Electronica was not always an accepted part of metal and extreme music. In the early to mid-90s, the two genres were far apart, with a few glaring exceptions. One of the most noteworthy was The Electric Hellfire Club, a band from Ed Gein country that blended electronic music, metal, pop, dance beats, soundbites and LaVeyan Satanism.
The Electric Hellfire Club started when Thomas Thorn (then known as Buck Ryder) left My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult as the band strayed from their dark roots. Thorn had long been fascinated by the occult and electronic music and his new project launched in the early 90s was a way of bringing his passions together. EHC’s unabashedly Satanic music was unlike anything at the time; it combined dance rhythms, shouted authoritarian choruses, metal guitar solos and smart and often whimsical lyrics that critiqued Christianity and organized religion. Despite the fact that their music could work well at a rave, the EHC was able to tour with many of the best-known metal bands of the 90s, including Danzig, GWAR and Type O Negative. Later in their career, the music took a more traditional metal approach but EHC never lost their diabolical mission. EHC was also one of the few non-black metal bands featured in the seminal 90s book Lord Of Chaos, which inspired a new generation of burgeoning black metal fans and a forthcoming Hollywood film.
The EHC’s early albums like Burn, Baby, Burn!, Satan’s Little Helpers and Calling Dr. Luv are some of the best examples of 90s industrial music and peerless in concept, approach, and songwriting. Without the EHC we probably wouldn’t have heard electronic rumblings from bands like Fear Factory or even arena draws like Rob Zombie. The Electric Hellfire Club this month released the best-of collection Necessary Evils. It features their career-defining songs remastered by Thorn. EHC will also perform a one–night only show in Florida on December 2. To honor these events and the spirit of Halloween we present the oral history of The Electric Hellfire Club as told by the people who know it best: band founder, songwriter and visionary Thorn and guitarist Ricktor Ravensbruck. Burn, baby, burn!
Where did the idea of The Electric Hellfire Club come from? How did you get interested in pursuing this musical path?
THOMAS THORN: I grew up in the 80s in a family without cable television. I had limited access to what was out there in rural Wisconsin. Occasionally there might be a Creem or a Hit Parader in a local store. There were images of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols in the back of those magazines and I got very interested in rock iconography. Watching television, there were two significant moments: when Devo and Gary Numan were on Saturday Night Live. No one had ever heard stuff like it. I was blown away. When I was a sophomore in high school I went to Paris as an exchange student and heard Kraftwerk. I then became a 16-year-old kid in a hardcore band. At the same week at the same club in Wisconsin, I saw Black Flag with Rollins and then OMD. Black Flag was incredible, a ferocious animal onstage. But OMD had such a powerful, cutting element. I started wondering what would happen if you combined that ferocious animal energy with synthetic power. That was the root of The Electric Hellfire Club.
Was it that the sound of electronic music appealed to you more but you appreciated the delivery of metal and punk?
THORN: That’s an eloquent way to put it. From an aesthetic standpoint, I loved electronic sound. As I grew out of hardcore and got into death rock I would look at the back of an album and if someone played guitar I wouldn’t buy the record. I had a power electronics band called Slave State. We were really inspired by Nitzer Ebb. We tried to change the rhythms to dance beats but keep the authoritarian shouted choruses. We were hellbent on getting signed to Wax Trax. A short time later I was offered the opportunity to play keyboards with My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. While I was on tour Boris Dragos (Thorn’s partner in Slave State) got in trouble and, long story short, killed himself. I’d never have anything that horrible happen to me. I remember my Mom saying: “nothing this bad will happen to you again.” I later reminded her of that when Shane (Lassen, EHC keyboardist) died.
I was directionless and I didn’t know what do to. The guys from Thrill Kill Kult asked me to join full time and I threw my lot in with them. I was a member of the band but was never a part of their creative process. I learned a lot but it wasn’t my musical vision. There was a point when the band started to shift on the Sexplosion! record and we weren’t going to be doing dark industrial. It was like Village People sleaze. They said the Devil thing was played out but that was what I liked the most about the band. I started hatching my plans for the side project when I was on tour with the Thrill Kill Kult. There were a few guys that I know that came to every Chicago show from Wisconsin: Shane and Ronny Valeo. I heard they were starting a band and told them I would check out a rehearsal on the way to Madison to see my parents. I stopped by their alleged rehearsal and they didn’t have anything going or have a concept of how to run the gear. I ended up writing three songs with them right there and all of sudden was like: “my side project is this band.”
Did your interest in the occult side of the music start in the 80s?
THORN: Before that. I first picked up a copy of The Satanic Bible when I was 11 years old at a newsstand in Evanston, Illinois. This was right around the time of the occult explosion. You couldn’t escape it on television with things like Bewitched and Dark Shadows. I was the kid in sixth grade reading Tarot cards.
How long was it between those three songs and writing your debut Burn, Baby, Burn! (1993)
THORN: The Electric Hellfire Club first toured as a three-piece. But the record didn’t come out until about 1993. It took almost two years to get signed. We did a four-song demo and sent those songs out looking for a contract. Then, there was an eight-song demo. I really thought that after Thrill Kill Kult jumped to Interscope that Wax Trax would sign us out of spite. Easily half the songs on Kiss The Goat were written by the time that Burn, Baby, Burn! came out.
When you formalized The Electric Hellfire Club do you think that you found your voice as a musician?
THORN: Yes, That was the moment – the night I started writing those three songs with those guys. I spent the better part of a year in a basement in a record store in Kenosha, Wisconsin writing songs.
The cover of Burn, Baby, Burn! featured an image of a burning church. Were you aware of what was going on in the early 90s in Norway?
THORN: I loved the idea of a burning church because of Rosemary’s Baby. There’s that great painting of a cathedral in flames. But I was also very interested in what was going on in Norway. It’s weird as a guy who is now engaged in history and preservation projects that I was a guy who said: “I’m in favor of this.” The argument I gave at the time was that Christianity came to Scandinavia as a conquering ideology and converted people at sword point. In my mind, they (Norwegian black metal musicians) were reclaiming what was always there, the true spiritual connection to the land.
The combination of the occult with dance music and electronica was like almost nothing else musically in the 90s. How was the band received?
THORN: There were a lot of labels like Roadrunner and Metal Blade that were interested in electronic bands because that was the hot thing. I got calls from a bunch of A&R reps that said if you can lose the Satan thing we can cut a deal. I was just like: you missed the point! I was not willing to forego that. Every time Thrill Kill Kult said it was just a joke I was thinking: “it’s not a joke. It’s for real.” At the time in the early 1990s, it was the tail end of the Satanic Panic. People were still talking about how Satanists were going to kill and eat your cat. Well before Marilyn Manson we encountered protests. We had a shirt that said: “God Is Dead. Satan Lives.” Kids wanted our shirts but asked for one that didn’t say that!
RICKTOR RAVENSBRUCK: I was known for being a metal guitar player and was a local bar star. I became aware of The Electric Hellfire Club in about 1993. I was one of the first metal guys to embrace the industrial genre. I started listening to the Wax Trax catalog and Ministry and Nine Inch Nails around the time Pretty Hate Machine came out. I distinctly remember a friend of mine telling me about a show at a long-gone club called The Unicorn. He said: “get your ass down there this band is right up your alley.” People knew about my interest in Satanism and industrial music and this band was EHC. I didn’t make it there but I made a point to see them a few months later at a goth/fetish club. When I finally saw them it was quite a spectacle. I was fan instantly and went to all the shows.
My initial exposure to the band was Satan’s Little Helpers. One of the things that struck me was the cover. It summarizes the band perfectly. There is a playfulness to it but it was also serious.
THORN: When I said we were serious it didn’t mean we couldn’t be tongue in cheek. I think that record is a very good representation of us and the things we were exploring. There was not stuff like this coming out at the time. I remember metal fans were like “you can’t hear the guitar” and industrial fans were like “there is guitar everywhere!” (laughs) Two years later, everyone was getting into White Zombie.
How did Sabrina (Satana-backup vocalist and bass) join the band? Wasn’t she from a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
THORN: She is, and she is writing a book about it. Shane and I met her at a bar. We didn’t believe her and she said she could prove it. She pulls out a card that said she couldn’t receive a blood transfusion and Shane tore it into pieces. She and I started an on and off again relationship and she became our dancer and backup singer. When we started touring with metal bands she said she wanted to be the bass player.
When Shane passed away (in a car accident in 1996) did you consider ending the band?
THORN: At the time there wasn’t any question that I had to continue. We had momentum. We’d been on the road almost a year prior to his death. We’d gained a reputation as a band that could set up and strike really fast. We could bring another 100 or 200 people into a gig on top of those who were already there. It felt like the next record was going to really matter. We crossed paths with Marilyn Manson and he said: “we have to tour together.” We were having conversations back and forth about this. So I couldn’t give up. If the band became a bigger success it was going to be a validation of the sacrifice.
How did Rick join the band?
THORN: Shane referred to him as ‘that metal guy who likes us.’ He was a staple of the Milwaukee metal scene. He had a curly mop of hair and wore a Nine Inch Nails baseball cap. He really liked the band. After Burn, Baby, Burn! came out and the first guitarist quit we did auditions. We went to meet him and another guy at the Landmark in Milwaukee and were like “it’s the metal guy who likes us!” He did the first tour and it was pretty tough. We got offered a Christian Death tour and he said he wasn’t going to be able to go. He got a pentagram on his face on Satan’s Little Helpers – he’s covered in the band photo. He was in, then out.
When I was doing Calling Dr. Luv there was another guitarist but he didn’t seem enthusiastic. We had booked studio time and Shane got killed and I didn’t have the heart to fire a guitarist. But I needed more pyrotechnics. I asked Chuck Lenihan from Crumbsuckers to add some solos. We got delayed because they were literally building walls in the studio. When Chuck flew in we hadn’t started recording. Chuck did a few songs and I had no other guitarist and the engineer said: “you need to call Rick.”
RAVENSBRUCK: Joining the band was a trial by fire because I had never toured. I’d only done local shows where you put some stuff in the back of a car. These were some intense individuals and I didn’t know quite to what make if it. The promise was there to do something exciting with music but the early tour just kicked the shit out of me. Thorn and I always butted heads. They wanted to go right back out on tour and I didn’t. I recorded Satan’s Little Helpers and didn’t go on the Christian Death tour. I regret it. I did laugh when they put a pentagram on my face on the album.
When Shane died in the car accident I still worked at the record store. I sent Thomas a card and expressed my honest feelings and sympathy. I knew it was the worst time of his life because they were best friends. We got back in touch and he said there was a chance to do some work with the band on Calling Dr. Luv. Chuck did four or five tracks and I did and the rest.
Do you think Calling Dr. Luv is the band’s definitive statement?
THORN: That’s hard to say. A lot of people look at it and say there was a shift with that record and there certainly was. But the shift had to do more with who I became after Shane’s death. I was sad and angry because my friend died. We also started going on the road with metal bands. When you are playing with Danzig, Type O Negative, GWAR, Fear Factory and Godflesh you toughen up. We started doing tougher versions of our songs and our music became heavier. We got a real drummer behind the kit on the GWAR tour. It was a natural evolution.
RAVENSBRUCK: It was an incredibly somber time making that record. But it wasn’t like there was this big negative blanket around it. With this music, we were celebrating Shane’s life. There was a lot of laughing and, after that, I stayed. In a way I think I tried to step up and fill a few shoes. Thomas was the captain of the ship and every ship needs a rudder so we went on a run of terror.
Did substance abuse become a bigger issue as a result of all the touring? What was life on the road like?
THORN: My alcohol consumption picked up when we were constantly on the road. I don’t sleep well so I was running on pure adrenaline. The only thing that would work was to drink, pass out and wake up and do it again the next day. It’s not uncommon in that industry. I was never a drug addict. It was never something I really even sought out but alcohol was something I couldn’t do without.
RAVENSBRUCK: We were constantly busy and constantly wearing ourselves out. It was sort of the backend of the heyday of rock and roll decadence. Everything changed with the advent of computers. We lived a pretty hedonistic lifestyle and were gone a lot of the year. When you are in close confines with others it brings out the best and the worst. There was a ton of substance abuse. My drug of choice was cocaine with alcohol as a chaser. But we always managed to pull it together. We were rarely late for soundtracks or load-ins. We even persevered when it was obvious promoters were going to stiff us. We worked hard to do this. We didn’t have the bus and money and maxed out credit cards. It was like The Dirt book except without the money, the limousines and all of that shit. It was a Wisconsin trailer trash version of that.
Thomas, can you talk about how Anton LaVey ordained you into the Church Of Satan?
THORN: After Calling Dr. Luv came out we toured with Boyd Rice as an opening act. We’d just played in San Francisco and everyone in the band fought and two people quit. I was having the worst day of my life, on tour again with people quitting. Then Boyd said: “do you want to meet LaVey?” We went to the Black House at 11 that night. We talked for about five hours. Near the end, LaVey told me: “the Church Of Satan recognizes people for what they accomplish in the real world. And in our opinion you’ve accomplished quite a bit.” He said they would be honored if I would join their ranks, and added it was a formality because I’d been doing the Devil’s work for years. That’s how I got my red card and became a priest and a member at the same time.
What was LaVey like?
THORN: He definitely had that whole misanthropic cantankerous demeanor but he was hilarious. One of the interesting things was that he could talk on any subject. When I told him I was from Wisconsin he could talk about geology there and how it influenced his nightmare landscape paintings.
What are your thoughts about the band’s last two albums? And what were the band’s last few years like together?
THORN: Witness The Millennium (2000) was doomed from the get-go. Cleopatra had just signed a licensing deal with Venom. Venom wanted us to come over to England so they could produce our next record. Of course, that should have been a red flag because even though those were great records they sound like they were recorded through a wall of mud. We packed everything up and flew to Newcastle. There was an antiquated analog tape machine and we couldn’t run our sequencer so about half of everything we recorded…there was no way to fix it. I had to rewrite everything. There were also arguments between them and the label about who was going to pay us per diem. We’re in the middle of nowhere and we’re broke, recording in a studio thrown in a ballroom of an old bishop’s residence. There are a million stories like that. I was hoping to take the tapes home and do a mix and they wouldn’t give us the tapes. We did stay in touch with people from the village we met at the pub. Later, I get this call at my house and it’s the guy who runs the pub. He puts a guy on the phone that says: “Thomas, it’s Ray. Thomas, let’s get to business. What do these tapes look like?” They went to the studio and took them (laughs).
Electronomicon (2002) was written skin and bones, most of it in the studio. I honestly think it has the best production of any of our records. But now that I’ve been away from music for more than ten years I think it’s important to play songs on the road before you record them. Burn, Baby, Burn! and Kiss The Goat were the result of a hard working band that was playing on the road all the time. Even Calling Dr. Luv – we didn’t play some of them live but we were working hard and touring. A lot of people don’t like the last two records because they are “too metal.” Others told us we sold out and tried to cash in on the black metal thing (laughs). Are you kidding me?
RAVENSBRUCK: You could not get an accurate read on a mix in the studio we used (for Witness The Millennium). There were equipment problems. The record just never felt complete. We had to steal our own masters out of there and send them home. It took another year to get that record done in the states. It’s probably my least favorite of our records even if the songwriting was there. A lot of people resented that record because thy thought we were going solely metal but the progression made sense at the time. It was still Thomas, and it was never anything but EHC.
How did the band end, and what happened after it?
THORN: I had to reclaim my life and reclaim myself. I had to learn some things about myself. I was having a conversation with Rick the other day about how truly sad and filled with despair I was at the time. This was the only thing we had to keep going – we had nothing except for this band. I got in trouble when I was on the road with the band and when I wasn’t. It made me reconsider who I was and what I was. I knew what Thomas Thorn would do but I didn’t know what the other Thomas would do. I’d completely allowed myself to become eclipsed by a persona. My problem was that I loathed who I was at the core.
(After EHC) I reached a point where I went to rehab. I would wake up dehydrated but I couldn’t drink a glass of water until I had a glass of whiskey with two ice cubes in it. I had to drink whiskey in order to not throw up water. I was getting in trouble, crashing cars, getting in fights. I was looking at some jail time. I got a DUI with a blood alcohol level of .39. Some people say it’s legally dead. But I was at a point in my life where I could have that and still be ambulatory. I was almost 60 days into treatment when I started looking at the prospect that I had to do this forever. It wasn’t that I could just dry out and come back and be reasonable about it. My life in Florida coincides with me getting sober. I had to go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone. Some people think It’s crazy to go to Margaritaville to get sober. But I just changed my life and pressed the reset button. It took a long time to come around.
When did you get to the point where you were comfortable with the band’s legacy and playing one more time?
RAVENSBRUCK: I think all of us are proud of it. It comes down to the three D’s: drugs, death and the devil. If you listen to the recorded work you can see the growth and adaptability of the band.
THORN: Who says I’m comfortable with it? (laughs) I don’t think I have ever stepped on stage completely sober so that will be fascinating. It seemed like the right thing to do – like everything had come to this juncture. I was doing art and writing under the Thomas Thorn name and was comfortable with it. I’m proud of the band’s work and the band’s legacy. And there is a whole generation of people born after our CDs were not longer available. I did it for someone who is coming into the band and doesn’t know anything. The bulk of the ‘best of’ is the first three records. I’ve threatened to make a new EHC record for a long time but I’m not sure that will ever happen. I have different priorities these days.