A Life Within the Thrill Kill Kult

The industrious band celebrates three decades of industrial burlesque

From the moment Chicago-based label Wax Trax! put out the single "Cold Life" by Ministry in 1981, just a year after bursting into existence with a few oddball releases (including singles by Brian Eno and Divine), it became synonymous with the blossoming industrial scene in Chicago and beyond.

The label would go on to release music by Front 242, the Revolting Cocks, The Young Gods, Laibach, Front Line Assembly, and KMFDM, among many others. And then there was My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult.

The Windy City outfit formed in 1987 when core duo Buzz McCoy and Groovie Mann endeavored to make an art film called My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult. Tragically, the movie was never completed (it was almost certainly terrible, but curiosity is a tease), but the soundtrack that the pair prepared was released that same year on Wax Trax!. They clearly had a good time making it, because they adopted the name for an ongoing project and, the following year, put out the debut full-lengther, I See Good Spirits and I See Bad Spirits.

"We didn't even plan on putting a band together at first, and then when we were, we thought it would last a couple of years tops," McCoy says. "It's like nothing we ever imagined, and to still be doing it 30 years later is just mind-boggling."

That it is, but it's not like the band has sat on its combined ass for 30 years; McCoy and Mann have put out a new studio release every couple of years (four being the maximum gap), with a whole heap of remix and compilation albums coming out in-between. 2014's Spooky Tricks is the most recent, so we're due. And there will be plenty of people waiting.

"That's what's so great about it—people do care," says McCoy. "We actually did something that other people care about, and that's what keeps us going. We know there are so many people who really want something new every few years and love to come to the shows, and still love to hear the old songs. So why not? We're just minstrels. Let's go out and perform."

McCoy acknowledges that the association with Wax Trax!, a label that fans feel passionate about much like those who collect Sub-Pop or even Motown, helped their cause. But he's quick to point out that there were no other bands on the label like Thrill Kill Kult. Sure, industrial elements were there. These guys could get dark and gnarly with the best of them. But there was always something overtly sexy and sleazy about this band. It was industrial-burlesque, performed in a gutter.

"I think our sound was kind of the oddball of the whole Wax Trax! scene," McCoy says. "We didn't quite fit in with the whole really industrial sound. We were all over the place."

Thrill Kill Kult started work on a new record last year and hoped to have it ready for release this fall, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. McCoy says that it's about 80 percent done, and he's happy to step away from it while they go out on tour, so that he can come back to it with fresh ears.

"It's distinctly Thrill Kill Kult," he says. "Plenty of oddball samples laced throughout some music. Some of it's kind of dark, but then again there's some real dancey numbers on the record too. It's not just one sound. A couple of our albums have been more conceptual with one sound, but this is all over the place, like so many of our albums are."

Because the group has always been "all over the place," it's tough to place exactly how they've grown, but they have evolved. The sound is still distinctively theirs—like something the DJ at a fetish club would play if said fetish were unprintable. But that same sound ticks over so much smoother. It's fucked up, weird and gloriously debauched, but they seem to know exactly what they're doing now, as opposed to the early, sloppy days.

"We're always pushing ourselves to do something different," McCoy says. "After 30 years, that's hard to do because you end up doing something that sounds like something else and you don't even realize it. But we're always challenging ourselves to try new stuff."

Besides Mann and McCoy, the lineup of the band has always been fluid and revolving. Current bassist Mimi Star has been in the band for about six years, while Arena Rock returns after a spell out. Bradley Bills from Austin industrial band Chant is playing drums for TKK this tour, which will see them uncharacteristically go back in time and perform the first two albums in their entirety.

"It'll be an old-school night. Nothing new," McCoy says. "Some of them, we've never played. They just didn't fit into the live set back on the day, because some of them are just odd and obscure. We haven't even begun rehearsing yet, except for everyone has their rehearsal MP3's at home singing along. It's coming back really quickly. It's easier to remember the older songs than going out and playing some of the newer stuff that aren't so ingrained in your head."

It should be a fascinating night, not least because McCoy and Mann have been in this game for so long now, they share a near-telepathic connection, and that extreme empathy is conveyed to the baying crowd.

"No matter the crowd size, in our minds we like to think it's always an intimate experience," McCoy says. "On stage, we have a connection, especially Groovie and myself because we share the vocals. We have to have a mental connection when we're singing together, which is cool. Then you've got the first few rows singing every word along with you which is amazing. We like to keep it like that: intimate but we still like to show a little flash and get a little crazy."

It's good to know that they can still get crazy as they get up into their vintage years. After all, this was a band that put the fear of God into Tipper Gore and the PMRC, thanks to the tongue-in-cheek (perhaps literally) mentions of Satan, Jesus and sex in their songs (sometimes all at the same time).

"I'm sure it probably did more good," McCoy says. "Nobody that would listen to them would listen to our albums anyway, right? It just made kids aware. 'What is this stuff? If it's being blacklisted by the PMRC, it's got to be great.' If I was a kid, that's what I would go for first."

So there you have it. Thank Tipper Gore for these thrills and kills.

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