1995 Bside Magazine Interview JG Thirlwell

Bitter, Twisted & Happy

The man known as Foetus is a man of many moods. And those moods can swing, baby, just like that. Although to be fair, the situation probably wasn’t helped by the almost empty bottle of vodka and the well-on-their-way-to-being-emptied six packs (yes, the plural, packs) sitting before him at our interview.

“You! You! You hate me! You never write about me!”, he grumbles at me as I walk in. I have no idea what he’s talking about, so I ignore it. (Although a certain B-Side editor did have a run-in with Foetus’ ex -Lydia Lunch a few years ago. But that’s another story.) (After I suffer through a three hour soundcheck Lydia, who is running the show, tells me J G. won’t talk.. he’s too tired. You remember these things …. editor)

If you don’t think that you’re familiar with Foetus, you probably are and just don’t realize it. This man, better known to his friends as Jim Thirlwell-but please call him J.G.-has released some 32 recordings in 14 years under 19 different group names. He has recorded under various Foetus monikers, as Wiseblood, and as Clint Ruin, among others. In addition to that prolific output he is also the re-mix master general, re-working songs for everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Pantera. He still does all his work at his home studio, located in a tough section of Brooklyn.

It all began for this native of Melbourne, Australia when he moved to London in the late 70s and began to work seriously on music. He moved to New York in the early 80s and grabbed that rent-controlled apartment, in which he still resides. His latest release, Gash, is also his major label debut, after an amazing 13 years of various independent labels.

“I’ve never bragged about a record before, but I feel that I can brag about Gash, because it’s the ultimate for me. It’s got everything, and it’s exhausting to listen to. I can barely get through it. After one vocal I did, I sat back and was listening to it and I thought ‘I don’t want to meet this guy’, and it was me.”

And Gash is a great record and exhausting to listen to. His music runs the gamut from “industrial” to demented big band swing and all points in between. A personal favorite being ‘Take It Outside Godboy,’ his reaction to the recent wave of violence at abortion clinics. And there’s also ‘Mighty Whity’ and’ They Are Not So True,’ not-so-politically-correct reactions to living across the street from a brutal housing project. The first single and video is ‘Verklemmt,’ a song that will no doubt be playing during the coming apocalypse. And since Gash is on Columbia, J.G. now finds himself label mates with Tony Bennett and Mariah Carry, his record sitting side by side with theirs. After dealing with indies for so long, I wondered if it was a relief to finally be on a major.

“A label is a label. I certainly don’t subscribe to the whole indie vs. major thing, I think that’s so bogus. I have been so dicked over by independent labels so bad, and I’ve even had my own label. I’ve worked in every aspect of this business. I’ve worked for a year on this record deal and I deserve it.”

At this point, it becomes clear that the whole “sell out” accusation is one that J.G. is ready and waiting for, and he becomes defensive.

“I have been putting out records for a long time and I have not compromised in any way! And I cannot wait for someone to say that I have compromised when they hear this record … I have not compromised. If anything this is the most sophisticated, most melodic, most noisy …. it is ten light years ahead of everything I’ve ever done. And just because I’m on a major doesn’t mean that I got a big budget. The budget for this was not appreciably larger than any of my other records.”

Does he ever find that in doing business with label people (read: straight-laced record executives) that the Foetus reputation precedes him?

“I would hope that it does. Do (you) mean like, ‘oh, here comes no-more-Mr.-Niceguy’? Well, I hope it does! I’m not going to take any shit from them, I don’t have to be nice to no one. Let them be nice to me, I’m the one who should be throwing the tantrums.”

This is the attitude that has created some minor legends … ones that we won’t get into here. Use your wildest imagination setting and you still won’t come close. J.G. lives it like he talks it. Say no more.

So how many people does he think have followed his career since the bloody beginning?

“I have no idea. I just get royalty checks.”

An expected answer. At least he’s getting those checks. This one may be easier … what are Foetus fans like, generally?

“They vary from meek guys who are like (trembles), and I have a lot of-I don’t want to say rabid fans-because that’s an understatement. I mean scarily rabid, very scariliy rabid. So rabid that they scare me. To the point of tattoos and blood stained letters. And I get a lot of phone harassment. They’re somewhere between rabid and psychotic.” He laughs at his own description. “Really, they’re that bad.”

Any scary gifts from those fans?

“They usually just give me portraits and things. The more unusual gifts have come from my personal life. The most unusual thing I ever got was in ’82, for Valentine’s Day. I got a sheep’s heart wrapped in black velvet in the mail. That was probably the most horrifying thing, I get a package in the mail and I’m like ‘ooh, what’s this?’ and then I unwrap it and I’m like ‘OH MY GOD!!’ And I’ve had bomb threats at shows, and I guess that’s a present.”

“Both of them (bomb threats) were in Holland, which is funny, because it’s supposed to be such a liberal country. The first was from some militant feminist organization, and the second one was from God-knows-who. So we had to stop the show in the middle, and it ended up on the front page of the newspaper in whatever town it was in. It shows these disgruntled looking punk rockers sitting on the curb waiting to get back into the auditorium. So everyone files back in and it was the greatest, because of the electricity of sharing that mutual experience.” J.G. waxes sarcastic, delivering, “Because they know ‘this guy means business, this guy is so dangerous he gets bomb threats.'”

“A lot ot the weird things that happen at shows I don’t remember. I get told about them afterward. On the last tour in Minneapolis we have a song called ‘Death Rape 2000’ that goes ‘bomp bomp bomp’ with all kind of strobes going. So I’m standing out in the audience watching the band do this for about ten minutes and then I tried to leave through the fire escape while the band was playing, because I knew that it would set off all the (fire) alarms, and the bouncers pulled me back and threw me back on stage.”

Other antics include blacking out and passing out ten minutes before show time in Boston. But in true “the show must go on!” spirit he played the show anyway and “apparently it was good.” J.G. not proud of these intoxicated escapades, but it’s still a funny story.

The biggest Foetus-mis-conception?

“That I’m a necrophiliac. Not true at all,” he deadpans rather unconvincingly. Later on he states, “My touring band is going to be all dead people, re-animated.”

Why, so they can be fucked after show?

“Yes, I’m going to have dead groupies as well.”

One of this writer’s all time favorite records is Nail, by Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel. It’s one of those LPs where you can’t listen to just one song, you have to listen to the whole thing, beginning to end, or not at all. I often thought if maybe perhaps it was meant to be part of a bigger project, such as a stage play.

J.G. responds, ‘To me, music is the highest form of art. I love music so much. It’s the most intangible form of art. I don’t like theater or dance; I love film though. And I do all my own art work. I love visual art. But to me music is the ultimate art because you can’t touch it, you can’t feel it, everyone has their own interpretation of it and it can move you so much. Emotionally, intellectually, and it’s intangible. That’s why I don’t like record reviews because I like everyone to have their own interpretation of my work.

“But on Nail there are long, copious sleeve notes, and the ironic thing is that the record is about oppression and two days after I finished the record I was in jail. I wrote the sleeve notes in jail. So that’s about as literal as I get. Every record is a living diary of what I was going through at that time.”

So J.G., in jail for what?

“Spitting on the sidewalk. No, it was jaywalking. Jaywalking! Two and a half days they held me for jaywalking! Can you believe it? Those fucking Finnish cops.”

As the interview draws to a close I ask if he has any parting words.

“Well, that was brief. See, I knew that B-Side hated me.”

Really, we don’t hate you.

J.G. won’t give up. ‘Well, how come I get no features?”

YOU’RE GETTING ONE NOW! “You know, it’s because I hate fucking Boston. I do, I hate fucking Boston.”

Excuse me? What does B-Side have to do with Boston? We’re not from Boston. “You’re not? You never have been? Oh. Well, maybe it was someone else.”

See, you’ve been haranguing me this whole time and it’s not even the right magazine.

“Well, I thought you hated me.” Honestly J.G.. We don’t.

Source: B-Side magazine of November/December 1995, written by Amy Beth Yates, photograph by Ken Hinchey.