White Trash, White Heat
Richard Patrick and Brian Liesegang are just a pair of salt-of-the-earth, idiot savant Midwestern geeks who have made one of the most intriguing records of the year. Jason Pettigrew goes to figure. Photos by Brad Miller.
In various small towns and suburbs across America, some mentally-challenged kids are mainstreamed into public schools. Community planners arranged for these special students to be bussed in a vehicle that was similar to a regular yellow school bus, only much shorter. Historically, the patrons of this "short bus" have been the brunt of many viciously insensitive and cruel jokes ("What’s your problem? Did you take the special bus to school today, retard?"); typical behavior for a society based on superiority and conformity.
"We weren’t expecting the amount of flack we’re getting for the title," admits Brian Liesegang, Filter’s programmer extraordinaire and calmer philosophical side. "It’s perspective. We appreciate people who don’t have constraints and are socially inept. They have something to offer."
"I have a friend who worked with some kids that were different," informs Filter frontman Rich Patrick. "I won’t even be condescending by calling them ‘special.’ My friend took this one kid to the zoo. The kid saw animals and didn’t care. Then he picked up this maple leaf and started spinning it by the stem and became excited and completely into it. I would rather be that kid at that point in time, than being the kid on the long bus, looking at jocks making fun of me going, ‘Hey faggot, are you English? Are you punk rock?’ I’d rather be on the short bus than with the so-called ‘normal’ fucking loser dicks."
Filter’s debut, Short Bus, could have only been made in the morose comfort of suburbia, by a couple of suburban geeks fond of bad junk food, video games, gross cheap beer, and the memories of air-guitaring to classic heavy metal. The album also has a lot of character that works many levels, from acoustic whimsy to impenetrable power riffing. Yet the album doesn’t sport the typical antiseptic production job often found on metal or industrial records. Filter subvert convention in the same way much like one of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, "Honor thy mistake as a hidden intention." Which means you can hear amp buzzes, answering machine messages, the television from across the room, and the occasional broken toilet. Short Bus is where lo-tech meets high life. "Or low life meet hi-tech!" jokes Brian.
Patrick was Trent Reznor’s guitarist, right-hand man, and crossfire target in the original road-hardened, touring line-up of Nine Inch Nails. While he was spitting beer on crowds or having stuff thrown at him, he was responsible for clenching a hardened fist around the dancefloor-friendly Pretty Hate Machine. Liesegang, a Chicago-based computer programmer, met Reznor during NIN's Lollapalooza campaign in 1991, and later moved to New Orleans to work on material that would later end up on the Broken EP. Rich and Brian first met on the set of the NIN video "Gave Up," and later on became phone buddies, and then creative foils.
The two are so incredibly tight together, you’d think they were going steady. During a night closing down bars in Chicago, the two respond to casual questions, leaning toward each other to consult on the answers like a lawyer and his client. Constantly. They even live in the same apartment building; Patrick's quarters are the office, while Liesegang's are the studio. Some might find the closeness cute, others paranoiac. Either way, you’d be hard pressed to find a more unified team. Patrick mentions that during first mixdowns, he and Brian would simultaneously reach for the exact same dials, in some sort of uncanny telepathy. And when Patrick and his girlfriend took a weekend trip, Rich invited Brian along. "We also finish each other’s sentences," laughs Rich. "I’d say, ‘What do you think about strings here like...’ and Brian would say 'A cello?' It's really great."
Patrick first used the name Filter for his demo work outside of the NIN camp. Armed with a tape of songs he did in the basement of his parents’ house, he moved to Los Angeles where Reznor was to begin work on The Downward Spiral.
"I had five songs when I went out to L.A.," he remembers. "I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life: work with Trent, get a record deal, or what? I sent out these anonymous tapes that said "Filter" on them. [A&R man] Mike Ostin came out to my place in L.A., this dump off of Hollywood Boulevard in Highland. He comes up, sees my shitty little eight-track, my little Mac SE computer, and a little sampler. Then I showed him the circa 1980 Realistic brand speakers I bought off of my dad. On the one speaker, my cat decided to chew out half the cone. And Mike was like, ‘Wait, you just gave me a demo of ‘Dose’ and you just mixed it on this shit?’ And I said ‘yeah.’ And he said, ‘Well, I wanna sign you right now.’"
Patrick and Liesegang created most of their debut album Short Bus in a three-story house in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River. The house they rented was right next to a retirement home, and nearby was the Great Northern Shopping Mall, whose food-court franchises were graciously acknowledged in the album credits. The master bedroom was the studio, the drum set was in the basement, and the guitar amps were in the living room. ("There was no band so we didn’t set up and jam," explains Brian.) For the eight months it took to create Short Bus, their record company Reprise had a complete hands-off policy.
"We had to produce it ourselves," confesses Brian. "If we had a real producer out there like Brendan O’Brian or Butch Vig, they couldn’t live in that house for that long. We had a specific idea what we didn’t want the record to sound like." The duo are quick to acknowledge, however, the mixing work of Ben Grosse, whose function Brian says was "to give it girth.
"We had consumer-level gear," he says. "We don’t know enough about physics; our only reference was the car [stereo]. We’d take a tape of mixes out to the car and listen to them on the sub-woofer. Then we’d play it on our buddy’s box and all we heard was bass—the vocals disappeared."
"The music has always been about, ‘Okay, I’ve got a guitar, a mic, and a board,’" picks up Patrick. "We were fortunate to be able to take our time and not worry about day jobs, and not to worry about rent. When we’re working on a song, we have to have our heads clear. Rather than hole ourselves up and not see the light of day for eight months, we’d do a song and drive down to South Carolina for four days and sit on the beach. We spent most of the time making the record actually getting away from it."
Filter’s laissez-faire muse made for some intriguing audio non-sequiturs. While they were working on the record, friends would come by to hang out and watch TV. If Richard was feeling particularly frustrated over a guitar part, he’d seek an opinion from one of his visitors, who would either give advice like "move your finger up a fret" or sing the riff back to him as they perceived it. Nine out of ten times, the suggestion worked. But even more interesting are the non-musical seasonings all over the place: the answering-machine vocals on "Spent," the random string scrapes on "Under," the television running in the break of "White Like That." ("That was during the baseball strike," offers Brian matter-of-factly. "We were surfing the channels and we threw a mic in front of the set.") These acts of randomness make Filter alluring after repeated listens
"The end of 'Stuck In Here' is our toilet," explains Brian. "We were working on that song and the toilet was right next to the studio. It was broken and you know it makes that hiss. Somebody flushed it and it fixed itself or something, and then that whole element of the song disappeared. It had created a kind of chord, a tension."
"We were mixing it," remembers Rich. "And I'm like, 'wait where's that rrrrrrrrr,’ and Brian says, 'I think it's the toilet, Rich.' 'Well, break it again and stick a mic over it and put it in.'"
"We focus on the mistakes because they're infinitely more interesting," admits Brian, who now adds junior plumber to his recording skills. "That drop-out you hear at the end of ‘It's Over’ is us recording on a crappy mini-cassette recorder. The motor runs funny, it's got a lot of noise, but when you record a guitar through it, it's got this Robert Johnson spooky kind of sound."
Since Short Bus was recorded so casually between the two, the thought of having an actual band offered new possibilities. The duo has enlisted bassist Frank Cavanaugh (from Cleveland's Outface), Chem Lab guitarist Geno Lenardo, and drummer Matt Walker. "They are passionate about it and they'll add their own personalities to the live thing," enthuses Brian. "It's a little out of our hands and it's going to mutate. We were worried, but it's really fallen together really quickly."
"We're not a precision rock band," admits Rich, exhaling smoke. "When you're doing it live, and you make a mistake, fuck it..."
"Do it twice and it'll look like you meant it," chimes Brian.
"We practice mainly because we're supposed to," pipes up an irony-free Patrick. "Now we rehearse just because it's fun. It's not a job. Besides, I looked forward to having the other guys teach me the songs."
"We only did them once for the record. We have to learn them again."
The word "slacker" is too obvious a term to describe the kitchen-sink, warts-and-all aesthetic the duo committed to their hard drive. Yet Short Bus is more of an affirmation of identity; on the surface, it’s merely eleven songs, several snapshots, or as Liesegang puts it, "several personal observations in an audio medium." Dig deeper and you’ll find not necessarily a sincerity, but two guys taking a stand on what’s around them.
The spirit of Short Bus is the same spirit found in a kid who has to mow lawns in 101-degree heat so he can get to college because his family can’t afford it; the ambitious girl who has to wait tables and put up with abusive patrons; or the individual who blatantly defies ostracizing in order to support what he/she believes in, no matter how convoluted or unpopular that belief is. The whole media-created Generation X/slacker culture trend is an affront to Filter.
"It’s frightening to be a young person in your mid-20s," reveals Patrick. "My friends graduated from college, they played the whole game. And they can’t get jobs."
"They worked hard and can’t get jobs," stresses Liesegang. "It’s the worst time to be our age in America. Our future has been mortgaged..."
"He’s working on his philosophy degree at the University of Chicago," says Patrick, tagging his partner’s arm. "He never talks about it, and I think that’s a lot of hard work and determination. There’s a lot of information I’m getting just being around him.
"The whole thing is like a guy like Oliver Stone..." he pauses briefly as his voice begins to raise. "This fucking hippie—now yuppie—coming down from the mountain top telling [my generation] that we’re slackers?" He raises his middle finger and shakes it for effect. "Eat my fucking dick, Oliver Stone."
"I won’t see another Oliver Stone movie until I get a personal written apology that Natural Born Killers is the biggest insult to my generation I have ever seen in my life," says Brian with great conviction. "The way it was filmed with the MTV quick edits..."
"‘But that’s the only way they can see it, if it’s an MTV video!’’’ Patrick adds, sarcastically imitating the director. "‘These kids are so stupid, it’s the only way I can relate to them.’ Eat my dick, Ollie. Here you are telling me that I didn’t work hard? I haven’t paid my dues? You’re telling me that I haven’t sorted it out?"
Obviously, Patrick and Liesegang aren’t changing their names to Bono 2 and 3, but the fact that their record is more like sharing a cab ride with a stranger than getting on a soapbox and ranting makes their work more personable. Getting people to actually feel something these days has to be recognized as a remarkable feat. The irony of it all is that this isn’t the talk of two retired men playing checkers in front of a drugstore carping about the youth of today.
"The whole dumbing of America," Brian nods his head in disgust. "The cult of Forrest Gump..."
"The celebration of idiocy," spits Patrick. "Beavis and Butt-head. It is cool to be as dumb as fucking shit. You can be more successful in America by being stupid as fuck if you’re Forrest Gump. That’s not real! Let’s celebrate intelligence! Let’s celebrate somebody like Stephen Hawking who sits in a wheelchair and can barely move but can write several books about the universe." (Hawking, who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease at 23, is now 50 and sits on the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, once the domain of Sir Isaac Newton, at TrinityCollege in Cambridge.)
Brian nods in agreement. "America is celebrating the Brad Pitts, Forrest Gumps and Beavis and Butt-heads. There’s no coincidence that a movie like Quiz Show can’t get the acclaim that Forrest Gump did because it’s about a guy who became a celebrity because of his mind. That’s against everything we’re taught. In school, it’s not cool to know the answer. It’s not cool to get A’s. We don’t mean to administrate, but the only people I have any respect for is anybody who gives a fuck and does something with their lives."
"'Hey Man Nice Shot' is about a guy doing something drastic," Rich picks up, "holding a whole bunch of people at bay, and doing something incredibly devastating to himself. I responded to that as some guy trying to make his life better, by making it worse. And trying to make everyone else alive through suicide. I'm not going to bring up his name out of respect for his family, and the fact that I don't want to sell records off of it. As far as me seeing some guy do something crazy [in the eyes of] everyone else, I saw him do something that took a lot of balls—granted, it was very wrong—I still think that if you tried something and it was a fucked-up way of dealing with it, hey man, nice shot. You took a shot at something. I'm not condoning his death, but like a kamikaze pilot, he had the balls to do something. Of course, fighting the U.S. in the ’40s wasn't the best idea in the world for the Japanese, but they were dedicated and they felt this was the best way to deal with battleships. At least there is a spirit there. I don't know if it's right."
Even though it was written before the Nirvana leader’s suicide, "Hey Man Nice Shot" was initially interpreted to be about Kurt Cobain, much in the same way that the Cure's "Killing An Arab" was popular when the U.S. was bombing Libya. Despite the type of harrowing conclusions people might draw from Filter lyrics, the duo have
no desire to explain them.
"I thought about that once," Rich admits. "What do I do, return to goth, dye my hair black and sound like the Damned? Do I recycle Happy Days? No way. Be yourself. Who are you? You're from the suburbs of Cleveland, you did some of your record in your parents’ basement. Don't be afraid to say that. Who cares?"
"I think if people knew that these words are about such small things, it would blow it for them," smirks Brian.
"Some interpretations are amazing," Rich emphasizes. "People come up to me and say, 'This song means this,' and in my head I'm going, 'No, it's not.' But if they want to use their imagination and read into my lyrics, it's the best fucking thing in the world.
"What's really funny is the song 'Consider This.' It has this mid-’80s anthemic U2 kind of feel. And the message is, ‘I think you'd be better off if you were dead.’ And I'm talking about one specific human being that completely fucked me over."
He takes a drink of beer and looks right at me, anticipating the next question. "And it was not Trent Reznor."
Over some greasy burgers and purposely rude service at a local Chi-town diner, Patrick relates a story that happened on tour with NIN, where he sent back a milkshake four times at a Denny’s restaurant because it wasn't thick enough. When I mention to him that had I been the cook, I might have rested my scrotum in his shake between trips two and three, and then taken it to the bathroom along with a porn mag under my arm for the final trip, they all laugh heartily. Especially Patrick, who readily admits that being in a huge rock band before the age of 25 can make you lose track of being a human being.
"In the last thing that I was involved with before this, everybody seemed so unhappy and so pissed off. Angry at nothing. And I don't wanna live my life like that. I don't want to wake up every day and be angry. I want to enjoy life."
Much has been said about Patrick's departure from the "last thing," known to most of us as NIN. Trent Reznor said in AP 69 that Patrick had "gone from being my best friend to somebody who hates my guts because somehow I stopped him from realizing his potential as a singer/songwriter." While it should be noted that Reprise has refused to make Patrick's NIN tenure a selling point in any of its promotional campaigns (one person who mentioned it in a press release was fired from the label), and that the A&R team learned about the duo's affiliations with NIN after asking them to sign, there are those die-hard fans who will gravitate to Filter because of the band’s resumé. There have even been instances where Patrick and Liesegang have had interviewers begin conversations with "I think Trent Reznor is really overrated."
"Being the guitar player in Nine Inch Nails was the funnest experience," says Patrick immediately, without any kind of rancor or sarcasm. "I was 21 years old, doing whatever I wanted. ‘Hey, look at that guy with a mohawk, I wonder what he looks like with beer all over it.’"
"Being able to follow your id at that age and having people scream at it," offers Brian. "You get older and you realize there's more and you move on and you leave the nest."
"I had the easiest job in the world," admits Patrick. "It was a fun childhood, but there was more to life after seven tours. 'Wow. I'm going to go out and spit beer on someone.' [My leaving] became a very natural solution to some of the things that were going on in my life. I was just happy to realize that I could send out a demo tape and get a deal. Congratulations, Rich! You've created revenue for yourself."
"Nine Inch Nails is Trent's show," says Brian. "And it should be. He's great at working alone. He's tried working with other people and he's unhappy working that way. He doesn't need anyone else. As thinking creative individuals, that was frustrating for us, and it was frustrating for him because it's not reconcilable."
A point of contention is that NIN manager John Malm hooked Patrick up with gear as well as studio time to pursue his muse. It must have seemed like a slap in the face to the Nails camp.
"I hated the frustration involved with being in that band," admits Patrick, straight up, yet solemn. "I was talking to [MTV VJ] Kennedy after I left, and she's like, 'Well, you know a lot of people are saying good things about your demo.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, like who?' 'Trent.' Trent was always supportive. I think it was being caught in the machine of Nine Inch Nails that broke me down.
"It wasn't Trent, it wasn't John. It was me saying, 'I don't know if I can be a hired gun anymore.' I wanted to be creative, and Trent extended his hand and said, 'Come on.' I'd be with him and we'd try to write. I'd look into his eyes and it was like, 'I don't know where you are going, I don't know what I want.' He knew it, I knew it and we still said that we gotta try harder, but it wasn't gonna happen. I had my way of being creative on my own and I did it with Short Bus. And he has a way all of his own.
"It was a frustrating thing for me. I didn't know what I was mad at. I didn't know why it was hard for me to be in that band. I realized that it couldn't go on. I couldn't go on the road and be the guitar player that couldn't write what he plays. It was frustrating because I had to come to that realization. Even though Trent really did try to work it out with me, I couldn't even face him anymore. It was one of the most difficult times in my life."
And you two haven't spoken to him in a year and a half now?
"I think we would like to," says Brian.
"I think it would be great to call him up and say, 'Let's go fishing,'" Patrick admits.
"‘Let's go to an arcade, let's go have a beer together.’ Even now, I still think it's so tender."
So if Trent were to walk through the door right now, and saw us talking, what would happen?
"We'd greet him as an old friend," says Brian, immediately. "There are no hard feelings. Look what he gave us! He was always supportive, but we knew it couldn't happen within the confines of Nine Inch Nails. One time he was mixing tracks for Downward Spiral and he packed up his stuff to go work on the 4-track in back of the house just so I could mix my own stuff. That's the Trent Reznor a lot of people don't know.
"Living with him and spending as much time with him as we did, there's always going to be shit that can be brought up," he continues in earnest. "After two years, that's not the kind of memories that you keep. When Maisie died, I wanted to call him up. I was there when he got that dog."
Patrick's voice becomes solemn. "Trent is probably one of the most... unhappiest human beings I've ever, ever, ever, ever known. And at times he was the most meanest human being I've ever known. But there were always times where we would always joke and joke and joke around for hours."
Like making out with him backstage just to annoy the shit out of people.
"Yeah! We were in Germany and there were these people that were just looking at us like we were insane," Patrick remembers. "So we just started making out, and all these fucking people were just incredibly disturbed by it. And we thought it was the funniest thing in the world!"
Is he a good kisser?
"Yyyyyyyyyyyy-yeah, he is, actually. He said, ‘I like kissing Rich because he's not very manly. He's more feminine and doesn't have to shave as much.’"
The two of them both look down at their drinks and stub out their cigarettes with smiles that could only be generated by cartwheeling down Memory Lane.
Filter are hopelessly Midwestern. Recently, a bunch of meatheads outside a Chicago bar threw bottles at Brian's girlfriend's car after she rebuked their advances. When Patrick stood up to them, he got clocked in the eye and the next day wore a shiner for a photo shoot for another magazine. They also have a strong work ethic. On the third night of their tour in Lincoln, Nebraska, Rich accidentally hit Brian in the face with his guitar, earning Brian nine stitches and the replanting of two front teeth. The show continued minus Brian, and you can bet your record collection that Rich was sobbing over the incident at the hospital. They're archetypical shot-and-a-beer guys, with more values ingrained in their psyches than others in their position. In many ways, Liesegang and Patrick are just dopey white-trash geeks that made an incredibly powerful record.
"Thanks," beams Rich. "I wear glasses."
Yeah, and I'm surprised you don't have a huge piece of white tape holding them together. Did you both go to your senior proms?
They both nod affirmatively. "We are geeks," says Brian. "We like baseball games and drinking beer. Is that supposed to change? Some people have it naturally and some people adopt it."
Patrick agrees. "One of the guys in our road crew was telling me about the last guy he worked with who once had a needle filled with heroin in one arm, a syringe with coke in the other, and he was getting a codeine enema. Then he got really pissed, threw his guitar at him and told him he sucked. And I'm thinking, ‘Should I quit smoking?’"
Later that night, we attend the third game of the Stanley Cup play-offs between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings at Chicago's United Center. Obviously the tension of the capacity arena crowd is high, with colorful heckling, beer drinking and a lot of goon activity. The game also goes into seemingly endless overtime, much like the line for the bathroom after several overpriced beers.
In the lobby, four fans wearing Red Wings shirts are confronted by an eighteen-strong, thug-like posse chanting, "Detroit sucks!" as they point their fingers inches from the Michigan fans’ faces. Even though the chant is deafening, the Detroit boosters smile in the face of this vulgar display of adversity. Minutes later, arena security breaks it up and the knuckle-scraping cavemen trudge away.
Patrick walks up to one of the Detroit fans, shakes his hand, and commends him for standing strong in the face of adversity.
"A fan has to go through all that shit over a fucking hockey game?" Patrick nods his head in disgust.
If this is normal behavior, I'm taking the next short bus outta here.