1984 Melody Maker Interviews Foetus

Helen Fitzgerald, superhackette, probes the murky sole of JIM FOETUS.

Foetus, you’d imagine, is not a friendly soul. Enigma extraordinaire, peddlar of sick songs and hostile images, his is a world touched by the dark side of life and to rouse him would surely be asking for trouble. Imagine the gaze of anger in those steely grey eyes, the gutteral snarl of fury spitting from his lips and the malicious scowl that wouldn’t welcome any intrusion. Foetus doesn’t take kindly to strangers.

Jim Thirlwell, on the other hand, is a little shy at first. Despite the bravado of his attire (all black, natch), Jim is really quite a sweetie. Hard to imagine, then, that Foetus is his own creation. More than a creation, perhaps even more than an alter-ego.

Foetus is Jim Thirlwell. The two merged long ago in the backroom of Jim’s mind. Fornication, foetid obsession, death, mutilation and destruction scramble for dominance in his songs. One thing’s for sure – Foetus is not a safe companion to have around.

Separating myth from reality is a tough assignment. Masquerading behind a series of aliases (Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel, You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath, Philip And His Foetus Vibrations, Frank Want, Clint Ruin, etc), Jim has been releasing Foetus music since he came to London from Melbourne five years ago. His history before that is vague.

Picking gingerly at a taco, he comes over all coy when you mention his past.

“Let’s just say I spent 18 years in Australia and hated every minute,” he groans. “I’d really rather not talk about it.”

Of late, Foetus has found some notoriety on these shores, partly through his working connections with friends like Marc Almond, Nick Cave (with whom, along with his lover Lydia Lunch, he toured The States under the “Immaculate Consumptive Tour” banner) and Matt Johnson. Partly also due to Stevo’s unrelenting attempts to get him a recording deal using his own inimitable tactics.

But Foetus is no newcomer to record making. Since he arrived in Britain he has issued a series of bizarre recordings on his own Self Immolation label. Two Foetus albums, three singles and a 12-inch lie in the vaults, and no hip record collection is complete without at least one Foetus ARTifact (sic). Arriving here he worked among us mortals in a record store to finance his studio time.

“By the time I’d put out my second LP I was completely broke and intensely miserable. I was living in a grotty flat in Hackney and because I was knackering myself by spending all my free time in the studio I was sacked from my job – a blessing in disguise, though I didn’t think so at the time. There didn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel – I hated everyone and I hated myself.”

However, an unlikely Fairy Godmother appeared in the roly-poly form of Some Bizarre creator Stevo. The podgy supremo donated unlimited studio time which resulted in an album, “Hole”. This is where the real problems start.

“No-one would release it,” Jim blurts in all innocence. “Everyone was too scared to touch it. Lots of A&R men said they really loved it but were too afraid to take it to their managing directors cos they knew what they’d say.

“That really pissed me off – that they could be so hypocritical about it.”

In reality, their reluctance to touch Jim with a bargepole resulted from two overriding factors. The name “Foetus” would have to go – “I’d rather cut out my tongue,” spits Jim – and the fact that Some Bizarre were involved. Stevo’s reputation with record companies has never been cordial at the best of times.

“Also they genuinely didn’t know what to make of it,” he continues. “They could revel in the fact that it’s got some really catchy, hard songs, but the lyrics were too much for them – they saw the whole album as the product of a sick mind,” he laughs. “Which of course it is.”

“His constant companion is always at hand Makin’ entries in his diary…the diary of SICK-MAN.”

Foetus music is bludgeoning, aggressive and taut. Like his compatriots The Birthday Party, he wallows obsessively in self-mutilating slime – but where TBP fuelled their fire with dissonance, Foetus revels in the charm of mutant disco, in the squalid delights of over-produced rhythm that couple with gutteral vocals to beat the listener to death. There’s humour too, crazed invasions into familiar territory.

The “Batman” theme is in there. Beach Boy rip-offs and Sixties spy movie themes, all scrambled and juxtaposed with grinding insitence. The most perverse part of the “Hole” coctail is that despite its disconcerting hostility it’s damned pleasurable to listen to.

Foetus grins a crocodile smile and drains his Marguerita with alarming speed. “There’s something wonderful about moulding all those clashing elements together. I adore the idea of distorting the funk medium – which I love – and deliberately using a lot of modern cliches as a joke, in submitting to my tendency for paralysing over-the-top production. I’ve tried a lot of different permutations on that but I still cleave to the really hard, fast, violent screams of anguish sort of thing.

“I also like totally non-rhythmic avant-garde music – I’ve had a few forays into semi-background stuff, what I call Foetus Systems Music which usually had fairly dissonant elements. I liked to work on creating an atmosphere and then smashing it to pieces. I’ve never been what you’d call a pussycat,” he grins.

“I’m a fairly calm person, which is due to the fact that I can get a lot of aggression out in my work and then tap back into it when I listen to it again. I used to be a real bastard, you know,” he states with wide-eyed innocence, slugging into another tequlia with convincing gusto.

The “Hole” LP, rejected at every corporate door, has finally been released on Self Immolation through Some Bizarre. Even so, it still faces opposition. “None of the music papers would carry ads for it,” he shrugs, “too tasteless for their readership I expect.” The offending artwork portrays Foetus massacred on a crucifix with “Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel” in a bold black typeface. “I’m not about to make concessions to good taste now,” he chuckles. “If they can’t handle it that’s their problem.”

The album was initially scheduled to be only six tracks long, but faced with the gift of unlimited 24-track studio time Jim indulged himself and added an extra four songs to the project. “The five songs on side two were conceived as a five-song suite which had the working title of “Foetus Diabolos” (death, Satan and Hell are their obvious preoccupation), “and the A side was just going to be a three-minute rendition of “Clothes Hoist”. The trouble is that as I worked on the song it started growing into a monster and the others just came from nowhere.”

“Clothes Hoist” is a riotous (and funny) result of “a totally seedy sex trip” which also produced “Hot Horse”. “I like the way you fill out your clothes – I’m gonna stick my head under your hose…”

“I’ll Meet You In Poland Baby” – a song mirroring the horrors of the Nazi invasion – is aural terrorism taken to extremes. Where does all this venom come from?

Does the mild-mannered Jim Thirlwell live out his fantasies through this monstrous Foetus creation? Is Foetus’ twisted humour a schizophrenic outlet for a paranoid mind?

The culprit clears his throat with a sepulchral rattle. “If you mean do I become a lush, get wasted in bars or get girls to jerk me off to get material for my songs – no,” he mutters. “I don’t try to mutilate myself to find inspiration, like the rock ‘n’ roll myth. It just comes. I’m not writing for an audience. I don’t care if it’s misunderstood or if people think the imagery is dubious or I’m a fake cos basically I’m writing for my own satisfaction. I’ve never made any money from my work and I don’t expect to.”

Drugs of course rear their ugly heads as another possible font of inspiration, but Jim’s reputation in that regard is, he claims, totally exaggerated. Fleeting references to speed and acid are hastily followed by a disclaimer. “For some reason people have an impression of me as a real drug addict and drunkard – all built on hearsay, I might add. I’ve never taken smack in my life but I think that because I’m pretty neurotic and intense people think I’m a junkie.

“I guess my appearance contributes to that,” he smiles, poking a bony finger into his thinly covered ribs. “I’m not the relaxing type, I can’t control it. I have a difficult time getting up to face the world sometimes, can’t leave the house. Agoraphobia takes over completely and the only way I can face riding on the tube is to pull out a notebook and scribble frantically and ignore the outside world. I don’t really ever feel at home – except in the studio.”

He also admits to feeling at home with Lydia Lunch, demented American performance artist and a kindred soul in Foetus’ sordid obsession. But Foetus in love proves to be a coy subject. “Yeah – I feel at home with Lydia but don’t print that, it’s a bit too personal.” (Hey! – I’ve seen Foetus blush!) “I’m supposed to be a tough man y’know!”

Jim spends a lot of time with Lydia in New York, and together they’ve performed several times as Stinkfist. “Basically we just did a few gigs using fundamental rhythms and discordant guitar stuff. I like America. New York, it’s got a certain pulse that London lacks.”

So why not live there all the time? “I guess I don’t want to be a citizen of anywhere, I like the idea of being stateless, homeless, it keeps the creative juices on their toes, y’know?”

With Heaven and Hell playing such predominant roles in his work, I am compelled to ask if Foetus believes in the afterlife and what form it takes in his mind. He tugs absently at a stray lock of hair, gazing into the distance before committing himself to matters of theology.

“Yes, if I think about it I suppose I do, but I’m not sure exactly how I’d perceive it. I believe in Heaven and Hell more in a metaphorical sense, more in the way they occur in this life. The Chinese, I think it’s the Chinese, have this idea of numerology, of life following cyclical patterns, and I can relate to that.

“They say everyone’s life rotates in nine-year cycles. The first three years are idea years, the next three are hard graft and the last three are reaping the rewards of your work. The only thing is by that theory I should have started reaping something a long time ago!

“One of the basic tenents that underlies my maxim for Self Immolation is the idea of positive negativism. The idea basically is that while I’m making what could on the surface be interpreted as a very negative statement, it has certain positive outcomes.

“Firstly it purges the dark side out of my system, which must be positive, and secondly people hearing it may have a positive reaction, an affiliation with it, which is another definite outcome.”

Jim seems such a gentle soul. Not exactly boy scout material of course, but not the kind of bastard who’d pull the wings off a fly. “Well, I wouldn’t count myself as a member of the so-called ‘Me Generation’,” he affirms. “I think I’m quite considerate actually, but I also think that there’s nothing wrong with being selfish as long as it doesn’t injure anyone around you.

“Still,” he grins, “I wouldn’t go as far as to describe myself as a ‘sweetie’. There’s a lot more to Foetus than meets the eye.”

Jim Thirlwell’s New Year resolution for 1984 was to reject fear and guilt. “They’re the two most destructive emotions in life,” he explains.

As yet he’s made no resolutions for ’85. “I’m just waiting to see what happens next…”

Source: Melody Maker of 13 October 1984, Helen Fitzgerald.

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