Interview: Dan Milligan talks about The Joy Thieves

 

The Joy Thieves is a collective of established musicians and artists who gathered to create some brilliant industrial rock music. The first EP and title track This Will Kill That launched them straight away. While the sound is reminiscent of the industrial music’s past, it’s fresh and up to date at the same time. With their third EP A Blue Girl out in March, we decided to talk to the founder, Joy Thief Dan Milligan.

1. Hi Dan. I am sure you get asked this often, but can you tell us who The Joy Thieves are? How did the project come to life?

Dan: Hey Marija!

The Joy Thieves are a loose collective of musicians that create, record and release music together. The term “supergroup” gets thrown around a lot, because some of The Joy Thieves are (or have previously been) involved with bands like Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Stabbing Westward, KMFDM, The Machines of Loving Grace, Marilyn Manson, Skatenigs, Pigface, Nitzer Ebb, etc. Personally, I don’t love the term…so I just don’t choose to use it.

The Joy Thieves’ beginnings were humble. VERY humble. Honestly, it just starts with me, alone in my home studio having some fun.

Over the last 10 years, or so, I have been actively involved in writing, recording and releasing my own music. Most of that music had been moody, ambient, electronic pop that I released under the name Drownbeat. Well, as I was working on the material for the third Drownbeat album, I found myself wanting to move in a completely different direction. And so in addition to that final album, I began to work on a separate collection of songs that were heavier, more guitar-driven, and way uglier than my work with Drownbeat. And that batch of songs ultimately laid the groundwork for the sound of The Joy Thieves. At the time, the only goal was to finish a few of them, get them mixed, and put them up online for my friends and family to enjoy. Simple. Easy.

After I started circulating demos, I happened to connect with both vocalist Chris Connelly (solo artist/Ministry/Revolting Cocks/Pigface/etc. etc. etc.), and drummer David Suycott (Stabbing Westward/The Machines of Loving Grace/Spies Who Surf). Not only am I huge fans of these guys, but they both happened to be highly involved in Chicago’s music scene back in the 90s. And suddenly, a CRAZY concept popped into my brain. I decided I wanted to put a modern spin on some of the Chicago-inspired industrial rock, punk, alternative, and noise-rock that I had grown up listening to… and I wanted the opportunity to make that music with some of the people who invented that sound in the first place.

To this day, there are times when I can’t believe it actually worked.

2. With so many notable names involved in the project, how do you divide writing and composing among you? In other words, who does what in the creative sense? What about decision making?

Dan: Initially, it was quite simple. Our first two releases were culled from those instrumental demos that I was talking about before… and the vocals and lyrics were written by the vocalists who came on board. Easy. However, now that we are up and running, the band is continuously morphing and shape-shifting. Recently, we just recorded the very first Joy Thieves song that was done without me having written any of it. And I LOVE that. It is my goal to keep expanding, and utilizing the strengths of each and every Joy Thief, and that will mean many more people being involved in the writing process.

In terms of decision making, I suppose it’s just me. Once I started to put this whole thing together, I realized there simply HAD to be a point person, or it would devolve into complete chaos. The hardest thing about working with this many creative people is that with THAT many creative ideas floating around, the quality of the end product can suffer. My ultimate goal is to utilize the talents of many, but still have a recognizable and cohesive sound, and I think that can only happen when there’s someone leading the charge with a singular vision of what the end result should be. Fortunately, I believe we have achieved that. So far, at least.

3. Your first EP This Will Kill That was released on Armalyte in June 2019. How did your relationship with Armalyte Industries begin?

Dan: As I said before, this project started off with virtually no expectations. With that in mind, believe me when I tell you that each and every step of the way has been somewhat unexpected for me. And that includes our signing with Armalyte Industries.

Like almost every musician who has been around the block, I had experienced a few unpleasant dealings with record labels, and so I hadn’t even considered approaching any labels for The Joy Thieves. It never even crossed my mind. I had been releasing my own music for many years, so that was the plan. But by the winter of 2018, things with The Thieves were gaining so much momentum that I started to realize it may be time to expand my view of what this project could be. So I put together an extremely short list of indie labels that I thought I might be interested in speaking with, and Armalyte Industries was at the very top of that list.

I reached out to Giles at Armalyte and when I did, I discovered exactly what I hoped I might… a guy that I could relate to, who was into the music business for all the right reasons. I told him exactly what I had going on at the time, and he was interested in hearing more, so I sent him some songs. Shortly thereafter, we started talking about the possibility of working together. At that point I had a brief chat with Chris Connelly, and I just asked him what his experience had been with them, and he had nothing but GREAT things to say about them, and so I continued to pursue it.

In other words, it happened the way that this entire project happened…very easily, and very naturally, with no hassles.

4. The title track features Chris Connelly on vocals. How did that come about?

Dan: The initial demos I recorded were quite clearly inspired by the music scene here in Chicago back in the 90s. Bands like Ministry, Big Black, The Jesus Lizard, Revolting Cocks… all of the Wax Trax and Touch & Go bands…. they all seemed to be influencing the music I was writing. So, after those demos were done, I decided to try to find some vocalists who might also be into those sorts of bands.

I reached out to Martin Atkins, whom I had met several times through my wife. I knew he was teaching some music industry-related classes in Chicago, so I thought he might know of some promising, younger vocalists who might be interested in a project like this. When I talked to him, he only had one recommendation for me: Chris Connelly.

Now, you should understand… I have been a fan of Chris’ work for many years now. In my opinion, he is industrial rock royalty, and that doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of his talents as a singer and a songwriter. Bottom line: I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that a guy like Chris might be interested in working with me. However, after a few days, I suddenly just thought, “What the hell? What do I have to lose by asking? If he says no, he says no.” And so, I reached out to him.

With a build up like that, I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when I heard back from him, and he said he would love to hear some tracks. I sent him a handful of the demos, and within a very short amount of time, he had returned two of them to me, completed. After that we began working together periodically, and that includes the writing of This Will Kill That.

5. Can you tell us something about the video for the song?

Dan: For the past 8-10 years, I have been experiencing a stream of vivid nightmares with a common theme: my body being invaded by all sorts of nasty creatures… from the inside. Bees, worms, leeches, moths, grasshoppers, spiders, ants… you name it, and I have had a dream about discovering colonies of them inside my body. And so the story portion of the video depicts one of those dreams.

The live band portion of the video was shot in Chicago in January of 2019. It was an amazing experience because many of the people who had collaborated together on music by The Joy Thieves had never been in the same room together. For instance, Dave Suycott was on drums that night, and Marcus Eliopulos was playing guitar. And while they had both played with Stabbing Westward at different times, they had never met. Being able to put those people in the same room at the same time made that night one to remember for me!

6. While it’s evident that The Joy Thieves’ sound derives from the Chicago industrial music era, are there any other influences that you like to incorporate when making music?

Dan: In addition to The Joy Thieves, I do a lot of different things, musically speaking. I have played drums, percussion and keyboards on dozens of albums in many genres. Pop rock, progressive metal, country, rap, ambient, hard rock, electronica, world music… you name it and I’ve probably played it. I like to think that all of those experiences help inform the music I make. And that’s just me. When you start looking at all of the members of the group, and how varied their musical tastes are, it expands well beyond the things that *I* can bring to the table.

7. This Will Kill That EP created a lot of buzz around The Joy Thieves and you already have a solid following. Did you imagine you would get recognized that fast?

Dan: Honestly, no. Obviously, I was hopeful that people might be interested in the band because of some of the more well-known members, but I never expected that people would resonate with the music the way they have. It is something I have never, nor WILL ever, take for granted.

8. Back to Connelly again. We both share the love for the man and were privileged to contribute to his latest album. You did 2 remixes for Sleeping Partner. How did that happen?

Dan: Yes, that was such an honor for me!

While I had done some remix work in the past, I made the decision in the spring of 2019 to start actively pursuing remix work for other artists that I love and respect. Naturally, the first people I contacted were my fellow Joy Thieves… including Chris. He immediately let me know that he was looking for a couple of remixes to accompany Sleeping Partner, and asked me if I would be interested. Which, of course, I was!

At that point, he forwarded me the mixes he had been working on for Sleeping Partner, and the songs were EXTREMELY experimental. They were unlike anything I had ever remixed in the past, and I truly started to wonder what I was going to do with these lengthy, experimental, and at times seemingly nonsensical creations. So, I just did what I always do… I dove in, started ripping them apart, and put them back together in a way that was moving to me. And I am SO glad I did. The process was quite involved, but extremely rewarding. And in the end, I just adore how those mixes turned out.

It’s funny, because remixers typically take songs that are streamlined, and lengthen and explore within the pieces. And that frequently means making them sound much less “accessible.” In this case, I took songs that were more like soundscapes from Chris’ mind, and I made them much more “song-like”. If you ask me to remix your song… you’re going to wind up with a huge chorus, whether you wanted it or not!

9. In October, you released the cover version of Cities In Dust. Why did you choose that particular Siouxsie and the Banshees song?

Dan: I get this question a lot, and I understand exactly why. Of all of the songs to choose to cover, I think many people who are into goth/post-punk/etc. would say that Cities In Dust is a terrible choice. Many see it as overplayed, low hanging fruit. A song that probably never needs to be covered again, under any circumstances. And while I understand that, I love that we did it, and I love how our version turned out.

I chose Cities In Dust because hearing it as a kid led me down a path towards expanding my musical tastes in ways that I had never previously imagined. It opened my eyes to many kinds of music that are very important to me today, and for that reason, it simply means a lot to me.

In the past, I had attempted to record a version of Cities In Dust several different times, but I never felt like they did the song justice. So, I shelved them. This time, there were two major differences. First of all, I turned over some of the guitar and production ideas to my man Gordon Young of Children On Stun, and he just KILLED the tracks. And then Ania Tarnowska of I Ya Toyah delivered a vocal performance that is truly stellar. The second I heard her singing the song in the studio, I just knew it would work. Without them, there is no doubt that it would have been another version that I was forced to shelve.

10. A month ago you released a new EP, A Blue Girl. How would you describe the EP compared to This Will Kill That?

Dan: In many ways, I see A Blue Girl as a companion piece to This Will Kill That, but there are definitely some differences between them. Many of the songs that appear on A Blue Girl were actually recorded around the same time as the ones on This Will Kill That. But because TWKT was our very first release, the sound of the band hadn’t been fully defined yet, so we were trying many different things. But by the time we were ready to mix A Blue Girl, we had really locked in on a cohesive sound that we both felt strongly about.

11. The line-up list of the names looks endless. I am not even sure that it’s complete. Are there other artists you’d be happy to join the collective? Is there anyone in particular you’d really like to work with in the future?

Dan: At the moment there are about 40 confirmed Thieves. There are also quite a few musicians who already have contributed, but just haven’t been announced yet… including some that I am VERY excited about. Suffice it to say that The Thieves are getting ready to level up once again.

While I won’t name any specific names here, I am constantly talking with other musicians, and making connections with the ones that I think understand who The Joy Thieves are, and what it is we’re about. We constructed this band to be a zero-pressure situation that is completely free of bullshit, and completely free of egos. And as long as there are musicians out there that appreciate that, and are inspired to contribute… the roster will continue to grow. That’s one of the things I like the most about this band. It’s completely open-ended. Truthfully, I have absolutely no idea who may come into the fold in the future!

12. Where do we go from here? Will there be a full length album soon?

Dan: This band continues to morph by the day, so answering a question like that is difficult. It’s even more difficult right now, because thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, getting together with others in the studio is not even a possibility! Fortunately, most of The Thieves can record and contribute from their home studios, and send the tracks to me. It makes me REALLY glad that we set up a system for remotely working on music together a few years ago. In some ways, it’s actually business as usual.

When we first started, the release of a full-length album seemed imminent, but since then I have come to really appreciate the EP format, which is something I never thought would happen. But attention spans are shorter than ever, and the EP format still allows me to set a mood, and tell a story, but make it more digestible for your average music fan.

That being said, it’s always a possibility.

13. Considering the huge line-up, how likely will we see The Joy Thieves live, once we hopefully get back to our (ab)normal lives?

Dan: Due to its unwieldy nature, playing live shows has never been a priority for The Joy Thieves. And as of now, we never have. Late last year, I actually decided that I was going to put a live show together in 2020, but now that COVID-19 has turned all of our lives upside down, it has returned to its rightful place on the back burner.

I have actually submitted The Joy Thieves several times for industrial music festivals in and near Chicago, but we have been rejected each time, so that helps to remove the incentive to put a show together. So, while I never say never, at this point in time The Thieves exist only to create and record music that moves us. And I’m extremely happy with that.

14. What is Dan Milligan doing at the moment? And what is Dan doing when he’s not a Joy Thief?

Dan: Well, obviously with the COVID-19 epidemic sweeping across the planet, you’ve caught me at a very strange moment in time. It probably makes more sense to tell you what I would usually be doing.

I am a professional drummer by trade, and my “day job” is playing drums for a funk/dance/rock band here in Chicago. After performing 2-6/week, 51 weeks/year, for the past 20+ years with that band, it has been a complete shock to my system to not be able to perform. It has now been over 5 weeks since I’ve seen a stage, which is the longest I’ve gone without performing since I was still in high school. Truly bizarre.

So, what AM I doing with all of this free time? Well, I have submerged myself in musical projects that I can do from my home studio. I am currently producing and mixing an album’s worth of beautiful instrumental music that was written by my lifelong friend and bandmate, Jeff Harris. I am in the middle of doing several remixes that I am VERY excited about, as well as waiting for a few others to be released. And I am contributing to every quarantine-inspired musical collaboration that piques my interest. This will probably be the longest uninterrupted creative time I will ever experience, and so I am trying to utilize it as much as possible.

And lastly, when I’m not doing music stuff, I’m chilling out with my wife, Lauren and my two very, very spoiled dogs, because life is so very, very good when I’m with them.

15. On a more personal note; what makes a good drummer and what makes a good Joy Thief?

Dan: I ADORE these two questions, Marija.

While I AM a professional drummer, I have frequently referred to myself as the anti-drummer, and as strange as that may sound, that is exactly how I see myself. I have absolutely no interest in drum gear. Or shop talk. Or endlessly learning advanced drumming techniques that (in my opinion) frequently have more to do with technical virtuosity than musicality. The truth is, I don’t care who can play the fastest, or the most complex patterns on the drums. I just don’t.

There is nothing wrong with loving these things. In fact most drummers do! But for whatever reason, these things don’t move or inspire me in any way.

I place musicality above all else. Sometimes that means playing very complex things. Other times that means playing very simple things. So, to answer your question…I think a good drummer is one that not only knows the difference between these two extremes, but can show enough restraint to serve the song, and ONLY the song.

As far as what makes a good Joy Thief? The perfect Joy Thief would be supremely confident in their skills, a stellar human being, and completely devoid of ego problems.

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