1995 Permission Magazine Interview JG Thirlwell

Foetus by AnaStesia

In a land of darkness, terrorism, homicide, deceit, racism, self-immolation, and hate, one man consistently creates the music characteristic of today’s society. In fact, this man points out that he writes the music he does to avoid misery and suicide. This one man, a self-taught genius who relays the dreary state of conscious reality in an ironically eloquent manner, is known as Jim Thirwell.

The multi-talented Thirwell has an exceedingly caustic take on life. Perhaps his ideology was fostered by his participation in the seminal noise scene in the late seventies in London. Thirwell, along with others like Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse and SPK, created the basis of what today is known as industrial music. These innovative artists pushed music to the limits of painful noise and disturbing confrontations. In the decade of mindless disco, these artists turned music into a unavoidable, harsh commentary on life.

Under nineteen different group identities, Thirwell has released 32 recordings in fourteen years. This man, who constantly changes his name, is hard to pin down. He is well-known by the trademark alias, “Foetus”. His various incarnations are displayed through shifting nomenclature like, “You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath,” “The Foetus All Nude Review,” and “Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel.” The choice to associate himself with the word Foetus was a typical act of his warped and bizarre perspective in our society filled with anti-abortionist fanaticism.

Thirwell continues to expose the gloom of reality and challenge societal conventions with Gash, his first completely new and solely-Foetus release in over six years. The diversity of Gash transcends any weak attempts by modern artists to touch the unique Thirwell style. Drawing upon his musical endeavors over the years, Gash sounds like a mixture of industrial dirge, poignant rock-a-billy, seductive lounge lizards, straight ahead rock and roll, grandeur horns, and the soundtrack for a chaotic action film.

“I think my stuff is really accessible,” stresses Thirwell. Obviously, Columbia records must agree. Oddly enough, after twenty years of festering in the underground, dark corners of the music industry, Thirwell agreed to sign with Columbia Records. Regarding his signing with the corporation, Thirwell stated, “What’s the difference? It’s another label. I don’t have these allegiances to independents that a lot of people like Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll have.” Thirwell pointed out, “I want my records out there and now I’ve got more muscle power. I’ve worked in every facet of the biz from retail to having my own label (Self-Immolation).”

The content of Gash ranges from vengeance and distress to racism and globalism. Thirwell stressed that, “As with all Foetus albums, its very autobiographical,” he paused for an eternal moment, and then continued, “This one may be more so intensely as ever.” The lyrics have an overwhelming theme of loss, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction with the self and the world we live in. The album is a commentary on our society and experiences that everyone shares. Thirwell melded those experiences together throughout Gash and exposed that his life has become more intense than ever before.

Living in a violent and dangerous neighborhood in the dregs of humanity, near a housing project in Brooklyn, Thirwell experienced many of his inspirations for tracks on his latest album. “They Are Not So True” examines the haunting pang of intimidation while “Mighty Whitey” spotlights Thirwell’s experience as a target of racism. On this track, Thirwell tackles the idiocy of politically correct speech codes and racism. Pissed off about abortion clinic bombings, Thirwell recorded, “Take it Outside Godboy,” a quote from Homer Simpson to his zealot neighbor, Ed Flanders infused with the voice of a convicted killer.

The first single from the Null EP, “Verklemmt,” plays on various connotations of this Yiddish word for “emotionally choked up”. This song is a brash expos? on different cultures from around the world. The video for “Verklemmt” expands upon this idea with a fast-paced, in-your-face look at New York City. The video, which has over 2,500 edits in less than four minutes, presents a post-apocalyptic view of New York. While a frenzy of pulsating images sting the viewer, Thirwell makes you realize that this dirgy black and white blurry vision is the reality of urban life for any city in the world.

Just when Thirwell appears the model underground, sadistic artist he mutters something like, “Watch MTV Sports!”

I wondered why or how Thirwell could support MTV. To my surprise, he admitted he does all the voice-overs for the show. Who would’ve ever guessed? This is a man of many personalities. Only a man with so many aliases could criticize himself without even talking about himself; he’s been known to criticize his work as Clint Ruin when he’s speaking through the character and mind of Foetus.

Thirwell doesn’t acknowledge the trite conventions of music industry cliques. He doesn’t care if something reeks of commercialism or hides in the sonic underground. If he likes something, he will let others know. He doesn’t follow trends, he simply does what he wants. In his selfless fashion, Thirwell has put together a series of compilations. These are bands he personally likes and simply wishes to help expose. Volumes 1 and 2 feature all American bands like Cop Shoot Cop, Barkmarket, Unsane, Rocket from the Crypt, Boss Hog, Melvins, and Drive Like Jehu; Vol. 3 features all Japanese bands like the Boredoms, Ruins, Space Streakings, and Zeni Geva. Beyond simply proclaiming bands that he likes, Thirwell actually helps them get record deals; of course, its hard to make him admit it.

After what seemed like pulling teeth, I coerced Thirwell into recounting how he virtually discovered the legendary Einsturzende Neubauten. He witnessed them live in Berlin before they ever had an album out. “I was totally blown away,” stated Thirwell, “I asked them if they’d like to release a full length record in England.” Thirwell took the money he’d received from the royalties of his second album and put all of it exclusively into the production and release of Strategies Against Architecture. After himself being approached by a record label, Thirwell stated, “If you’re going to sign me, you’d better sign them as well.”

Thirwell is one of the most sought-after musicians of the past two decades because he always comes through with quality work and never asks for anything in return. Thirwell has worked with everyone from The Birthday Party to Marc Almond of Soft Cell to the Red Hot Chili Peppers – he’s produced Coil and played on about eight Nurse with Wound albums. Thirwell also has remixed a variety of well-known artists like: Megadeth, the Cranes, Nine Inch Nails, Curve, Pantera, White Zombie, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, EMF, Front 242, Cult, Prong, Fight, Jarboe, and The The. This is just a partial list of work that Thirwell may be accredited with; if questioned about it, Thirwell will remark, “I’m not really in touch with it,” he declares solemnly that, “I create in a void, I don’t really pay attention.”

These artists all seem to be grateful to Thirwell for gracing their material with the Foetus touch, but Thirwell himself proclaims not to remember what most of it sounds like. Thirwell works on one piece at a time, approaching it with no clouded convictions or constraints. He is a studio engineer of disturbing persuasiveness and tremendous scope who at times doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. He stumbles upon a new and unique way of creating. He defines the epitome of the experimental artist. Thirwell never fails to astonish his legends of fans with this method and remains unrivaled by subsequent bands who can never quite match his raw talent.

The ever-modest Thirwell wouldn’t take credit for pioneering the style of music that bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails bank on. This style extends beyond just the musicianship: many “industrial” or “experimental” artists borrow the Foetus intensity, persona, and art. This includes the style that Thirwell has created for his album covers; it is undoubtedly recognizable as another Foetus trademark.

The Foetus artwork evolves through the successive albums sleeves that help characterize the music. The artwork revolves around Thirwell’s distinctive color scheme of red, white, and black scenarios. Thirwell proclaimed, “I’m an art school drop-out,” which is evident in the mixture of historical stylings. His art history classes influenced a desire to create a style based on various propagandist art. He began by mixing World War II propaganda with Chinese Revolutionary propaganda and Russian revolutionary propaganda; the outcome is the first Foetus album cover.

Over the years, Thirwell began to mix in various elements of pop art and Japanese animation. As a very introverted innovator, Thirwell explained that, “everything is coalescing and coming up with my own style that no one was really doing at the time.” His creativity placed him in a very respected position in the pop art world; many young artists began to look to Thirwell for inspiration. At that point, Thirwell pointed out, many people began ripping it off.

“It’s uncanny,” referring to his artwork being copied, Thirwell admitted, “It’s not like I invented that style, but I melded it.” Thirwell recounted that bands like Zodiac Mindwarp ripped him off on their album covers and then admitted it. That is precisely why Thirwell wanted to take his artwork to a whole new level for the design of the Gash album cover.

Thirwell contemplated, “Where can I take it now?” And then one night, walking around Times Square at around 11 p.m. it hit him, “That’s what I’m gonna do: the jumbotron!” Thirwell decided that he would have his artwork projected onto the large television screen in Times Square and then photograph it. The Gash cover somewhat deviates from classic Foetus art because it does not fill out the entire area; subsequently, Thirwell created another unique way to evolve his art, as with his music.

Thirwell said that Gash is “My first actual studio Foetus album where I’ve used outside musicians,” he explained, “I had an amazing brass section and that really made all the difference because I had demoed all the songs myself and these musicians took it somewhere else.”

The musicians that performed on Gash include the Lounge Lizard’s Steven Bernstein; trombone greats Art Barron, Frank London, and Pablo Callogero; Todd Ashley from Cop Shoot Cop, and former Swans (now Unsane) drummer Vinny Signorelli.

In the midst of the Foetus frenzy, Thirwell will be taking a full band out on the road for a world tour this year. Although Jim Thirwell has gone on numerous tours to support his music, he’s only toured with an actual band three times. Thirwell has performed live on stage with various other artists though. He’s performed as Clint Ruin with Lydia Lunch, and he’s also joined many artists to improvise. Under the pseudonym of Slash Volcano he covered Suicide’s “Ghostrider,” as a surprise member of a Soft Cell performance.

Thirteen Thirwell projects will be released this year by three different labels. Beggars Banquet is re-releasing the Foetus back catalogue including Hole, Nail, Sink, and Thaw. Another label will be re-releasing Thirwell’s work as Steroid Maximus, Clint Ruin with Lydia Lunch and Wiseblood. Could this finally be the year for the birth of Foetus into mainstream society?

Source: Permission magazine Fall/Winter 1995, issue #7.