JG Thirlwell Knows Everything About Cool Music, Being Cool
We talked to the composer about his recording process, cool New York bands from the early '90s, and Bugs Bunny.
Photo by Tina Schula
“I have this idea that after the apocalypse, there will be no power no electricity but there will be these sheaves of paper blowing down a dusty road and someone will grab one and it will be one of my scores and they’ll have a sort of broken violin and play it. They’ll have no Internet but they’ll have this piece of paper. Every time I go to Coney Island I stuff a few more in a bottle.”
For over 30 years, JG Thirlwell, under the monikers Foetus (and, by extension— copy and pasted from Wikipedia—Foetus Art Terrorism, Foetus Über Frisco, Foetus Corruptus, Foetus In Excelsis Corruptus Deluxe, Foetus Inc., Foetus Interruptus, Foetus Over Frisco, Foetus Under Glass, Philip and His Foetus Vibrations, Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel, The Foetus All-Nude Revue, The Foetus of Excellence, The Foetus Symphony Orchestra, and You've Got Foetus On Your Breath), Clint Ruin, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, and others, has been making music both complex and primal, sometimes incorporating full orchestras and choirs and sometimes just doing it his own damn self; but always maintaining a reek of noir and futurist drama. Art both high and low like The Killing colorized—scathing in intent and ecstatic in tone. Basically real groovy damage music for smart people who are probably going to die early.
JG Thirlwell is a composer, both of Adult Swim’s Venture Bros. and his own pieces. He also runs his own label, Self Immolation, on which he releases his music digitally and on CDs (“People say CDs don’t sell, for me that hasn’t been the case…I know what a lot of people like about vinyl is warmth. First of all, that’s distortion. That’s not the sound that was on the master tape. And I don’t want warmth.”). Thirlwell is, in his fashion, a serious man. Often sly and more often desert dry, he’s not humorless by any means, but that doesn’t extend to suffering fools or being inclined towards fatuous discussions of his art and his intention. As I am deeply invested in being amusing, this led to a long and fascinating discussion of his life and process, often punctuated by my own nervous laughter. Throughout, Thirlwell maintained a half smile as he tolerated questions about his past and enthusiastically expounded on plans for the future.
Noisey: How do you perceive yourself now? Do you consider yourself a composer or do you just not think about it?
JG Thirlwell: Yeah, I call myself a composer. I have been calling myself a composer for a while now. See if you call yourself a musician, someone instantly will say, “Well what instrument do you play?” And then I’ll say, “I’m not so much an instrumentalist, I’m more of a composer because I play a lot of different instruments. But not necessarily any one instrument really well. I use the studio to create what I do. So maybe the studio is my first instrument?” In the end, it’s just easier to say I’m a composer.
For the uninitiated in the world of JG Thirlwell, what kind of music would you say you’re a composer of? You’re moving more and more into orchestral stuff, but you're thought of as an industrial guy.
(Laughs) Whether you like that or not.
I never used the term industrial about myself. It was something thrust upon me.
I hate the term industrial being used about me. I feel it’s a ghetto of people in rubber platform boots and dreadlocks.
I have to admit, I have liked your stuff since the 90s, but I feel like I had a blind spot when it comes to your output in the 80s. But then I have been listening some of the 80s stuff a lot, and I love it. I think you’re justified in hating the industrial tag, because that 80s stuff is kind of groovy and noirish. It’s not just for the platform and leather dude.
Hmmmm…. Yeah, it’s kind of like I don’t associate a lot of what’s considered industrial to be that. There was this time that hasn’t really been examined in New York music which is the late 80s, early 90s.
You did something with Amphetamine Reptile right?
No, I actually did this compilation called Mesomorph Enduros. Big Cat was putting this compilation together, and I kept saying, “Well you gotta get this band, you gotta get that band,” and they finally said, “Would you want to do it?”
You know, Cop Shoot Cop actually recorded “Room 429” for that album.
Oh, wow. You curating that compilation is a pretty big deal.
Mmm, yeah, on that album there was Jesus Lizard and the Melvins.
Yeah, it was sort of a little capsule of what was happening at the time.
I was just thinking the Melvins. There’s a band who’s been around and certainly have their thematic concerns. But they’re not repetitive.
Yeah, they’re not repetitive at all. Buzz, he’s got such an incredible work ethic, which I really like and look up to. His philosophy is, you know, any regular guy will go to his job at 9 o’clock and leave at 5, work for eight hours and put in a productive day so why shouldn’t he?
Do you do that?
I have productive days, yes, but there’s a lot of procrastination involved. Unfortunately that’s part of my process. I work every day, and I always have a lot of different projects on the boil, so on any one day I might work on three different projects. They’re obviously staggered in the states of completion they’re in. I’ll go from mixing to arranging, and sometimes there’s the administrative work that can suck up a lot of the day.
Do you release most of the stuff you record?
Not everything I record has a home. Sometimes I’ll work a long time on something, and I’ll think it doesn’t quite fit right. And then it’ll end up on something else where it fits perfectly. Or sometimes something will gestate for five years and I’ll come back to it. And sometimes things just collect dust.
I’m a big fan of using things for scraps.
Yeah… you know I’ve learned a lot of different tricks about the creative process over the years, but sometimes my muse is fickle. Sometimes you have this moment where, ‘All right, that’s it, I’m never going to write anything again,” and then you wait three weeks and you write something that’s much more true to what you want, and then you’re like, ‘That’s it, I’m a genius!’ So yeah, you hate yourself, and you think all is lost, and then you have your eureka moment and that’s when the dam breaks.
Has this always been your process?
(Laughs) Actually no, the very early days I would go in with everything notated in my head. A long numerical system, where I had the whole thing mapped out. This was pre-MIDI, pre-sampling, in an 8-track studio. I’d go in and throw down a track and talk my way through the changes, and then I’d go back instrument-by-instrument and listen to my cues. My first single, I recorded and mixed both sides in a day.
In the first two-and-a-half years of doing Foetus, I made three 7”s, two albums, and a 12” EP. That’s a hell of a lot of work, especially for someone who had a full-time job. But I wasn’t really second-guessing myself at the time; I was just on this momentum. It seems like the more I went through life, the more experiences I had, the more music I made, the more baggage I had—and not wanting to repeat myself—the more time it takes to examine what it is you’re doing. So the process changes a lot.
There are a lot of milestones in my work, where you can see that I took a detour. Around the late 80s, I did this project, Steroid Maximus. It was breaking from the Foetus persona and 50 percent instrumental. The same thing happened about ten years later when I wanted to try a different compositional process, and that was Manorexia. The first Manorexia album I did on Thanksgiving of '00. And I did that album as one long, 60-minute piece. That was incredibly liberating.
Now, it’s a little over ten years later, and I’ve done the same thing with the JG Thirlwell project Cholera Nocebo that involved improvisation and spontaneity and where I’m not spending five years making an album.
And these are all given different names because they're different types of music?
Obviously Steroid Maximus and Manorexia, as I described, were coming from different places, so they were given different names. Cholera Nocebo is a JG Thirlwell thing. Maybe that’s the fourth decade franchise. Finally going solo.
There’s actually people who like Manorexia that don’t like Foetus, and some people who like Foetus who probably don’t like The Blue Eyes. Which is great.
It’s very polite of you to group these for the consumers!
Well, yeah, but you can still pick up a JG Thirlwell album and not know what you’re going to get. So far, it took until 2009 for there to be a JG Thirlwell album, but the first one was The Venture Bros. soundtrack, the second one was the Tzadik Manorexia, which was chamber arrangement, and the third one is The Blue Eyes, which was a soundtrack for a film by Eva Aridjis. The next one is going to be Cholera Nocebo, which is more electro-acoustic. They’re all totally different.
One thing I really love, which is a recurring sort of thing, is a lot of your lyrical stuff, even from the beginning, there are these plays on words. I don’t know if you’ve seen the early Bugs Bunny stuff, when he was kind of evil. He was a real rascal, getting people into trouble and stuff. Then he just sort of became Groucho Marxy.
You’re equating my evolution to Bugs Bunny? I started as a rascal, became more of a grouch, and then I became Tiny Toons…I do watch a lot of animation, actually, because I’m in that game.
Did you before?
Well, I did when I was a kid. I have said before, like a lot of people I know, my first introduction to classical music was through Warner Brother cartoons, like What’s Opera Doc? There’s tons of classical music in those cartoons, but also there’s all that fast cutting, which is really nice.
A lot of what seeped into my DNA musically, from listening to music from my youth, is stuff that was very production based. Bands that chopped and changed a lot, and used production techniques.
What example can you give?
Well even the Beatles did that a lot. All the sudden a French horn comes in, and then there’s a tape swirling around and backwards bits and stuff like that. Alice Cooper’s School's Out.
Those early Alice Cooper records are amazing.
Yeah there’s like big band, and it breaks into West Side Story, and then it’s this, like, nasty rock track with like a brass section. That sort of chopping and changing always appealed to me.
Prior to doing Foetus, I was listening to a to of contemporary classical music. That was what I was into when I moved to London. I moved to London in ’78. I always knew when I had the opportunity, I was going to leave Australia and never return. At that point, I was 18; I really wanted to go to London, the epicenter of punk rock where stuff was happening. It was a great time to be there. I lived there til ’83. So yeah, I was listening to a lot of like Steve Reich and Stockhausen. The day I received copies of the first Foetus 7”, I was 20 years old, it was 1980, and I had my first self-produced single in my hands. I went to this Merce Cunningham performance, and John Cage was doing the music live. In the intermission, I had my single in my bag, and John Cage was just sitting in the orchestra pit, and I was prepared to march over there and give Mr.Cage this single.
But I was too chicken to do it. But not long after that, I discovered John Cage’s disdain for the recorded medium, so it was fortuitous that I didn’t do that.
What's his issue with recorded music?
Just that the recorded medium is inadequate for capturing the essence of what he does. There’s a lot of discourse about that, with avant-garde music in the 60s. There’s actually a pretty good article about it by David Grubbs about this very thing, about how a lot of composers from that time didn’t have any recordings out until more recently, when people started going into archives and pulling out stuff and anthologizing.
I came at it from a totally different viewpoint. I didn’t come at it as someone who’s performing and capturing what they wanted in the studio. I came at it from, “I want to make a record.” I have an idea that I want to create in the studio. That’s why I didn’t play live for the first, like, eight years.
I felt like I had ideas that I wanted to realize that I didn’t think anyone else was doing. I look back at the early stuff, and it’s pretty crude, but it sure doesn’t sound like anyone else.
Had Mute started by then?
Well, the first Mute record was T.V.O.D., and that came out in ’78. When I got to London, the independent scene was just starting. The post-Rough Trade scene had just started, so it was a really vital time for being able to start your own label and release something. It was also a time you could actually keep a handle on everything that was coming out.
If you think of punk rock as the Big Bang, and then things that happened after that as the creation or expansion of the universe—if things were sort of catalyzed by punk, by punk rock, by the democratization of record distribution, the democratization of not having to be proficient with your instrument or inventing new ways of playing your instruments, then you have Cabaret Voltaire on one hand, and the Raincoats or Essential Logic or Scritti Politti.
The unifying principal was that it wasn’t Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
Yeah, these different things were happening, that were incredibly different musically. But also a lot of it seemed to be starting from ground zero. So that was a really exciting time. I felt like it was coming to an end around ’82 or ’83 when this sort of irony was stomping all over everything—people really wanting to get into the charts. Scritti Politti wanted to get into the charts…ABC wanted to get into the charts.
Also there was a creative fertility that came out from that time, even for people not interested in punk rock. There was a fertility that came out of independent distribution and independent promotion that gave you stuff like Einstürzende Neubauten, which was even further out there.
You were making wry references to DIY as early as “Nail.”
I was very conscious of the political ideology of being an independent label when I started. I was very scared of my work being compromised, which is stupid, but I was.
Why is that stupid?
I was very idealistic. And I’m still very idealistic. But…I’m not scared of that now.
JG’s newest activities are David Bowie tribute 7” with the Melvins and a performance June 13th in Austin with Sara Lipstate, AKA Noveller, followed, on the 14th with JG conducting a performance of his chamber works with a collection of Austin musicians.
Zachary Lipez is loitering around the old Mars Bar location, reminiscing about the '90s. He's on Twitter - @ZacharyLipez
Tina Schula is a photographer based in New York. Find more of her work here.
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