The Many Faces of Foetus
J.G. Thirlwell, the man with a million names. Mostly Foetus.
If musicologists could pick one musician's brain to dissect and study after their death, J.G. Thirlwell's would probably be at the top of most lists. Since 1981, the prolific Thirlwell has composed, recorded and performed under pseudonyms like Foetus Under Glass, You've Got Foetus On Your Breath, Foetus In Your Bed, Foetus Art Terrorism, Philip And His Foetus Vibrations, Foetus And The Transvestites From Hell, Foetus Über Frisco, Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel, Scraping Foetus Off The Void, Foetus Corruptus, Foetus Eruptus, Foetus Interruptus, Foetus In Excelsis Corruptus, Foetus Of Excellence, Foetus Inc., Clint Ruin, Wiseblood, Flesh Volcano, Bubba Kowalski, Garage Monsters, Karl Satan, Phillip Toss, Frank Want, DJ Otefsu, Baby Zizanie, Hydroze Plus, Steroid Maximus and Manorexia, using them all to singlehandedly craft one of the most hysterically hellish, three-decades-long discographies on record.
There's never been anyone like him. He's spending the fourth creative decade concentrating on his film and television scores, conducting outdoor ensembles in Prospect Park, composing for The Kronos Quartet, making music for robots, constructing interactive sound and light sculptures in Sweden, writing about tinnitus, and working on an opera… all directions that might have seemed unimaginable by fans who were happily traumatized by his Foetus records on the Self Immolation label back in 1981. I got to explore Thirlwell's brain (via phone, from Brooklyn) as his Australian/New-Yawk-twang accent told me about "the back door of classical music," why you should never use the "I" word around him, which NYC subways have the loudest brakes, his album cover designs, and why he feels he's already created the perfect score for the apocalypse.
VICE: So you love film soundtracks. Who are some of your favorite film score composers?
J.G. Thirlwell: There are tons. Bernard Hermann. Komeda. Jerry Goldsmith is an amazing one because he's such a shape-shifter.
How is Jerry Goldsmith a shape-shifter?
I think a lot of film composers have really recognizable styles, like Ennio Morricone, who's also one of my favorites. But you can always really identify a Morricone score, where it's harder to identify a Goldsmith one, because he doesn't tend to fall back on idiomatic shapes and progressions that are distinctively "Goldsmithian," in the way Morricone often does. There are tons of others I like. I do like a lot of the modern film composers, like Marco Beltrami, Elliot Goldenthal, John Ottman, John Debney, even Hans Zimmer... a lot of the modern scores are kind of "cookie cutter," but I do like a lot of that stuff. I like "bombast," and when there's permission allowed for the bombast factor, I like it. The film soundtrack genre is a very rich mine.
What do you think of some recent scores from newer horror movies, particularly French ones, that often employ high or low-pitched electronic sounds to disturb the viewer, like François Eudes's score for Inside, or the guy who does the scores for Gaspar Noé's films?
That's Thomas Bangalter. Well, Gaspar Noé makes some very interesting choices in terms of linear storytelling, and aesthetically. Irreversible and Enter the Void, both really turn visual storytelling on its head, so I think him using Bangalter reflects that. I love their work.
Despite some of the imagery in your work, the music is so cinematic I could almost hear it in a PG-rated context. I can completely picture in my mind a CGI-animated villain in a Tim Burton film singing "I Hate You All" from Damp. Would you want to do mainstream film music?
I would be thrilled to do a mainstream film score. I'd love to do a James Bond film. I mean, I do a lot of scoring already. I score "The Venture Bros" cartoon, which is on The Cartoon Network, and last year I scored a feature directed by Eva Aridjis called "The Blue Eyes," but yeah that's definitely something I want to move into more and more.
Is Danny Elfman's career ever something you consider?
I think Danny Elfman is great.
Your soundtrack album to The Venture Bros blew me away. I listen to it constantly, even at the gym! It's so furious and energetic.
Yeah, I'm really excited about that album. In some ways the soundtrack gives me an opportunity to vent a lot of ideas that probably would have ended up in Steroid Maximus. But there's a whole different criteria for creating these pieces, because you're making something tailor-made for a score, and you have different limitations, in some ways… like tempo, like the emotions you're trying to convey, the length, so it's different than approaching something with a blank canvas. You've got some criteria to work from and then you branch out from that. It's an interesting way for me to work.
Are you going to be releasing more Venture Bros soundtracks?
I'd very much like to. It's up to The Cartoon Network, they own the copyrights. They do have an option to do another two, and I certainly have enough material to do it. It's just a matter of the go-ahead. It took me about six weeks to take the material and re-work it into the album. I have many different versions of each cue, and to make them into pieces that stand alone in the context of an album, I have to rework them. Sometimes a cue will come up several times in an episode, but it will have different elements and arrangements each time. Making one definitive version for an album gives me an opportunity to take all those parts and combine them.
Okay, so regarding the classical elements in your more recent work, I once read an interview where you were talking about the jazz influences in Foetus, and how you couldn't tell me much about John Coltrane, but you could tell me lots about Vegas-show jazz, strip-show jazz or, as you called it, "the back door of jazz." So I have to wonder, what is "the back door of classical?"
The back door of classical would have to be the Looney Tunes cartoon scores. I think that's where a lot of people were first exposed to classical music. There are so many quotes from classical music in those Carl Stalling scores. But he also adapted a lot of his scores from Raymond Scott, who did a lot of kind of twisted jazz in the 30's and 40's, and famously wrote the piece "Powerhouse," which I cover.
Raymond Scott's a big influence too?
Definitely. Raymond Scott was also an incredible inventor and made a lot of really innovative electronic instruments as well. There's a great album that archives his electronic work called "The Manhattan Research Project." Mark Mothersbaugh owns one of Scott's electronic instruments, which I believe they're trying to restore.
Judging from your recent work, particularly Manorexia, Steroid Maximus, and your soundtracks for The Venture Bros cartoon, you're working more with ensembles. When I search "JG Thirlwell" on YouTube, all the recent videos are of you conducting orchestras! Is this what you secretly pictured yourself eventually doing when making the first Foetus records in the early 80's?
Yes. I think working with orchestras or large ensembles was. I was basically trying to replicate that sound even back then. But actually, when I did the first Foetus record that was a reaction against working with other musicians. It was an attempt to create something where I could be the absolute controller and stand and fall on my own merits, and not work in a democratic way. So I went into the studio and played all the instruments myself, also using the studio itself to create the illusion that I could play all of them, when I was actually very young. I mean, the intention was to make a record, not to play instruments. The intention was to create this fetish object, this artifact and this piece of music, the record. And I think there was a purity in insisting I play everything myself for quite a few years. Then a bit later realizing that if I was to perform live I had to put ensembles together, or a band. So I had a kind of rock band for shows. But I didn't tour that often. In about '95 when I did the album Gash, which was on Sony, that was the first time I ever had other musicians playing on a Foetus record. I broke my cardinal rule of allowing only me to play, which was fine. I think it's good to challenge the rules you set up for yourself.
On your latest Manorexia album Dinoflagellate Blooms there are moments that resemble Karlheinz Stockhousen, John Cage or Iannis Xenakis, and then suddenly it shifts to something that sounds like a B-movie soundtrack—which your fans are accustomed to—then it will change back into a kind of musique concrete thing. Are you embracing new things, or shedding old?
The stuff I do as Manorexia comes from a pretty organic place, I'm not really sitting down and thinking about where it fits historically in my oeuvre. That was one of the intentions with Manorexia, creating from a different place. Foetus and Steroid Maximus were meticulously crafted, and that really took so long. I wanted to do something that started from ground zero and a blank canvas, and built up something new again. It was a relief for me to create that way. I believe the more you create, the more history and baggage you have, and you're sort of carrying that around. But after going through that renewal, now Manorexia has a kind of identity, which has happened organically. So, maybe it's time for something else besides Manorexia.
You also recently did several live shows as Baby Zizanie, with you and Jim Coleman (Cop Shoot Cop) both live on laptops, and someone doing visuals. Judging from your past work methods it must have been unusual doing improv.
With Baby Zizanie there was an attempt to do something that sprung from a performative context. It was very much about transitions, getting from one part to another, working off of each other, live, then making the document later. It was something that was started but maybe we didn't follow it through as far as it could have gone. I'm not sure it reached its potential, but it was something I wanted to try.
Your work is over the top, but has clinical precision. Is flawlessness a goal for you?
No, I think flaws are really important. There's always a lot of flaws in my work. There's a lot of things that rub up against each other in grating ways, which can be beautifully grating, but also there's a lot of happy accidents and mistakes I keep in. Often when I'm finished with a project I'll see flaws in it… even with things like printing, which you would think, after thousands of years, the technology would be more refined, or even perfected. But there's always something that happens wrong. Often when I've mastered something, which is a very harrowing process I find, I'll think "Well, if I have to do this again I'll have to change this little bit in the mix" or something. You've got to take what you've done and use that knowledge on the next project. I spend years on some of my projects, but I do like to swallow things whole, then spit them out and move on.
I saw you for the first time in NYC in 1990, and was surprised it was just you on stage with a small band, an electric violin player, lights, fog, and pig heads on sticks. You were able to pull off Foetus' end-of-the-world sound with a rather minimal set-up! Plus pig heads!
If it was '90 it was probably more of a rock band format. Actually, I did the pig heads thing in more like '85, so I think you might be blurring your memory a bit there. Yeah, around '90 I had Hahn Rowe playing violin, and that band. But about transferring Foetus' big sound live, around that time I always felt frustrated because I had to really dumb-down the music and reinterpret it for guitars and keyboard, basically a rock band. I think that steamrolled out a lot of the nuances of the music I was making. There was a certain point where I got so frustrated with that I kind of turned my back on that live approach.
I'm curious about how you arrived at your various vocal styles, particularly on the Foetus records. You sound like an angry man screaming his last rant before he's about to be gunned down… a real madhouse spectrum of insane male vocal characters. How do you conjure the emotional state to deliver that kind of vocal bombast?
Where did those voices come from? I don't know, I mean, it's what I heard. It's what seemed appropriate to deliver for my music. It took me one or two records to actually find my voice, and that was really just the natural voice that kind of came out of me. Especially when I was writing those words. Or when I wrote lyrics that had so many words, it also became a way to fit in that many words. It's not something I sat on and thought about too much. It just came out of me.
Did you ever record vocals like that at your home studio?
Did your neighbors ever complain?
I actually check to see if my neighbors are home first. It makes me feel a bit self-conscious to think they're hearing my disembodied voice.
Okay, lets talk about your album covers, which you've always designed and created yourself. They're beautiful! You seemed to establish a unique visual language right at the beginning, and then kept exploring it. I imagine you do them on a computer now, but in the older days were you creating them with exact-o blades, mechanical pens, and rubber cement?
Yes, that's exactly what I was doing with the early ones. The lettering was done by hand and the typesetting was with Letraset. Hand color separation with sheets of vellum paper. Interestingly enough, I went back to Australia for the first time in 32 years—I hadn't been back there since 1980—and I discovered a lot of my work from art school and high school, stuff that I hadn't been aware of, or had totally forgotten I'd done. And I noticed a sort of through-line of what I'd eventually done with the record covers. There was a lot of my early work in red, white and black, and flat planes of color, and a sort of Pop Art aesthetic mixed with propaganda.
Do you plan on performing as Foetus again?
It's not something in the forefront of my mind, but if someone made an offer or commissioned me to do scores for Foetus, I would definitely do it. It costs a bit of money to pay a 20-piece ensemble. Like I said, if I did Foetus again it would be with a large ensemble orchestra.
In interviews you seem to bristle a little when people attach labels like "industrial" or "post-punk" to your Foetus days. Were you even "rock?" Did you consider yourself a rock-and-roll artist?
Rock? Maybe. Rock and Roll? Never. And don't use the "I" word when talking about me.
What was it like working so much with Lydia Lunch?
Working with her was a pleasure. She's very open to ideas and things, so I would often have free reign. Always very nice to work with her.
Looking back at your work with Richard Kern's early movies, particularly your appearance with Lydia Lunch in "The Right Side of My Brain," how do you feel watching that film now? That scene feels like straight-up porn.
I feel fine about it. I don't think it's straight-up porn. I think it's just what it is. It was an idea that Lydia had, for me to be in this scene, and so I did it. I'm fine with it now.
Do you still wear white shoes all the time? I see them again and again in photos of you through the ages.
Well, they did call me "Jimmy White Shoes" for a while. I still wear white shoes but I have been experimenting with wingtips. Now I wear all brown a lot. Now they call me "The Brown Streak."
Portrait photo by Paule Saviano
- Vice Blog