Jim Thirlwell may not be a name that’s immediately recognizable to most people, but it seems that nearly everyone has been exposed to his talents whether they know it or not. For some, they may be touched by his commanding way of saying “…and next on MTV Sports,” and others may have been affected by his diverse musical abilities which manifest themselves in many forms. Whatever the case, Jim Thirlwell is a man who has done more for the music that you listen to than you probably realize.
His main vehicle for musical expression is under the name of Foetus. In existence for over a decade and a half, Foetus has reared its adorable little head in one incarnation or another and unleashed an innovative musical fury each time it surfaces. Coupled with the work of Wiseblood and Clint Ruin, Mr. Thirlwell has adopted enough alter egos to satisfy his unclassifiably diverse musical personae. If not performing on stage, his creative talents can be seen producing or re-mixing works from a variety of both well known and lesser known artists. When asked what fuels this incredible creative drive, his response was simply, “I do it because I love all music.”
His love of music literally is his life, not simply because it is his career, but because it has been a part of him ever since he can remember. His earliest memory is of sitting in kindergarten and serenading a beautiful young lady named Viva with Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” The Monkees have the unique distinction of being the first concert that Jim ever attended. The second and third slots were reserved for two Gary Glitter performances. In addition, growing up with The Who, David Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, and Jethro Tull turned him into a confessed musicaholic.
The emergence of The Ramones and The Saints, among others, swept him away in the punk rock explosion and found him running away from Australia to London in the late 70’s. “When I moved there in ’78, there were a lot of exciting things happening like Joy Division and Gang Of Four,” Thirlwell recalls. Besides spending five nights a week seeing bands and being penniless, Jim would also occupy his time learning to play instruments and recording whatever he could create.
“I am as heavily influenced by what I hear on the subway as by what I hear on a TV commercial for this music… I am a sponge for it; I am a sponge and a filter.”
Even as his own career grew, Jim never lost his love for other people’s talent at creating great music. After witnessing a performance by Einsturzende Neubauten in Berlin in 1982, he approached Blixa Bargeld and asked him if he would like to have their albums released in England. By taking all the profits generated from Foetus’ second album, Ache, Thirlwell worked out a distribution deal with Rough Trade. He assisted Neubauten with the assembly of Strategies Against Architecture. Soon after putting the collection together, Some Bizarre Records approached him about signing to their label, but Thirlwell responded by saying “If you are going to sign me, then you are going to sign them.” Some Bizarre agreed, but they did not want to release a Neubauten retrospective; they wanted to focus on new material instead. After securing a deal through Mute to release the retrospective, both Neubauten and Foetus embarked on a pleasant relationship with Some Bizarre that would last for years to come.
Thirlwell proceeded to book the first Neubauten shows in England and also got them on the cover of NME. “It was a lot of work, but I’m glad that I did what I set out to achieve: to get them recognition,” Thirlwell proudly proclaims. His selfless assistance in the furthering of Neubauten’s work is enough to make even the most bitter person a bit weepy.
With only his instinct as his guide, Thirlwell’s interests definitely placed him a dozen steps ahead of common acceptance. Neubauten being the most obvious example, he has had a hand in influencing countless other artists on a variety of levels. Frank Kozik has cited Jim Thirlwell’s graphic designing talents as a major influence in his overwhelmingly popular style. His most notable homage is the strikingly similar use of Chinese and Russian propaganda images in his art; a style that Thirlwell created and used in album covers for releases such as Custom Built For Capitalism. In other music-related interests, he has worked extensively with Cop Shoot Cop and helped to produce their first album, as well as giving White Zombie a helping hand in their career.
His involvement with White Zombie appears to be a rather touchy subject at best. Thirlwell produced the four-song demo cassette which won them a recording contract with Geffen Records. “Believe me,” he says, “those four songs sounded better than anything that ever ended up on the album.” In 1995, White Zombie’s second album contained a track entitled, “More Human Than Human,” which pushed them into mainstream notoriety. The amusing aspect about this is that four years earlier, in 1991, Wiseblood’s Petal To The Metal 12″ featured a song entitled “Stop Trying To Tie Me” that could easily be mistaken for White Zombie’s “More Human Than Human.” Thirlwell’s only comment about the eerie similarity of the two songs was, “I know, I know.”
“Bjork also totally ripped me off too… I know she did with one of those Wiseblood big band songs,” Jim interjects. “Right when the Sugarcubes broke up, they heard the big band direction that I was taking at the time and suddenly she had a big band song that was a total Wiseblood rip-off.” Thirlwell admits that he can’t take credit for creating big band music, but as he puts it, “I was the only one subverting it all the time.”
Though the integrity of some artists seems to be greatly lacking, Jim has been able to maintain his own system of creative purity. “I want to create new forms of music because the bottom line is that I consider myself a songwriter as well as an artist, producer, etcetera.”
“Ten or twelve years ago, I relinquished any obvious influences and I began to influence myself,” he explained. “It is a growing process where it has taken a logical path that has moved onward and upward the whole time.”
There is no doubt that Jim Thirlwell’s creativity is consistently moving onward, breaking away from the rest of the crowd. Unlike some contemporaries in the field, Mr. Thirlwell is not embarassed in the least by any of his early releases. “I don’t listen to them necessarily, though it might be kind of embrarassing if I did. But, if I had not done those records, I would not be where I am now,” he states.
“I got a lot of things out through systems experiments and tape experiments… when I started creating music, sampling technology didn’t exist, but I was using tape loops and mixing desks to get the same effect.”
However, with the advent of newer production technology, Jim has no qualms about picking up whatever is at hand as long as it helps him to create the desired effect within a song. “Every song is a new adventure. Sometimes it starts with a sound; sometimes I have the entire thing written in my head and I have to go through the laborious process of transferring it to tape. Other times I will experiment; sometimes I will sit down at the piano. I have even dreamed an entire song and transcribed it the next morning.”
“I don’t enter into the whole analog versus digital aurgument because I figure that if you know what the hell you are doing, you can make digital sound just as good as analog and vice versa. I pride myself on the idea that I can make machines visceral and sexy. A lot of people think that everything I do is computer-driven, but that is not the case. All the drums, guitars, violins are live, and I am able to enhance them with sequencing. When it comes to the live experience, I am able to reinvent those songs in a different format. I am not restricted to basic drums, guitars, and vocals, so I can perceive a song as a big band piece or an orchestra meets big band meets punk rock meets Deep Purple all in the same verse. Reinterpreting them live is challenging and it is almost like rewriting the songs as something totally different. The band is the gun and I am the bullet. I have made those decisions at rehearsals; I crack the whip and they do it. I leave lots of room for changes and extensions which makes it a different experience every night, so the studio is totally different from playing live, but both are very rewarding, as I see it.”
As for everything pertaining to his career, it is not possible to put Jim Thirlwell into a properly labeled box and expect him to stay. His ideas on organizing live performances fit perfectly with is varied musical talents; they are unpredictable, but characteristically him.
A nice variety of Thirlwell’s products are readily available through varied outlets, with new additions coming at an alarming rate. In the fall of 1996 Jim began writing his next album, which will hopefully be available sometime late in 1997. To tide people over till then, there are a host of items that should be quite satisfying.
Most notable is the completion of the back-catalog re-releases. Prompted by the scarcity of the early Foetus items, Jim wanted to make them available again to satisfy the individuals who are having difficulty acquiring the music. “It’s disgusting to see how much money some of the items are going for,” Thirlwell states. “I wouldn’t pay that.” He does concede that it is flattering to see such a demand for his work, therefore, he wants to make it readily available to all who are interested. A Foetus in every home, if you will.
Thirsty Ear has already re-released Sink, Dirtdish, Hole, Nail, and Thaw, with Deaf and Ache following shortly for the first time since their release in the early 80’s. Big Cat has re-released two Steroid Maximus albums, Wiseblood’s PTTM, and the double live CD, Male. Null and Void will be released together on one CD.
In addition, there is a rather unique project called First Exit To Brooklyn due out soon. First Exit To Brooklyn is a suite of four ten minute pieces that are all based on the neighborhood where Jim resides, in which he displays the aspects of oppression that come with life in the ghetto. The performers featured will be Jim Thirlwell, of course, Lydia Lunch, Kurt Wolf of Pussy Galore, members of Elysian Fields, and many more. Thirlwell scored the entire work for a nine piece orchestra. Included in the orchestra are a wide selection of instruments including a conch, trombone, digeredoo, tuba, and tin whistle. The entire piece was, in fact, recorded under the first exit to Brooklyn in a stone cavern with fifty foot ceilings. Thirlwell scored the entire piece and then sat down with the participants and taught the band a few themes that he had in mind. He drafted the piece on a time line and gave each musician their own clock to follow. As the piece progressed, each member was given a time frame for their contribution, and they rotated through the line-up abiding by the clocks. Jim’s reaction to the final mixing of the piece? “It’s very intense.”
Reflecting on his own career, Jim views his work as soul music; music from the soul. It is his artistic instinct that has already garnered him the revered status in the minds of many devoted fans as well as fellow musicians. What the future holds is uncertain, but you can count on the fact that Jim Thirlwell will undoubtedly have a profound effect in molding the music that we all enjoy through the many outlets in which he employs his unique talents. -Dave Henderson and Jean Jansen
Source: Interface magazine of Spring 1997, version 4.1.