in Frieze | 01 APR 06
Featured in
Issue 98

Industrial Relations

Throbbing Gristle’s first album in 25 years will be released later this year. frieze talked to band members Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter, Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

in Frieze | 01 APR 06

Berlin on a cold New Year’s Eve. An audience gathers at the Volksbühne Theatre. Inside, loudspeakers emit pulsating soundscapes. What is being celebrated is the return of a band, Throbbing Gristle, who, in 1976, were dubbed ‘the ‘Wreckers of Civilization’ by an outraged Tory MP after their earlier incarnation as the performance group COUM exhibited ‘Prostitution’ at the ICA in London. Single-handedly, they invented a musical genre (Industrial) and substantially influenced another (Techno) while deploying some of the most intelligent shock tactics in Pop history.

Jörg Heiser: In 1981, it was announced that the mission of Throbbing Gristle was terminated, yet the title of your new album is Part Two. It’s the first release of new studio material in more than two decades. How did it come about?
Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson: There was so much bad blood between us and Genesis [P-Orridge], that reforming was the last thing you’d expect. But as it happened, we got together for an exhibition on the occasion of the release of TG24, a collection of 24 hours of live recordings, at Cabinet Gallery in London in 2002 and found out it wasn’t as bad as we thought. When we eventually sat down to play music again, it was like getting back on a bicycle. The nature of TG and how we work together had not really been interrupted by 23 years.
Cosey Fanni Tutti: Part Two takes up the concepts we explored when we did the first album, Second Annual Report (1977). The title left people thinking, ‘Well have I missed First Annual Report?’
JH: Many things have changed in the decades since you disbanded: thinking of the confrontational aesthetics you developed back in the 1970s, mainstream culture has now managed to commodify porn chic, heroin chic, any kind of chic that promises an aura of subversion. Also, in terms of the band’s interest in electronics, we have seen the rise of digitization. How much has all of this affected your decision to regroup?
Chris Carter: I don’t think it’s had any effect.
PSC: It doesn’t make any difference to what we are doing…
CFT: … because the way we work is the same, basically.
PSC: … but in other ways, using computers and the internet as tools in our work has meant that Part Two is much more multilayered, and deals with the world in a more complex and subtle way than our albums of the 1970s. Back then we were just angry with the way everything was fucked-up.
CC: But also our life experience and our skills and techniques have developed.
CFT: The technology assists our approach but the way we work is fundamentally the same.
CC: Our roles are less defined now. There’s a lot of brainstorming and ideas bouncing backwards and forwards. The roles we had then were more delineated.
PSC: Now we all have the ability to do each other’s role – apart from vocals.
JH: But it’s a very different thing if you work with a computer, as opposed to a live instrument.
PSC: We never played live instruments. In the 1970s I had sounds that were on cassette tapes and manipulated the flywheel of the machine, so it could go slower and faster. And that’s equivalent to what I do on my computer.
JH: Do you see a similar aspect of prediction in the way the shock tactics you used during the 1980s and ’90s have become adopted as a phenomenon of popular culture?
PSC: These things were natural to us back then. If we did something that was shocking, it wasn’t to achieve an effect; it was because we felt that these subjects needed to be addressed.
CFT: But it wasn’t only to make people aware; the things we played about were part of our lives: a friend of ours was a male nurse looking after the woman we made the song Hamburger Lady about, and the Moors Murderers were from up North where me and Genesis were from. We were dealing with things that were affecting our lives from day to day.
CC: You see something on the front page of a newspaper and people aren’t shocked, but when you sing about it they are.
CFT: That’s the hypocrisy: the outrage occurs if you start discussing it in a real human way, and you don’t just take the edited, dumbed-down version.
JH: In 1976, when you did the ‘Prostitution’ show at the ICA, it generated media hysteria and moral panic. Did that affect your decision to stop doing ritualistic body performance art under the name COUM, and instead concentrate on the activities of TG?
CFT: No, because we had already seen the ‘Prostitution’ show as a retrospective, as a moving away from the art world as it was defined at the time. When COUM was offered the show at the ICA, Genesis and I said it would be good to have documentation of our performances up to that date, including the porn magazines I appeared in. We told them that we were working on Throbbing Gristle and that it would be great to play at the opening. So we did. That was the beginning of TG.
JH: In 1976, in Britain, there was this media campaign against the government spending money on art. The purchase of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, 1966 by the Tate gallery are a case in point. So too is Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-1979), and your ICA show.
CFT: That discussion was of no interest to us whatsoever. We didn’t subscribe to the art world on that level.
JH: Contemporary art, especially in Britain at that time, was a state-subsidized little world; there wasn’t much of a market for it.
CFT: But you still had to fulfil certain criteria to get your grant money, and that’s what we fought. As COUM, unless we did a certain number of art centres and galleries, we couldn’t have our money. What kind of a deal is that? If you accept the art, you accept the art – you don’t put conditions with it.
JH: Did the COUM performances have a conceptual score or script?
CFT: It could change at any moment if any of us wanted to do something different. But we didn’t know about the term improvisation so I don’t think it can be called that.
JH: Did you anticipate any of the hatred directed against you? There were historical precedents such as the Vienna Actionists, who were driven out of Austria or put in prison, after a notorious performance in 1968.
CFT: Genesis was aware of their work, but I didn’t connect with what they were doing.
PSC: When you’re a teenager, you always think that somehow the world is made afresh, and there’s the new opportunity to do something …
JH: Otto Mühl was already in his 40s at the time – his wasn’t a teenage revolt at all, and there was virtually no Pop culture in Austria.
PSC: The naiveté of youth is something we still try to retain. In intellectual terms, it seems Mühl was making much more of a social statement – what we were doing was much more childlike, trying to be unencumbered by notions of morality or musical form.
JH: You were always confrontational; I am thinking of the COUM slogan ‘disappointment guaranteed’, or TG songs like ‘(We Hate You) Little Girls’. As Cosey once put it: ’whenever we encountered confrontation, we would attempt to embrace rather than fight it’.
CC: We were talking about this yesterday.
CFT: Yeah someone came up and complimented me, and I don’t deal well with compliments. I’m much better when there’s antagonism, because I feel that both parties are going to get more out of that conversation.
JH: A lot of the things that you were concerned with were about youth and violence. Does the English school system play a role in this?
PSC: I don’t think it’s unique to England, but it certainly had an influence. But the thing about England is that there’s a culture of the village idiot. There’s always somebody where you live who’s outside. It’s acceptable to be an outcast, an eccentric.
CFT: As COUM, we were outsiders within the art world. None of us had been to art school. We didn’t have an ambitious goal to become ‘an artist’ or ‘a band’.
JH: How do you see your audience today?
PSC: I’m constantly surprised that our recent audiences are comprised of at least 50 per cent of people who knew us back then. But the new people seem just as enthusiastic and moved by the chaos of it all. It amazes me that anyone comes at all.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: There are two strains of music – one of them is superficial music meant to introduce young people to commerciality – they’re told that it’s a good thing to buy this over-produced, corporate music. And then there’s the other kind of audience, people who want something to represent the way they feel about the world. TG obviously falls into the second category. And if it’s an attitude of life that remains relevant then it’s probably going to stay the same for those people too.
JH: Would you still use some of the more confrontational tactics you used back in the 1970s? On New Years Eve 2005, before you sang the song ‘Slug Bait’, which tells a horrific story inspired by the Manson murders, you said you appreciated that people had come to the concert at Volksbühne despite the freezing temperatures in Berlin. And afterwards, you made a gesture of peace. Also, I noticed that you changed the lyrics.
GBPO: It was put into inverted commas as a deliberate nod to nostalgia. We also changed the music so it was more palatable in terms of the styling; we were saying that this is a reference to history, it’s not contemporary. We were placing it very carefully.
PSC: We might never play that song again.
CFT: When Gen sings lyrics like that, it’s an acknowledgement of just how far we can get away from being decent human beings to one another.
JH: It would be weird, though, if you neglected that part of your past.
GBPO: Sometimes you just want to know how you feel when you hear it again.
JH: But with ‘Slug Bait’ you’re actually impersonating a psychotic character: is that playful or something more urgent?
GBPO: When we got back together we wondered ‘will we still be acting TG, or will we still be able to be TG?’
JH: During the gig in Berlin you said, ‘at these kinds of moments, I’m glad I don’t understand German’. There were some people in the audience who looked like Nazis.
GBPO: I don’t think anyone who was right-wing would like us at all.
JH: At the same time you’re not an entertainer in the sense of ‘I do everything to please my audience’, but rather, I confront my audience.
GBPO: I think it was a straightforward remark. We’re very sensitive when we’re performing, we watch and listen intently to each other, to try and make sure we don’t interfere with each other’s thinking. And when people shout out, even if it’s friendly it can really throw you off.
JH: I enjoyed the staging of your concert in the Berlin theatre space: the curtain was raised to reveal an almost empty circular stage, except for a mixing unit and a speaker system, and the band standing at the back. So the stage was turned into a kind of club auditorium. Some of the audience joined you on stage. How did that idea come about?
CFT: It was a practical decision, really, because we wanted to play in quad, so the area had to be that shape.
PSC: It’s not often you can double the size of the venue.
GBPO: We’ve always enjoyed experimenting with the audience. In the past we’ve done stuff with mirrors, and boxes, and different ways of separating them from their usual rock experience.
JH: You had at least a dozen cameras present.
PSC: I always like to be able to watch.
CC: We are quite voyeuristic, aren’t we?
JH: Do you enjoy the presence of these cameras?
All: Don’t notice them.
GBPO: Were there really that many?
JH: Loads –16mm, 8mm …
CFT: We thought we’d only do it once, so thought we might as well document it.
JH: Since you declared your mission terminated art has become a proper industry and some parts of rock culture or sub-cultural underground rock have become part of an institutionalized framework. The question of audience, market, state and censorship, have changed dramatically.
GBPO: I live in America because of censorship, which hasn’t really changed, it’s just more cleverly disguised. And there’s a lot of self-censorship by people because they’re afraid of being singled out.
JH: There was a time when it was difficult for you to get into the UK, during a media hysteria over Satanism in 1992, when, during your absence, your Brighton home was raided by Scotland Yard in an attempt to find proof for allegations of Satanic ritual abuse, charges which weren’t dropped until the late 1990s. Are you able to enter the UK now without problems?
GBPO: I’ve never been officially told that I can, but when I was invited to curate an evening at the Royal Festival Hall, I felt they wouldn’t embarrass themselves by inviting me and then slapping me in the face. Of course I assume that the Labour Party don’t have the same grudges as the Conservatives. But it doesn’t mean that I’m secure. I’m just more aware that they can turn on somebody whenever they choose, and use the media to do it.
PSC: We had a problem in the 1980s when we did some performances in England, and someone complained about the video content, although it was very tame – it was videos you could buy in WH Smith. But someone had taken a ten-year-old kid to one of our shows, we were raided, and they took all our video equipment.
GBPO: The bottom line is they can do this to us whenever they choose. And that’s why I don’t want to live in England because I know it’s just too insecure.
CC: When anti-terrorist squads raid people’s houses, they search your bookshelves. You could just innocently have an interest in terrorism.
GBPO: We’ve always had that problem with lyrics. Because TG collaged together bits of events that were from the media, it was assumed that we were endorsing the behaviour we were discussing, which is ludicrous. There was a lot of pressure on us to edit ourselves. One of the things we’ve achieved as a group is liberating the lyric completely, in terms of what content could be.
JH: I’m trying to imagine a censored Walmart version of one of the earlier TG albums.
PSC: I would like to think that now we’re subtler and more ambiguous.
GBPO: At the moment the strategy that seems most appropriate is a form of seduction, rather than anger and outrage. There’s so much in the arena of people’s social and cultural life that is about polarization and fear, it’s important to build safe zones, where they can go and communicate with like-minded people and reconsider how to experience things.
CFT: Imagine doing shock tactics now and then hearing about the Happy Slapping craze in the UK, where kids beat up a tramp and film it on their mobiles and send it to their friends as entertainment. TG would seem quite ridiculous in that context.
JH: That reminds me of something you said in 1977, about borderline characters who could either turn criminal or into artists, depending on the way the social institutions react to them.
GBPO: I think it’s well documented that similar personalities become either fine artists or the more interesting form of criminal – the refusal to accept the status quo, and a moral outrage.
PSC: But there’s more money in having criminals. The American prison system is listed in Nasdaq, isn’t it.
JH: And 30,000 MFA students are graduating every year in the States.
PSC: All potential criminals.

Jörg Heiser is the co-editor of frieze.