He isn’t at all the bastard you expect him to be. He’d disagree with that – he’d be the first to call himself difficult or surly, every bit the man his infamously uncompromising music has made him out to be. But for Jim G. Thirlwell, best know to the world as … well, not best know as anything in particular really – identity traits are hard to stick to. That’s what happens when you adopt a new pseudonym at seemingly every breath; your personality will forever be called into question by those wondering if you’re just putting on an act to go with the name. And what names! Scraping Foetus off the Wheel. Clint Ruin. Wiseblood. Steroid Maximus. Manorexia. 20 years of aural terrorism that began while Thirlwell was an art student growing up in Australia, soaking up the influences of that continent’s punk explosion (which produced the career of a Thirlwell friend and occasional collaborator Nick Cave). A move to England, the founding of industrial music, the legendary push to get famed noise auteurs Einsturzende Neubauten a record deal at the same time Thirlwell landed his own. A more recent past that finds him taking residence with punk priestess Lydia Lunch in New York City and plumbing the seediest elements of Brooklyn for musical inspiration.
Anyway, you review the man’s history and it becomes easy to develop a perception of Thirlwell as some sort of swaggering blank-o-phobe and classic badass who you’d rather not look in the eye. But damned if he isn’t – like every single other underground musician with that sort of reputation – a perfect gentleman.
Thirlwell, aka Foetus, has been at this game for a long time – an staggering feat given his utter unwillingness to compromise his vision for greater material success. Sure, there have been big dollar projects: remix work for everyone from Nine Inch Nails (check Fixed and Further Down the Spiral), the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pantera and scads of others. His award-winning work on MTV Sports, for which he created the music and performed voiceovers. The commercials. But all of that has provided mere fuel for the fire of his personal creative output: the unrelenting aural assault you undergo when listening to his records using the Foetus moniker (and myriad variations on that theme – from You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath to Foetus Interruptus), or the ancillary projects that seem to pop up like weeds.
And after two decades, his prolific output remains undiminished; he’ll release three different records this summer alone: the new full length, Flow, a follow-up remix E.P., Blow and the first album under his newest moniker, Manorexia. That amidst appearances as DJ OTEFSU at places like the Beauty Bar in Los Angeles, or at the upcoming Fetish Ball at the Hollywood Athletic Club, and a world tour with the Foetus live band in support of Flow. It was actually on this world tour that Choler caught up with Thirlwell, to discuss his latest spate of typically frenetic activity.
Listen to the full interview:
Sean Flinn: The first questions I have for you are really about the new album, Flow. When did you start working on it? How long did it take to put together?
Jim Thirlwell: Well, like all my albums, it took my entire life to put together. Some of the songs date back, from starting them, to like maybe the mid-’90s, and they sort of sat there gestating without a home until I dragged them out of retirement and reworked them. But a majority of it was done over a period of probably about a year to 18 months. And then it took about another year before it was released. Like a lot of my stuff … my projects tend to bottleneck and all come out at once. So there’re, like, 3 albums coming out this year.
I know you’ve mentioned before that a lot of your work tends to be very conceptual – from the 4-letter-word albums titles to the artwork. I’m wondering if there was any kind of guiding concept behind Flow at all.
Well, mostly that becomes apparent after the fact. Or, actually not so much after the fact, but usually when I’m about three quarters through an album, nearing the end, I kind of start to look at it, and I say, “O.K. What’s missing from this picture? What do I want to round it out? What’s missing in terms of flavor and intensity?” Not “Have I touched on every facet of the history of recorded music.” Maybe I’ve left a few stones unturned … maybe not. So, with Gash — Gash was a really extreme ultimate statement of intent, in terms of that sort of thrilling violence and negativity and finality and stuff. I really felt like I’d finessed it and made the statement that I wanted to make — that I’d been trying to make for some time. But it’s almost redundant to keep repeating that statement. But that started to get mirrored in my life, that whole finality and that negativity physically manifested itself, and that’s kind of what I was crawling back from with Flow. The idea of Flow is … even the title connotes a kind of continuum — the flow of ideas, the flow in my life. Flow is what I kind of aspire to — it’s like balance. It’s like channeling. And I don’t pretend to have attained that yet.
Your recent bio from Thirsty Ear Records mentions that somewhere in the past couple of years, you’ve acquired this sort of newfound joie de vivre …
Well, I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say joie de vivre. I mean … newfound vivre! As opposed to mort. I think I have a really strong survival instinct, because there are extremely strong forces at work to kill me — mainly emanating from myself. But I guess that there’s this underlying thing that just keeps me fucking alive.
Do you think maybe – not to get too esoteric here – that the tension in there, between the forces that want to kill you and the survival instinct, sometimes produces the art that comes out of you?
Yeah. Well, it keeps me alive long enough to talk about it. Absolutely.
We talked about the bottleneck of projects a little bit. Does anything have to do with whom you’re signed to at the time? I know Gash came out on Sony, and you mentioned there that that was a really definitive personal statement for you. I’m wondering if the timing of that personal statement accorded with what Sony wanted from you at all. Did you run into any friction with them at all? Or were they behind you 100% on that project?
Well, I liked the people I worked with up there, and there was never any question about artistic control. But, you know, the powers that be at, like, Business Affairs in Japan or wherever, pulled the plug on Foetus before it even had a chance to get started. And I did tour for a while off of that, and some other things came out … and at that point, I’d toured for a while, I wasn’t writing new material and I was not really in any state to, and some things came out to give the illusion of activity. But it was a big detour in my life. A fork in the road.
O.K. We know that the follow-up to Flow, Blow, will be coming out in the Fall. And I’ve noticed that a lot of your work tends to come out in pairs, or kind of in groups. You had Null and Void [the E.P.s that bookended Gash], Hole and Nail—
Well, Hole and Nail weren’t really a pair. Hole was more … that clump was like, the 12″s that came out around then, which was Finely Honed Machine, Calamity Crush, Wash / Slog. That was that clump, on Hole. And then Nail sort of existed unto itself, but out of the same sessions arose “Ramrod” and “Bedrock.” But yeah – it does sort of like come in clumps. Maybe I exhaust myself – I sort have this stuff to say, and then I’m like, “Oh – and another thing! Oh god! There’s something I forgot here!” And then I get that out of my system and I enter a new phase. There’s some threads to previous works, but I think it’s an ongoing refinement, a sophistication, and hopefully it’s a process – it’s progression. I’m progressing. Because I do see it as a body of work. I do see it as my legacy, I do see it as a docudrama of my life.
Can we talk a little bit about the live shows, since I just saw you sound check and everything here? I’ve seen you play on a couple occasions – once on the Gash tour, which seemed to have slightly higher production values (video screens and a lot of presence), whereas now, and at a show subsequent to the Gash show, you’ve gotten a little bit more stripped down. How do you bring the recorded material to the stage? Are you consciously thinking of taking the material live …
No, not when I record it. Not at all. I think that that would hinder the instrumentation that I use. And it’s interesting to reinterpret it live, because then I [can ask myself], “OK, what elements am I going to retain? What instrument is going to be playing this part? How am I going to tighten up the structure of this arrangement?” It breathes new, different life into the song.
And of course, the Foetus live band has always been a kind of revolving door, because the participants are invariably in other bands as well. But, you know, a bit of the flavor of their personalities and sounds come through. But it’s pretty much re-arranging.
How tough is it for you to communicate your vision of what you want the show to be to the musicians that you bring in, especially with the rotating lineup?
Not that difficult. I pretty much know what I want. I know the sounds that I want, I know the notes that I want them to play. I have a pretty strong vision of what I want. And I think I’m pretty good at articulating that.
Given an unlimited budget, what would your fantasy stage show look like?
I would love to have a full brass section. I mean, a much larger ensemble, I would say. It’s not inconceivable that that might happen.
I know that, on your records, you have played around with big band music and hot jazz and stuff like that …
I mean, I would love to do that live.
So you’d love to do a whole show of just big band-style stuff?
Well, big band with my regular instrumentation as well.
How does the big band stuff and the jazz stuff tie into some of the more aggressive rock-oriented stuff?
I think that stuff is aggressive. You know? And sometimes it’s just hair-raising. I come at it like … you know, I’m not an authority on big band music or jazz at all. I don’t necessarily have any knowledge about what I’m pillaging.
But it sounds good and I imagine it’s fun to play. You’ve released a pretty staggering amount of work under something like 20 different pseudonyms over the years. What drives you to adapt a new pseudonym? What outlet does, say, Wiseblood or Clint Ruin afford you that Foetus doesn’t? Especially given that there is a lot of stylistic diversity underneath the Foetus umbrella.
Well, Wiseblood is a collaboration, so it had its name unto itself. It had a definite agenda, which was like, violent macho American [music] made by non-Americans. Steroid Maximus was a kind of breakaway, a reaction against what on the Foetus albums had become about 50%b instrumental. However, there was still this perception about Foetus that was like, “Violent this that and that.” I wanted to put the emphasis on the music without putting a literal interpretation on it. It was also an opportunity to collaborate with a bunch of other people. And then there’s Manorexia, which is anew thing, which I’m just putting out through the Website, foetus.org, and selling at shows. It has a different criteria, which is: I wanted something that had a more spatial quality, something that was pretty spontaneous. It started life as ambient, but it’s really ambient, it’s more like a sort of psychotic soundtrack.
What drives you to be so prolific, to put out so much material?
I think it’s really my legacy. I think it’s because I’m a fucking egomaniac. And those are my children, you know? It’s basically – that’s so important to me, my legacy. It’s sick, I know. It’s so superficial. But that’s the way that I envision my life and that’s the way that I interface with … your world.
I guess you could look at it this way: you could be an egomaniacal, say, businessman who is just trying to accumulate things, as opposed to being an egomaniacal artist who is producing things that other people can enjoy. So there’s a little bit of redemption there.
So, into the final questions: From your cover art to your lyrics, which occasionally reflect a fascination with pop culture (I’ve noticed some cartoon references in there – for example, “Take it Outside, Godboy,” which is taken from a Simpsons line, and there are lyrics from cartoon theme songs in some of your lyrics), I’m lead to wonder just how much pop culture you absorb?
Well, often a lot. It rents way too much space in my head sometimes. What started as kind of a guilty pleasure turned into an unhealthy obsession. I’m pulling away from that altogether. It sort of creeps into your bones like cancer, or something.
Especially — well, you still live in Brooklyn, correct?
I mean, living in America in general, it’s hard to get away from it, and in New York, you’re at the center of the pop culture universe.
Oh yeah. And I think we’re all bombarded with a lot of images, and some of those things just sort of come in, whether I like it or not. They rear their heads.
What fascinates you the most? What attracts you the most? Any particular TV shows or books or movies?
I’ve kind of stopped watching TV. I’ve put a bit of an embargo on it. And I dunno. Whatever it is [that fascinates me], it changes all the time. I don’t have a “Top 10 Things That I Do.” It really changes daily, but I think that I soak up a lot of things and the things that I spew out might not necessarily be things that reflect what my personal tastes are. And what my personal tastes are – stuff that I listen to or expose myself to aren’t necessarily because I really like those things, but I want to experience those things, or understand them.