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Flow (Thirsty Ear)
With a history of anger and chemicals to excess directly documented in the music, no one expected Foetus to go beyond one or two albums before checking out in some stinking alley behind a Gas N Sip. But to everyones surprise, Jim Thirlwell has managed to hold on for 20 years, culminating (so far) in this years Flow (Thirsty Ear). Holding onto some of the elements that make Foetus stand out compositionally (use of big band samples, a predominant pseudo-pathetic drawl in the vocals, and unsettling rhythms and combinations of sounds), Flow steps forward, giving tightly-controlled performances. Using hyperkinetic dance floor beats sitting uncomfortably next to violins serenading crushing metal, Flow is a step forward for a man who many thought wouldnt even be walking around now.
An interview with Jim Thirlwell, the stem cell of Foetus:
Where have you been? Your last major release was, like, 5-6 years ago, with Null/Void.
Sometimes life gets in the way of your release schedule. My entire life has been reflected by that phrase. By the time I did Gash, I was involved with Columbia, and that relationship ended unceremoniously. I had the rug pulled out from under me. I did a bunch of touring, and by the end, it was like the death wishes and chemical demons that Id been predicting in my albums came around and started burning me. Id lived my life that way and you reach a crossroads where those things dont work anymore. It becomes literally a matter of life and death. I was on a flight to London and I found myself literally paralyzed, I had to be taken off the plane in a wheelchair, and I could smell the death pouring off me. Maybe I changed my mind... I always thought Id live fast and, yknow, leave a... whatever corpse, but when reality comes and strikes you, its not quite so glamorous. It takes a while to assimilate that into your life, so its been a very difficult time, and then, on top of that, relearning how to live, and the fact that Im alive... Dead by thirty is an attractive ideal, but Id made no provisions for that, and there is life beyond that, and theres only so much you can put into your body... for me, anyway. Especially if youre gonna leave a good-looking corpse. I turned my life around and started working on material which was very different. Theres a lot of association with that kind of lifestyle, and I had to relearn the process. Now the creative process has gotten better than ever, certainly. Ive been so excited and motivated about doing things. I havent been so motivated for years. A lot of peoples preconceptions about cleaning up your act and losing your edge Ive found to be far from the truth. Id been trying to obliviate for all those years, and mask myself, in terms of my feelings, and now its all right in my face. You cant get more real than that.
I talked to Tod A of Firewater a few weeks ago... Hes gotten a lot more personal on his new album, with semi-autobiographical lyrics, a lot of "What the hell have I been doing with myself?"
Right. A leitmotif came out of that, something two of the songs on Flow say unconsciously; "Whatever doesnt kill you makes you stronger." Maybe that was written in a very optimistic moment (chuckles), but believe me, I havent got that balance in my life yet. Im driven at the moment. I think Im closer to what I can put across in my lyrics than ever. I really cant in a one-on-one situation.
This album is certainly a breath of fresh air in what most people call industrial music. Youre the only one I know who adds sampled big bands and then layers live violin into your music.
I dont consider myself industrial. Sometimes I want to embrace it to shun it. One of my albums was referred to as "Beck for Goths" which I liked. If something is labeled "industrial," Im not gonna listen to it. I dont like those bands. I think theres way too much music out there. Its way too available. The morass of mediocrity is devaluing the music. The cream always rises, but through what? Cream cant rise though an oil slick.
So, what about using big bands?
I think there have been parts like that ever since my first album. The way that I come into jazz is kinda though the back door. Like Vegas, variety shows, strip music, and certainly noir soundtracks. I couldnt tell you lots about Miles Davis or Coltrane or anyone... Thereve always been half-heard elements... There are a lot of elements that Im not necessarily a student of, jazz being one of them. But I know what I like. Theres a certain... climate it creates, as a vehicle for what Im doing. Puts a twist to it. Makes it a bit jarring. I guess I use it both out of pure perversity and my contemporary classical background. From having been exposed to it a lot. Maybe I havent been able to always realize it as I have now, but once I wrap my head around it, thats a good springboard, to wrap my vision around it.
Speaking of perversity, maybe you can answer a long-standing debate... Some people say that your music is "deliberately annoying." Take, for example, the track you remixed for Nine Inch Nails Fixed where you abruptly loop the track as a one-beat loop, then expand it to two, three, four, five, etc. The same sound, the same sample, just continually expanding. Do you ever try, on purpose, to annoy and upset your listeners?
I like to hear that! I think there is a perverse glee. I find that exciting. I heard that track recently, and I hadnt heard it for years, and I thought it sounded great. It was also coming from a "systems music" kind of thing, yknow? Numerical systems, Philip Glass, Steve Reich. If you listen to my early work, that was a big influence. John Cage and Stockhousen had a big impact on me when I was young. I used to form complex mathematical systems to build rhythm tracks, like, every thirteenth beat I would hit a vacuum cleaner tube, and then a prepared piano thing would go around in seven. I played around with doing things like that, if you can imagine throwing that against punk energy and ideas of microtonal tuning, like the Residents, and mix it with glam rock and experimentation. I used to think I could create in a vacuum, in a pure place, but maybe now Im inventing forms, now I dont have that naiveté. I think thats what happens, you cant help being influenced by whats in your environment. It all gets absorbed like a sponge, and hopefully what comes out the other end is a pure regurgitation, a distillation of your vision. The bottom line is a lot of these songs are in 4/4 and have a snare on 2 and 4, and use a 12-tone system. Im not trying to move mountains at this point, where the main criteria of my songwriting is to listen to whats going on then wipe it away and innovate. Im trying to get to a place of honesty within myself. Whether its a big pose or not is in the eye of the observer.
Keeping in line with what you said about odd rhythm systems, it seems that the rhythm track to the end of "Mandalay" is skewed, like its a fraction of a second off.
Theres a weird timing thing, youre right. That was an accident, a sort of stutter in the loop. I kept it in there. Thats a feel thing. I think its possible to make machines feel. You can make them soulful. Its a matter of working with and manipulating sounds over a long period of time. Organizing sounds... Its still a process, not a destination. With Gash, I feel I reached a destination, an end of time situation. I mean, "kill your parents, kill yourself" wasnt all it was saying, but it was a part of it. After those apocalyptic statements, and ending the album with a song called "See Ya Later" with the lyrics "adios, bye-bye, sayonara," you cant just come back and say "and another thing!" Now time has stepped sideways. Thats what Flow is about. Its about the tidal flow, a continuum, rather than an end statement. Theres more to come... This is about the passage of my life, and as I look back on it, this thing is starting to make sense. Im what its documenting, and I can really see my life reflected.
I remember seeing you at a show in Boston during the Gash tour, and some woman kept spitting at you, so you jumped off the stage and started beating her with the microphone.
Sounds about right...
Are your live shows still the same mix of violence and music?
Maybe now Im a lover not a fighter... (chuckles) With the live show back then, I took the big rock show thing as far as I wanted to take it, yknow? Not to the point of parody, but massive big hard rock. To the point where there were three guitars onstage at once. I feel that maybe that was dumbed down too far... There are melodies when different sounds in the music rub against each other, in terms of samples and such, and when you dumb that down with purely guitar, and you go like (makes da-da-dadada sounds like crap metal/industrial) it totally steamrolls the subtleties. Now Im trying to get the samples triggered live by the drummer and the keyboard player, and trying to get more original sound sources involved. So its a different thing Im going for sonically. Its a little more faithful to a Foetus sound. Its leaner, a five-piece. And the set is the most filthy body groove sound yet. People respond in kind. Girls taking their tops off... (chuckles)
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