A Quietus Interview – Altered Head Space: An Interview With Anthroprophh (January 31st, 2013)

“The intention was to create music in [a psych-rock] vein, as it’s a genre that dominates my record collection, but I wanted it to be a bit more sparse and minimal as the record went on, and not just sketches.” Paul Allen, erstwhile guitarist with Bristolian heavy psych band The Heads, is discussing his new solo project Anthroprophh, whose debut self-titled album has just been released through the ever-reliable Rocket Recordings, home of Gnod, Goat and Teeth Of The Sea. Anthroprophh essentially encapsulates the sound of modern psych-rock, as espoused by all those bands: it’s heavy but subtle, driving but fleet-footed, taking in a range of moods and atmospheres, the kind of music you can head-bang to gleefully in a mosh pit, or be serenaded by as you while away a sleepless, hash-hazed night. It’s a style anchored in the rock traditions of the post-’67 era, but equally one that’s keen to look forwards as well as back.

While roughly half the album’s tracks are laced with the sort of fuzzed-out riffs and pounding percussion that will be familiar to devotees of Allen’s parent band, there’s far more going on than a simple re-wiring of The Heads’ earlier successes. “I think it has similarities to the Heads for obvious reasons,” he says, “and isn’t necessarily a break or reaction to the band, it’s a kind of a continuation of what I would have presented next to them.”

In particular, Anthroprophh finds him fully succumbing to his love of krautrock, which he readily cites as an influence. “There’s an Ash Ra Tempel and Achim Reichel influence in there, along with Hawkwind,” he reveals. “For me the thing that had the most impact in relation to that genre was when Julian Cope published the Krautrocksampler book back in the mid-nineties. It opened up a new world of musics I mostly didn’t know existed due to it being in the pre-internet days and those sort of records never really turning up in record shops.” And despite the sturm und drang that dominates tracks like opener ‘Hermit’, Allen’s initial point of departure was in fact the kosmische drone sounds of Berlin’s Cluster, something that quickly becomes apparent on spacey, almost ambient tracks like ‘Precession’, with its minimal percussion, and ‘Ende’, which feature drifting synth lines and moody organ textures. “I think some of my favourite pieces of music are quiet these days, so it was nice to do something that was like that, that almost crumbles towards the end. I think sometimes it’s easy to cover stuff with heavy noise, especially in a live situation.”

This varied approach comes to a glorious head (no pun intended) on the 16-minute ‘Entropy’, which evolves gradually across several phases, taking in the cosmic ambience of Cluster’s Zuckerzeit or A.R. & Machines’ ‘Einleitung’ (from the wonderful and sadly obscure Echo album) before stretching into free-form percussion and distorted avant-rock, evoking Klaus Schulze’s deranged polyrhythms and Manuel Göttsching’s acidic guitar with Ash Ra Tempel. “‘Entropy’ was based on just one basic riff on an old Futurama guitar which I just added layers and layers to as it went on,” says Allen. “I had some problems with the percussion on it and had to get Jesse from [Bristol band] the Big Naturals to add the main bongo and snare. It nearly didn’t get completed because of these issues and the track drove me a bit crazy!”

The same kind of influences have been present throughout Allen’s musical history, especially during his tenure in The Heads. The latter are the living, breathing definition of a cult band, drawing praise from the likes of Julian Cope while casually influencing a whole new generation of wannabe tripped-out rockers and sailing cheerfully under the radar, seemingly unaware of their many admirers or any backlash against psych-rock, which is often viewed as mere fodder for doped-up stoners. “I think for the most part the critics have been favourable of our sound, or maybe I have just ignored them”, Allen muses. “Except for the first Heads LP which got zero out of ten in the now defunct Vox magazine. I don’t think we ever felt connected to the stoner rock scene really, but a lot of those so-called stoner rock bands didn’t want to be called stoner rock either. It’s difficult to feel any connection with other psych rock bands when you are in that strange little microcosm that is a band. Only from the outside looking in can you see definable links.”

It does seem, however, that with fellow Heads guitarist Simon Price also making solo forays as kandodo, now is the time for members of The Heads to start flying solo. Allen admits he’d been considering doing so for a while, even going so far to send some demos in Rocket’s direction, although they initially declined. “Most of the music I recorded was experimental analogue keyboard music with occasional guitar based sketches. Some of these I managed to sneak on Heads LPs, like ‘Assault on BS3’ on Under The Stress Of A Headlong Dive in 2006. After buying some new recording and editing equipment I started working on the album in Christmas 2011.”

For Allen, working on Anthroprophh material proved to be something of a creative shot in the arm. “I had just become obsessed with record collecting instead [of being creative], and although it’s great and expands your musical vocabulary it can become overwhelming,” he says. “Too much stuff, and no time to listen or absorb much of it. All other bands had become infrequently active or had ceased to exist (like Fuzz Against Junk). Also I had really enjoyed Von Himmel’s Space Communion album and wanted to create similar krautrock-inspired music that had a primitive rhythmic quality that sounded like it was created in a cave. Also to try and avoid the Neu! drumbeat approach which has been over-used.”

Anthroprophh differs from Price’s kandodo in that, on several tracks, it features the aforementioned Big Naturals in addition to Allen himself. The latter are a remarkable noise-rock duo consisting of drummer Jesse Webb and bassist/electronics whizz Gareth Turner, whose self-titled debut was released last year on their own Greasy Truckers label. An appropriate hook-up, then, and one offering yet another clear sign that Bristol is one of the places to be to get your fix of heavy psychedelia – but it also indicates that there’s more to the local scene than noise and fury. High-octane thrills might be supplied on tracks like ‘Hermit’, but there are deeper layers to peel back when delving into the album’s Cluster-inspired mood pieces. It’s all likely to coalesce most effectively when Allen takes Anthroprophh onstage as something of a power trio alongside Webb and Turner, something he’s planning to do imminently. “I do have a few gigs in the UK in the early part of this year with Big Naturals that will cover all aspects of the heaviness and more spacey stuff,” he reveals. “We are up for doing more when the offers come up – it is like starting all over again really. I need to get out there again and play before the agoraphobia kicks in.”

A Quietus Interview – Supremely Demolished Beats: An Interview With Pete Swanson (November 21st, 2012)

The release of Pete Swanson’s Man With Potential at the end of last year caused quite a stir both within and outside the noise community. Swanson was one half of famed noise duo Yellow Swans, who had achieved considerable critical success with seminal psych-noise albums Psychic Secession, At All Ends and Going Places, before disbanding in 2008.

Compared to their dense layers of hazy, caustic drone, the beat-driven, post-techno assault of Man With Potential was both a surprise and a triumphant evolution. Since then, Pete Swanson has continued to explore this furrow with the Pro Style EP, but has also found time, alongside his studies, to revive his Sarin Smoke project with Tom Carter of Charalambides. Their Vent album is one of this year’s best releases, and proceeds from sales of the album will go to helping Carter with his medical bills following a serious case of pneumonia last year.

The Quietus caught up with Pete via e-mail to discuss Sarin Smoke, his solo career and how he views his music’s evolution.

We should probably start with Sarin Smoke. How is Tom doing? How did the project get together?

Pete Swanson: Tom is on the road to recovery. He’s been back in New York for a few months and his health has been improving slowly. His body went through a lot leading up to and during his hospitalisation last summer so it’ll take some time for him to fully bounce back. But in general, he’s back to playing occasional shows and his energy and enthusiasm are as strong as they’ve ever been.

Tom and I started playing in 2005 or so in Badgerlore, which was the two of us, Rob Fisk and Ben Chasny. We all really enjoyed playing together and experimented a bit with instrumentation and combinations of players since we all had several other projects going on. Tom and I ended up recording an LP for Three Lobed and a one-sided LP for Wholly Other around that time. I hadn’t played guitar with anyone for years at that point, and it was great to play with such a sympathetic musician. Tom and I both left Oakland after recording and before any of our records had been released.

Following the breakup of Yellow Swans, I got back into playing guitar more, and Tom and I were booked on the same bill in Oakland, a few days before the 2010 installment of On Land. Tom’s solo set that night was very different to what he had been doing when we had last played together – with this sort of dying battery, hyper layered, monolithic psychedelia that really jived with what I was doing at the time. We decided to close the show with a collaborative set, which was only the second Sarin Smoke concert. Fast-forward a year and I found out that I was moving to New York for graduate school. With Tom so close geographically, it would’ve been ridiculous for us not to play.

How did you guys go about making Vent? Is it mostly based on guitar?

PS: Vent is entirely guitar. I don’t want to limit the future possibilities of the project, but I’ve always seen the project as a guitar duo that plays psychedelic rock in some form. There are no synthesisers or anything, it’s just densely layered guitar. It’s a relief for me to be in a project where I’m not focusing on routing and wiring and instead can focus on something with such a tactile interface.

Both Tom and I are invested in improvisation and all of our recordings have resulted from the two of us banging out some sonic common-ground in real time. We do have conversations regarding what we think is successful about one improvisation over another and we both will propose potential shifts in direction, but our music happens spontaneously.

Do you find improvisation easy and the best way to record?

PS: One aspect of contemporary music that I really loathe is the focus on perfection in recording. I generally see the processes that have been developed for creating records as promoting a premium on “correctness” and diminishing the emotional potency of the original performance. While I have some preconceived framework for just about everything I do, there is always a strong improvisational element and I always track everything live to stereo. I don’t get hung up on mixing at all, I just track everything live, throw away 99% of everything I record because it’s not up to standard, and then sit on the solid tracks until I’ve got something resembling a release together.

I think it’s very important for musicians to be willing to scrap their work for the sake of the integrity of their discography. So many artists treat their work with such high regard and I see that working against those artists. Just like the pursuit of improvement in recording quality and doing things the “correct” way. I always encourage people to develop their own recording process so they have more control over how their work is presented. Additionally, the quality of the recording is often as important as the content of the recording, and having a unique presentation of sound can be very compelling. So many people make serious mistakes by going into the studio as opposed to just digging deep into their own process and developing their own sound that is appropriate for their own work.

Do you think you’ll get the opportunity to tour with that material?

PS: With Sarin Smoke?  I’m not sure Tom would be up for a grueling schedule like that and I’m extremely busy with grad school. I have enough trouble scheduling tours for my solo work.

How does working with Tom differ from your collaborations with other artists such as Gabriel [Saloman, the other half of Yellow Swans]? Do you approach each collaboration differently?

PS: Every collaboration requires a different approach. If I’m able to work with someone over a longer period of time, I’ll develop a set-up that is appropriate to the dynamic dictated by our shared aesthetic goals

You’ve also this year worked with Mike Shiflet – how did that come about and what was it like?

PS: I’ve known Mike for years. He booked a Yellow Swans show on our first US tour in 2004. We’ve been in touch fairly regularly since then. He wrote me asking about the possibility of a split and it was an easy call. I love where Mike’s taken his music over the last few years.

The whole noise scene from that era seems to remain pretty close-knit, despite aesthetic deviations and geographic shuffling. I’m very appreciative of the fact that I first gained some recognition in such a small and inclusive subculture of people who remain creative and engaged.

You’re considered to be one of the major figures on the American and international noise scenes. How do you feel your music has evolved in that respect? Do you have much involvement with noise music, beyond your own?

PS: I don’t really consider myself to be a “major figure” at all. There’s regard in certain circles, but on the larger scale, very few people are interested in my work…

I’ve always felt like an outsider in any culture I’ve been involved in. When Wolf Eyes, Hair Police, No Fun, etc were going on, I was on the far end of the US in Portland, fairly removed from what was going on in the Midwest and out east. I was very focused on representing noise/experimental music on the West Coast when Yellow Swans was having some degree of success, because hardly anybody else was representing that work. I stopped running a label and putting on shows and mastering stuff for other folks, mainly because of time constraints brought on by my pursuing education and prioritising that over my musical activities. I do still try and help out people whose work I hold in high regard and advocate for artists to get onto bigger labels. I do this sort of thing very rarely, most recently for Bulbs and Justin Meyers.

In general, I’m much less engaged with social music culture than I’ve ever been, and spend a lot more time listening to new music and working on my own sounds. I wish I had more time to be more engaged with music, but I’ve made some pretty serious choices the last few years and I’m resistant to put that all on hold to go play shows and put out tapes again. It would feel like a step backwards for me.

I’m actually constantly alienating people in the noise community with my work as I move forward. Some of my choices have turned off harsh noise folks, drone folks, etc. I can’t be concerned with appealing to any particular micro-audience, and I hope that each of my major release loses a few listeners and gains more. If you’re not turning people off, you’re not progressing.

How would you say your music has evolved, from the early days of Yellow Swans to now?

PS: I don’t believe it has changed very much. I’m still concerned with creating extremely cathartic, physical electronic music. I think the greatest development has been regarding clarity of vision. There’s a lot that hasn’t changed at all.

Yellow Swans were a much-admired and popular duo. Do you miss performing and recording with Gabriel? Were you aware of the impact Yellow Swans had at the time?

PS: I’m still not sure I understand the impact that Yellow Swans had. We were always aesthetically marginal, but had a lot of critical success. That didn’t translate into money or record sales, but it did allow us to travel a lot and to put out a lot of music. Since I hadn’t been playing live much for several years, I didn’t ever really see the impact of Going Places, but since I’ve been touring more and getting back in touch with music-world types, I’ve got a lot of very positive feedback for the work Gabe and I did.

The greatest reward for me has been meeting people like Tom Krell from How To Dress Well and a few of the guys involved with Tri Angle records who are all younger artists who are doing excellent, highly-regarded work that have all voiced appreciation for Yellow Swans. It’s very flattering to see your previous work be assimilated into others’ work. It’s a similar style of influence that groups like the Stooges and Velvet Underground wielded in their time, they were the bands that inspired generations of music. I doubt Yellow Swans will have the same degree of effect, but it’s amazing to me that that work is still relevant to younger people who are just starting their music careers.

I miss Gabe for sure. We had a very close working relationship for seven years. He’s still a good friend and we keep up. I don’t miss working with him though. I’m very happy for my autonomy, and my current life demands make collaborating with someone full-time completely impossible. I don’t think there will ever be a Yellow Swans reunion, but I think that people can scratch that itch via my work or by Gabe’s work. He’s got an LP coming out on Miasmah at the end of November that I think will resonate with some Yellow Swans fans. Hopefully we’ll hear more from him. He works a bit more slowly than I do…

Do you find that your solo releases are informed by both your previous work with Yellow Swans and your collaborations with other artists? I would venture that Going Places seems to have echoes in Man With Potential

PS: There is absolutely continuity between Yellow Swans and my solo work. I spent years developing an instrument (comprised of many elements) and an approach to playing. I don’t think I could fully reject that history at this point. I’m focused on process and constraints for producing my music, and many of the elements that were used throughout Yellow Swans are now used in my solo work. Virtually nothing has changed beyond the primary sound sources. I traded my bandmate for a modular synthesiser.

If you go back through the discography of Yellow Swans, you’ll find several elements recurring in Man With Potential. In certain regards, MWP addresses similar concerns that I was attempting to address in Bring The Neon War Home. Everything I do is part of this trajectory that is informed by my taste, my experiences and the developing processes and playing strategies that I’ve employed. Old fixations pop back up all the time.

Man With Potential received a lot of praise when it was released. Were you prepared for such a reaction?

PS: I had zero expectations for Man With Potential. I recorded the album in December 2010, it came out a year later. Between recording and releasing the record, I moved across the country to start an extremely demanding academic program at Columbia University, so all of the critical success of the record has only recently turned into any feasible opportunities for me to capitalise on. My program has slowed slightly and I can make occasional weekend trips to Europe for festivals, but that’s about the extent of what is possible for me currently. I just have to study on the plane.

It was also a departure from your previous solo material, with a use of beats and synths over guitar drones, almost sounding like techno. Have you always had an interest in techno and other forms of “dance” music? Could you imagine tracks such as ‘Misery Beat’ being played in a club?

PS: I don’t really think Man With Potential is that much a departure. It seems like there is some critical consensus that it is new for me, but there was a long build-up through several of my tape releases until I got to my split LP with Rene Hell and the Challenger tape, which are more direct predecessors to MWP. There were also a lot of beats in Yellow Swans music through the years, but most writers seem to be most familiar with At All Ends and Going Places, which were the least beat-oriented of the records.

If you listen to all of my music, you’ll hear some consistency in sound vocabulary with repetitive melodic patterns, drum machines, frenetic high-end noise. The inception of Yellow Swans was based on a desire to make electronic music that was physical and cathartic. Both Gabe and I came out of an avant-hardcore background and all of our friends were getting into techno and IDM, we both found the music to be intriguing, but not impacting. I connect to a lot of that music now more than I did when I was younger, but I’m also more successful at making electronic music that is aggressive and cathartic.

Listening back, MWP is the record of mine that is most explicitly informed by Chain Reaction.  My current work is maybe more informed by Drexciya. Both are artists/labels that I’ve been interested in since my early twenties. It’s not like I only listen to noise…

I actually recorded the track ‘Pro Style’ with the intention of making a ‘dancefloor’ track. The 12″ is sort of my play on the 12″ form, and I actually would love for it to be played out. I think the same could feasibly happen with ‘Misery Beat’, but the music remains pretty outre despite my attempts to make tracks that are dancefloor-ready.

How did you go about creating the album? Did you have to approach it in different ways to previous material?

PS: I recorded Man With Potential during the same three-week session as I Don’t Rock At All using the exact same approach that I used for Going Places and the vast majority of Yellow Swans material. It was all recorded live to stereo and then edited down to more essentialised forms of the pieces that I was working with. I would set up a particular sound vocabulary for each piece and then I would improvise on that framework for an hour or two. There are no overdubs, no digital treatments. It’s all live, improvised electronics. On I Don’t Rock At All, it was all live, improvised guitar recorded and processed using the exact same methods.

Do you feel the Pro Style EP is a progression on Man With Potential? Is this a sign that you’ve “made your home” in beat-driven music?

There’s no way I’ll be stuck on beat-driven music forever. It’s a form I find interesting right now, and since I’ve been so inactive, it’s taking a bit longer for me to get bored with the approach. Following Man With Potential‘s release, it was made very clear to me that there was interest in seeing this music in a live context, so these EPs I’ve been working on lately, including Pro Style, all result from the process of trying to hash out how to make this music work in a live context. Since the music uses such complicated gear and routing, there’s absolutely no way I could perform a piece consistently, so I had to devise a way of making the music that has a consistent impact and features a similar vocabulary to MWP. It was an interesting challenge, and the recent work I’ve done and the shows I’ve been playing have been a hell of a lot of fun.

So can UK audiences hope to see you perform over here soon? Are you planning any further releases?

PS: I’m currently working on a few UK shows in January. Due to my academic schedule, I can’t really hit the road to the degree that I did previously. My live dates are increasingly rare, so if you want to see me play and I’m coming somewhere in your area, it may be years before I make it back.

I’ve got a few releases in the works. The next thing will be the Punk Authority EP on Software. It’ll come out in March and is basically a mini-album. 32 minutes of supremely demolished beats with more melodic hooks.

A Quietus Interview – Bleak Psychedelia: Michael Gira Of Swans’ Favourite Albums (November 13th, 2012)

Michael Gira and Swans have cast long shadows over 2012, via two critically hailed albums (one live, the other the monumental The Seer) and an extensive series of tours and gigs. Whether appearing solo or with the full backing of his near-legendary band, Gira projects an incomparable aura onstage, an intensity so potent it transfixes the imagination.

As we discovered while quizzing the man on his thirteen favourite albums (or the thirteen he thought of when contacted – he’s keen to stress this isn’t a definitive top thirteen) on the eve of Swans’ performance at OFF Festival in Poland, that intensity doesn’t just apply to his shows or records, but to interviews as well. It’s rare that talking about music is this scary…

You can go here to listen to a Spotify playlist from the 13.

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Miles Davis – On The Corner

I didn’t discover that until ten years ago but I love the grooves on it and it’s interesting in that there’s no melodies. It’s sounds like electronic music, except it has the fortunate aspect of being played by humans. It’s influenced obviously by James Brown, one of my favourite artists. James Brown is like the Bach of modern music, a fantastic composer, so complicated and yet so much below the hips as well. I love On the Corner because it’s kind of abstract but also so compulsive. I guess it’s uncharacteristic for Miles, and it caused a lot of controversy at the time. I’m not so fond of, say, Bitches Brew, with the electric guitar, but I also love Sketches of Spain, with the great arranger, Gil Evans, who also did Out Of The Cool. I like really arranged and cinematic jazz. That’s enough on that one!

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Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine

Well, this is one of any I could have chosen. I’m not fond of when they started using computers, like on Computer World. I found it interesting to learn in a recent biopic that those drum sounds were actually played with chopsticks. In the punk days – when did this come out, like ’78? – I listened to it obsessively, not for any reason, I just thought the songs were beautiful and that it was a new way of making music. But that was just secondary to how beautiful the songs were.

Did any of those sounds filter into how you made music?

I would say that it influenced the early way of making music with Swans. It’s changed, obviously, considerably over the years, but in the early days it was very diverse and ranged from The Stooges to Throbbing Gristle to Brian Eno, and Kraftwerk. Just people using sound as a way of making music. Obviously, I was a bit more visceral, but that was inspirational to me. It was very liberating, the idea of abandoning structures and making something immediate.

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David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

That’s just a brilliant work of art.

He’s one of the only living people to have a blue plaque up in London, where the cover photo was taken.

He deserves it. He had ten really good years. The rest has been really dismal, unfortunately, in my opinion. But that album is a masterpiece in terms of arrangements and songwriting, everything. It manages to sort of rock, but at that same time it has this sort of cabaret song aspect to it, and from a producer’s point of view, which I suppose you could call me, it’s impeccable: no sound gets in the way of another sound, it’s always changing with every four to eight bars. It’s to me as good as, if not better than, Sgt Pepper’s. One of the best rock albums ever made.

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Throbbing Gristle – 20 Jazz Funk Greats

It’s a sort of pop album, some of it, although ‘Discipline’ is hardly a pop song! That was something I looked up to at the time, and it was inspirational, I guess. I wasn’t really thinking of it that way, I was just a fan and enjoyed it. Their single, ‘United’, was very beautiful, and I’ve always admired Gen [Genesis P-Orridge] from the early days of COUM Transmissions.

I was a fortunate art student, in that I knew about COUM Transmissions. I followed him the whole way, and I was so fortunate to meet him about ten years ago. He remains a hero to me, in the way he lives his life as an act of imagination. He seems to have immense courage and dedication to living life as a magical act. I don’t care about it being groundbreaking electronic music or anything, that doesn’t matter to me at all. I just find the atmosphere, the will and the intent behind it to be really beautiful.

Were you drawn to the confrontational aspect of their music?

I don’t think it was confrontational, I think it was insistent upon making something happen at the moment, and if people liked it, they did, and if not, fuck them. It’s a simple notion that Swans has always had. People have always assumed it was confrontational, but it wasn’t really that. It was extreme, but not an attack on anyone.

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The Stooges – The Stooges

That’s another one I listen to constantly. I heard that when it came out. I didn’t know anything about them. I was in a bar in Germany, where I was living, very young to be in a bar – I was 14 – and the bartender was a kind of hippie guy who knew music and he’d play that. I didn’t hear it again until the punk days, and it always resonated with me because of the song ‘We Will Fall’. It’s fantastic, what can I say? Iggy’s a brilliant lyricist in his own way and the production on that album by John Cale is stellar. It doesn’t get any better than that and, again, I don’t care about them being the forefathers of anything, I just enjoy the music.

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The Doors –  Strange Days

Another one that shaped my DNA with the aid of illicit substances! Just a beautiful voice, beautiful production and it has ‘When the Music’s Over’ on it, which is a masterpiece. A great performance – I don’t know how many overdubs it has on it, probably none! There’s a very early use of synthesiser on there at one point. In retrospect, I think Jim Morrison’s pretty corny, but it works with the music, and to be blessed with a voice like that is an act of God.

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The Mothers of Invention – Freak Out!

That I listen to, again, contemporaneously. When I was 12 or 13, and with the aid of various substances, it implanted itself in my mind and I obsessed over that record. I had an instinct: I didn’t gravitate towards the light pop music of the day, I liked the really unwholesome aspect of the Mothers. They were much more an affront than punk ever was to modern consumer society, they were just outrageous. America was very conservative at the time. It was very outrageous, but the music was there too. ‘Help I’m A Rock’ is a fantastic piece – it’s as freaky as Can, for sure, with a fantastic groove and tape sounds coming in and out. A brilliant piece of music, and I guess that whole double album was an influence on the Beatles making Sgt Pepper’s, which would have rankled Zappa! So he did We’re All In It For The Money, another great album. I like Zappa for the first three albums and then I don’t care one bit about him.

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Nick Drake – Pink Moon

I didn’t know about that until Jarboe introduced me to Nick Drake in the 80s. I was blown away, I listened to him constantly, for a long time. For better or for worse, I’d be hearing him and revisiting early Dylan convinced me that it was time for me to start trying to write songs on acoustic guitar. It took a long, long time to figure out how to do it. Unfortunately many early attempts ended up on record [laughs].

Drake was inspirational to me in thinking about the simplicity and about creating something that has genuine power and truth in it, with very simple means, as opposed to Swans, which relied on volume. There’s nothing wrong with that – we still do it! – but at that time I wanted to venture into doing things in a very simple way. As far as Nick Drake goes, he was an absolutely amazing guitarist and singer, totally genuine and lacking in irony or solipsism. Truly beautiful and honest. That’s what I look for – I don’t like cynicism.

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Henryk Górecki – Symphonie No.2

I just found about that recently. As opposed to the “pop hit”, Symphonie No.3, which is very beautiful as well. Symphonie No.2 is an apocalypse, with a series of percussive stabs in real odd time signatures that really, in a way, sound like Swans, in retrospect because I didn’t hear this in the early days. It sounds like the end of the world, but at the same time it’s very compelling and uplifting, with a very beautiful lament at the end of the symphony. Like Penderecki and Ligeti, it just speaks to me in a very natural way.

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Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

That’s an album that I come back to every five years I guess, and listen to obsessively, and then don’t listen to for a long time. I haven’t listened to it for quite some time right now but it’s been important to me throughout my life. I can’t pontificate on its value, culturally, but to me it’s just had a lot of resonance in personal situations I’ve been in.

I recall listening to that album when I was peripatetic at one time, driving around in my van across America, sleeping in state parks -this was in the mid-to-late 90s – just driving around. I’d escaped where I was and just spent several months by myself, cooking food on my propane burner at night, drinking a six pack, going to bed and then driving again in the morning. I remember driving through Montana in a pretty torrential rain, listening to this album and just crying, weeping. It was one of those moments where an album just kind of conjoins exactly to the circumstances of your life. Does it give you hope? I don’t know, but it’s just such a beautiful record. It’s so extreme and heartfelt, so I guess it gives you hope in that way.

Of course, it has really quiet, beautiful moments like ‘Buckets of Rain’ and ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’. ‘Idiot Wind’ is the infamous one because it has this really wonderful line “We’re idiots babe/It’s a wonder we even know how to breathe”. It’s a break-up song. I don’t think you can get any better than that, I think it’s one of Dylan’s best. It’s not really groundbreaking in any way, because it’s a work of art, except for that stupid-ass song ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’. It’s like this goofy moment that ruins the whole album! [laughs]. I try to edit out the fact that it’s his “most personal record”, because I don’t really care about his personal. It has to some meaning to other people too. Maybe because it’s so personal is why it’s so universal. I don’t know.

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Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa

Again, I discovered that with Jarboe in the 80s. We were in a record store and just liked the cover. I just gravitated towards it naturally. There’s a piece on there called ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’ with these shifting time signatures, and it keeps cascading over itself and never seems to rise. It’s very deep and emotional, I suppose, it goes to the back of your head. Arvo Pärt’s music is really important, I think. It’s a little tedious sometimes when it’s only the vocal pieces but, some of the big symphonic efforts go to the deepest place possible. I guess he’s very spiritual, but all of us hopefully are.

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Howlin’ Wolf – The Chess Box

Well, that’s my hero!

When I saw you solo at Cafe Oto, I was thinking of him.

Well sure, he’s a true inspiration for me. Let’s just say he’s my demon, the guy that lives with me always. He’s a sort of litmus test: does what I’m doing hold up to the Wolf? People talk about the blues being dark, and he has that aspect, but it’s really visceral and fun at the same time. It’s just great music. His voice is operatic, as far as I’m concerned: he goes from this deep, low growl to a falsetto, which I just found out was inspired by Jimmy Rodgers, the yodeling cowboy. Any black man in those days had to find a schtick, you had to stand out from other people, and that was one of his ways. He worked it as much as possible, as well as getting down on his knees and shaking his ass in the air with a tail hanging out.

He was very crude, but also like an angel and he, to me, having grown in the rural South, is like a titan. He didn’t have his first pair of shoes until he was 13, he pushed a mule around like a deadbeat, learned to sing by banging a can or stones – it’s inspiring. I guess it’s the same as prison work songs. He could never play guitar that well, ‘cos his hands were like catcher’s mitts in baseball, huge, but he was a showman and by dint of will and raw talent. He managed, along with Muddy Waters and a few other, to change the face of modern music and culture. That’s magic if there ever was.

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Pink Floyd – Ummagumma

That’s very meaningful to me. The live part, particularly, because of the ever-ascending song structures. Things just keep building and building, to the heart of the sun, really. It’s psychedelic rock at its best. They were always looking for transcendence, and this was them at their height. I like that era better, in some ways, than the one with Syd Barrett. I lost interest in Pink Floyd pretty much after Meddle. I had the good fortune to be a runaway kid in Europe and I went to this rock festival in Belgium and saw them playing then.  And it was transcendent. It’s stuck with me throughout the years, and it’s another piece of music I hold up as a litmus test. It’s an experience, something really profound. Pink Floyd was the best psychedelic rock band ever.

I’ve heard Pink Floyd described as “bleak psychedelia”, and that’s something that comes to mind with Swans, particularly The Seer

Well, at times, we have the same dynamics. I don’t want to be pretentious, but we’re going for an epiphany. The electric guitars and sounds are amplified to something extreme and played repetitiously and just slowly grow. I liken it to stacking up strings in a symphony. Electric guitars have the possibility for total self-immolation and simultaneous actualisation.

A Quietus Interview – Intricate Shadows: An Interview With Raime (November 5th, 2012)

Raime are a London-based electronic duo who have painstakingly built up a reputation for distilling uniquely bleak and oppressive post-dub music that seems to perfectly reflect the gritty atmospheres of urban life, as well as the despondent and cynical political climate of our times. Live, their repetitive, mesmerising beats are allied to gloomy, haunted synth lines and unexpected textures, often to a backdrop of uneasy, abstract vocals. It’s dark music, sure, but you can dance to it (albeit very slowly), making Raime the most interesting and successful fusion of industrial ethos and club culture since Burial first appeared on the dubstep scene.

After three EPs/12″s on the Blackest Ever Black label, this month sees the release of their first full-length album, Quarter Turns Over A Living Line, which has already received emphatic reviews. It’s a slower-burning and more spacious listen than their earlier EPs, and finds them incorporating a greater amount of live instrumentation into their working process than ever before.

In the wake of Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead’s appearance at Ether on London’s Southbank, and before they jetted off to Krakow for Unsound, the Quietus caught up with them at Andrews’ flat to discuss the album, performing live and how they create their singular music.

I was surprised you didn’t actually perform at the Blackest Ever Black showcase [at Corsica Studios, 13th of October]. How come? Did you stay to the end, though?

Joe Andrews: No. We had a show at the Southbank, and had a really long day. I think I kept on until 4am. [to Tom] How about you?

Tom Halstead: About 5, I think. I lasted until just before Source Direct [laughs].

I don’t actually remember Source Direct! It seems like quite a tight-knit circle of bands around Blackest Ever Black…

JA: It’s interesting because it’s become a tight-knit circle, mainly because of Blackest, obviously – there’s a focal point which is Blackest, but actually, since our beginnings, we’ve never had a way for people to contact us. The Facebook that’s up is not ours, someone did it for us. So every contact there’s ever been, apart from live stuff, has always been through Kiran [Sande, head of BEB]. To begin with, it was just us, and Kiran putting out our record, and in the communications, others would be cc’ed, like Karl [O’Connor, aka Regis]. Blackest has just become the hub, and over time we just met all these amazing artists, man.

TH: And doing live shows…

JA: It’s amazing to think that two years ago no-one could have expected this.

I’ve seen you perform three or four times, so was disappointed not to see you on Saturday. Do you enjoy performing live?

JA: Yeah, it’s bloody great, but there are times when you don’t enjoy it so much. It’s the other level, I think, but hopefully the records work on both levels.

Do you find it hard to adapt your music to a live setting?

TH: Recently we’ve recorded a lot more live instrumentation, and that’s really helped in terms of how it works when we play if live. Our early stuff was a lot more sample-based and now we’ve moved towards live instrumentation.

JA: Live, it’s always been a sort of mix of live editing and live structuring, loops, etc. You’re not making a drum pattern live, you’re playing a loop. We love it, and for the last show we did we had friends make a video especially for us to use. They got in touch with quite a famous modern dancer, who’s got a quite extraordinary body, and went to a disused warehouse in Portugal to film for three days and night. They created this fucking bonkers visual element, and now it really feels like the two are working together. We’re really aesthetically led anyway, and now it feels like a real show, rather than just a couple of dudes behind laptops.

How did you come to start making music together and to found Raime?

TH: We’ve known each other for a long time, since we were teens, and had been making music independently. It wasn’t until four or five years ago that we realised we had kind of shared visions and that actually we wanted to get closer to a voice and to express ourselves through music. And it was five years ago that we started to join the dots from UK industrial stuff and contemporary things…

JA: We’d shared records with each other ever since we first met, and I think that exchange always gives you a level of trust, man. You obviously have your own things that you’re into, and sometimes you part, for a year or whatever but we always come back to one another. There’s always been a sort of mutual respect for one another, musically, so you join a few dots, as he said, and you start to get a great deal of inspiration. Also, there’s a level of desire about what you want to hear and see happen in music. We’re obsessive record collectors, and so there’s a huge amount of time when you’re a fan, where people are creating and you’re consuming. And a lot of that time you’re waiting for someone to make the next thing, and I think there came a point when were like, “Fuck man, I’m not quite hearing what I want to hear”, or “That’s incredible – maybe that vibe or acoustic idea has been lost. Why don’t we feel confident enough to join some dots?” Which is such a terrific feeling.

Your album was preceded by, I think, three 12″s and several mixes and mix tapes. How do you feel you’ve evolved from the first release up until now?

JA: I think we’ve evolved quite a lot, but stylistically I don’t necessarily think we have. We’ve just refined it… Obviously, the first EP was kind of a stab at doing something and then as you go through you’re trying to hone it, and I think that’s what we’ve done.

TH: You’re trying to get your idea across more clearly.

JA: Yes, just communicate better! You have got something to communicate, so you’re literally trying to say it as succinctly as possible. With us, we’ve got quite a few reference points that are dear to us, but at the same time we have this intention not to just ape something. It’s almost like a Rubik’s cube attitude where we piece it all together. In terms of understanding what you want out of something, we have had times where that Rubik’s cube has lasted for months and months! [laughs] The record was more fluid because, hopefully, we were a bit more in control.

That ties into my next question – do you see Quarter Turns Over A Living Line as a culmination of all those previous records, and that you’ve been building up to this point?

TH: I think it gave us a bit more freedom to open up a bit more. The previous record, Hennail, was a lot more percussion-driven, a lot more clenched. We felt with this, there’s less percussion, more space and more tracks to get different sentiments across. When you’re putting out two tracks, you’re trying to say a lot in those two pieces of work.

JA: We tried to squeeze everything in there! You feel like you’ve got something to say, and you haven’t said it all. With an album, we could plot it, and it was such a great freedom. We thought it’d be the opposite, actually, we always thought we’d do 12″s; I don’t know why it took us so long to work it out [laughs]. We realised we could develop a coherent piece of work. It was never meant to be a collection of tracks, it was always meant to be a piece of work, you know what I mean? I don’t know if it’s achieved that, but having that idea in it made the creative process a lot more interesting.

As you say, Hennail and other previous releases were very beat-driven, but the album features more atmospheric and experimental tracks. Was there a conscious effort to push the boundaries of your sound?

JA: Absolutely. We grew up with Detroit techno, jungle, all the sort of dance-based musics, so that’s really part of us, and we’ll always have rhythm in there somewhere, but actually, in the last five to ten years, we’ve been opening out into drone, doom metal, noise, early industrial, more experimental stuff, and that’s become just as integral, and we wanted to include those influences. The way that we learn about music is by listening to that. And we wanted to have a go at that, to see if we could do it.

TH: We didn’t want to be restricted. Hennail was difficult, in that sense. And we didn’t want to get caught in that snare.

JA: Percussion in the way we use it is sort of in a dance music format, and because we’ve grown up with that music, you’re pre-programmed to understand those structures in a 4/4 structure. When you’ve got a beat going, your brain is already waiting for that snare or hi-hat to come in, and you know when that’s going to happen. One of the points for us was to try and change the listeners’ knowledge of when that’s going to happen, so they feel a little lost in it, but without losing the security that that structure gives you.

TH: That’s the hardest part, finding the balance between being contrary to how you expect rhythmic things to work, and actually making a coherent work.

JA: Yeah, and that balance and trade off is one of the things that interests us. Security and non-security.

Your music has often been lumped in with ambient dub or dubstep, but that seems a tad reductive. Would you agree?

JA: I don’t ever want to say to any journalist, or anyone, that they can’t call it what they like, because I’ve been doing the very same thing, as a fan and a record collector, and that’s the condition in which you work. Those genres are certainly part of our musical heritage, but I’d hope they weren’t the only parts. I’m glad you feel that they aren’t the whole picture.

Well, I think that when you guys first emerged, dubstep was pretty much on everyone’s lips, so it was an easy connection to make, but to my mind you always seemed closer to industrial music and jungle, as you’ve mentioned.

JA: It’s difficult, because dubstep has now become a little bit passe as a term and if you go back to the beginnings, to those iconic labels like DMZ, the music was absolutely incredible. We’d never say that it wasn’t an important part of electronic music, it’s just that at this moment in time, it feels almost like a negative thing.

TH: It’s become so branched out that it’s become a blanket term, so it’s not really pinning anything down.

JA: Our first influence was probably Mo’Wax, you know, DJ Shadow and trip-hop. When I was 15, I bought my first Mo’Wax record and was absolutely sold on it, man. It was just the coolest fucking thing I’d ever heard. And then we’ve just gone through everything: Detroit techno, jungle, house music… And then there’s the flip side, which is all the sort of avant-garde, industrial and doom stuff.

TH: Those things kind of came a bit later for us.

JA: I think we’re just hungry, and we get obsessed. Record collecting is still a massive part of our lives.

How did you go about creating and recording the tracks on Quarter Turns Over A Living Line?

TH: We did a lot of recordings, by ourselves and with other musicians. We did recordings with cellists, drummers, some guitar stuff. There’s quite a lot guitar on the album, actually, but then you go through it with a fine-toothed comb to pick out those interesting inflections or textures and start constructing them. We get a big archive of things that excite us and start putting things together to see if there’s synergy between the sounds or interesting juxtapositions. Track by track, we begin with the material we each have and work on sketches before bringing them to the table and looking at whether we can work them up. It’s been a healthy way of working.

JA: For example, Tom will put a guitar through some effects, make half an hour’s worth of sound and then we go through it and pick out bits. A nice sound can be patched to a drum patterns and what’s exciting is you get certain points or textures that match. There’s an element of chance in that match, and as soon as we’ve got it, we’ll throttle the hell out of it!

It sounds very intricate…

JA: It takes hours [laughs]. It’s an amazing process to do with someone else. You’ve always got someone to discuss it with. The other person kind of limits you.

TH: It’s really important to have that discourse, because it’s really hard to have it with yourself.

JA: There’s a core of what we’re doing that we both know we’re trying to reach. There’s an absolute specific idea. And you’ve got the reassurance that the other person shares that idea.

Going back to Blackest Ever Black, the label is noted for its somewhat bleak aesthetic, which runs through their artwork and the music of most of their acts. Do you have a particularly gloomy outlook on life? Could you say Quarter Turns Over A Living Line is a reflection of these somewhat depressing socio-political times?

JA: Um, I’d never describe myself as chirpy [laughs]. I definitely can take things quite seriously…

TH: This is a difficult question…

JA: A loaded gun! We are definitely pretty serious when it comes to music and the sentiments within that music. But everybody has a laugh sometimes, it’s not like we go around in a continual state of depression. But we’re pretty serious. I think there’s a natural instinct to hone in on the darkest elements of life when you’re being creative.

You can read this interview, and listen to a Soundcloud playlist of the album, here

A Quietus Interview – Voices From The Heathen North: Hexvessel Interviewed (October 22nd, 2012)

Mathew McNerney is a British singer and musician currently residing in Finland, from whence he has launched his excellent folk-rock outfit Hexvessel. After a solo release in 2011, Dawnbearer, this year has seen the arrival of a stunning second album, No Holier Temple, recorded with a full band of local musicians, and which connects the dots between McNerney’s background in black metal, a touch of jazz and, most importantly, the pagan psychedelic folk scene of late-sixties Britain. With more recordings already locked down, and a potential UK tour on the horizon, The Quietus caught up with Mathew to discuss how he ended up in Finland, the music of Hexvessel, and the importance of pagan religion and magick in his music.

I know you’re a British singer and musician, so how did you come to found Hexvessel over in Finland?

Mathew McNerney: I’ve always had a real love for Finland and used to live in Lapland, just across the border from Finland. I recorded an album there with my past band Code, spending three weeks in the winter up there. When I moved there after getting married, I got really inspired again, by the countryside and the local interest in Paganism. I think Finnish people in general are quite interested in that, and go out into the forests a lot, which reminded me of when I was younger and going camping down in Cornwall. There were places in England I was really interested in, so I got this kind of rebirth of all that stuff [after moving to Finland], as well as making music again. I’d been making music, my own stuff, for a long time, but I never had the courage or the inspiration to put it together, finish it and release the album. Moving to Finland was the catalyst for that.

How did the sound of Hexvessel come together?

MM: I’ve always been really interested in and excited about the fifties and late-sixties English folk, the Canterbury folk scene and things like that. I sort of had this idea to do something very honest and down to earth, in terms of sound. I was interested in taking things back to that kind of sound. I really like the soundtrack to The Wicker Man, that kind of thing, so wanted to get some folk roots in there. So I guess that’s how it happened, and working with the musicians that I worked with on the first Hexvessel album (Dawnbearer) also helped achieve that.

Equally, Finland has produced quite a few good folk bands, such as Tenhi. Do you feel that you’re part of a particular scene?

MM: I think I feel akin to the scene, but more the underground psychedelic scene. I don’t have any relationship with Tenhi or those groups, but I definitely have one with the psychedelic scene, which is really strong right now, bands like Dark Buddha Rising, Circle, Pharaoh Overlord and so on. There’s a really great psychedelic experimental scene in Finland and I feel more a part of that than anything else, but at the same time, what I’m trying to do with Hexvessel is very much out on its own. I know every musician likes to say that, but I do feel we’re very different.

Was folk music always something you wanted to do, or have done?

MM: I think it’s something I’ve brought into my other bands. Before, I’d done some metal bands, that’s my past, and I think I’ve always brought those influences in there, that psychedelic folk. I like that the music at the time wasn’t strictly folk, even though they were doing revival. It was like taking the folk music of the past and doing it in a more psychedelic way, and we’re like that as well. I don’t feel that we’re just doing revival music.

You can definitely hear that on No Holier Temple. You feel the influence of Comus or Current 93, but equally, maybe, European acts like Sergius Golowin or Amon Duul II…

MM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s something that’s in the Finnish psychedelic scene too. If you listen to bands like Circle, they’re really following along those lines. From the first album to the second one, we’re progressing towards a more kind of psychedelic side, and I think a lot of bands back then did the same thing, it’s kind of like a journey.

What I found interesting about No Holier Temple was the integration of elements that went beyond folk, as you’ve alluded to already, with hints of jazz in the use of trumpet, and psychedelia. Is that a fair reflection?

MM: Yes, definitely. If you want Message to Love, that film about the Isle of Wight Festival, that was, I think, like a musical awakening back then. You had Miles Davis playing in the same arena as the doors, and stuff like that. I think people were expanding their mind, and this is another time of awakening in music, people are really switching on to other things. You get people listening to metal who are now listening to all kinds of avant-garde, weird music, and it’s thanks to all these different bands, like Sunn O))), who have gone out to open and break the genres. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do by bringing in these jazzier elements. It was very normal back [in the late sixties], and I think it’s becoming a bit more normal now. You can mix up without being classed as “experimental”. In black metal, when people used to experiment, listeners weren’t ready and so you’d get classed as “experimental black metal”. Nowadays, a lot of stuff that would have been classed as experimental is accepted.

There are songs where it seems like there’s a lot going on, but are equally quite open, which to me reflects nature, or the outdoors.

MM: That was really intentional, and it’s good if it comes across that way, because working with the musicians I work with, I wanted to get their personalities into the sound. The guys in the band were as influential and inspirational for the music as anything I was listening to or reading. They’re quite special people, and, as I said, Finnish people seem to be quite close to nature and spend a lot of time in the forest, y’know? I wanted to get some their ethos into the record, and I think that comes across.

Was it a smooth recording process, and was the album easy to put together?

MM: Yeah, I think so, because it was very natural. Before, I was very young, and didn’t have total control over what happened, but where we rehearsed [for No Holier Temple], I really had a feeling of where it could go, and I owe a lot to the musicians, because they were able to take my ideas in the ways we discussed. We would jam a lot together, so things feel like they follow natural rhythms. It felt really organic and so nice to record live and follow our hearts with it.

How do you go about writing the lyrics? Was it a natural process or did you work a lot on researching the themes you were approaching?

MM: On this album it was really natural. I was relying on experiences and things we’d discussed in rituals or just in being together as a band. All the themes feel very natural, I don’t feel it’s in any way contrived. I’m not trying to get something across, I’m getting it out there and can feel very proud of those lyrics. There’s no bullshit there, it was a case of beating away the chaff and getting to the wheat, the core of it. I try to keep things really simple. People who are interested in my lyrics have always thought they were quite poetic but over-the-top, using a lot of words; but I’m really trying to strip things down and just get to the basics of trying to create something interesting and that people can relate to. I’m quite interested in songwriting in general. When I’m listening to music, I think it’s quite important that there’s a song there, and a message.

The album feels like a meditation on old religion and magick, which you’ve mentioned are things that interest you – are you a practitioner of either?

MM: Well, yeah… I was brought up a Catholic, so I know about organised religion. I’ve always been interested in the occult and magick. I don’t know how much you can say about practising magick, because I think it’s something that’s very personal and very subjective and I think this album is about that. It’s about “When does magick become objective? When does religion become an objective thing? What does it mean to be holy?” It’s all connected with nature and how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us. It’s definitely the theme of the album, and I believe that we’re creating and practising magick all the time. If you study a lot of magick, you realise that there’s a red line that goes through all types of magick and it’s all about willpower and about what you will decide to turn into reality. It’s a subjective thing that becomes objective. A dream you dream together becomes reality, and I think that’s the power of magick. It’s something I’ve been exploring with the band as well, this idea of belief and the natural things.

Nature being something that was central to pagan religions, of course…

MM: Absolutely! I believe it’s very important to associate God and deities with the natural world, because it means you create the natural world as holy. Natural things are what feed us, and keep us going, so we need to worship them and keep our relationship with the earth in balance. We need to treat it with respect. It doesn’t matter if you believe gods are these beings or not, what’s important is that you do believe that nature is sacred. That’s also the theme of this album: putting the godhead back into nature and worshipping it.

In a way, could you not therefore tie the music of Hexvessel back into the tradition of protest folk? Is your music political?

MM: The album is about that. Every track has its own story, so we’re not preaching, and not every track is about nature, but when you put everything together, it’s a celebration and a discourse on these matters, everything can be tied back into our relationship with our ancient understanding of who we are and the planet. No Holier Temple isn’t a concept album, but everything revolves around that discourse around holiness. I think it’s very important that people get that back again and that’s why I’m sort of associating with that period around the late-sixties. The whole feeling back then was the same, and we need to get that back a bit. There’s a lot of retro revival going on, but there’s nobody doing it with heart or standing for something. I think everybody should believe in this stuff.

I was also interested by references to the female figure in nature that comes out of the album, something that reflects the pagan attitudes instead of monotheistic religious ones.

MM: Yes, and you can reflect on the band members we have as well. It’s no mistake that we have a good balance and I don’t see why there aren’t more bands like that. I think it’s kind of a shame when bands do try to address that, they put the women to the front and present them in a sexual way, and we don’t do that in the band. It’s very revolutionary [to look at women as central to holiness], because we could redress the balance and have a different way of acting as a culture and as people if we put the female back as the apex of our religious thought. On a Freudian level, it would just make much more sense.

Given how we’ve discussed how dense and varied the album is, how do you go about reproducing the songs from No Holier Temple live?

MM: We’ve been playing the songs from the album for quite a while, from when I first started playing live with the band. The album was almost a recreation of how we play live, which was an important thing for me. We’ve had an idea of performance in mind the whole time, and you only really get the band once you see us live, I think. I’ve always wanted live performance to be a sort of life-changing experience and the most important thing when it comes to playing music. It should be like a mass, or a ritual. The recording is just a reminder of that, in a way.

What are your future plans? Will you be bringing Hexvessel to the UK?

MM: We’d really like to go to England and play lots of different places. We’d like to come and do a proper tour. We’ll do our best to do a proper UK tour, because it’s not all about London. We’ve already recorded another album. We’ve got to produce it and get it together, but I expect that to come out in spring or autumn next year, depending on the time we get between playing live. I’m really inspired by this line-up!

A Quietus Interview – Love & Art: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge Interviewed (October 8th, 2012)

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s definition of a quiet week differs very much from most people’s. After a couple of delays, we finally catch up on the phone, and apparently this is down time for the former Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV singer. “I’ve been so busy all year that I actually have a couple of weeks doing very little,” he explains. “Just chilling out, which for me will involve two DJ gigs, a talk, a poetry reading, etc. But for me that’s quiet!” For most people, that would constitute a busy schedule, but if P-Orridge was in anyway put out by having to add an interview to the to-do list, it didn’t show, and the supposedly prickly singer was friendly and outgoing throughout.

It’s easy to imagine how the above would constitute an easy-going time for P-Orridge, given he’s spent most of the last year working on his writing, performing with the latest incarnation of PTV and travelling the world promoting the wonderful documentary The Ballad Of Genesis And Lady Jaye, directed by Marie Losier, a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the world of this most controversial of icons. “I had to bail after four months of doing [the promotions] every week, because it was making me sick, actually sick. Every night, we were reliving losing Jaye and even the dog in the film died of cancer a year later, and I lost the house because we couldn’t pay the mortgage without Jaye’s income. So it was like, you lose the house again and again, you lose Jaye everyday and I just got really worn out, emotionally worn out.”

The death of Genesis’ wife, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, forms a central and tragic part of The Ballad Of Genesis And Lady Jaye, and, after going through such a trauma, it’s only natural he would find revisiting it so difficult, especially given the nature of their uniquely symbiotic love. I refer to Pandrogyny, where the couple famously underwent extensive plastic surgery to resemble each other, becoming, in a way, one soul in two bodies (as well as a living work of art), and which was the initial focus of the movie. “2003 was the year Lady Jaye and I decided to get breast implants,” he says, explaining how the film came about, “and make the Pandrogyny project a public project. Jaye said to me ‘It would be really great if we had someone around who filmed everything, like Warhol at the Factory, and just documented all the process we’re going to go through’. There was no idea of it becoming a film at all, it was documentation, mainly for ourselves. Within a week, we were playing a show at The Knitting Factory, and Marie was in the audience and was really touched by my poetry. She didn’t know us at all, but she said she was a filmmaker and Jaye offered for her to come on tour with Psychic TV for two weeks. She filmed the entire tour and became a really special friend, and [from there] it just kept on going. She just started documenting our lives. At some point, just before Jaye dropped her body, it started to be a case of making it into a documentary, something we decided much more earnestly after Jaye dropped her body. Primarily in honour of Lady Jaye, to maintain her memory”.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, beyond its welcome – for TG or PTV fans – footage of Genesis, acts as an elegy to Lady Jaye, who is probably less well-known than her other half, but who subtly becomes the focus of the film. This was clearly P-Orridge’s intention. “When it comes out on DVD there’s going to be a bonus disc with a lot more of Lady Jaye. There’s a part in the film where she looks at the camera and says ‘I’ve got everything I need to be happy because I’ve got Gen.’ Well, we’ve got the whole 14-minute talk, the speech she was making about Pandrogyny, ethics and what we were doing, and why we were so in love. That unedited speech will be on the bonus DVD, as well as Sleazy [the late, great Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, who founded both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV with Genesis] talking about us too.

“Those bits weren’t in the original film because we didn’t have anything to do with the editing, we left it to Marie and didn’t want to interfere. We wanted it to be what she saw, and the editing job she did – which she spent a whole year on – is amazing. But at some point in the editing process, she decided to not have any talking heads. She approached it as a collage, an ‘elegy collage’, as you said. And it worked – she made an amazing film! One of the things that’s happened with the film is that the media has become much more friendly towards me. In some ways, it’s humanised me where in the past the media has tended to demonise me. People see my mischievous side, as when I’m sitting on the keyboard, and they see how much Jaye and I loved each other.”

Given Breyer P-Orridge’s past interest in “extreme” art and music, perhaps such a personal project should come as little surprise, but it’s still remarkable that he would allow such close access to what must have been a harrowing period after Lady Jaye passed away. “Like we said, the level of intimacy is gruelling, emotionally, for me. Jaye’s way of explaining life and experience is that it’s consciousness of who we are, and the body is just a cheap suitcase that we carry around. It’s a philosophical way of dealing with the human body – she was always dissatisfied with the human body, and felt trapped in her body, in fact, [she felt this way] from being a child.

“It was difficult to allow someone that much access after Lady Jaye dropped her body. We don’t remember the first year after the funeral, we don’t remember doing anything, or seeing anyone. Luckily for me, our extended family took care of me. We were catatonic, basically, it was a trauma. The way it happened, out of the blue, with her breathing her last breath into me, was traumatic. It took maybe 18 months, and we were with Marie and we said ‘Let’s finish it’. It was really important to finish it, because it was Lady Jaye’s idea. We had to finish it, as a matter of pride and respect of Lady Jaye’s wishes.”

Despite all the aforementioned sadness, The Ballad Of Genesis And Lady Jaye remains an uplifting experience, and you come out of it aware that you’ve experienced a celebration of love, something P-Orridge is keen to underline. “When we’ve been at screenings and Q&As, the most common reaction of people who’ve come up to speak to me is almost always, even if they’re crying, ‘I’ve always been afraid to really commit myself 100% to a relationship because I’ve been scared of being hurt. But now I’ve seen this film, I’m not afraid anymore. I realise how much love I’ve wasted that I could have had.’ Isn’t that a great thing to have happen from a movie? That people would not be afraid to be in love, and to be different?”

‘Not afraid to be different’… I saw The Ballad Of Genesis And Lady Jaye at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and was initially surprised at the choice because, for all his idiosyncrasies, P-Orridge never struck me as being an LGBT figure, even with the Pandrogyny. In that respect, it was a real eye-opener, not just about him, but about the ways in which “alternative” sexual identities can be expressed, by anyone. It felt like a true work of “queer” art.

“We’re not traditional LGBT people, are we?,” says Breyer P-Orridge. “Derek Jarman, for me, is a queer filmmaker. ‘Queer’, to me, includes eccentric and being prepared to push through any stereotypes, even gay stereotypes. The people who have been the most puzzled by us have actually been the more ‘traditional’, neo-conservative gay people, who – and this is not in any way a criticism – really want to be accepted as normal and treated just like everyone else, as they absolutely should be. But sometimes they maybe become stereotypes of everything they were rejecting and, for us, we don’t want to become just another stereotype. It’s not about me becoming a woman, or Jaye becoming a man, it’s about the divine hermaphrodite, and the potential of the human species to evolve in the most amazing ways, having no limit on what their body can be or what they imagine is a way of being. It’s much more philosophical, magickal and evolutionary. We did an interview for ABC over here, because we’d been banned from Phoenix on account of me being transgender, and we knew they wanted ‘bumper stickers’, you know? So we said ‘Transsexuals are the stormtroopers of the future!’ [laughs]. In a way, we do believe that. Certain people in our species are waking up to the potential to have a different future to the one we’ve been offered.”

In this context, the Pandrogyny is crucial, and in the way it bridges art and life, it seems unique. In the wake of Lady Jaye’s passing, one could assume that Genesis would put the experience on hold, but that seems to be far from his mind. “It’s our ultimate project,” he says. “It’s a process and a project. With everything that we decide to make public, that’s when it becomes a project. On the very first day we met Lady Jaye, she took me to her apartment and dressed me in her clothes. She intuitively knew the trajectory of our relationship, and we kept on exploring that, privately, together – becoming two halves of the same whole. We wanted to blur together; if it had been medically possible, we would have had a vagina and a penis each. That would have been our maximum choice. Why should we submit to the programme [of DNA]? That’s how we got back to the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up, and thought about cutting up DNA like literature or music. Can you edit biology and generate the third being? That’s how we got to the revolutionary part: DNA has come to symbolise a deep sense of control; it’s something most people just accept. It got more complex as the years went by, but we’re still doing exhibitions and creating sculptures. We’ve been commissioned to do a book called Creating Sex and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh have confirmed that they’re going to do a retrospective of Breyer P-Orridge and Pandrogyny next summer.”

In an era when so much art is being commodified, P-Orridge’s commitment to the ultimate realisation of this unique project is refreshing.

Genesis makes it clear that recognition by the Andy Warhol Museum is a source of personal pride and gratification, and he is quick to reference his debt of influence to The Factory and Warhol stars like Candy Darling. As someone so notorious for his musical performances, notably with Throbbing Gristle, you get the feeling that it’s been an uphill struggle for him to be recognised also as a major visual artist – he uses the word “vindication”.

“Certainly in America, we’re getting a lot more serious attention to our ideas,” he says. “The word ‘Pandrogyny’, which we created – ‘positive androgyny’- has started to filter into the language, as a new word with a lot less baggage. We can all define what this word might be, it’s not meant to have a fixed definition. It’s a form of freedom from the past. The art world started to accept COUM Transmissions towards the end, in ’75-76, when we started doing museum shows, but the art world didn’t want us to do music [as Throbbing Gristle]! They didn’t think we were doing art, because we were doing music. We were always in the wrong camp, but we always wanted to do everything. We’ve never stopped making art, or writing essays [even during TG and PTV]. In the last two or three years, things have really changed. Lady Jaye and I started doing exhibitions together, and we were surprised that people loved our approach and were listening to what we were saying. The Tate recently bought our archives, so the art world has really started to take us seriously as the whole package. Life and art can be the same thing. Artists have been saying this for 100-odd years!”

After so many years of struggling against the establishment, touring, exploring every facet of art and life, you could forgive Breyer P-Orridge for being jaded, but far from it, and the supreme energy that inhabits him remains anchored in his relationship with Lady Jaye, something that comes up when I mention Yoko Ono’s own struggles with the public and the establishment’s perceptions: “The reason that we adopted Breyer P-Orridge was to say ‘Jaye is equally as important. She’s not doing this just because she’s with me, she was already doing stuff before we met and a lot of the ideas are her ideas.’ We’re insistent: don’t dismiss her because she’s female! And don’t dismiss this because her body’s not here anymore. She’s still vital to the project”. It seems clear, then, that Pandrogyny may be one of the major artistic expressions of feminism in the last few years.

But, of course, it’s impossible to interview Genesis P-Orridge without honing in on the music, and a chat about a DJ set where he spun Amon Duul II and Hawkwind records emphasises that, for all the ‘industrial’ reputation of TG, Genesis at heart is a bit of a psychedelic hippy. “Oh, absolutely. And it’s been missed. The new line-up of Psychic TV that we have are the best musicians we’ve ever played with. We’ve done some singles: the first was Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’ b/w ‘Alien Brain’, the second was ‘Mother Sky’ by Can, and the B-side was ‘Alien Sky’. Next will be a Hawkwind cover! We take the structures of the songs and rework them [on the B-sides], so the ‘Alien Brain’ features vocal, and lasts 15 minutes. It was done in one take, with the whole band in the studio. We don’t rehearse, we just go straight into the studio and lay it down. It’s a fascinating project. We’re trying to tell people not to dismiss this era just because there’s been so much propaganda about hippies. Never be biased or prejudiced, and then you can make it your own. There are always more doors you can go through”

This ethos of constant exploration even extends to language, and throughout the interview Genesis substitutes “I” for “We”.

“When we first met Burroughs back in 1971,” he says, “we were hanging out in his apartment, somewhat in awe of him, we said to him, ‘Do you still do cut-ups?’. He said, ‘No, I don’t really have to any more, because my brain has been rewired so it does them automatically!’ That’s kind of what’s happened to me. Burroughs told me to always write every day, so that when you have a sudden revelation of meaning, in language, you’re ready to document it and expand it. At this point, after 50 years of writing, it’s become second nature to see words and break them down and reassemble them automatically. It’s why I can improvise vocals on the spot. With ‘we’, it obviously means me and Jaye, but then, can we use ‘we’ when talking about before we met? In 1968, we started using ‘E’ for ‘I’. Should we use that? Someone suggested we should just use ‘they’!”

I’m uneasy to approach the subject of Throbbing Gristle, given everything that’s been written about them, not to mention their various break-ups and Sleazy’s tragic passing, but Genesis welcomes the chance to go over the band’s legacy, especially when we start discussing the lyrics he wrote for the band, which he showcased marvelously at their last-ever concert in London.

“Most of the TG songs were originally improvised on stage,” he reveals. “‘Persuasion’ was improvised on stage, ‘Convincing People’ was improvised on stage… On the other hand, ‘Hamburger Lady’, for example, was improvised in the studio. ‘Discipline’ was made up on the stage in Berlin, when Sleazy and Chris [Carter] came up with that amazing rhythm. We said to Sleazy, ‘What shall we sing about tonight?’ and he said, ‘Discipline!’. And it became a classic! It varies… We’re just doing the first Thee Majesty album in eleven years, and we go in with poems we’ve written at home. It’s about looking at which words fit the span of the music and then seeing what happens. We’re always looking not to simplify the words for the music, but to fit the words into the music.”

Unlike some early industrial artists, Genesis is more than happy to talk about the genre TG helped name, never mind initiate, and he talks enthusiastically about more recent artists, such as Prurient, who are clearly indebted to Throbbing Gristle’s legacy. “We didn’t know [the industrial scene] was going to happen, we just knew that we wanted what we were doing to have a very clear separation from everything else,” he explains. “The birth of something new, a new approach, something that was more contemporary and more modern. You can’t plan those things, but then sometimes you can feel the zeitgeist. TG was four very exceptional people. You couldn’t take any of those four out. Sometimes those things happen, and the right people are in the right place at the right time together.”

As much as talking about writing inspires him, it’s clear that TG’s reputation for controversy is a wearisome subject. “It’s been something that always frustrated me: people didn’t even ask about the lyrics and take the songs in as being songs. They just focused on one or two that were more abrasive, and the shock value, and ignored the rest. It’s one of the downsides of notoriety: the powers that be utilise anything like that as an excuse to dismiss what you do. But you just have to believe in what you do and, in my case, be patient.”

Does he feel more satisfied now? “Actually, yes! PTV3 is far and away the most exciting group of musicians that we’ve ever worked with. They’re all capable of playing technically but also of experimenting and improvising. Our live shows are never less than two hours and we have videos, light shows. Everyone’s hyper-aware of each others’ body language, and they can all tell the timbre of my voice. No matter how odd it is, the band is always there, totally with me.” It’s an osmosis that at times evokes Neil Young & Crazy Horse (a comparison that pleases Breyer P-Orridge no end), and listening to recent PTV3 releases certainly contains the mixture of beauty and chaos that defines The Horse at their best.

Through all the tumult of the last few years, from personal tragedies to his numerous artistic and musical heights, including recent performances, an album with Tony Conrad and a book of his life in pictures he’ll be supplying texts for, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge remains a strong and unique person who constantly looks to follow his boundlessly creative impulses as far as he can. “We’ve always had a very long-term view of everything, and kept in mind the perspective of looking back at things from our death bed. Will we have achieved everything we hoped for by then or, at least, will it be as pure as we hoped it to be?”

The DVD and CD soundtrack of The Ballad Of Genesis And Lady Jaye are both out now

A Liminal Interview – “It’s a conversation”: An interview with Steve Noble (October 4th, 2012)

Steve Noble is a key figure on the UK improv scene, having played with everyone from Derek Bailey to Wadada Leo Smith, via Peter Brötzmann and Keiji Haino. A masterful force on drums, Noble has developed a unique style that is both muscular and elegant, pushing the boundaries of jazz and rock drumming while simultaneously bringing them together, notably as a former member of post-punk outfit Rip, Rig and Panic, noise/drone band Aethenor, and through notable collaborations with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley. Earlier this year, the pair released the much-lauded St Francis Duo LP, and Noble is set to appear at Tusk festival in Newcastle in October. Ahead of that date, The Liminal caught up with Steve to discuss his evolution as a drummer, the musicians he likes to play with most, and what he makes of the UK improv scene, both past and present.

Could you please give me a bit of background on yourself? Have you always been a drummer?

Well, yeah. I started when I was about ten. I always wanted to be a drummer, although what does that mean when you’re eleven or twelve? I moved to London when I was 17, worked for a bit to earn money for some equipment, quit the job and knuckled down. I was a bit of a snob. When I got my first drum set, when I was 12, I was given a book about the Paiste Cymbal Company, which included the Roxy Musics and the Zeppelins and all that, but also all the European improvisers, because Paiste existed in an era before everything had to make money. So, the drum magazine I also bought on the same day featured a bunch of people with drum sets that you couldn’t sell. There wouldn’t be three pages of an article about a drummer followed by four pages of adverts, so that relationship was very different. So, this book included the Benninks, the Oxleys, all these people who had very bespoke drum sets. Melody Maker also had a section on jazz, so you’d get this drip feed of other musics. Now, with the web, you know where to find this stuff. People say it’s easy, but it’s not, you still have to find it. I was very much into rock music, like The Who, who I saw once, and even met Keith Moon!

I was intrigued by jazz and improv, even if I didn’t always understand improv. You’d have these huge drum sets. It was people looking for a different route, so I lost interest in rock, although I feel I was a bit of a snob, looking back. I mean, now I look back, and have to say John Bonham was fantastic, I think. With very early Zeppelin, it seemed that Plant didn’t really know what he was doing, so it was just the trio. Now, I’m looking at how I can apply the spirit of improv across the board. 

You are considered to be a key figure on the UK improv scene. How did you become involved in that?

Like I say, I was interested in it. It always seemed logical to me, to improvise, and I know that some people think that’s odd. With a lot of musicians, if you take away the music, or the idea of form, then they’re fucked. In about 1985, I put on a festival with two other guys my age, at the old London Musician’s Club in Camden, featuring young musicians from around Britain, and in the improv scene, 40 is young, so we’re talking very young here! On the last evening, Derek Bailey was in the audience and I went up and introduced myself and asked if he’d like to play with me. A couple of months later, the phone rings and he asked if I wanted to go and play with him in Greece. I’ve been joking a lot recently with other musicians that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s difficult sometimes, but I was a bit cocky, an upstart, but if you don’t try… But that was the start of a very lovely musical partnership and friendship.

I actually bought the CD you recorded with him, Out of the Past, when I saw you perform with Wadada Leo Smith at Cafe Oto. It’s amazing, and it’s very interesting to hear him play with so much feedback…

It’s good, isn’t it? It was such a joy to play with him, I must say. But that was Derek… I enjoy sound, I play the drums. Doesn’t matter really if it’s a bit jazzy, or raucous, or whatever, it’s about sound, and I don’t have a problem working with Stephen O’Malley or Gary Smith and Michael Morley, because for me I’ll be working with sound. With Derek, I’ve always loved his sound and his playing. I’ve never had a problem with his playing, and I think a lot of people do. The interesting thing with Derek is that he was one of the top sessions players at one time. Not the elite like Jimmy Page, but in the top, and he (Bailey) saw that it was coming to an end and realised he wasn’t doing what he wanted to do, and to develop that style is magnificent. People like that, like Phil Minton, I mean, where’s he coming from? Beckett? It’s incredible.

A lot is now being written about the UK improv scene, but what was it like being in the middle of it?

Interestingly, there wasn’t the other side of it, which is, to generalise, the noise and electronic side. It was very much a divide where if you didn’t come out off jazz, you couldn’t play and a lot of people were just dismissed, which is all absolute rubbish. I still argue with musicians about that, ones who say “They can’t play”. Well, so what? They’ve got a great group. It’s about the result.

It was a very small scene. There was a little period in the early eighties when there was funding for a guy called Anthony Woodward to do a festival at the ICA, with almost 14 concerts. It helped bring new-ish people, like Diamanda Galas, in, but also the hardcore element of improv music and people like Roscoe Mitchell. But that just fell apart. But now, things have developed, perhaps through lottery funding, and we’ve had an explosion of festivals like Tusk. It’s always been a struggle in Britain. If you look historically, you can perhaps build up [the British scene’s] importance, and perhaps it is important, but the opportunities were very rare. It’s not all about funding, but if you’ve got to fly someone in, how do you do that [without funding]? Cafe Oto’s been good, but it is difficult. But things develop, and you’ve got to move on. I’m fortunate.

Do you think other countries are more open to improv, or have been in the past?

It’s a bit of a generalisation, but you could say that a lot of the European countries have always had a greater respect for the wider arts, so there’s a lot more money. It’s just accepted. But they don’t necessarily have the same popular music culture that we do, so maybe that stops the funding here. I don’t know. Are we heathens? We seem to generate interesting musicians in any area, not just avant-garde or improv music, but even classical players have to go abroad. Again, the word ‘funding’ is always there. I was playing in France, and I was joking with John Edwards, the bass player, because we looked out and the crowd was made up of a wide range of ages, and 50/50 women to men, and we just thought “This is how it should be”. But that’s just the way it is. If I have to play in front of an all-male audience, so be it… But I know musicians from Austria, Switzerland, Germany who get sent all over by their governments. I’ve had a promoter from Canada come up to me and say “You must be pissed off with me for never giving you a gig, because your government won’t pay for your flight”. You can get upset with it, but I’ve chosen to live here.

You realise that, throughout the mainstream media, there isn’t anything in this country. I’m sure that if you could put a little bit on television, not just jazz or improv, but all areas, and keep it going, the difference in audiences would be phenomenal. Why can’t the BBC realise that they should represent all different musics? I know they have to compete with Sky and ITV, but even on the radio, it’s slipping… That’s why Cafe Oto is such an important place. But even they kept getting asked about Arts Council funding when they were interviewed by The Guardian! It was like reading The Daily Mail!

I read that you studied under Nigerian drummer Elkan Ogunde. What was that like? Were you drawn to the tradition of African percussion, which is of course very different to European or American drumming?

Well, I used to buy Folkways records, which released a lot of African music. There was an advert in Compendium, which was a very good left-leaning bookshop in Camden in the 80s, and this guy was advertising for people to come and drum with him. He was a fantastic drummer, and would perform in kindergartens and primary schools, and asked me to come along. So we’d do these workshops, and then do gigs. His thing was about which drum plays to which part of the body, which was fascinating, and it was a nice feeling to be playing with him at age 18 or 19. But I know who I am and where I’m from so, while it was amazing to do and I learned a lot, I never wanted to try and sound like an African drummer. I can’t do Nigerian drumming, but I can learn from it. There’s a beat in there, fundamentals, that run through music around the world, in Nigerian drumming or Bo Diddley or Cuban music.

Was it difficult to incorporate what you learned with Elkan Ogunde into your own playing?

Not really. When I met the Rip, Rig and Panic people [the post-punk band that Steve worked with that included Neneh Cherry and Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith from The Pop Group, among others], we both went and played with them. I wasn’t trying to emulate what he was doing, it was more a question of “How does he get that drive?” It’s the same thing with Bonham. With his drumming, it’s about triplets, and that the hardest thing to play, because you’re demanding a lot from your body. A lot of rock drummers don’t get that. It’s more about feeling than technique. I’ve loved playing with Peter Brötzmann and John Edwards, and his (Brötzmann’s) strength is amazing, and there’s a lot of form going on, but he steps in and out, so that, while it’s about listening, there’s a lot of freedom, so John or I can step in rather than just follow Peter. It’s a conversation.

You’ve worked with a number of different artists, as we’ve discussed. Do you have a favourite person to play with? I know you’ve done a lot of work with John Edwards…

I think it depends what you’re looking for. It’s not pre-judging, but with John and Alex Ward, the guitarist and clarinet player, and the groups we’ve formed, like NEW with Alex and John, I’ve been looking to play with people who can cover all the areas, whether it’s rhythmic, melodic or abstraction. But if you’re suddenly phoned up to join a group for a one-off, then you do that. I like working with John a lot, maybe because we’ve known each other a long time. I know I can play rhythmically and abstractly, because I’m not looking for him to join my rhythm. I can work rhythmically just by hearing his textures and colours. So there are definitely people I’m more comfortable with, and people I know will give as near to 100% as possible each time. Alex and John are a core group, but there are so many players, and if there’s an opportunity to play with certain players, I’d love to take it. There are some people with whom you don’t have to discuss what you’re going to do, and it’s not just a generational thing. I hope there’ll be other people coming along, although sometimes there doesn’t seem to be!

Maybe it’s because there’s an overload of easy-to-access “indie” rock out there, and new players just aren’t drawn to improv anymore because rock is easier or more easily available…

But if you take Alex Ward, he’s a guy who loves his rock music and always introduces me to new bands. That’s how I discovered Lightning Bolt and thought they were fantastic. I love their bass sound, and the drummer’s great. And I love the voice. But I was asking Alex about British bands and he told me the most interesting ones are coming out of Europe or America, because they’re not trying to “be an indie band” or “cool”.

When I saw you perform with Keiji Haino at Cafe Oto, you used a lot of small cymbals and singing bowls, which evoked the Gamelan traditions of Asia, and the wider field of Asian percussion. Do you have an interest in the wider range of global percussive styles?

Very much so. I’ve always had an interest in what I guess most people don’t term ‘World music’ because that suggests the pop music of a country, but as I said, I used to buy Folkways records and so on. When I arrived in London, there were a lot of late-night cinemas, so you’d go and see a late-night movie after a gig. Fellini’s Satyricon was one of the films I saw, and it’s just full of this “ethnic” music. In the end scene, with the Minotaur, there’s a Balinese monkey chant, and I didn’t know what it was until I saw The Pop Group live one night. They always had great music over the PA before their sets, stuff like Pierre Henry, and on this occasion they were playing that monkey chant. So, you slowly understand, by buying music and making mistakes, that there’s this incredible range of music out there. There’s great music everywhere and I’ve always enjoyed listening to music from everywhere, and it’s even easier with YouTube nowadays.

We mentioned the Keiji Haino gig, which was very heavy, and earlier this year, The Liminal reviewed the St Francis Duo album you recorded with Stephen O’Malley, whom you also perform with in Aethenor. Do those guys, and others, perhaps bring out your inner metal-head?

Not really. I’m not going to go back and piledrive the beat for ten minutes. When I got the call from Daniel [O’Sullivan, keyboardist in Aethenor] to come and play, what I liked about Stephen is that he was Stephen. A lot of people think “Oh, this is improv, I’d better play like Derek Bailey”, but Stephen’s thing, for me, is sound. We’d have a couple of soundchecks where it was just him and me, and we’d just do what we do, and it works. After the first night of that duo at Cafe Oto [for St Francis Duo], I told Stephen that I liked him because he’s a slow guitarist. He was a bit taken aback by that, but I it’s not a criticism. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like circles, and whilst mine is very fast and small, his is much larger, so I can work with it because you don’t have to hit the same point all the time. There are a lot of people who are technically very good, but you’re not quite drawn in by their sound. Again, I’m not hung up by people’s technical ability – that’s bullshit. With Stephen, I like that sound, those huge chords that dissipate slowly while you’re capturing them.

It comes back to that American thing. There were some great British groups in the post-punk days, that I grew up around, bands like This Heat and The Pop Group, and you just think “What went wrong?”. It became the New Romantics! It’s astonishing… Maybe the politics changed. And that’s gone.

You mention the politics, and of course in the eighties Thatcher came along and it became the “Me generation”, but a lot of improv artists tend to come from the Left. Do you think there’s a political strain running through the improv scene and what you do?

Maybe. But I played with Iancu Dumitrescu, the Romanian composer, for a gig was organised by the Association of Musical Marxists, at Conway Hall, and hardly anyone was there. The organisers told me they’d done lots of publicity, with flyers handed out at political events, and you think “Well no wonder you haven’t got an audience!” I think the people in politics don’t necessarily like avant-garde music. And I don’t think you have to. Generally, there is a political element, because if you’ve got four musicians onstage improvising together, they’re all equals. Everyone’s the composer and the lead player. It’s not a hierarchy. But I prefer not to look at it as a political statement. I’ve always wanted to shy away from that. It’s too easy to make pat statements and, as you grow up, you realise there are good people everywhere. I’ve never wanted to align myself with that, but you’re right that, particularly in the seventies, there was a lot of it. But that’s the good thing about Oto: it’s not aligned to anything. It’s just about contemporary music.

What should people expect from you at Tusk? Will you be doing a solo show?

Good question! No, I’m going to be playing with Michael Morley [of Gate and The Dead C], who’ll be playing as Gate, and Gary Smith, the English guitar player. I did a couple of private sessions with him a few years ago… I don’t know Michael, but I’ve seen a couple of videos on YouTube. Will I do more? I don’t know. It’s great that the tradition of putting people together is there. I think they’ve done that before, when [Chris] Corsano did a set with two guitarists. It’s a nice venue: small, intimate, good sound… I think it’ll be loud, and I hope it’ll be a blast.

Finally, have you got any records coming out, or other future plans?

Yeah, I’ve just finished mixing a NEW album, that’s Noble-Edwards-Ward, for a guy who was making a film about British improvised music. He came over to London and recorded us at Oto in January, and hopefully some of it will be in the film, but then he also said he wanted to release it as an LP. There’s another Oto recording coming out by Decoy, my other trio, with John Edwards and Alexander Hawkins on Hammond organ, hopefully by December. I’ve got a few others in the can, including a duo with Alex Ward. You know how it works: these days you print 500 or 1000 and get them out!

Photo courtesy of Dave Knapik

A Liminal Interview – Rock from the bottom of the world: An interview with Michael Morley (September 19th, 2012)

For over 20 years, New Zealand’s Michael Morley has forged a distinctive style on both vocals and guitar, with legendary avant-rock trio The Dead C and his solo project Gate. After a silence of nearly ten years, Morley released A Republic of Sadness to great acclaim, whilst 2012 has seen seminal Gate album The Dew Line (1993) lavishly reissued on MIE Music, complete with never-heard-before bonus tracks. With two more of his legendary albums –The Monolake and The Wisher Table – set to follow suite, and with Morley travelling to the UK to appear at the upcoming TUSK festival in October, The Liminal caught up with him to discuss his musical background, the impact of The Dead C and Gate on modern rock, and how he plans to perform at TUSK.

Could you please give me a bit of background on how you got into music? How did you come to form The Dead C, and later Gate? 

I have been listening to music for as long as I can remember. There would be songs that I would hear on the radio and I would become obsessed with their melodies and the words. When I was 9 years old I started using a cassette tape machine to make sound collages, very basic sound on sound stuff, no internal inputs, just microphones and speakers and timing. In 1980 I met Richard Ram at High School, and we had a shared passion for punk rock, so we started Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos as a response to our interest in the music of Robert Rental and The Normal, Toy Love, The Builders, Eyeless in Gaza, Cabaret Voltaire, Josef K, The Fire Engines, Throbbing Gristle, The Residents, Talking Heads, Pop Group, The Stooges, The Ramones, etc. We made cassette tapes of our sound-making, which are really rudimentary and primitive. At the time they seemed completely alien to anything that we were listening to, and our natural incompetence helped. The Dead C was formed in 1987 as a result of me not playing with anybody at the time and not being interested in pop music as a genre, having extended my listening to John Cage, Tony Conrad, Faust, J.S. Bach, Douglas Lilburn, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Sonic Youth, Big Black, The Swans, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, etc. Gate was started when I was living in Auckland and working as a librarian in 1988. It’s a convenient moniker under which I can play, record and perform either solo or with a group of people that doesn’t have to be a band, but a co-operative.

Bruce Russell has just written a book about the small but vibrant New Zealand scene that The Dead C evolved out of – it must have been a very exciting time… 

Bruce Russell, Richard Francis, and Zoe Drayton have edited the recently published book “Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand “, but there are many contributing writers examining diverse sound practices across New Zealand. I remember playing as always being exciting but don’t remember the period as being particularly exciting. I remember it as grim and brutal. It seems to be very similar to the current period.

The Dead C were often compared to Sonic Youth, but to my mind are both more experimental and more psychedelic than Sonic Youth, with acts like Les Rallizes Denudes and Tony Conrad seeming more of an influence than punk. Would you agree? 

I first heard Les Rallizes Denudes in 2010. Tony Conrad I heard in 1982 when I found a copy of the LP Outside the Dream Syndicate by Tony Conrad and Faust. Late 1960s psychedelic music is something that I grew up with and was inspired by. It would seem that it is something that I refer to in my own music making in an oblique fashion. I was also heavily influenced by punk rock as a teenager and still listen to variants of the genre.

Was the decision to form Gate a reaction to what you were doing with The Dead C? Did you feel there were things you could do solo that you couldn’t do in the band? 

I started Gate as a project because I wasn’t living in Dunedin from 1988-1990, so I was only playing with Robbie and Bruce on rare occasions. Gate allows me to record, play and perform in an ongoing capacity. I spend a lot of time either painting or playing the guitar. When I play the guitar I tend to record and I use these recordings as material for an experimental audio studio practice. A lot of this material is for my own listening and is not intended for release, it forms the basis of my experiments in sound.

How do you go about creating a Gate album? Is the music mostly improvised, or do you compose each track? 

Most Gate recordings are improvised and then built around particular themes. The continuous recording practice allows for an archive that can be assessed for compositional purposes. I would say that the most recent LP A Republic of Sadness was a very different approach for me: as with The Lavender Head series, it examines dance music troupes which I developed from commercially available music software. The initial period of making the music for A Republic of Sadness was short, maybe a month at the most, and then two years of listening and making decisions about the compositions.

Your vocal style is pretty much unique in the rock world. How did you develop it? In most cases, it is subsumed in the mix – do you treat vocals as just another instrument, with the lyrics being a secondary concern to how the voice fits with the guitar and other instruments?

I have no idea about my vocal style, I don’t hear it as being unique. Some people have made disparaging remarks about my voice, which I don’t understand. Maybe it’s my accent… Vocals to me are another aspect of the soundscape. I am not particularly interested in telling stories so the vocal has to have another reason for being, and I think that it is as another instrument. Of course the words are very important to me and I will spend a lot of time getting that right, for me. When I have attempted to make the vocals more prominent in the mix I tend to attract rude comments concerning my voice from people I don’t know, and who perhaps don’t appreciate the context.

How do you come up with your lyrics? Do you work to a specific theme or concept when writing lyrics for an album?

I write a lot when I feel inclined to create lyrics, so there are files and folders of words generated over several years, and I use these if I need them. Or sometimes I am able to write as I am listening to the recordings. Sometimes the words come really easily, sometimes it’s an ordeal. Sometimes indeed there is an overarching concept that may capture me. The lyrics for the tracks for the new Gate LP The Numbers, were all written within the week that I made the recordings – it was a concentrated and focused effort.

2010’s A Republic of Sadness was the first Gate album in nine years. What made you decide to return to the project? 

I hadn’t released anything as Gate for 10 years, and it seemed impossible that I had ignored Gate releases for a decade, but I hadn’t been interested in releasing anything. I had been recording a lot, and had not been convinced by any of it and so ditched various projects in favour of nothing. A Republic of Sadness took me two years to finish, and I spent that time listening to the tracks and rearranging them and essentially having a really good time playing with the material. I didn’t play the material to anybody, as I thought it was very strange stuff, and that nobody would like it, so the whole project just sat in my studio. After a year, I began playing it to a number of people to start testing the results. I was surprised by the positive comments and as I allowed more people to hear it I thought that maybe I could release it. Ben Goldberg was very kind in agreeing to release it on Ba Da Bing. I then spent another year remixing the material in a fastidious fashion, trying out arrangements, time lengths and track sequences. It also took about a year to make the cover art. It was the most intense recording project I have ever made in that it was focused on a particular aesthetic, sustained over such a long period of time, with many interruptions, and I almost threw the whole thing away.

You will be appearing at Tusk Festival in October. How have you prepared for this concert?

Replacing the electronics in the guitar so that it works, and a new set of strings maybe? I recently purchased a lap steel, so have been playing that a lot, although I don’t think I am ready to present that material in a public forum.

Do you approach a live Gate performance differently to when you perform with The Dead C? Do you find it more difficult to perform solo, or when you have to interact with other people?

There is more to think about when I approach a Gate performance. With the Dead C, I know the other two can take up the slack should I lose my way. Solo can be more of a challenge in some ways. The frequency of playing and performing as both means there are a lot of risks in the activity. If I played more I guess I might get better, but then I don’t know what that would mean.

Finally, are you working on new material? Can we expect to see a new Gate or Dead C album in the near future?

I have just finished a new Gate LP The Numbers, recorded in August this year, the final mixes and the cover art were completed in the last week, and I’m happy with the results. I have allowed three people to hear it so far, and had positive responses to my efforts. I know Ben is happy with the recordings and the cover art so I think it will be released on Ba Da Bing sometime in the near future. I have other Gate projects coming out this month/next month: an LP, Damned Revolutions, will be released by Ultramarine Records (Italy), and another Gate LP, Moths, recorded with Nina Canal (from Ut) and Sara Stephenson (from Doramaar) in Rotterdam with be released by Dilletante Curiosite (France). There are some Dead C recordings ongoing at present, plus some recordings with Pete Swanson made in August of this year, and some recordings made with Kim Gordon and Bill Nace from last year.

You can also read this interview, complete with videos, here

A Liminal Review: The Seer by Swans (August 15th, 2012)

“Lunacy! Lunacy! Lunacy!” The chant rises up out of the musical ashes of opening track ‘Lunacy’, the first of many supreme meltdowns that course through The Seer, the latest monolith of an album by the revived and reinvigorated Swans, following on from 2010′s critically-hailed My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. Unlike the legion of cynical rock band reunions currently polluting the festival scene, the return of Swans stems from the ongoing and visceral self-exploration of singer Michael Gira, a man so committed to gazing at his inner demons you have to worry for his health. The Seer is a case in point: at nearly two hours in duration, it stretches the boundaries of endurance, albeit in the most blissful way possible.

At the album’s heart lies the gruelling monster of a title track, a crushing 30-minute epic that initially has the feel of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse stomp, but, with Gira’s background in industrial noise and punk, ‘The Seer’ descends into dark and ominous depths, driven by a band so confident you’d think that these were the original Swans, with 30 years’ worth of time together to gel into such a humongous whole. I may have a preference for the early Filth-era material, just because it’s so mean and misanthropic, but in terms of cohesion and pure musical talent, this incarnation of Swans takes some beating, and few outfits in rock can match their intensity. ‘The Seer’ starts off in widescreen, with bagpipes, strings, horns and rattling percussion, a broad vista that evokes the wind-swept prairies of the Midwest, or, musically, the freeform intro to Van Der Graaf Generator’s ‘Arrow’. Swans have the cohesive madness of a free-jazz combo, and the feedback-enhanced furore of Crazy Horse, and, combined, these two disparate forms coalesce into a towering rock edifice as open as it is dense, gradually building skywards in the kind of patient layers usually associated with prog. Phil Puleo’s polyrhythmic drums motor forward, Klaus Schulze-like in their minimal energy, supported by the patient percussion of Thor Harris, as Gira menacingly intones the grim mantra “I see it all”. For all its darkness, ‘The Seer’ is psychedelic, with labyrinthine guitar solos swooping ceaselessly over the hypnotic rhythms, although, to cop a phrase from Gary Mundy or Matt Bower, this is bleak psychedelia, and when the piece bursts asunder in a shower of post-metal riffage, saturated solos and murderous gong noise, it’s like the heavens have opened and the four horsemen of the apocalypse have descended. Much is made of Gira’s fervent lyrics, but he is far less camp and more lyrically oblique than Woven Hand’s David Eugene Edwards or even Nick Cave, and he in fact forgoes lyrics for much of The Seer, allowing the music to breathe and flow with epic, brutal transcendence.

With such an incredible, righteous centrepiece (one that isn’t all storm and fury, by the way – when Gira launches into a mournful harmonica break towards the end, it’s surprisingly sparse, and emotionally moving), it would be easy to overlook the rest of The Seer, even though it’s two closing numbers are 20-minute-long epics that almost match the title track’s immensity. ‘Mother of the World’, the second track, is creepily melodic, careening forward on the motorik repetition of the drums (this is first and foremost a drum album, I feel, and Puleo and Harris deserve maximum praise for the way they combine precision and wildness) and a loping two-note riff and bassline. Gira really soars as a vocalist here, switching from unsettling heavy breathing to his trademark growl via a haunting yodel that his idol Howlin’ Wolf would be proud of. Again, the range of his talents is on display, with hints of blues and doom-laden folk simmering under the muscular noise-rock. The track’s momentum is implacable, even merciless, a kind of minimal propulsion that can canter along without dropping a beat or suddenly shift directions with any one of Gira’s compositional whims. Again, I can’t say it enough, from bassist Christopher Pravdica to the molten rhythm guitar of Norman Westberg, this is one of the most talented, adventurous bands in the world.

While the album’s length would initially appear to be a handicap, on the whole this is as concise and well-balanced album as you’ll hear, with potential post-’The Seer’ lull rescued by the final three tracks that sign things off with a bang. ‘Avatar’ is a nine-minute psych-out, all chiming bells and insistent polyrhythms, and possibly the most mesmerising Swans track in quite some time, with Gira’s multi-tracked vocals becoming a moody chorus behind sweeping guitar drones and synthesizer melodies, achieving elegiac status as he moans variations on “Your light is in my hand”. ‘A Piece of the Sky’, meanwhile, flows through different musical and emotional states over its nineteen-plus minutes, from crackling Macronympha-like harsh noise to soothing ambience to glistening, post-classical bliss and gnarly folk-rock. As ever, Gira’s iron grip on his vision is what keeps this impermanence from collapsing, with every shift and transformation a beautiful and/or overpowering complement to the passage before.

Whether achieved through intuition or meticulousness, this coherence and control (and I’ve seen Swans live – Gira runs a tight ship) culminate in ‘The Apostate’, the most perfect conclusion to an album I’ve heard in a long time. As a line of guitar feedback drifts and wails in the background, a gritty sub-melody is ground out on drums, bass and guitar, while Harris pounds angrily on cymbals. The mood is that of a funeral march set in the dark dystopia of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, until they suddenly freak out without warning (it makes me jump every time), tearing things to shreds in a tornado of saturation, rambunctious arrhythmic percussion and ear-scraping guitar noise. Every time it feels like they’re building to a crescendo, Swans just climb another level until you’re surrounded and filled at once by the music. Another shift and they are rushing forwards like a speeding train, every member keyed into the heart of the song with telepathic force. And we’re only halfway through. From there, ‘The Apostate’ shifts, swirls, collapses and explodes around your ears, with Gira screaming “Get out of my mind!”. Yes, I will always love Filth, but ‘The Apostate’ is so brutally beautiful, so persuasive in its aggressive grace, that it overwhelms every time.

The era of Swans-as-industrial-band has effectively been buried over the course of the two hours of The Seer (although Gira will contend that he broke away from that history decades ago, I can’t be the only nostalgic). Swans are, despite the 30 years of their existence, still on a journey, guided by Michael Gira’s ferocious dedication and need to push the limits of himself and his audience. To paraphrase another great unsatisfied rock genius, “Long may he roar.”

A Quietus Interview – Not Intimidated: Antony Hegarty Interviewed (July 26th, 2012)

2012 is shaping up to be a massive year for Antony Hegarty, who first shot to prominence through the success of his second album (with his band, The Johnsons), I Am A Bird Now, which won the Mercury Prize. In August, he will be curating London’s prestigious Meltdown Festival on the South Bank, bringing together artists such as Diamanda Galas, Lou Reed and William Basinski. He’s also about to release a live album, Cut The World, and has worked recently with Marina Abramovic on her much-lauded Robert Wilson production The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic.

After several years of touring with an orchestra, and with four Antony & The Johnsons albums behind him (not to mention collaborations with Hercules And Love Affair and Cocorosie), Hegarty shows no sign of slowing down, and The Quietus was delighted to have the chance to sit down with him at London’s Bloomsbury Hotel to discuss Meltdown, his upcoming album and his views on modern society.

You are curating the Meltdown Festival this year. How did that come about, and were you daunted by the prospect?

Antony Hegarty: It’s simply that they called me and I was interested. I was excited by the idea. It’s quite an honour, I’ve always admired Meltdown, as a festival, and the concept of an artist curating the festival. It’s the chance to put something strong forward, so I thought, “I’d love to do it.”

How did you go about selecting the artists you’ve chosen to appear? Did you get everyone you wanted?

AH: I wrote the list very quickly, impulsively, of the people whose work was the most resonant to me, the people I thought were most beautiful, and together they formed a sort of unified front, in some way. It ended up being a lot of female singers, a lot of people who concentrated strongly on the voice, with tremendous emotional expression. They’re people who have forged very distinctive paths through music and in their lives. I got almost everyone, I’d say about 80% of the people I asked said yes, and there are only a couple of examples of people I asked who couldn’t do it. A lot of them are people I know, a lot of my friends and community, and then a few exceptions to that as well.

Are they artists you have previously worked with, or essentially ones you have admired over the years?

AH: I think a third of them are people I’ve worked with in the past, another third are people I know, and the final third are people I’ve admired.

The artists appearing make for a quite eclectic ensemble – was that a deliberate choice, or more a reflection of your musical tastes? Basinski, Galas…

AH: Do you it find it to be eclectic? It’s certainly a reflection of my musical taste. But I don’t see it as eclectic. I mean, I first met Billy Basinski when he gave me a flier to a concert of Diamanda Galas that he was hosting at his house! Many of the people in the show are just a stone’s throw away from each other. Diamanda and Billy are both very much underground New York artists. I’ve admired Diamanda since I was a kid and I’ve known Billy for almost twenty years…

Have you always been drawn to singers with distinctive voices?

AH: Yeah, I was so influenced by expressive singers, that was what I was drawn to as a child. What drew me to music was this possibility of a form in which you could express yourself more vividly and expansively than in pedestrian life, especially in a form where emotion was validated or even heralded within the realm of music, whereas in pedestrian life and in patriarchal society in general, emotion tends to be disregarded or looked down upon, subjugated as a system of perceiving. So, emotion was always important to me, as a kid, and I’ve fought for the right to express my emotions.That’s probably why I went into music, because when you sing, you’re taking up more space that has been allotted to you in the pedestrian world, but I think it’s the most natural thing in the world to sing. Every animal cries out. I think of it as a birthright: everyone has the right to feel and to cry out.

That brings me to Marc Almond, who will be appearing at Meltdown, and is a very expressive singer…

AH: Well, you’re probably too young to remember Marc in his first incarnation! When he came out in 1982, when I was a pre-teen, his work was very aggressive. I consider him to be one of a sort of group of young, in-your-face, effeminate artists who used effeminacy as a form of punk, in the same way that Rozz Williams did in Christian Death. I remember going to see Rozz Williams singing, and he’d be in front of this writhing mass of hardcore pitbull punks smashing into each other, and he’d be this 5’5” queen painted so heavily and wielding so much authority. And spitting at the audience!

With Marc, when he first emerged with Soft Cell, he was told, “If you go on Top of the Pops you can’t wear all those bracelets, you’ve got to wash off that eyeline”, which they wouldn’t have said to Duran Duran! But they said it to Marc, because they perceived him as more effeminate and somehow too much. So he would wear three times the bracelets and put on more eyeliner, and he’d hiss and shake his wrists at the camera. And it was very hardcore. Hardcore in the way Leigh Bowery was hardcore, it was more of a kind of declaration of war, and that was always something that appealed to me.

And yet, at the same time, even from within that defensive mode of self-expression, at the core of what Marc was doing was forcing a space in culture, forcing open a space in which he could express his emotions. He sang with flagrant abandon and such emotion, and he would say to the press, “I don’t care if I hit the notes, it’s the feeling that matters”, which is something I later heard echoed by Nina Simone. It’s one of the central tenets of singing, and here it was coming from this kid, 20 or 21. He was a warrior, and very inspiring to me as a kid, because life for me at that age was a war, and Marc represented a frontier and a response from a perspective that I could recognise as my own.

That seems to me to be reflected in your own approach to music, even if you don’t immediately come across as a “warrior”…

AH: Well, the music itself was soul-bearing. Torment And Toreros, the Marc And The Mambas record he’s doing [at Meltdown], was the definitive record of my adolescence. It’s ferociously expressive and he just took up space. As a young kid, it was very inspiring to see someone dare to occupy that space. That’s why I got into music. I was never particularly musical, I even have a report card from the second-grade that says, “If only Antony’s prowess matched his enthusiasm in music!” [laughs]

I believe you are only doing one show yourself, the film with Charles Atlas. How have you prepared for that?

AH: Actually, I’ll probably be appearing a few times, in bits and pieces. Everyone’s trying to recruit me to do a number here and there, but I’m very hesitant to do that, because I want to present their pure work and not scoop out a space for me to do a cameo, y’know? In the case of the film, it’s one I’m making with Charlie and my group [the Johnsons], Turning, and we’re very excited to premiere it.

Cut The World is a live album. What made you decide to release a live record at this stage of your career?

AH: It’s been cumulative, because I’ve been performing with symphonies and developing a body of arrangements from my catalogue, and I’ve been touring that for three years now. In a way, the culmination of that was to release the highlights of that. On the last two records I did, The Crying Light and Swanlights, I incorporated a lot of symphonic elements in the studio recording, so I didn’t include as many of those songs on this album, I really wanted to collect recordings of the songs that had the scope to be transformed by the symphonic arrangements and exhibit them on this record.

Was it a challenge to rearrange the tracks in this way?

AH: We did it over time. Initially, I was approached by Nico Muhly and he asked me if he could arrange a few of my songs, way back when he used to come see me perform at Joe’s Pub ten years ago. He really transformed the songs and they took on a new life, so I was able to collect some of those songs and some of the arrangements. One track, ‘Cut the World’, is a studio recording from the work I’ve been doing with Marina Abramovic and Robert Wilson.

The performance with an orchestra somehow makes some tracks seem sparser and more immediate, with a focus on your voice. Was this your intention?

AH: It could be partly the mix. I wasn’t as involved in mixing Cut The World as I was previous records, because it was a collaboration with the Danish National Orchestra. They were really keen to control the sound of the record. Also, because they’re live recordings, they’re more spacious, in a way, than my studio recordings, and there’s more a sense of the air around the instruments. So probably you can see the outline of each piece more clearly than if it were a studio recording. It’s funny: when you’re doing a recording with a symphony, the tendency is to get into something quite grandiose and to sweep in, as it were. You’re riding a big river of sound, propelled by the momentum of 40 or 60 musicians behind you. It’s a different sensation to playing with an intimate ensemble, which has been my history. So it was always an interesting and delicate negotiation to create enough space within the arrangements to still retain a sense of intimacy, which was so important to the emotional aspect of the work. We had to use the symphonies in a subtle way… Sometimes, like on ‘Cripple And The Starfish’, it’s still a bombastic arrangement, but a lot of the others are quite subtle, and it wasn’t so much a matter of creating a thicker wall of sound as it was of creating a much wider palette of sound to draw on.

You mention ‘Cripple And The Starfish’, where the symphonic arrangements convey a lushness that is nearly cinematic. Would you agree, and do you consider your songs and albums to have a narrative element?

AH: That song is particularly narrative, and it’s episodic: it goes through three separate stages. I wrote it 20 years ago. It has a sense of a bomb ticking towards its final, terrible inevitability, so I always direct it that way. Those early songs, like ‘I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy’ and ‘Cripple And The Starfish’ move in tiers. They’re chapters. It’s more storytelling, whereas later songs I wrote tend to be more like tableaux, a bit more abstract. They’re more descriptions of a situation.

How do you approach performing live, as opposed to recording in the studio?

AH: I’ve never really harnessed studio recording. I’m a live singer. For me the pleasure of singing was always to be with people and sing. Doing studio recording is always very difficult for me…

As you mentioned, the album features a new song, ‘Cut The World’ which was composed for The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic. How did you become involved with that, and was your focus purely on the musical side of the production?

AH: Marina kind of courted me. She came and met me, and befriended me, and before I knew it I’d been hoodwinked into doing the musical tracks! [laughs] Working on The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic has been one of the most incredible experiences. Robert Wilson is really inspiring, and Marina’s just an incredible person to be around and learn from, as is Willem. He’s an incredibly inspiring actor. I’ve never really seen acting like that before, I’ve never been close to it in a process like that before.

My role was to write and assemble the score for the piece, and by doing that I brought in my friends whose music I love, like Billy Basinski, Matmos, Gaël Rakotondrabe – who’s the pianist from Cocorosie – and some of the instrumentalists on my records. I did a mixture, assembling and inviting these musicians and using their music, and wrote about ten singing songs.

Do you ever find that the popularity of your music can sometimes overshadow your work in other art spheres, especially here in the UK, where I Am A Bird Now was such a success?

AH: It’s certainly true. I Am A Bird Now was sort of thrust into every kitchen in the UK one morning, and it certainly wouldn’t have happened that way if it hadn’t been for the Mercury Prize. There was so much visibility to that initial project, and it was so helpful. Even more than just in the UK, it was helpful across Europe in validating me as an artist that people continue to engage on some level. But certainly not through the media channels that initially supported me before the Mercury Prize.

I often find with LGBT artists, that portrayals in the press, even from sympathetic journalists, tend to always be centred on notions of “conflict”…

AH: Supposedly sympathetic journalists. Even gay ones. Sometimes gay journalists are the worst. It depends on which country you’re in, and how far along they are in the dialogue about whether a gay or transgender person should be offered a dignified platform in culture, so often the article betrays that underlying conflict, which is one between the critic and himself. Even if the writer believes in the thoughts [of LGBT artists], they can be betraying their own underlying homophobia or self-loathing. I’ve certainly experienced that with gay writers who somehow couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that someone like me could be given a platform. You’d be so surprised.

And on the other hand you get people who have already moved through that and are just interested to find out what I have to say, or to have a dialogue with me as an artist. It’s amazing to see how it varies from country to country. Did you read the Guardian article?

Yes, I did. I actually read it before I saw your response, and it felt like the author was probing to try and get a sense of conflict, as I said, asking about bullying, the relationship you had with your parents and so on…

AH: It’s the same nauseating questions that they’ve been asking me for ten years and it reveals more about the writer than it does about me. It’s the incredulity that someone like me could have passed through the pearly gates and actually have some sort of a seat in culture, and they’re grappling with it.

Unfortunately, at a first reading, someone might think it’s a reflection on me, but if it you look at twice you realise that it’s a reflection on the writer. You can sense it from the third sentence that there’s a nasty residue to his tone that asphyxiates me and coats it. It’s just a few turns of phrase, a cynicism and sarcasm with which he approaches the material, even though he might support and believe in the material, deep down, if he was asked, and often times they do, but they’re not willing to take the risk. They’re not willing to take the fall. Because in their old systems of operation, someone like me should not be supported. It’s an internal thing for them, usually straight men, but sometimes gay guys as well. It’s just a culture’s shame investigating itself.

That makes me thinks that there’s a lot of internalised homophobia in how society approaches “queer culture”, in that it has to be seen as separate.

AH: It’s just the fact that we’re still dialoguing about the issue. It divides and undermines my ability to participate in the greater culture. If I can only be framed as a gay artist, then my work is contained, it’s quarantined, and 90% of the time it’s dismissed by people outside that interest group. But that’s never really been the scope of my work, especially in the last five years, where most of my work has been about the environment. And issues of gender, but not necessarily in the way of I Am A Bird Now, which was obviously very personal, an exploration of the internal role of gender. In the last five or six years, I’ve more been interested in archetypes of gender as they relate to much bigger panoramas. As I say, it goes from country to country: in Scandinavia they don’t even ask you about that stuff, they just want to know what I’m thinking as an artist. Every country has its threshold.

Have your views on gender in art, and in general, evolved over the years?

AH: I don’t know if I’ve ever had views on gender in art, particularly. I’ve always leaned, as you can see in my Meltdown line-up, especially towards women artists, with some exceptions. Increasingly in my thinking, unless a male artist has been willing to examine or deconstruct their seat of privilege, as a man, in society, then I’m not really interested in what they have to say. It’s like if I was a black artists before the civil rights movement, I probably wouldn’t have had any interest in the work of slavers, unless they’d made an effort to reach out to the rest of the world and discuss their identity. Because there’s too much going on, the world needs too much help. I’m not one for business as usual. And a lot of the music scene is just a wanking, self-congratulatory boys’ club, it’s just so fucking boring and not useful. It’s such a waste of our time. More than that, it’s catastrophic in a way. It’s another reflection of how astray we are, as a civilisation.

It’s very interesting to see you include ‘Future Feminism’ on the album. It’s a fascinating monologue, but what prompted you to include it? Do you perhaps see it as something of a manifesto or ideology?

AH: You know, we thought, “Oh that’s so off, you can’t do that, it’s too much”, but then I always like a challenge like that, when it seems like too much or it’s too embarrassing. That can indicate a threshold to cross. Sometimes in concerts I’m too winded to carry on singing, so I prattle on for a while, and we just edited it down from my prattlings. Increasingly, I’ve wanted to provide a lens through which to perceive the songs, something to frame them more provocatively within some of my ideas about the world and the way I see the world. It makes things more dynamic, and I’ve also been afforded this platform, so I wanted to take as much advantage of it as I could and try to participate as vividly as I could and do the best I can. And the things I say might seem naive or clumsy, but they’re the points of view of an artist, not necessarily an intellectual and yet artists – and the rest of the world- have the right to participate, and to give voice to what they see and what they think has gone wrong. You often hear that artists shouldn’t talk about things, because they’re not the experts, but in fact it’s our world and we should all be talking about it. We shouldn’t be intimidated.