John Bechdel has been at the forefront of shaping alternative culture from Industrial music’s rise to dominance through today with bands like Killing Joke, Fear Factory and others. A prominent figure in Ministry, the band is in the midst of their Amerikkkant North America tour, including a stop in Indianapolis.
Sometimes fate writes itself. That goes for both the band Ministry and keyboardist John Bechdel. What has been a wild, off-road ride for the band has led them back into a continuous fold of explosive electronic prowess. The socio-political landscape of the late 2010s fueled a ripe backdrop for Al Jourgensen to construct Amerikkkant, the band’s 14th studio album. The new music led to a world tour with a stop in Indianapolis (a Dahlia Presents show) at Old National Centre’s Egyptian Room on April 12.
Much like the new album’s consistent content direction, the group’s set list has a distinctive flow. Although we expectedly will hear some classic Ministry songs, a dominating portion of their set will be new material, along with material from albums like Rio Grande Blood, as well as Psalm 69 and Mind is a Terrible Thing To Taste.
Ministry – Twilight Zone
“(Al) always comes out strong with new material,” said Bechdel. “Any band wants to come out and play something new. We want to build up and peak at a frenzy and then taper it off. I’m sure when The Who plays “My Generation” it must be surreal 60 years later. But they do it. Al’s like that. There are some songs he won’t do because it just takes him back to a place he does not want to be. A few shows in now, we feel that the set list we came up with is working well.”
Bechdel is an accomplished member of the Industrial music and rock community, being a part of bands like Killing Joke, Prong, Fear Factory, Murder Inc. among others that include his work with Ministry from 2006 to 2008 and 2011 to the present.
Bechdel’s inspirational journey into electronic music started out with bands like Kraftwerk and transformed into being transfixed with groups like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Einsterzende Nuebutan all the way to Depeche Mode. But it was Fad Gadget that was an intriguing factor into who he would become as a musician.
“Fad Gadget’s music was electronic but he was using more power tools and metallic sounds in his songs. It was definitely a forerunner for industrial music. This was still prior to sampling. We were creating music and sound on modular synthesizers. It was more experimental back then.
“The first samplers started to arrive. They were all so expensive. One of my colleagues Charlie Clouser got one of the first Ensoniq Mirage. We were all mesmerized. That is when we started capturing sounds and creating samples from the environment. I still use tape loops and drum machines. I remember turning Charlie on to industrial music. We were both blown away on the experimentation of sound and its manipulation. And that became my primary focus. More than learning music theory and programming.”
Bechdel went to Hampshire College to study electronic music. He was digging into the possibilities of building a software-based sequencer before they were even heard of, but realized that direction was not for him.
“I focused more on sound and ways to manipulate it. I had a cool professor in college who turned me on to things like Art of Noise . . . stuff like that. I was well on my way to learning electronic music when those type of bands captured my attention. I loved the sound and the experimental aspects of it.”
One of his discoveries was Ministry. It was the summer of 1983, and With Sympathy was released when a song on the radio caught his attention.
Ministry – I’m Falling
“I heard ‘I’m Falling,’ and I immediately went out and bought the 12-inch single, which I still have. I was into bands like Ultravox, Our Daughter’s Wedding, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and their sound just fit right in. Time went by, and I was living in New York City. I had been working with Martin Atkins. That’s how I got started in the industry. He moved to Chicago and got hooked up with Ministry. So I bought tickets to go see them. I told my friends and they said, are you going to take earplugs? I said what do you mean? They replied that they were really loud. I thought, are we talking about the same band? I was still thinking With Sympathy-era Ministry. I had seen all these kids talk about how Ministry was industrial. I totally missed Twitch. That was not on my radar. By then I was listening to Skinny Puppy, Front 242, and Nitzer Ebb. I went to see the Mind is a Terrible Thing To Taste tour. That was the first I had heard the new Ministry. They opened up with ‘Breathe’ and Oghr came out and sang with them. It was really loud. At that point, I totally got it. It made sense.”
Fast forward to 2006 and Ministry asked Bechdel to join the group. At first, he turned the offer down to be with his family and three children. Weeks passed, and the band got a hold of him again. They flew Bechdel out to do some programming and the hopes that he could find someone who could work with the band thereafter. They needed someone who could fill the gap and Bechdel was the one. They both knew it.
“They asked one more time if I wanted the job, and I said yes,” he said. “If you are an industrial rock keyboard player, you don’t turn Ministry down.”
Ministry – Victims of a Clown
His contribution included Rio Grande Mud and The Last Sucker. And then Ministry announced their farewell tour. 2008 was supposed to be the end of the band. That is, until 2011. Bechdel was at the Coldwaves Festival in Chicago when he got a phone call from Al. He was being offered a tour and Bechdel was back in the band just like that.
“We still do things with the same technique which is triggering live samples. That was one of the things that brought them to me when I joined in 2006. There not a lot of people at that time period who played live samples. So typically we used the Akai samplers. Previously I played with Fear Factory, Prong, Killing Joke. I would always use the Akai samplers live. They are dependable, reliable, and Ministry went down that same route.
“When I first joined there all these boxes of old zip drives, discs and even floppy discs. I had to go through and dig around to see what was what. Then I put together the samples and maps that we would need. When I mapped all of my sounds I used the same techniques and then you have to go through and figure out what would make the most sense. How am I going to play this? You have to trigger multiple things at the same time so how do I get these keys close together. Everything is played through a click loop so we can stay in the right tempo and the samples will play back at the right time. Funny, I had some friends come to the show on Sunday, and they didn’t quite understand what I am doing up there. They don’t hear conventional keyboard sounds. There’s some here and there. Typically when people hear anything that is not produced by a guitar or drums they just assume it’s on a computer. Some people think I’m a DJ up there with turntables or something. It’s funny as I talk to people. A lot of people don’t understand what it is that I do.”
Ministry – Lies Lies Lies
Coming this spring (digital May 19 and on DVD August 23) is Killing the Joke: The John Bechdel Story. The documentary tracks the life of Bechdel and creation of some of the most iconic bands and songs in Industrial music. The personal interviews collected and collaborated weave a rich history of the culture of how electronic music progressed through the alternative spectrum. When his sister Alison Bechdel turned the Bechdel family into a social phenomenon and the award-winning Fun Home, friend and documentarian Darryl Hell taped into John’s world.
Bechdel has built up a glorious history of music that has transformed a culture. As the Ministry tour makes its way full steam across the country and continue that culture, where it will lead him and the band only fate can answer.