Interview with Jim Thirwell aka Foetus
By Alexander Laurence
Johanna St. Michaels
He's a legend. You've Got Foetus On Your Breath, Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel, Foetus Interruptus, Foetus Uber Alles, Foetus Inc - all of these titles are actually the pseudonym of one person, Australian-born Jim Thirlwell, who is also known as Jim Foetus and Clint Ruin.
After founding his own record company, Self Immolation, in 1980, he set about 'recording works of aggression, insight and inspiration'. Backed with musical slogans such as 'positive negativism' and 'bleed now pay later', Foetus released a series of albums, several of which appeared through Stevo's Some Bizarre Records. With stark one-word titles such as Deaf, Ache, Hole, and Nail, Thirlwell presented a harrowing aural netherworld of death, lust, disease and spiritual decay. In November 1983, Foetus undertook a rare tour, performing with Marc Almond, Nick Cave, and Lydia Lunch in the short-lived Immaculate Consumptive.
Apart from these soul mates, Foetus has also played live with the Swans' Roli Mossiman as Wiseblood (who released Dirtdish in 1986), Lydia Lunch in Stinkfist, and appeared on albums by several artists including The The, Einsturzende Neubauten, Nurse With Wound, Marc and The Mambas, and also Annie Hogan. Thirlwell also records instrumental work as Steroid Maximus, releasing Quilombo (1991) and Gonwanaland (1992) on the Big Cat label. In 1995 Thirlwell announced plans to release his first studio album in seven years. The result was Gash, an album that led to a reappraisal of his work as one of the key figures in the development of the 'Industrial' music movement.
After several tours in the 1990s and major label releases, Thirwell moved to Brooklyn and set up a studio. He spent time Djing and remixing for the likes of Nine Inch Nails. This year sees him touring in the United States and a new album, FLOW. He has his website (www.foetus.org), where you can find he has released an instrumental album called MANOREXIA. The rest of the year sees Foetus touring and continuing to perform his work. His album art is also part of an art show at Exit Art in New York City. I met him in the East Village at Veniero's at the end of July.
AL: Since back in the early 1980s you were working for Virgin Records. Did you learn about distribution there, and apply it to you own label and your own band?
FOETUS: I was already working with Nurse With Wound. They were already putting out records. That was the early days of the DIY thing. When I moved to London, that is when they started Rough Trade. There wasn't a deluge of music in those days. It was possible to own every independent single there was.
Rough Trade released all this pure noise stuff, like File Under Pop. Then they did Swell Maps. Then people started bringing in their own records and it was very accessible. Bands like Scritti Politti, who were very different then... they were very angular and avant garde.
At that time I met Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound. When the first record came out, he came in the shop and asked me if I knew anything about it. He was impressed that I knew what it was. Through that I was able to use the same studio to record the first Foetus single. I recorded it in a day. In those days you press it up and deliver the copies to whoever would take them. I was squatting at the time. I hand delivered them to Virgin where I worked. I went back to the studios where I made this press release with a lot of disinformation. I created this whole mythology about who Foetus was.
AL: Yeah, there was a time when nobody knew who Foetus was. How long did that go on for?
FOETUS: I was trying to create a mystique. I wanted to have a corporate identity. I didn't want it to be "Please play my little single…" I wanted to say to people that I am the representative for Self Immolation Records. This is a band we have called Foetus Under Glass. That was the first record.
John Peel had played it early on. I made a thousand of them. Sold out. And put the money into the next single. Did the first six records on that scale. I wanted the purity of the records to stand on their own. I didn't want the purity to be tainted by being presented as this person who was an image who is attached to this record. It's all about that now. Building up the image and knocking it down. I shunned away from that.
AL: When did Foeutus play the first live show?
FOETUS: It wasn't until 1988. I played live with tapes for many years. The first full band was for the European tour in 1988. I just picked out random people to play with me in the East Village. Roli Mossiman played with me in Wiseblood. I toured a few times in the early 1990s. I was doing a lot of studio work and remixing. Side projects like Steroid Maximus and Wiseblood. A few live albums. Doing remixing took a long time, and I just started to do new Foetus material. It took a long time to negotiate a deal with Columbia, and Gash came out in 1995. We toured on that for a few years. The relationship with Columbia fell apart and only one album came out.
AL: When did you build a studio?
FOETUS: I didn't start getting equipment until the late 1980s. I was itinerant before that. I worked in recording studios. In London, most of the time I squatted. I moved around a lot. It didn't occur to me to put money into equipment. It was only when sampling technology became available, I started thinking about getting some gear.
Before that I worked in a way that pre-dated sampling: tape loops and effects. When sampling came along it was a way of organizing what I had already been doing before. With some of the soundtracks I did at the time, some of it was source material and some was already composed. With the later Richard Kern films, I had the visuals in front of me and I would compose to the edits. That is the way people usually do it, they watch the film and play to the edits.
AL: How did you get involved with Richard Kern?
FOETUS: We met him around here. Me and Lydia Lunch lived two blocks away from here on East 12th street. Lydia was putting together a series at the Pyramid Club of performers. He was doing some performances with Brian Moran at the time called Blood Boy. Lydia had an idea for a film which became Right Side of My Brain. They started collaborating and filming at that place which is now the Old Devil Moon restaurant. We lived in that place. When you sit in that place, you are sitting in what used to be our bedroom.
AL: Did you do all the artwork for your albums?
FOETUS: I went to art school and I did a little painting there and screen printing, in Melbourne, where I'm from. It was a good place to try some ideas and medium. That was where I discovered the Foetus look. It crystallized. I was working with blocky elements and taking images and reducing them to tonal dropout. So that they were flat planes. A lot of my work comes from working with screen prints and how you have to make templates. I kept that look all along. I like flatness and big slabs of color. I like the color palette of red, white and black.
AL: Was Andy Warhol an influence?
FOETUS: I was aware of him and I always loved his aesthetic and perversity. And of course the whole Warhol image. The Factory was so romantic. My art influences were also propaganda and comic books and packaging. All those things contributed to the look.
I liked the shock value of propaganda. I like Chinese Art and Russian Constructivism. That was a big part of it too. I would do things that were variations on a theme. I would do all my typography by hand. Hand lettering and everything by hand. I didn't know anything about actual layout and camera-ready art. I just faked it using transparent paper. Somehow it worked and registered, mostly because I did it rather meticulously. I don't do much art outside of my record sleeves. That gives vent to everything I want do. I would love to do commissions and work for other people. There is an album art show right now at Exit Art. I have a wall of about 25 sleeves up there.
AL: How did you compose some of the new songs on Flow? You have admitted to not really being a musician. You don't sit around with an acoustic guitar thinking up songs. The new record seems like a mix of jazz and film noir soundtracks.
FOETUS: There has been jazz flavor throughout my work, ever since the early stuff. I have become more sophisticated in how to realize doing that. The same is true of the cinematic feel. I have just gotten better and translated what is in my head. Now I just let the song write itself. Like "Blaze of God" for instance, I heard that in a dream. I had the whole thing in my head. I ran downstairs and recorded the bass line and scribbled down some ideas. Then it was merely fleshing out what I had heard. Most dreams you remember vividly and then they are gone. Hopefully you can snap it back. Sometimes I will have the whole song in my head, and other times I will be working with sounds and that will evoke something else. Sometimes I will have a title, like "The Mean Machine," and then it's basically filling in the blanks with some emotion and some idea of what I wanted to put across. I don't have a formula.
AL: Have any these recent industrial acts acknowledged your influence?
FOETUS: I have remixed a couple of song by Trent Reznor, "Wish" and "Mr. Self-Destruct." I have remixed also Marilyn Manson and a few other people. I think a few of those people would acknowledge that they heard my records. But as far as being the Godfather of industrial music: I don't know anyone who embraces the industrial tag. Nobody wants to be categorized. Industrial was the name of Throbbing Gristle's record label. When Einsturzende Neubauten and Test Dept. came along it was natural to call it "Industrial" because they were. It was more about an esthetic and a mindset back then. Then it turned into dance music with a distortion box. How I fit into that I don't know. I don't feel a kinship with any of it.
AL: You mentioned before that you were influenced also by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and Minimalism. I thought that when you play some of those arpeggios repeatedly, just listening to it, you start to hallucinate and break through to some other place.
FOETUS: Oh yeah. I definitely have done stuff like that. With Wiseblood, there was a track called "Death Rape 2000." It was just three chord repeated for eight minutes. There's also the track "Diablos Musica" which is just the tri-tone repeated, which is supposed to evoke the devil. It was a chord that was banned in the 15th century. It's similar to what Glenn Branca does with overtones. After a while you veg out on them and you start hearing different things. It's like when you are tripping on acid: music takes you on a journey around the world even though you keep hearing the same notes over and over. Things start to shift. After a while it becomes transcendent.
AL: That is like Glass and Reich too.
FOETUS: When I first saw Steve Reich's concert in London in 1979. It was a performance in drumming. That was truly transcendent music. I felt like I was going to ascend through the ceiling. If that feeling comes through in my own music. I could point to very early songs and it's so obvious that was what I was thinking about. On the first album has tape loops and musique concrete. I had prepared pianos. I was into Stockhausen and John Cage. You wouldn't know it now. All those ideas I have internalized. You find a different voice.
AL: What other plans do you have?
FOETUS: I just finished a 20-date American tour. Then I am going over to Europe for five weeks. I did a DJ gig in LA at the Fetish Ball. When I DJ I usually play soundtracks and crime stuff. I try to create an atmosphere of espionage. I am also lining up some other events in LA during November. There will be a Flow Remix album. There will be a tribute show to that album. I am curating it. It will be the most extravagant record release you can imagine. Next year I will be performing Manorexia. It is another project of mine. The CD I have just released through my website and selling it on the road. It's all instrumental. It will be a small string section and percussion.
AL: There's a flood of activity.
FOETUS: Things tend to bottleneck with me. All things come out at once. Then there's trouble about distribution, up to a point where, I just want to get something out there, because people think I am dead. There's another Steroid Maximus album that will come out next year. Thirsty Ear are doing Flow, and then Blow: the remix album. I am doing the Manorexia album myself through the website.
AL: Any other advice?
FOETUS: Buy the records. Go to the website. It's an ever-growing monolith of everything you didn't want to know about Foetus. I have this friend, Daniel Jones, who lives in Chicago and is the ultimate Fetal Maniac. He started the website. Someone told me about it. I found out about records that I didn't know existed. I didn't know I was on some of these records. I was impressed. So I started to contribute content to it. It has now become the official site.