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Foetus | Flow | interview | Jim Thirlwell | rock | Lollipop
An interview with Jim Thirlwell
Flow (Thirsty Ear)
by Lex Marburger
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 everyone's surprise, Jim Thirlwell has managed to hold on for 20 years, culminating (so far) in this year's 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 wouldn't even be walking around now.
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 I'd been predicting in my albums came around and started burning me. I'd lived my life that way and you reach a crossroads where those things don't 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 I'd live fast and, y'know, leave a... whatever corpse, but when reality comes and strikes you, it's not quite so glamorous. It takes a while to assimilate that into your life, so it's been a very difficult time, and then, on top of that, relearning how to live, and the fact that I'm alive... Dead by thirty is an attractive ideal, but I'd made no provisions for that, and there is life beyond that, and there's only so much you can put into your body... for me, anyway. Especially if you're gonna leave a good-looking corpse. I turned my life around and started working on material which was very different. There's 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. I've been so excited and motivated about doing things. I haven't been so motivated for years. A lot of people's preconceptions about cleaning up your act and losing your edge I've found to be far from the truth. I'd been trying to obliviate for all those years, and mask myself, in terms of my feelings, and now it's all right in my face. You can't get more real than that.
I talked to Tod A of Firewater a few weeks ago... He's 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 doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Maybe that was written in a very optimistic moment (chuckles), but believe me, I haven't got that balance in my life yet. I'm driven at the moment. I think I'm closer to what I can put across in my lyrics than ever. I really can't in a one-on-one situation.
This album is certainly a breath of fresh air in what most people call industrial music. You're the only one I know who adds sampled big bands and then layers live violin into your music.
I don't 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," I'm not gonna listen to it. I don't like those bands. I think there's way too much music out there. It's way too available. The morass of mediocrity is devaluing the music. The cream always rises, but through what? Cream can't 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 couldn't tell you lots about Miles Davis or Coltrane or anyone... There've always been half-heard elements... There are a lot of elements that I'm not necessarily a student of, jazz being one of them. But I know what I like. There's a certain... climate it creates, as a vehicle for what I'm 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 haven't been able to always realize it as I have now, but once I wrap my head around it, that's 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 hadn't heard it for years, and I thought it sounded great. It was also coming from a "systems music" kind of thing, y'know? 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 I'm inventing forms, now I don't have that naiveté. I think that's what happens, you can't help being influenced by what's 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. I'm not trying to move mountains at this point, where the main criteria of my songwriting is to listen to what's going on then wipe it away and innovate. I'm trying to get to a place of honesty within myself. Whether it's 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 it's a fraction of a second off.
There's a weird timing thing, you're right. That was an accident, a sort of stutter in the loop. I kept it in there. That's a feel thing. I think it's possible to make machines feel. You can make them soulful. It's a matter of working with and manipulating sounds over a long period of time. Organizing sounds... It's 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" wasn't 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 can't just come back and say "and another thing!" Now time has stepped sideways. That's what Flow is about. It's about the tidal flow, a continuum, rather than an end statement. There's 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. I'm what it's 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 I'm 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, y'know? 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 I'm trying to get the samples triggered live by the drummer and the keyboard player, and trying to get more original sound sources involved. So it's a different thing I'm going for sonically. It's a little more faithful to a Foetus sound. It's 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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