PERPETUAL REBIRTH: AN INTERVIEW WITH JG THIRLWELL

By Christopher Nosnibor 

Photos © Tony Visconti

JGT OneThe indefatigable JG Thirlwell has, as ever, been keeping himself occupied of late. The tail end of 2013 saw the release of not just one, but two albums, in the shape of SOAK, the long-awaited companion album to the 2010 Foetus album HIDE, and The Blue Eyes, a soundtrack scored by Thirlwell to accompany the 2012 indie supernatural thriller directed by Eva Aridjis. It’s been just over two years since he last spoke to Paraphilia. That interview was a career-spanning epic, but it feels that since then, he’s packed in more than many artists manage in a lifetime, and once again, there’s a lot of catching up to do, with compilation appearances, crowdfunding, collaboration, global warming and the contradictions of existing in a capitalist culture being just some of the topics up for discussion.

SOAK is billed as being a companion / satellite album to HIDE, and with the exception of the remix of ‘Cosmetics,’ contains material that isn’t reworked from the album. You’ve previously released remix albums as accompaniments to the main albums. Was SOAK a deliberate move away from the FLOW / BLOW, LOVE / VEIN pattern of a remix album accompanying a ‘main’ album, or more simply a case of there being so much material born out of the HIDE sessions that it presented itself as a supplementary album?

There is often a surplus of material, songs that start and don’t fit onto an album I’m working on. That doesn’t mean the material is inferior, just not right for that particular project, or not finished. I revisited the song ‘Spat’ countless times before it was finished. I’d had the idea for ‘Kamikaze’ for years before HIDE but it didn’t fit; I had two versions of that song and I combined them and it worked. ‘Alabaster’ was on HIDE at one point but I thought the album was too long. I do like having the opportunity to gather the tracks that were recorded around the same time, which is why the cover versions are on the album. I feel I’ve ‘done’ the remix album thing and didn’t want to do that again. This is more like the model of DAMP which was a satellite of LOVE, which is another reason to use a water-related title, but I also like the relationship of the words HIDE and SOAK.

Usually, the companion albums have tended to follow fairly swiftly, whereas there was almost a full three years between HIDE and SOAK. Why the gap (and do I detect some punning wordplay there?)?

Things get in the way, like installations, Venture Bros. etc. It was done when it was done.  It will probably be a while before the next Foetus album, which I want to do with a (live) orchestra. Before I do that I want to complete and realize my opera (for which ‘Pratheism,’ ‘Cosmetics,’ ‘Alabaster’ and ‘Fortitudine Vincemus’ are teasers).  I will still put together the long-promised anthology of the early singles and other material in the meantime tho.

One feature of SOAK is the inclusion of cover versions which had appeared on various compilations. Why did you choose these particular songs, or, moreover, the treatments of the songs? For instance, the original ‘Warm Leatherette’ is closer to the origins of Foetus, but your version does something completely different rather than a return to your tape-looping roots…

‘Warm Leatherette’ was originally on a seven inch box set of cover versions called Recovery, which was assembled by Kamal Ackerlie. It also featured Johann Johannsson, People Like Us, BJ Nilsen, Fennesz, Alva Noto and a bunch more. The missive I got about the intention of the project was to cover an electronic song that had some influence or resonance to me. I guess the other artists didn’t get that memo ‘cos the others cover AC/DC, Kate Bush etc. I’ve since discovered that ‘Warm Leatherette’ has been widely covered, I only knew about Grace Jones’ version. I liked the idea that I took that classic of minimalism and transformed it into something more maximal.

The track ‘Danger Global Warming’ (which only appears on the CD version of SOAK) is a reworked version of your contribution to the ‘Danger Global Warming Project.’ Could you outline the project and its objectives, and your involvement in it? How deeply does climate change concern you?

I was contacted about that project some time ago. This organization’s intention is to focus attention on climate change. They had a ‘theme’ song and had a lot of different people remix it, including myself. I put so much of myself into the remix that it was almost unrecognizable and it seemed to fit with the album so I asked them if I could use it on the Foetus album. It’s only on the physical album, not the download. Global warming is worrying and I feel somewhat helpless about it until the most offending nations start to take some responsibility and stop fobbing it off. I’ve become much more environmentally conscious in the last few years – as for my carbon footprint – I admit I drive a car but I don’t eat meat! Danger Global Warming is at http://www.blacksmoke.org/danger

As a car-owning vegetarian myself, I can’t knock that. And it’s difficult not to feel pessimistic when there’s so little individuals can do in the face of corporate and governmental operations that run contra to any claims of being environmentally responsible. 

JGT TwoWould you perhaps agree that as an individual it’s a question of balance and accepting the contradictions of existing in the modern world? For example, it’s all well and good to say you oppose capitalism, but it’s not really feasible to simply reject global society when there’s no alternative with any kind of take-up – especially if you’re an artist. Living in a cave isn’t going to achieve anything, is it?

Unfortunately I have found that democracy isn’t always democratic when it comes to caring for its people. How can it be when favors can be bought by lobbyists and elections can be rigged? This is a non-humanistic society, and government, the corporations and the developers are going to do what they want whether you like it or not. They just pay lip-service by pretending to listen, be it about destroying the quality of communities, hydrofracking, wiretapping, Wall Street robber barons or invented wars and WMDs! Can’t be apathetic, tho. Personally I have no desire to go off the grid. I don’t even want to leave the city, let alone live in a cave!

The soundtrack album, The Blue Eyes, was recorded for a film by Eva Aridjis, which was funded via Kickstarter. How did you get involved in the project? 

I’d known Eva for quite a while and she knew and liked my work, she asked me. We had talked about it for a while.  I read the script and said yes. I don’t think she funded the whole film with Kickstarter, maybe it was just the final run of production.

What’s your opinion on the new model of financing films, music and other creative projects through ‘crowdfunding,’ whereby ‘fans’ and interested parties give their financial backing direct to the artists? Is it something you’d ever consider doing?

I think it’s a fine way to get things done, and I strongly believe in contributing to the culture, or the culture will die. But I do sometimes feel Kickstarter fatigue. I haven’t thought about using that as a model for my projects as yet.

The soundtrack to The Blue Eyes is very obviously a film score, in the sense that it has a cinematic feel and sound. Having not seen the film myself, I nevertheless get a sense of the feel and flow of it from the music. How important to you is it for a soundtrack to be able to stand alone, independent of the film?

First you are at the service of the film, to do your job and hopefully elevate the material. If an album comes out of it, added bonus! But I did take liberties with the structure of the soundtrack as an album. The tracks aren’t totally in the sequence they appeared in the film, and I remixed them with greater dynamics that I couldn’t get away with when they were purely a score, as I had to make room for dialog. I also added unused cues and restored the full length of some compositions that had to get edited down.

You recently performed and subsequently recorded an album, Versions, in collaboration with Zola Jesus, which consisted or reworkings of her songs. How did that come about?

Zola Jesus (aka Nika) was asked to perform a show at the Guggenheim museum in NYC. She wanted to make it a concert performing her songs with string quartet. She put word out that she was looking for string arrangers to the producer Chris Coady, and I was mentioned by our mutual friend Micki Pellerano. Nika knew my work and contacted me. I did a test arrangement to give a sense of what I would do and she loved it, so then I arranged the rest of the songs that were on the shortlist. The show went really well and we were all happy about how it turned out, so we decided to make an album of the material, which Sacred Bones released, then we subsequently toured when the album came out. Touring it was a challenge for me as we had different string players in each territory so I was teaching new quartets the material all the time. We played in some great venues, and I had a good time. Nika is a real talent and a dynamo.

She is an incredible performer, with an incredible voice. I caught one of her shows in a tiny venue here in the UK just as she was beginning to break over here. Immensely powerful. But as for touring… I recall reading somewhere that you’d said you were essentially done with touring after taking GASH on the road. Have you begun to revise that position, or did you mean you were tired of with the rock format of touring and its limitations – a bunch of guys with the usual setup of guitars and drums, etc., in a van, an endless succession of dates playing the same set for three months straight?

I’m not averse to touring but it’s very difficult for it to be financially viable for me. I did a Manorexia chamber ensemble tour in Europe last April, which was great artistically, but it’s difficult to make it work financially without losing boatloads, or to find shows on Mondays! What I am over with is playing in a ‘rockband’ format – guitars, drums etc. I haven’t done that since 2001. I was hesitant to do it in the first place – I did it for a few tours but ultimately I think it dumbed down my music and steamrollered out all the nuances. When I first played as Steroid Maximus with a large ensemble, I knew that this was the way to realize my music but it’s 20 musicians, so impossible to tour. I do like to do isolated dates, installations and residencies.

What’s next?

I’m working on my third string quartet for Kronos Quartet. It’s a large unwieldy beast, but hope to have it done for the spring. I just finished scoring a documentary, also directed by Eva Aridjis, about a family in Mexico that suffer from hypertrichosis, a condition that makes you extremely hairy. This year I hope to complete three new albums – Volume 2 of Venture Bros. scores, my Cholera Nocebo solo project (in 5.1) and an analog synth project of been working on at EMS in Stockholm. Next month I travel to Morocco for the Marrakech Bienale. On top of that season six of The Venture Bros. – my work on that starts later this month, and a piece for solo cello. And a bunch of other stuff. So I have my work cut out for me this year.

For more on JG Thirlwell, and to purchase his albums, please visit his website: http://foetus.org

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