Frisky Thrill Kill Kult Opens up About Strange Affairs

Groovie Mann reflects on three decades and 12 albums with Chicago’s unique industrial band.

The industrial scene that found a home in Chicago in the 1980s and ’90s — thanks to the Wax Trax! label and store — was far more eclectic and dynamic than many people give it credit for. Even the name of the genre suggests machine-like monotony, a factory din, and harsh noises. To varying degrees, bands such as Ministry, Front 242, and Front Line Assembly reinforced that impression.

But a little digging reveals that a whole lot more was going on. The proof is Chi-Town band My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult — regularly shortened to a far more manageable TKK — which formed in 1987 under Groovie Mann (real name Frankie Nardiello) and Buzz McCoy (Marston Daley). From the I See Good Spirits and I See Bad Spirits debut album in ’88, it was clear that these guys did things a little differently. The electronic fuzz and heaviness were there, but satirical humor, religious-satanic themes, horror-film imagery (and a ton of sex) were added to the mix, too, along with an atypical disco swing. The result is a disturbing-yet-wholly enjoyable industrial sleaze rock band with a 32-year legacy and 12 studio albums in the bank.

The most recent is this year’s In the House of Strange Affairs, and Groovie Mann believes that it displays a new maturity. Not that the band has gone old and dull on us; rather, they’ve combined all that made them great in the past with a very contemporary sense of “now.” Mann and McCoy wrote the album together, and the pair saw a story, a main theme, start to form as they collaborated. Trouble is, even the man himself struggles to put his finger on what that theme is.

“We start with a chunk of songs and they sort of fall in place and out of place,” Mann says. “It puts itself into a story in a way sometimes. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a concept album like [1995’s] Hit & Run Holiday, but I think it sort of follows a path. They’re all like little separate stories. For me, I take it as a book of short stories that sort of have a familiarness between each one but don’t really connect.”

A conversation with Mann is a genuine treat, if a mildly disorienting one. Ducking and diving between points, he’s certainly not a conventional interviewee. But it’s worth it, because he considers each question carefully and usually utters something interesting between cackles and coos. You just have to unravel it from the tangle of everything else. That’s barely surprising — the man is a sharp, fascinating cat, always looking to soak up information and art. Take his taste in music, for example.

“I bop around to different things,” Mann says. “I listen to a lot of the old stuff — experimental things that I was attracted to in the early ’80s before industrial music. I’m all over the place. Soundtracks — I like to listen to Nino Rota film soundtracks, weird French jazz music — anything that’s sort of off. I like heavy-metal dirge stuff like Pelican, old bands like Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, David Bowie — it’s just my whole ’70s core. I have different styles every day.”

Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records is a new documentary directed by Julia Nash and written by Mark Skillicorn, and it’s likely that interest in the label will increase again after the film’s release. For Mann, who takes part in the Q&As at some screenings, the whole industrial tag inspired mixed feelings.

“I love them — we were spawned as that whole thing grew but it’s a lot different for me and Buzz,” he says. “Even though we were around and in it, we weren’t, I wouldn’t say at least, a driving force like a lot of the other bands were, with the sort of aggressive and repetitious and powerful sound — though we had those elements, we were more off the wall. Similar but freakier. I just felt that we never did fit in, and it was because we didn’t really care. We were more interested in developing what we were delving into. A lot of people think that everybody got along and it was one big family, but everybody was literally working on projects and in passing you’d meet certain people.”

Having lived in his native Chicago for most of his life, Mann took the plunge and relocated to Los Angeles in 2008. For years, it was a move he swore he’d never make because of his love for his hometown, and his disdain for La-La Land. Those opinions have changed over time, mind you. He’s settled, and he appreciates the fact that San Francisco, a city he says “gets it” in reference to TKK, is within relatively easy reach.

“Buzz moved out to the West Coast in the early ’90s, after the label folded,” Mann says. “I would always go, ‘Oh my God, I could never fucking live there.’ And now I like it here, I really do. It’s funny. Everything changes. New York changed and L.A.’s changed. Being a Midwesterner, you end up going back to your nest in the middle. But you love both places. I think in the movie I say something like, ‘We’re not New York, we’re not L.A.’ And now I live in L.A. I guess you shouldn’t say you hate anything, or that you’re sober. Never say you’re sober.”

After performing what was essentially a “greatest hits” set for the past couple of years, Mann is excited to insert some new material. Of course, there will still be a lot of old favorites in there. In fact, the band likes to take suggestions from fans online when planning a set for a tour.

“We’ve put together a setlist from fans and friends,” Mann says. “A bit from a bunch of our different albums. Stuff from Spooky Tricks, 13 Above the Night — a more mixed up, different set than we usually play. We’ve been doing our 30-year set for the last year or two, so it’ll be fun to have some new stuff mixed in and challenging to perform it.”

Mann then chuckles, adding, “It keeps you frisky.”

My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, with Curse Mackey, Wednesday, May 15, 9 p.m., at the DNA Lounge, 375 11th St. $22-$30,

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