FT: Working with that side of the music industry, did it shed new light on how it’s all run?

CB: It was definitely enlightening. I think that I’m in an interesting position, because I’ve run a record label off and on for many years. I actually started a record label before I was ever even in band, so I’ve seen the business from that side of it. I’ve dealt with running a label, dealing with distributors, and I’ve dealt with the music industry from the band side of things, and then with working in record stores and owning my own record store. So, I’ve really seen almost every aspect of the music business.

FT: And what do you take away from these experiences?

CB: That the major labels are just vultures and leaches that basically suck all the life out of the art of music and chew artists up and spit them out. For everything that’s been said about the Internet and MP3s and the future of music, I say, “Great.” Let the music industry just go up in flames, because that’s the only way that artists will ever be able to take back control of their art. And by using a tool like the Internet, an artist can distribute their own work and promote their own work without the need of a major record company. And now, because of technology, people can have a studio in their bedroom that sounds as good as Electric Lady Land, and they can make their own CDs at home. The way technology is going, it’s going to put the music business out of business, and it’s going to give everything back to the artist.

FT: Getting a little localized here, what are your thoughts on Columbia’s music scene?

CB: Improving. As far as the quality of bands, it’s improving. But, it’s the age-old dilemma of just a lack of venues and lack of public support.

FT: Now I can’t conclude this interview without asking about your visit to Darius Rucker’s house. What went on there?

CB: Well, we all do stupid things when we’re drunk. Should I leave it at that?

FT: Ah, come on. You can elaborate. I mean, it’s on the Internet. I’ve read about it before.

CB: Well ... (long pause) ... yeah, I peed on his soap.

FT: How did you wind up in his house in the first place?

CB: Well, there used to be a band in town called Ghetto Blaster, and there used to be a guy in town called Kipp Shives that was the singer of Ghetto Blaster, and Breaking Records actually was interested in Ghetto Blaster — well, Darius was. I don’t know if the rest of the Breaking Records family was, but he really liked Ghetto Blaster. And one night Kipp and I were really drunk, and Kipp ran into Darius, and Darius said, “Let’s go back to my place and talk about your band.”

So I got dragged along, and I’d sort of had a past history of problems with various elements of the band Hootie & The Blowfish, namely their management, which I won’t go into. And I also harbored a grudge because Darius had made some statements about the Confederate flag and how it should come down, which I thought was righteous that someone in a position of power through their fame could make a statement that actually could effect a change. But then the band issued an apology directly after, because everybody freaked out, and they weren’t going to give them some key to the city. So I thought that was really lame that you couldn’t stand up for what you believe in, and I just had all these crazy things going through my head. And I was really drunk and had a very full bladder, and I went to use Darius’ restroom and saw this kind of frufy bar of soap, might’ve been rose-shaped, and the rest is history.

FT: Do you think he knows about it?

CB: He probably knows by now. If he didn’t know before, he’ll know now. (laughs) Sorry I peed on your soap, man.

FT: Well, I’m almost afraid to ask this, but we’re kind of on this theme. What would you say is the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

CB: Good lord. Well, I was a stripper for a year and a half.

FT: (laughs) When? Where?

CB: It was, I’d say, around ‘92 at a place called Spanky’s. It was on Assembly Street.

FT: You almost seem to have a mythological status in this town, as far as the music scene goes — encounters with Howard Stern and peeing on Darius Rucker’s soap. You’ve definitely made your mark here. Where do you fit in the Columbia music scene?

CB: Well, I don’t think I’ve ever fit in anywhere. That’s sort of been the theme, the common thread, throughout my entire life, that I just didn’t work in any group environment. So where do I fit in Columbia? I don’t know. It’s sort of like in a movie where there’d be some eccentric hermit living out in a cave that comes into town once a week to scare the locals. I guess I’m that guy.

 

 

 

 

 

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