Up to 1997

Some are born Genius, some have Genius thrust upon them. Some give up trying to be a smart-ass and just make a bloody racket, and THE CHAOS ENGINE fall into this latter category. Our story begins as the young LEE H. recalls his earliest musical memory – singing close-part harmonies to the sound of his mother doing the hoovering. From this absurd memory comes the basis of the Chaos Engine’s musical ethic – Man and Machine (even vacuum cleaner) in imperfect harmony. Actually, that sounds a bit pervy…but I guess that’s part of the Chaos Engine ethic too.

Anyway, then…nothing. You will not find photos of the fledgling Chaos Engine performing, age 11, a selection of iffy Slade covers (that comes much later…). Lee H. didn’t twiddle a single synth knob until the age of 17, and began by programming hideous peepy noises on a Sinclair Spectrum computer. These are not likely to be made available to anyone, regardless of how much of a fan you are…

But these early noodlings brought Lee in contact with a bunch of like-minded schoolmates in 1986, who, fired by a love of early Depeche Mode, John Hughes films (& their soundtracks) and a loathing for Van Halen-style guitar heroics, formed the band CHIARO SCURO (Italian for “Light into darkness”, a term used in Renaissance painting, like you care…) with a strict NO ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS policy and featuring 3 keyboard players, drum machines (the old Spectrum again…) very early samplers and a selection of hi-fi kit that had been modified so that it would all catch fire on stage, causing the singer to leave the microphone and grab a soldering iron mid-song, and a fire extinguisher mid-gig. CHIARO SCURO did about 8 gigs (mostly hideous school-related affairs to abusive and clandestinely drunk teenagers) which ranged from dangerously entertaining to hysterically farcical, as kit and band members broke down live onstage. There was never a definitive line-up, and at one point, the band contained an  additional bassist, guitarist, backing singer, D.J., and dancer-cum-audience antagoniser, who would goad the crowd into singing popular T.V. commercials whilst other band members re-wired and extinguished equipment. By Chiaro Scuro’s collapse, at a gig where everything had exploded and the guitarist’s mate had stripped butt-naked to entertain the crowd of 9 people whilst they reassembled computers and kicked seven shades of digested matter out of the singer, it was clear that Lee H. wanted to work on his own, since he had contributed the slightly less insane and more musical moments to the proceedings, and had written all of the original songs. Aah, sweet memories…

Then came the wilderness years… Lee went to college with the plan of meeting up with a whole bunch of like-minded individuals and ended up in a houseful of utter party beasties that taught him less about the pentatonic scale and more about internal (and external) organ damage. Their effect was to introduce the then sternly Goff leader of Chaos to a whole bunch of Hardcore Techno, Public Enemy and very fit First-year art students, the effect of which should not be under-estimated.

After nearly flunking the first year, for an inability to relate sensitively to industrial machinery, natch, Lee met up with a bunch of grumpy northerners called JESUS WEPT and briefly joined the line-up after blowing 3 months unpaid rent on new synths. Although musically adept, they had the distinct disadvantage of being led by someone who could actually play the guitar, and insisted on doing those widdly-widdly-wEEE! solos at inopportune moments. This led to friction between Lee and the songwriters, and he was asked to leave before they ever gigged.

As a direct response, Lee H. set up THE WASP FACTORY (Named after Iain Banks’ cult novel about a child who murders family members for fun), which essentially formed the creative basis for The Chaos Engine. This set-up featured Lee on vocals for the first time, with errant girlfriend playing big chunky guitar backed by a pre-programmed synth set-up. Ironically, their first gig was supporting Jesus Wept, and was also their last, due to a legal wrangle with a band of the same name managed by none other than EDDIE IZZARD, who then went on to disappear after a harsh panning from the music press. If only Eddie’s ear for music was as fine as his comedy… Still, the gig was a success, and gave Lee a taste for the limelight, fronting a band playing his own songs. Jesus Wept were crap, by the way.

Then Lee seemed to stop doing anything useful at all. There were no gigs for 18 months, but during this period, Lee got his Degree out of the way, and started to concentrate on writing new material. Much of this was inspired by the purchase of an import copy of NINE INCH NAILS’ “Pretty Hate Machine” on its release, and started to shape the Dark Pop that constitutes The Chaos Engine’s sound and work ethic. Lee recorded six tracks in his 4-track demo studio (arguably some of the darkest Chaos Engine material to date) and sent half a dozen review copies to local papers, with a bold (and overly-pretentious) statement of intent in January 1994. The response was one of confusion massed with disinterest and cynicism. Lee flicked the V’s from his studio and kept writing…

During this period, Lee worked in a local record store, and spent many a boozy evening with ANDY STEWART, local folk-rock guitarist with THE CHEESEBURGERS. After one particularly evil Guinness-fuelled binge, Lee mentioned that he was looking for a “Non-guitarist” to join The Chaos Engine in a live capacity. Andy said he knew someone who was desperate to be in a band, was really into industrial music, and had really cool hair. The pair staggered to Cheltenham’s CAFE CONTINENTAL (now a hideous bistro, but more later…), where Andy dragged HUW THORLEY from his post behind the D.J. booth, spinning tunes for the local Punk Xmas party (in retrospect either a very brave or foolhardy thing to do) and introduced him to Lee. The two got on well, mainly down to shared musical tastes, drunkenness and mutual haircut appreciation (Lee: Orange dred & mohican, Huw: Blue Quiff & pointy sideburns).

Initial practices proved Huw’s inability to play the guitar yet a positive advantage, as it opened him up to sonic terrorism & bizarre playing techniques. The pair hurriedly learned a set of half a dozen songs, and rehearsed fanatically upstairs at The Cafe Continental. It was here they had their first gigs supporting various local turns in February and March ’94, where the audience varied from 20 disinterested and sarcastic punters to nobody whatsoever. However,these early gigs allowed The Chaos Engine to perfect their energetic stage performance and audience-baiting technique. It was during this period that Lee also developed an unhealthy penchant for the utter destruction of microphone stands onstage and Huw learnt to dodge the swirling tentacles of Lee’s hair whilst still strumming like a man possessed.

In the summer of ’94, Huw and Lee got together to construct the second Chaos Engine demo tape, consisting of nine tracks (or ten if you count the secret cover version…), again recorded at home, in the space of two days, fuelled by grim determination, unemployment of both band members, and a seemingly never-ending supply of home-brewed Amaretto. This demo was sent out with greater caution to a variety of fanzines and promoters – one copy was handed to Graham of Pop Will Eat Itself, but unlike the fairytale story of some bands, the Poppies did not sign The Chaos Engine, and no-one began to consider living happily ever after as a career option.

The tape did reach a few pairs of appreciative ears, however: Peter Lay of the Gloucester Live project not only promised the band a few gigs at prestigious venues including the Gloucester Guildhall, but also agreed to help fund them should they wish to visit a studio in order to record a new demo. The Zine magazine also granted the Chaos Engine their first National coverage, claiming that the music “…scared the living piss out of me.” In response to this apparently favourable review, one errant freelance journalist by the name of Nine contacted the band, and began to write ultra-encouraging reviews for her fanzine Nothing To Declare. It seemed that after a shaky start, people were starting to get the hang of The Chaos Engine.

Of course, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Industrial scene which had been in full blossom whilst both Lee and Huw were at college was beginning to fold in on itself, suffering from bands bitching and playing the “I’m-harder-than-you-are” game whilst the music press left the scene to wilt and began to concentrate on the foetal form of Britpop. Techno was still a very separate entity from Rawk music, and any bands that had attempted to blend the two (e.g. the Shamen & Jesus Jones, both of whom had proved a big influence to the Chaos Engine) had fallen by the wayside.

Regardless, the Chaos Engine stormed into DB studios in Stroud to record their first E.P. on 16th August 1994 in one gruelling 11 hour session. The four tracks formed the Conspiracy EP and showed what the band were capable of, given the right equipment and like-minded souls to work with. This session included the freshly-written track, Purge, which was to become the band’s official “mosh-anthem” at later gigs. The band set about sending out review copies, and in what would become a standard procedure, organized a launch party for the EP, including a coach-trip to Worcester to see the band play at the Northwick Theatre on September 29th. A bus-load of Chaos Engine fans can be a dangerous thing, and by the end of this memorable evening everyone had received their individually-decorated copy of the Conspiracy EP, but one fan had also received a nosebleed and split lip as a result of bouncer antagonism, and a second, namely Andy Stewart, without whom the band wouldn’t have got together in the first place, hobbled home after a particularly nasty stagediving accident with what later turned out to be two fractured ankles. The band have video footage of this heroic leap to doom and have been threatening to use it in promo videos ever since…

The Chaos Engine then proceeded to round the year off with a seven-date tour which ranged from legendary to humiliating, successful to financially disastrous. Events of note include the 400-mile round trip to play in Manchester’s Star & Garter, during which Lee almost started a full riot by claiming that their opening slot was due to extra-curricular activities between the other two bands on the bill, which was only pacified by him quickly claiming that he had carnal knowledge of his own mother; and the first Chaos Engine Christmas Party, another coach-trip to bedlam which resulted in the band appearing in Cheltenham’s Small Claims Court regarding an allegedly unpaid bill issued by someone who may or may not take more drugs than is good for him…

Before the year was out, the band contacted a selection of small independent record companies, not so much to be signed and have large sacks of gold thrown at them, but to gauge some sort of reaction from “professionals” as to what they thought of their music. Comments ranged from the disinterested to the comedic – one nameless label suggested that the songs were too weak to warrant signing The Chaos Engine whilst another offered the helpful suggestion that the boys “weld the words into a STEEL harness of DARK ELECTRO”…whatever that means. This came as no real surprise to the band, who were beginning to feel comfortable with their lot as outsiders.

In early 1995, the band returned to the studio to begin work on more material, with a clearer idea of what worked live, and in which direction the Chaos Engine should be steered. Meanwhile, excellent reviews of the Conspiracy EP continued to drop through the letterbox, and the band’s fanbase began to extend across the country. The spring of ’95 saw the band gig in their usual frantic & random manner, including a prestigious support slot with Rosetta Stone in Birmingham which yet again saw Lee losing the plot a little, this time at the lethargic Goth audience hiding in the shadows, but ultimately resulting in one of their most ferocious and high-profile shows to date.

With another 12 songs added to the live set, Lee and Huw were keen to get back into the studio, and record the follow-up to their Conspiracy E.P. Whilst both were racking their brains trying to think of scams to finance their next studio outing, Lee took his yearly pilgrimage to the Midi & Electronic Music Show, armed with some rough demos of new tracks to play at the Future Music Demo Stand. After hearing two minutes of a fledgling version of Industry Standard Beauty, the Jury were unanimously baffled but mostly impressed. With helpful hints on production carefully ignored, Lee went on his way, browsing cripplingly expensive music kit. A couple of minutes later, he was approached by James Asher, a producer who’d heard the tune, and was so impressed that he offered The Chaos Engine free rein of his 72-track studio for two days. After exchanging phone numbers, losing phone numbers, leaving messages on answerphones, answerphones breaking down, answerphones being reprogrammed by a pair of size 9 German para boots, and eventually a meeting in London, a deal was hatched, and the band lugged all their kit to Starfield studios to record the Coiled E.P., choosing the tracks Industry Standard Beauty, IdiotBreed, Coiled and Criminal.

The session was fraught with stressful moments; the ever-increasing Chaos arsenal of synths failed to talk to each other on a regular basis, and James Asher’s ultra-smooth World Music production background often clashed with the band’s lo-fi experimental ethic. A polished, but sanitized session was produced, that whilst radio-friendly slightly disappointed the band members. Despite this, initial responses to the tracks from friends and fans were good, many people expressing an interest on owning the tracks on CD.

The first chance the band’s adoring fans had to own the Coiled EP came at one of The Chaos Engine’s greatest coups yet – opening a Virgin Megastore in their home town of Cheltenham with none other than teeny pre-pube sensation M N 8! The band waited for over an hour to take the stage due to the swing-beat quartet’s late arrival, and at one point it looked as if the assembled fans of Chaos would riot, resulting in the PR pretty-girls dishing out Virgin Vouchers to them all (allowing them to snap up the limited edition Coiled EP’s in-store for nothing!). The band took to the small stage, wedged inbetween the Jazz & Easy Listening racks to the sound of mutilated M N 8 samples, and proceeded to terrorize shoppers with wholly inappropriate Industrial Pop at teatime, generating a moshpit in the Tom Jones section.

The weirdness continued… the band entered and lost a couple of horrible “Battle Of The Bands” things, appeared on Cable TV (slotted between an item on youth bereavement and job-seeker weekly) to slag off Meatloaf and make some presenters very edgy indeed, and recorded a track in under an hour at 1a.m. for the “Midnight To Midnight” charity compilation. They finished the year off with a support slot with a fledgling Baby Bird (who was barely squawking at that time, and who hadn’t become Gorgeous yet…)

The first half of 1996 saw the band seeming to tread water somewhat; a few gigs premiered some new, more diverse material with a greater pop sensibility whilst maintaining the industrial aggression. With tracks such as Ghost and Vortex, it was clear that the band were developing. But beneath the surface, the Chaos Engine were preparing for their boldest manoeuvre yet – the release of their debut CD, entitled DIFFICULT. The album was to be entirely self-produced, self-designed and self-funded; it would be make or break for the band. They pooled all their existing studio sessions, and demo work completed at Lee’s Parental Advisory studio (and even recorded a tequila-fuelled “thank-you” session) and pressed up 500 copies of the CD.

Unfortunately, the album started to live up to its title; artwork went missing, computers crashed, bank loans were refused, and it looked like the CD wouldn’t be ready for its September 5th release date. The band had planned two gigs on the day of its release, one at the local Virgin store (with an acoustic interlude, natch), and another at a venue just around the corner. The day before the release, Lee was informed that the CD was still in Austria… After some deft negotiation, threatening behaviour and swearing, the CD’s were sent on a charter flight to Heathrow on the morning of September 5th, where they remained in customs until the first of the two gigs had to be cancelled. The duo then travelled at break-neck speed, only to end up trapped in traffic in Swindon (a fate comparable to 14th Century torture…) and arriving at the second venue with barely an hour to spare. Fortunately, the evening’s proceedings went better than the rest of the day, and The Chaos Engine Ltd. seemed like a possibility…

The rest of the year was spent with the band gigging furiously trying to make their investment pay for itself, with gigs ranging from the epic to the farcical. They finished the year with an epic two-hour set at the Axiom in Cheltenham, preceded by a Christmas raffle hosted by Lee’s mum! It featured half a dozen guest performers, including opera singer Justin Bindley, local bandmates Gary Skinflower and Andy Stewart, and a selection of impromptu drunks.
The band didn’t rest on their laurels for long; at their first gig of 1997 at the Guildhall in Gloucester, Lee took his onstage demolition routine to new heights. The audience consisted chiefly of thirteen-somethings, chatting at the front of the stage about the relative merits of Cast and Kula Shaker. On a better day, Lee may have seen this audience as ripe for conversion to the church of Chaos. However, their apathy seemed to cause a violent chemical reaction within the band, resulting in Lee hurling every piece of kit offstage, and demanding that the disinterested audience either pay attention or leave the building; they chose the latter. this could have been the gig that killed The Chaos Engine.

Bizarrely, it  was the gig that killed the headline band AC-151. In an onstage split right out of the Bad News out-takes reel, the band tension was of the variety that can only ever occur when band members start shagging each other. Tantrums and beer were thrown, tears and more beer was spilled, Alanis Morrisette songs were dedicated…  However, from this evening of destruction, The Chaos Engine gained a Bassist – Ex AC-151 bassman Rich Devine. Initial practices showed that he was already very familiar with the material (having played along to the CD in the privacy of his own home) and was open to making hideous noises with his guitar as well as machine-like precision bass grooves.

In addition to Rich, the band also conscripted Jason Woodfin (ex-drummer with OilSeedRape) to bash along to the synth-noise. His connection with the band was more tenuous, being more suited to jazz than industrial tub-thumping, and he only played one gig with them. To the trained eye it was clear on the night that Jason’s expression was one blended from concentration, confusion and excess decibels, and it was clear before the last song of the evening that this was to be a unique excursion into the land of live percussion. Jason amicably quit the band that same evening (as he was leaving the stage, it was rumoured…), and The Chaos Engine then joined old Goth heroes Screaming Dead on tour as a 3-piece, during which time Rich became an integral part of the band.

During the summer of ’97, the band continued to gig frantically and randomly anywhere that would have them, including an awe-inspiring support slot with Project Pitchfork at the Underworld, despite the freak “weather conditions” resulting in treacherous fog descending onto the whole stage and completely blocking out the band; rumours that this was entirely due to alcohol poisoning are not without foundation… Again, the relative calm apparent to the gig-going public belied a frenzy of activity, and by July, the band had signed both a management and licensing deal, and had began their assault on the U.S. And what’s in the pipeline? Well, it’s dark and Chaotic in there, but a new album is written and ready for 1998, and finally the world is ready for The Chaos Engine, after four years of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up…

Zachary Stubbs, July 1997