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Interview with J. G. Thirlwell

Portrait of  J. G. Thirlwell
  • Interview by David Gordon
  • Issue 18
  • Free Radical

James George (J. G.) Thirlwell is an Australian singer, composer, musician, and record producer. He was an important figure in the post-punk scene in London and New York, where he worked alongside Nick Cave and Marc Almond of Soft Cell. He has recorded albums under a long list of names and in a variety of styles, from rock to punk to electronic minimalism. In 1981, he released Deaf, the first album he recorded under the name Foetus. A new Foetus record has followed every few years in the three and a half decades since. Thirlwell’s restless mind and omnivorous musical appetite are apparent not just within a given album but often within a single song: he’ll open with an orchestral overture, combine it with the booming soundtrack of a lost Hitchcock film, wander through a psychedelic fugue, and end in a burst of noise rock. Since 2000, Thirlwell has become more active as a composer of instrumental music. The Kronos Quartet has commissioned work from him, and he has a regular gig scoring the grown-up cartoons Archer and The Venture Bros.

I visited Thirlwell in his loft apartment, near the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, where huge windows, plants, a taxidermied bestiary, and a pinball machine share space with his elaborate studio and vast music library. He has retained a slight Australian accent, and he pauses frequently to reflect before speaking. He is a far calmer and more genial presence than his sometimes ferocious alter-egos, but he shares with them a wry sense of humor, a searching intellect, and an eager intensity. We spent a long winter afternoon talking about his early work as a garbage man and his plan to spend the next few years flooding the market with new recordings.

David Gordon

Did you always want to be a musician?

J. G. Thirlwell

When I was nine or ten, I tried to learn the cello, but I didn’t last long. I always had a problem sight-reading. I never did it long enough for it to click like another language. I was just a beginner and they plopped me into the school orchestra, so I would get like halfway through the first page and I’m lost and the orchestra would be off doing their own thing. I ended up just being a seat-filler. Then I learned classical percussion, which was a bit more interesting, but it was still standing there making paradiddles on a drum pad. So I wasn’t playing instruments, although there was a piano in the house—my mother studied at the Royal Academy in London. She grew up in the North of Scotland and then traveled to London, where she met my dad. But I was obsessed with music as a kid, always listening to the radio, buying records, buying the music press from the U.K. Melody Maker, Sounds, NME—I would get them all, but they’d be late. They’d come to Australia by boat, so if you went to the newsstand to get them, and it was January, you’d be reading the October issue. 

How did you find growing up in Australia?

Oh, I couldn’t stand being in Australia. I felt extremely culturally isolated there. We would visit my mother’s relatives in Scotland, and I would watch Top of the Pops, and I knew that I was meant to be in that hemisphere, where you didn’t have barbeques at Christmas.

There was no Australian rock or pop scene that was of interest to you?

I felt that Australian music was inferior. Like a lot of people growing up in smaller countries—it could be Holland or Norway or wherever—I thought that the culture was somehow second-class. But you do get a lot of British culture there, a lot of American culture. I always knew that when I had the wherewithal I would leave Australia and never go back. And that’s what I did. I moved to London when I was eighteen, in 1978. I told my parents I was going on vacation.

London was where punk rock was happening—it was ground zero. But it wasn’t so much about the music, it was the energy. And the creativity. A lot of people who were inspired to pick up instruments very quickly diverged from classic, punk-rock, three-chord, three-minute songs into very interesting directions, where you’ve got Cabaret Voltaire, and Swell Maps, and The Raincoats, This Heat, and a million others. It would be 50p to get in and you’d see Joy Division or Psychedelic Furs or Blurt in a tiny basement. And it was the birth of what became the independent label movement, of people releasing their own music. I bought my first synthesizer as well, a cheap little thing with one or two oscillators and batteries and a built-in speaker. From there I bought a Korg MS20, which was somewhat more sophisticated. I had these instruments and my bass guitar, and some little effects and I would make tapes in my bedroom. By this time I was squatting, so we moved around a lot.

Did you have a day job?

When I first got to London I worked at a department store called Fenwick’s. I did a lot of things, from making salads and washing dishes in the cafeteria to picking up the dresses that were being delivered. For a while I was the garbage man. And on my lunch break I would always go to record stores, and Virgin had a sign on the window that they were hiring. I had to pass a trivia test, which was easy for me. And lo and behold, I started working at Virgin Records. That was great for me. I was able to influence the orientation of the store, and we started to get a lot of people coming. In fact we were the most successful singles department in the chain. I mean, John Peel would shop there. Boy George would come in, fully decked out, like at noon, in full face makeup and incredible hair.

When did you start making your own records?

I contracted glandular fever—mononucleosis—and that put me out for about a month. I was getting sick pay and some benefits from the government, but I was squatting, so I saved all that money, which I put into recording and pressing my first single. That was under the name Foetus Under Glass. It came out on the first of January 1981. I hand-delivered promo copies on my lunch break. You could walk into the BBC and put it in the DJ’s cubbyhole. I heard it on the John Peel Show. I sold out that first pressing and repressed it and put the money into my next Foetus record, which was called Wash It All Off.

How did you start recording under the name Clint Ruin?

I wanted to be divorced from the cult of personality, so for the second single I said that Foetus Under Glass had split up and that the new Foetus was a seven-piece from San Francisco and I listed all the names of the members. There was Clint Ruin, Frank Want, Wade Banks, Bubba Kowalski—I can’t remember the others. And I started working under all those names, but Clint Ruin was one that stuck as the public face of Foetus.

What led to the collaboration with Nick Cave and the Birthday Party?

I had been a big fan of The Boys Next Door in Melbourne, which was their name before they turned into The Birthday Party. They played in little pubs and parties. The punk scene in Melbourne was like fifty or one hundred people. I never talked to them, but I knew Katie, Mick Harvey’s girlfriend, and when The Birthday Party came to London I ended up being roommates with Katie and Mick for a while. They played in Athens and I went to that show to hang out because it was like the first ever New Wave show in Greece. It was a three-day festival: The Birthday Party headlined one night, The Fall the next, and on the third, New Order, who had just formed because Ian Curtis had just died. And I ended up playing sax with The Birthday Party there. It was Katie’s sax, and there’s a live album that has that on it.

Did you know how to play the saxophone?

As much as I knew how to play any instrument. Which was you figure out where to put your fingers, and how you hold it, and how you blow it, and then you sort of do it. I even became a little bit in demand as a sax player. I actually played on Top of the Pops with Orange Juice. But they were miming so I was miming the sax solo on their hit “Rip It Up.” I had my own little podium, it was going out live, and Davey the bass player decided to jump on my podium and jostle me off, which messed up all of the BBC’s camera angles. So they were chastised duly and had to write a letter of apology to the BBC. When The Birthday Party split up, for about five minutes I was a Bad Seed, in the first incarnation of The Bad Seeds, that was me, and Blixa Bargeld, and Mick. And I co-wrote the song “Wings Off Flies” on their first album. I met Blixa when I went to Berlin and saw Einstürzende Neubauten play live, which was just mind-blowing. They were using unusual instruments, found instruments, scrap metal, but also stuff that they invented and built. And Blixa was playing guitar in a very un-guitar way, very scratchy and atonal. I was so blown away, I said to them, “Do you want to get your records out in the U.K.?” So we started putting this compilation together that turned out be Strategies Against Architecture, which I was financing with the proceeds of my second album.

How did you meet Lydia Lunch?

Lydia moved to London and I met her there. I was writing Birthday Party’s press releases and they were these fanciful things, most of it was made up, a lot of hyperbole. Lydia asked, “Would you write one like that for me?” And that was the first time I’d really spent time with her. We went on to become romantically involved later, but we started doing some musical projects together. Then she proposed this thing to me, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, and Nick Cave. She’d been offered this show at Danceteria in New York for Halloween 1983. So she suggested that we collaborate and put on this extravaganza. We called ourselves the Immaculate Consumptive. For that show, I arrived in the East Village, and it was the polar opposite of London. New York was a twenty-four-hour place, unlike London where the pubs closed at eleven and the subways closed at midnight. And it was East Village­–centric. London is very dispersed geographically. Here people didn’t really go below Canal or above 14th Street. You could walk everywhere. Bars were open till four o’clock and after that you could go to the afterhours club. So I didn’t go back. I just stayed. It was love at first sight. On Rivington Street, where I stayed, houses had burned down and there were just empty lots and piles of rubble. I was like, “This is amazing.”

What was yournext musical incarnation in New York?

I had this idea of an ensemble that would be four drummers and vocals. And the first drummer I thought of was Roli Mossimann, who was in Swans at the time. So I asked Roli and we started coming up with ideas and that turned into Wiseblood. We wanted the music to be sick, violent, and macho. I had this idea of it being a weird, warped version of American music made by non-Americans. Roli’s Swiss, so it was made up of two transplants. I was also reading a lot of pulp, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, and a lot of true crime, and I think that fed into the lyrical content of my ’80s stuff.

When did you start thinking about doing orchestral music?

Composed music? That was there from the start. On Nail, which is from ’85, there’s three instrumental pieces. I was using a synthesizer, so it’s samples, but the thread was there all along, and the Foetus albums were becoming progressively more instrumental, but the conception of them was there is this screaming, slobbering maniac doing vocals. I wanted to create something where the instrumental sections could shine, and that was the Steroid Maximus albums. That was my first composed music that stood alone. At that time I was calling it “soundtracks for an imaginary film” and “ethnic music for a civilization yet to be discovered.” That was 1989 or ’90. Ten years later, I made another Steroid Maximus record, and that was the first time I actually rescored the music for an eighteen-piece ensemble, with Steven Bernstein, as part of a commission for UCLA.

What does that entail?

With Steroid Maximus, I’m recording as I normally would, using samples and combining a whole lot of stuff. One track might have an entire orchestra, and another might be mbira and wood block and oud or something. But to perform it live, you can’t say, “Okay I want an ensemble with a wood block player but he only comes in right there.” You’ve got to rescore it for the instruments you have. So I sat down with Steven, and he’s very good at listening to even just electronic sounds, or a tiny bit of feedback and saying, “Oh, that we can give to the flute. You can get this sound if you put a lot of breath through the flute and then bend up,” and he’d be able to give it expression on the page. We turned it into something that sounded exactly like the album but with live instruments. And that was really exciting and was the catalyst for starting to write for other ensembles and string quartets.

Is that your main focus now, as opposed to being, for lack of better word, a rock act?

Since 2009 there’s been about five J. G. Thirlwell albums, so all of a sudden that’s my new franchise. But everything is concurrent, you know, Foetus hasn’t died.

And how did scoring TV and film become a major thing?

Well if there’s one adjective that I would use to describe my music it’s cinematic, so it’s surprising that it didn’t happen before. But someone gave Chris McCulloch, the creator of Venture Bros., one of the early Steroid Maximus albums when he was working on the pilot, and he thought, this is exactly the musical world that the Venture family live in. Listening to it really helped him finish the pilot, so he tracked me down and asked me if I was interested in scoring it. I like having this alternate distribution system for my music. It’s disseminated through a TV show instead of a CD, and I like that it’s kind of subliminal in the way that it seeps into the cultural fabric. 

And now you’re doing Archer as well.

We’ve done Venture Bros. for six seasons, and as a result of that, I was approached by the people that make Archer. They’d already done six seasons using library music and felt they’d gone as far as they could with that. So now I’m doing that, using live instruments a bit more, with more of a jazz and noir influence. It’s very successful and won an Emmy this year. Scoring for TV or for film is also a different discipline for me, because it introduces the aspect of problem solving. You have certain parameters to work within: in any one scene you’ve got length and you’ve got the emotion that you’re trying to portray. You ask, How do I get from here to here in a minute and thirty-six seconds? Or maybe I have to have a bluegrass track, or they’re traveling to a Greek island, and now they’re in outer space meeting the aliens, and what’s the music for that? There’s all sorts of places where I’ve had to expand my musical vocabulary.

What else are you working on?

There’s this electronic project coming out in the spring, called Xordox. I made up the name. A lot of the sort of serious works that I’ve done are named after diseases and phobias and stuff like that. Now I feel like I’ve gone through that, and I’ve started making up words for compositions. And I’m kind of drawn to the letter X. Also some of the more lonely letters of the alphabet, like Q and Z. Really what I wanted to find was a palindrome but they’re all taken up by anti-depressants. Xanax and Xodox. Xodox was really what I wanted. They’re either anti-depressants or video gamers. But the other criterion was, I wanted a Google-buster. So when you type it into Google, nothing else comes up except my project. Look at poor The The, a search-engine stumper. Anyway, I’ve been doing a residency at the Electronic Music Studio in Stockholm for the past couple of years, working with modular synthesizers, and that went into this project. Also I got this Moog from a friend of mine and started hooking it up and sequencing stuff. So that’s coming out this year. I also hope to put out another two albums, one of which is Cholera Nocebo, my solo electro-acoustic thing, which I have been doing for a couple of years. The idea behind that was that it was my Pangaea project—I wanted to do it once on each continent and be done. So I’ve done it in Asia, Australia, Europe and I’m doing it in New York on May 30at Roulette. Also an anthology of the early Foetus 7-inches, which I’ve been threatening to do for a few years and people are champing at the bit.

That’s a lot!

I’ve got a backlog of things I want to release. I want to clear the decks. And I feel kind of an urgency to get stuff out, given the unstable political climate of the world. I am also planning another Foetus album, which I’m hoping will come out by 2020 or 2021, because that will be the fortieth anniversary of the first Foetus single. This one I want to do with a full orchestra.

I wonder if people see these projects as distinct or just more music from you? Are there people who are a huge fan of this, but don’t really like that?

There definitely are. I’m sure there’s people who like the amped-up Venture Bros. albums and probably hate my other instrumental project, Manorexia, which has a more spatial quality. Not everyone is going to like Xordox, where I wanted the synthesizers to have their day: some of the sounds are really retro and kind of spacerock. I also had a rule about not using beats. All of the rhythmic qualities are driven by pulsing in the melodies and arpeggiation and things like that, instead of having like a kick-drum and a snare. So I did set up some strange rules for Xordox. I’ll probably break them.

David Gordon’s first novel, The Serialist, was translated into Japanese by Aoki Chizuru and later adapted into a feature film by Toei, directed by Izaki Nobuaki. He interviewed Hampton Fancher for Issue 17 of The Fabulist. Portrait by Irina Rozovsky