Peeling off the layers
The artist called Jim Thirlwell by his parents, but known by many other names, discusses his latest projects, file-swapping and the state of the music business.
Before there was Trent Reznor, before there was Sonic Youth, and way, way before there was a Marilyn Manson, there was Foetus. The legendary Mr JG Thirlwell, AKA Foetus, AKA Steroid Maximus, AKA Manorexia, AKA DJ Otefsu, these are just a few of the latest incarnations of this musical genius. He's also remixed all of the above, which tells you something. He's the man that took a machete to the music world and carved a path for countless other bands that have come after him, although nobody has come close to catching up. However, he wouldn't take credit for paving the way for the likes of Trent Reznor when I spoke to him.
"That's not for me to say," was the Melbourne native's statement. On top of everything else, he's gracious. If you don't know who he is, well, you're missing out, but a trip to his website (www.foetus.org) will give a taste to the uninitiated. There are some downloadable audio and video clips there, as well as countless bios, newsclips, and detail of what he's been up to lately, which is quite a lot. It's also the only place that you can order his latest CDs "Radiolarian Ooze," and "VolvoxTurbo", instrumental trips to the dark side of the unconscious.
Trying to describe his music is like trying to remember an elusive dream, or sometimes, a nightmare. Meticulously crafted layered sounds pour down on you, yet they all have a touch of whimsy. JGT played as Steroid Maximus in Los Angeles recently, complete with an 18-piece orchestra. For people who think this man does nothing but sample, you're wrong. This was a far cry from the fetish S&M crowd that was at the Roxy in 1986, when I first saw him. Yet again, JGT completed obliterated every preconceived notion.
One word of caution, leave your expectations at the door. These were hand-picked professional musicians from all over the world contributing to something I'm sure will come to be written in the musical history books as completely groundbreaking. These were not Goth/fetish/whatever wannabes, these were musical craftsmen who knew they were participating in an event that would be a once in a lifetime experience. JGT combined '70s spy noir, bebop jazz and hauntingly beautiful classical references, added a dose of fun and nostalgia, and took it all up to eleven. While the rest of the music world seems to be clamouring to fall into a niche, JGT seems to have stayed out of all of them, or tried to anyway.
The musicians were in their element, and the grand maestro of ceremonies, JGT, was leading the way. I still think I saw a little twinge of Foetus coming out once in a while, even if he did have a suit on. Yes, Foetus had a suit on.
When I had the pleasure of visiting JGT at his loft in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, I asked him about how he felt about his music being called industrial. "Yeah, I somehow got lumped into this industrial category, which is a ghetto. I sort of came under the umbrella of industrial (in the late '70s) because I used unconventional instrumentation, such as hitting on objects to get the custom sounds, metal, or maybe vacuum clean sounds, or maybe other weird things. And I challenged, like I was using a lot of tape loops and studio manipulation to achieve what I did, so I don't know where the industrial thing came in."
He has defied every musical genre there is, simultaneously incorporating almost every musical genre, and somehow manages to put an undeniable Foetal spin on just about anything aural. Just try finding his CDs at a store and you'll know what I mean, you'll never know where you'll find them, if you find them at all. It seems that the fact that JGT is so versatile, has also made him hard to market.
The Internet seems to be the most reliable source. He explained that you can only order "Manorexia" through his website or at shows, because "well, I'm precious about it. Another reason is that if I distribute it this way I make $10 an album, and I'd have to sell four times as many of my other CDs for the same amount of money. I think that 'Manorexia' first came out partly out of frustration in having rekindled a lot of my connections in the business and trying to find a deal for Foetus over the course of a year and I was like, 'fuck it, let's do something totally different and do it myself'. And it was such a liberation to do that."
He's up to five acts right now - five completely different identities coming from the same person. When I saw him play as DJ Otefsu at CBGB's last year, his choice of records was actually way cooler than the bands playing. I asked him where the hell he got his records as I was eyeballing them from his couch, he said, "people who collect records just know". He described it as a "treasure hunt, it's fun. Especially with soundtrackie stuff, I can sometimes look at the song titles and go okay, there's a chase scene, a party scene, maybe there's going to be something useful there, but that also forms my own music, it always has."
One of his friends said to me that Otefsu meant prince of something in some language. It had to be a joke, right? I mean; it's just an anagram of Foetus. Wrong again, it actually means "handsome flame-haired prince" in a dialect of a tribe in Ghana. Seems about right.
One of his other acts is Baby Zizane, an improvisational act with Jim Coleman, ex-keyboard player from Cop Shoot Cop, which had one run in New York, but has toured mostly in Europe. It's two guys playing laptop music from their computers combined with visuals in the background. Mostly improvisational, it seems to me to be a frightening escapade.
"That's the beauty of doing something like that, because you're doing it on the fly and you either get great intuitive things, which can come from practice or from reading each other, knowing what works and what doesn't, or you can just have disasters, where no one really knows where it is. Yeah, so people say 'Wow, how did you synchronize that little voice coming in with that little girl skipping through the woods and stuff', and I have to tell them, well, it was just by accident. I think the visual element of Baby Zizanie is really important too because I like laptop music and I like laptop music live, but it's fucking boring to watch two people sitting at computers." Vicki Bennett from People Like Us is the latest visual artist to have worked with Baby Zizanie.
Despite claiming not to have an opinion about file-swapping and software like BearShare, he did prove to have a lot to say about it. "You know, I see it all happening, but you know, it's kind of like walking down to the ocean and yelling and asking the tide not to come in, because the genie's out of the bottle. Nothing that I can do or say is going to change it. There are people who are devoting their lives to it full-time and I don't know what my voice contributed to the argument has to with anything.
"But I do think it's dangerous that a whole generation thinks that they deserve to get music exclusively for free, and what the musicians are a free ride-along? I mean this is a fucking hell of a lot of work; this is not just something like puttering around and I have a day job at a dot-com or something. I think that I should be allowed to be in control of that and the way the whole Napster thing blew up - the whole Metallica business. Napster blew up really because someone took an unfinished song from their studio and put it out through Napster, and that's the point - where someone is saying 'I'm a Metallica fan, therefore I think that it's democratically right for everyone to have access to this'. And it's not their right at all; Metallica should have the final say over what of theirs is distributed, there's the argument. Is it going to be the death of copyright?"
He point out that there are not enough people going to concerts, where everyone can make a living doing music, because there's too many people making music now. He says that he thinks the whole process has been too democratised and that the availabilities of the means has devalued music. "Instead of a lot of quality music out there, there's a lot of content, and content is different. And I think that has devalued it.
"And I also think that maybe there use to be generations of people where music was the central core of what they did with their life, and their lifestyle, it's really important. And it really mattered to them, and now it's like for an ADD generation it's just another piece of upholstery, it's another piece of furniture, it's a decoration, and, none of those words are right... maybe it's an accessory to a lot of other things, you know, the Internet, video games, and DVDs and so on. And I thinků depends, it's changed a lot. There are many different layers to that cake. There's the real underground, then there's the fake underground, then there is the mainstream, all sorts of shit."
So, go to his website (www.foetus.org) and check out some of the latest audios such as "Radiolarian Ooze," you might be surprised to the see the evolution of Foetus, the persona which has a new CD coming out in the autumn of 2003. Consider everything, deny nothing, put your own spin on it, and you'll come out with brilliance almost every time. Well, that is, if you're Jim Thirlwell.
by Sandra Kay