JG Thirlwell stirs up trouble

The avant-garde mastermind on taking Zola Jesus's industrial pop to new heights

Music Your History
JGT Pigs_PA_1_web

Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused:

"I don’t have children so my art is my legacy, my children. Of course, it doesn’t really matter once I’m dead but, as I said in one of my lyrics, ‘Many people cross the beach and leave no trace / Well, I’m hoping for my footprints to remain.” That’s from a collaboration I did with Melvins called ‘Mine Is No Disgrace’

I went to an all-boys Baptist school in Melbourne for 12 years and religious education was mandatory. I remember getting a bad report card that said my studies were okay but ‘James needs to have more faith’. I was pro-evolution and I’m an atheist to this day.

I graduated high school when I was 16 so I was a couple of years younger than everyone else. By the time I was 18, I’d already gone to art school for two years. But I was always obsessed with music. I was reading books about the processes of Cage and Stockhausen and when punk rock came along I started teaching myself instruments. I went to see the Boys Next Door many times and they were incredible. I left Melbourne a year or two before them, in 1978, and went straight to London, knowing I would never return.

I wasn’t really interested in punk-rock music for very long. It was what happened after that, there were really interesting things coming out and I was fortunate enough to be in England at that time. I bought my first bass guitar and my first synthesiser, and started making tapes in my room. The anxieties of oppressive government, brain-eating cancer, death by slow torture, being forced to go back to school and repeat the 11th grade... that’s just my sense of humour. When I first started Self Immolation I was very into the idea of propaganda and having a manifesto. There were several phrases that I came up with in a particular creative frenzy, which were ‘positive negativism’, ‘hard art’ and ‘aesthetic terrorism’.

When I performed live I needed six freshly slaughtered pig heads. They would be hung at rakish angles on the stage with pin spots on them as decoration. How fresh they were varied – sometimes they were really gamey

I’m pretty sure I met Lydia (Lunch) for the first time when Mick Harvey, who was in the Birthday Party and who I was living with at the time, introduced us in London. I knew who she was – I had the Teenage Jesus records and Queen of Siam before I’d met her. If I remember rightly, Lydia actually coined the term No Wave, which I saw as a very New York-centric collective.

Lydia had gotten the offer of playing at Danceteria in New York and so she proposed to me, Nick Cave and Marc Almond about doing something that involved all of us and came up with the name 
The Immaculate Consumptive. When I came to New York with Immaculate Consumptive it was the polar opposite of London, which used to shut down at 11:15 when the pubs shut. It was a 24-hour city and 
I was totally swept up in it. After we’d done those shows, Nick and Marc went back to London, Lydia went somewhere else and I stayed on here in New York. I’ve lived in Dumbo, Brooklyn, for 25 years in the same loft. Then it was all commercial spaces, no retail whatsoever. The streets were deserted cobblestone streets, full of packs of stray dogs and tumbleweeds. There were literally bulletholes in the windows. No one really came to Brooklyn from the East Village. It was hard to get a cab to come down here.

Wiseblood came about when I moved to New York. One of the first people I met was Michael Gira from Swans. We were pretty close pals – I saw Swans regularly and I knew everyone in the band. I had this idea of an ensemble that would be vocals and four percussionists, and the first person I approached was Roli (Mosimann, Swans drummer). He was interested in electronic production and setting up a studio at the same time, so we got together and started messing around and it took a little bit of a different turn. It became me and him, instead of me and four percussionists.

When the Limelight, a notorious nightclub in a church in New York, opened, some religious organisations took exception and picketed it. One of the signs said, ‘If you’re gonna get down – get down and pray.’ I thought that was hilarious, and when my Foetus album Hole (1984) came out there was a picture of me on the cross quoting that. It was flyposted all over London, particularly in areas like Kilburn, which was heavily Irish Catholic.

JG Thirlwell
JG Thirlwell in 1985 Photo by Denis Chapoullie

The next Foetus album I did was called Nail (1985), and one of the thematic leitmotifs that ran through it was pigs. I did a photo session (pictured right) to promote it that was a cross between Rambo and Lord of the Flies. I was wrapped in bandages and smoking a cigar with pig heads on stakes and a machine gun. When I performed live I needed six freshly slaughtered pig heads. They would be hung at rakish angles on the stage with pin spots on them as decoration. How fresh they were varied – sometimes they were really gamey. One time I was playing a show in Atlanta and I took one down. I was humping it while I was singing and a kid in the audience grabbed the snout and took a bite. I was thinking, ‘That’s instant trichonosis.’ 

I started Manorexia in 2000. I think about the term “manorexia” as a starvation of the human spirit. If you look at Manorexia, like the last album (Dinoflagellate Blooms, 2011), which had x-rays and syringes, these are the things that make up your life force. That’s also the way I see Foetus. It’s the most basic building-block of humanity. It’s inescapable. 

All my very early works are informed by contemporary classical music – it wasn’t until later that any rock elements entered into it. Zola Jesus was offered the show at the Guggenheim so she started asking around about people who could do it. We had this mutual friend, Micki Pellerano, who suggested me, and she knew my work. I like the idea that I can be JG Thirlwell without the other aliases in parentheses any more, which is starting to happen. I don’t need to carry around the baggage of all those things in everything that I do. There’s still an undercurrent of politics and the human condition in what I’m talking about but I’m not doing it so much with baseball bats and pig heads.”

Versions by Zola Jesus featuring JG Thirlwell is out on August 19 on Sacred Bones

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