When I tell friends that I'm going to see Filter, there are two questions that come up: 1) When did they get back together?; and 2) Isn't their singer the Terminator's brother?
The answers are: 1) Although vocalist Richard Patrick formed Army of Anyone with ex-Stone Temple Pilots members and released an album with that group in 2006, Filter never really "broke up," since the band is just Patrick and a rotating cast; and 2) Yes, his older brother is Robert Patrick, the steely-eyed liquid terminator who stalked John Connor in Terminator 2.
I catch Filter in Des Moines doing their soundcheck at a small club. After tearing through a few songs, they spend nearly an hour meeting with fans as part of a radio station meet-and-greet. When Patrick and I finally head to the dressing room for our interview, a middle-aged woman and her husband stop us. "I just need to tell you, I met Papa Roach and he was a dick," she tells Patrick, referring -- I think -- to Papa Roach's lead singer. "But you--! You are amazing, with the pics, the handshakes. I won't forget this!" Patrick thanks her, and when they're out of earshot, I ask Patrick if he ever has trouble with the fans. "After shows, we stay until everyone who wants an autograph gets one. The biggest rock stars are all nice guys: Bono, Mick Jagger," he says.
For a while in the '90s, it looked like Patrick was about to become one of the world's biggest rock stars. After playing guitar for Nine Inch Nails for several years, Patrick wrote and recorded Short Bus under the moniker of Filter. He put together a touring band and took them on the road. "Take a Picture," their 1999 hit single, peaked at #12 on the Billboard U.S. charts, and the band's second album sold three-quarters of a million records. The next record, 2003's The Amalgamut, was (to put it politely) a mess, mirroring Patrick's own downward spiral into drug and alcohol abuse. It sold less than 100,000 copies and Patrick entered rehab.
Despite the Army of Anyone super-group and assorted other side projects, fans began to wonder if they had seen the last of Filter.
When Patrick finally broke his silence with 2008's Anthems For the Damned -- the first Filter album that he recorded sober -- fans were decidedly lukewarm. Anthems was a harsh indictment of American foreign policy; the video for the first single featured an American flag engulfed in a pool of oil, imagery which might have been risqué in 2002, but seemed unimaginably passé in the last year of Bush's presidency.
Filter's new album, The Trouble With Angels (released this past August on indie label Rocket Science Ventures), tackles the twin vices of substance abuse and religious fanaticism, two subjects that never seem go out of style in the world of rock-n-roll.
Produced and mixed by Bob Marlette, it's the strongest Filter record to date. And Patrick knows it. During the evening's concert, he urges fans to buy The Trouble With Angels to support the band. "It's the best thing we've ever done," he tells them. "I couldn't say that about our last album." Fans were initially cautious of the new album, evidenced by the scant 6,300 copies that it sold its first week on shelves. Since then, Filter has hit the road to bring their fans back into the fold.
"You got your Jesus? I got my space." - Richard Patrick, "Welcome to the Fold"
The club they're playing in Des Moines has a capacity of only a few hundred; it's a far cry from the stadiums that Filter played at the turn of the millennium, when they were co-headlining the Family Values Tour alongside acts such as Korn, Staind, and Limp Bizkit. When I sit down on the stained couch in Patrick's dressing room in the club's basement, cigarette butts spill out onto the floor. Patrick shrugs it off and offers me another chair to sit on instead.
Since it's agnostic Carl Sagan's birthday, I ask him how his own agnosticism influenced the new album. As far back as Filter's first release, Patrick has peppered his songs with jabs at organized religion, but on The Trouble With Angels he's more direct, like he's no longer pulling his punches. "Did you hear the one about heaven? There's a guy that's running the sky," he sings on the title track.
"Science is awesome," he says, displaying an almost childlike enthusiasm for the natural world that's infectious when you're in his presence. "I can see beauty in the rings of Saturn. Why does there have to be a reason for everything?" He's a non-believer in religion and a believer in science. He launches into a lengthy diatribe on the theory of evolution, ending with, "How much more proof do you need?"
His wife is a Christian. "She's moderate, she prays at night," Patrick says. If everyone was like his wife, he says, he wouldn't have as much of a problem with religion; it's the fanatics that get under his skin.
"I think religion has held us back as a species and made us do some crazy-ass shit," he says. "It has exponentially complicated the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If we're polite atheists, we'll watch the extremists on both sides blow the planet up. That's the question, do we idly sit back and watch? Are we gonna really let this happen?"
The Trouble With Angels also documents Patrick's struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. "Drugs worked... until they didn't," Patrick says. He's been sober since September 28, 2002; the date is tattooed on his right arm and stamped on the new album's cover.
He doesn't preach to his fans or admonish them for partaking in the same vices he once indulged in. He believes drugs and alcohol helped define him as a person for many years, and isn't interested in telling anyone else how to live their lives. In fact, drugs and alcohol continue to be a part of his professional life: at Filter's merch booth, you can buy a t-shirt that reads "Drink it, snort it, smoke it," and, before the record's release, the band played a series of free shows sponsored by Bud Light.
Many non-believers who have entered substance abuse programs have found themselves at odds with the religious overtones prevalent in the recovery industry. Patrick says he struggled with this as well, until a fellow drinker told him to think of "God" as an acronym for "Group of Drunks." "With just one drunk, it's hard to push a boulder. With a group, the group is the higher power. It's not about Jesus -- it's about drinking." His faith, he says, is in the community that has helped him with his sobriety.
Sobriety has re-invigorated and re-energized Patrick. He enjoys his life, his music, and his family. "Life isn't a dress rehearsal," he says, grateful to make the most of the second chance that he's been granted. He's awake for the first time, like a man born again -- but without any of the religious overtones normally associated with being "born again."
"Tonight, these chemicals are God," Patrick sings about his substance-filled past in "Drug Boy." But on this snowy November night, onstage in front of the packed club, as Filter rips through a tight hour-and-a-half set, there are no chemicals. There is no God.
Before he launches into "Dose," he tells the audience, "I had a talk before the show about the good stuff and the bad stuff about religion. This next song is about the bad stuff." The crowd responds with a roar of approval: sticking it to authority is what rock music should be about, godammit. Following the song, Filter goes straight into "Under," another of their early hits. "Good boy, gone bad," he spits to a chugging bass line. For the first time, you get the feeling that this "good boy, gone bad" is no longer apologizing for straying from the flock.
"Like Bill Maher said in Religulous, we need the other non-believers to come out of the closet," he told me earlier. "Well, I'm out."
You can read more of Richard Patrick's thoughts on religion in his 2008 Suicide Girls guest post.
[Photo: Courtesy of www.ericcastro.biz. Used via Creative Commons license.]