//
you're reading...

Music writing

Foetus reborn: becoming JG Thirlwell

JG Thirlwell at home in 2017.

JG Thirlwell at home in 2017.

Published in the Age on July 15, 2017.

London, 1978. A year after punk’s Big Bang, musical galaxies are forming faster than they can be named. Anyone can join a band, and independence is everything. Scritti Politti print the cost of production and the address of their squat on their record sleeves. Desperate Bicycles tell fans “it was easy, it was cheap – go and do it!” This is where Jim Thirlwell is meant to be.

On holidays to his mum’s home town in Scotland, he had caught glimpses – psychedelic posters on Carnaby Street, Marc Bolan on Top Of The Tops – and seen the future. Melbourne felt isolated, geographically and culturally. At Carey’s Baptist Grammar School, Melody Maker and the New Musical Express were “a lifeline” connecting him to another world.

As a kid, he learned cello, and was thrown in the orchestra too soon, humiliating and discouraging him. He switched to percussion, but found reading paradiddles no better. At Melbourne State College, he studied art, taught schoolchildren barely younger than himself and planned his escape. When he turned eighteen, he bought a one-way ticket to London.

On arriving, he picked up a bass guitar and a Wasp synthesiser and set about making music, and discovered that democracy, in a band called pragVEC, was not to his taste. He preferred to do everything himself: play the instruments, engineer and mix the recording, press and distribute the vinyl. “I started my own label, put the money from the first record into the second and grew from that,” he says. “And I’m doing the same thing now.”

At fifty-seven, Thirlwell is more productive, and apparently more content than ever. He’s working on music for the seventh season of Venture Bros. and the ninth of Archer. Foetus, the project that began with that first single, is still going, although he reckons the new album won’t see the light until 2020. As Xordox, he has a synth record out, Neospection, and will be performing a piece for laptop, piano and autoharp, Cholera Nocebo, at the Supersense Festival next month.

Thirlwell has been signed to various labels over the years, including Sony, in the mid-90s, when the mainstream briefly caught up with the wildly inventive noise and lacerating lyrics of Foetus, but these days, most of his records, including his instrumental work as Manorexia, come out on Ectopic Ents, a label run out of his Brooklyn loft.

He lives in an old factory building on the edge of DUMBO – Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass – where ‘lofts’ in the concrete and glass monoliths rising on every vacant lot come with a doorman and a gym and cost six grand a month. There’s no buzzer or intercom, so he hails me from a fourth storey window, and tells me how to get up.

My first thought on entering the room, which has five metre ceilings, battered hardwood boards and huge windows looking out onto the projects, is that it’s heartening such places still exist in this city where so much has been erased by international capital. It’s a wonder the owner hasn’t had him terminated along with the lease.

Thirlwell's Brooklyn loft, his home since 1986.

Thirlwell’s Brooklyn loft, his home since 1986.

The giant black X against the far wall is from the set of South Of Your Border, a 1988 play by Lydia Lunch and Emilio Cubeiro. In the final scene, Lunch was strapped naked and blood-spattered to the cross, as a track by Thirlwell blasted on the PA.

Lunch first brought him to New York in 1983, for two gigs at Danceteria with The Immaculate Consumptive, an intentionally short-lived group also featuring Nick Cave and Marc Almond. Thirlwell returned to live with her a year later, in the East Village, between Avenues A and B, where you turned right into town and left to score drugs. They moved into the loft in 1986. “The streets were deserted, and there were packs of wild dogs and tumbleweeds and the occasional artist,” he remembers. When she left for New Orleans, he stayed on.

Stuffed animal heads are mounted along a beam dividing the main space from the bedroom and library above. Thousands of LPs and CDs are arranged alphabetically and by genre, with soundtracks and “academic electronic” discs easiest to hand. Self-Immolation Studios – “where the magic happens” – is an open cubby with two Macs, a Yamaha desk, a MIDI controller, a bass drum, a Moog and a tangle of wires.

Thirlwell often claims that the only instrument he can play is the studio, and that’s true, if the bar is set unreasonably high. The early Foetus albums were made before sampling, sequencing or MIDI, on an eight track, and he played everything, overdubbing drum, piano, guitar and sax parts.

He says can’t read music – another modest half-truth, judging by the John Cage score propped on his pianola – but he can write it. Like many children, his first encounter with classical music was watching Looney Tunes cartoons, and he contrasts his approach, composing on his computer, generating a score with software and tinkering with the notation, to the work of Carl Stalling for Warner Brothers. “He’s sitting there with a pencil, you know?”

His skills have evolved with the available technology, from the Wasp to the Fairlight, from the Atari 1040 ST and Akai S900 to a Mac running Logic. He arrived in New York just as affordable samplers were revolutionising hip-hop, and found the process familiar, a progression from his Steve Reich and Pierre Schaeffer-influenced experiments with tape delays and musique concrète.

I ask how much of the Venture Bros. soundtrack is recorded with an orchestra, and the answer is “none of it,” which surprises me, given how convincing the surging strings and rasping horns sound. His written scores are for Archer, and to fulfil one-off commissions from the Kronos Quartet, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, or recently Sweden’s Great Learning Orchestra.

To perform the second Manorexia album, Dinoflagellate Blooms, he adapted it for chamber ensemble and laptop, creating a postmodern suite, the soundtrack for a movie yet to be filmed, alive with buzzing flies, crackling electrical connections, chattering rodents and phones left off the hook. Twice, he tells me it is among the work he’s most proud of.

“Because of the evolution of what I’ve done musically over the years, it’s brought me to where it’s necessary to create scores, and so I’m coming at it ass-backwards and unearthing this treasure,” he says. “I’m coming at it from skipping music theory and going straight to John Cage and Stockhausen who were working conceptually, creating my own systems then coming back to the classic discipline, which is very exciting to me.”

To keep his many projects distinct, he imposes constraints: “There’s rules and they always get broken,” is how he puts it. Foetus album titles are a one syllable, four letter word: Hole, Gash, Love, Hide. The covers, which he designs himself, are black, red and white, with a dash of yellow.

Thirlwell in the mid-80s, Clint Ruin's heyday.

Thirlwell in the mid-80s, Clint Ruin’s heyday.

Inspired by anonymous art collective The Residents, Thirlwell released the first Foetus records under a blizzard of aliases, including Frank Want, Clint Ruin, Bubba Kowalski, Philip Toss and Wade Banks. Clint Ruin stuck, and became his alter ego, prowling the stage with a baseball bat, protected by swirls of dry ice, pig heads on spikes and the blistering backing track.

In 1985, on British television show The Tube, he performed Descent Into The Inferno – “Glory, glory, hallelujah. You get what’s coming to ya. You get a stomach tumour” – to a nonplussed audience, baffled by the mocking, self-annihilating tirade. “One of the leitmotifs that goes through the work is fear and anxiety. Maybe that’s the sophisticated, or more mature version of hate and bile that informed some of the early work,” Thirlwell says.

An hour and a half into the interview, while he’s showing me round the loft, I get up the nerve to ask whether he regrets being a drug-user for so long. By his own admission, it got “pretty bad” at its worst, in the mid-90s.

“You know, you’re not supposed to regret anything,” he says, and in the ensuing pause appears to consider that wise saw and find it wanting. “The smart answer would be no, but the answer that I have is I regret there were opportunities I had in life that I didn’t fulfil… because I was too immature or I had clouded judgement.”

He has never needed much sleep, but now mostly stays up late to make music, and gets up early to make more. In addition to his soundtrack jobs, he’s working on two collections for string quartet, a follow up to Neospection using sounds recorded on the vintage synths at EMS studios in Stockholm, a collaboration with British singer-songwriter Anika and a surround sound version of Cholera Nocebo.

There is also the next Foetus record, which is certain to give the country that just elected Donald Trump a colonoscopy. Thirlwell has changed, and long since cleaned up his act, but as Foetus, his lyrical pre-occupations remain the same: “politics, addiction, surveillance, and things like that”.

Self-Immolation Studios: "where the magic happens".

Self-Immolation Studios: “where the magic happens”.

After moving to London, he didn’t return to Melbourne for thirty-two years, but since going back to say goodbye to his dad, who died in 2012, he has flown there annually, to see his mum and perform his latest material. Cholera Nocebo, his Supersense set, is a multi-media presentation, accompanied by video of nocturnal drives along the Long Island Expressway and into Manhattan during a blackout. In the extract I’ve seen, a helper pulls rosin-coated fishing wire through the strings of a piano, as Thirlwell manipulates drones and chirps on his laptop.

I switch off the tape recorder, and thank him. “We haven’t talked much about commissions,” he remarks (although we have, a little). In this, I hear a request for recognition as the composer he is, rather than the punk provocateur he was, a peer of John Zorn and Tristan Murail, as well as Crass and Throbbing Gristle. “I’m a different person, and I continue to be a different person, if that makes sense,” he says. It does.

In recent years, he has begun to reclaim his name, releasing soundtracks as JG Thirlwell. “That’s one part of the franchise that doesn’t have any rules yet, as opposed to the identities that we’ve discussed before,” he says. “The JG Thirlwell one’s wide open, for now.”

Categories