Peter Christopherson [Throbbing Gristle, The Threshold HouseBoys Choir]: Interview
“The Brainwaves Festival is likely to be my last THBC experiment for some time, and should not be missed if at all possible.”
It's not every day you get to interview a legend. Besides co-founding three of post-punk's most important bands (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Coil), Peter Christopherson has worked in video and other artistic mediums for nearly 40 years. After being dubbed “wreckers of civilization” with Throbbing Gristle, “Sleazy” parted ways with Chris Carter and Cosey Fanny Tutti, and along with cohort Genesis P-orridge, he went on to form Psychic TV. Initially conceived as a counter-culture alternative to MTV (both PTV and MTV were birthed in the same year, 1981), it became a platform for Christopherson's video work. Meanwhile, his work in Coil continued his sample-based song-crafting until the tragic death of bandmate and sometimes partner John Balance in 2004. As the door on Coil was closed, though, another door was reopened with the reunion of Throbbing Gristle in 2005, who performed that year at the ICA in London nearly 30 years after they were banned.
I chatted with Sleazy through email from his Thailand home to discuss his days with TG, PTV and Coil, his video work, and new projects SoiSongs and The Threshold HouseBoys Choir, the latter of which who will be heading to the U.S. this week to perform the Brainwaves Festival in Boston.
First off, may I call you Sleazy?
So, you are about to make a lengthy trip from your Thailand home to play the Brainwaves fest in Boston, with your solo project The Threshold HouseBoys Choir. How did you come to be involved with the Brainwaves Fest? Is this your first time playing it?
It is, although Jon [Whitney, founder and creator of Brainwashed] asked me many times before.
To be honest, in the Rest of the World, there's considerable anti-American sentiment right now, as a consequence of the Bush Administration's foreign and financial actions, resulting in the USA (esp the rich) being seen as looking after their own interests, at the expense of everyone else in the world. People ARE starving at this moment in some countries (or killing each other) as a direct result of Bush's policies. My life savings are worth just 60% of what they were a year ago, largely as a consequence of the greed and short-sightedness of bankers in Wall Street.
But I have always loved the American landscape and genuine grassroots American people, so wanted to come and see them again. Possibly if McCain had gotten in, it might have been for the last time.
Can you tell us a little about The Threshold HouseBoys Choir. Listening to some of THC, I see a continuation of the largely sample-based music of Coil, but with a more new age, epic feel. Are your musical methods in THC similar to those you utilized in Coil. Is it primarily sample based? Or do you use other instrumentation?
Since I have no conventional musical training, my hands are not skilled in playing any instrument properly. So my vehicle for arrangement of songs remains Ableton's Live (currently v7), but most of the music I make these days uses emulations of real instruments, with which I can write (and correct) actual melodies, that I can then filter and mutate away from convention, rather than using samples of existing slabs of sound or other music as inspiration, as I did more with Coil.
Having said that, many of the vocals on my new songs are my houseboys singing along to popular Thai songs, but then twisted and mangled beyond recognition. Thai boys are brilliant at copying and Karaoke, but if you say “just sing something random to these chords, and I'll twist it later,” they panic!
Your sampling career goes back further than your THC or even Coil days. From the early COUM Transmission actions, you've been obsessed with capturing and restructuring the sounds of the world. Can you speak to the use of samples in your work going back to those early days. It seems to be a constant thread in your art, from the snippets of British TV on Throbbing Gristle songs to your more recent work, why does this medium appeal to you so much?
Just walking along the street, I am constantly struck dumb by the beauty of a piece of rust on an old gate, or the purity of the sound of a blind beggar singing for his supper, or the chord made by three competing air-conditioners. I think that most people filter out those kind of things from their perception of life, by necessity -- to avoid going mad from the overload. In doing so, they miss a whole mind-blowing, extraordinary world of joy.
All I have always tried to do is share my joy, that joy, with other people.
Unfortunately, to see these things and not go mad myself, I have had to filter out different things, such as where I put my glasses, or what day it is, or whether I have spilled noodle-sauce on my trousers. ,-)
Obviously the Mellotron used tapes to reproduce the sound of real instruments, and backings, and the Fairlight was invented (it seems to me) to do the same thing, only digitally and with more tools for composition and manipulation. But I was using one of the first Apple IIs ever made on stage with TG, before the first Fairlight even left Australia, to reproduce all kinds of sounds and “music concret” – I never understood why these wonderful toys should only be used to put a string-player out of a job.
“Look what I can do with the sound of a Polaroid camera, or some teenagers first gasping ejaculation, or the sobbing confessions of a young murderer or mercenary, or the regular thump and hiss of a life-support machine!” I thought. How much more power and meaning do those sounds have, than a not very clear reproduction of a French horn playing a B flat? For me, it's a no-brainer.
"Someone should make it impossible for computers to allow the inclusion of the word ‘music' and the word ‘business' in the same sentence."
What is SoiSong? How did you come to work with Ivan Pavlov?
Ivan had been friend of Coil since he first visited us when we lived in London in the '90s. At that time, he had only recently left his life in the heady Russian Academic World and moved to Sweden with his charming and beautiful (and then pregnant) Russian wife. We all hit it off immediately, and soon after, Ivan was able to support Coil not only on stage when we toured there, but in all our dealings with Russians, who we discovered were a proud (in a good way), independent and imaginative people... Not Western or Eastern but somehow BOTH.
Ivan's Russian army training and obviously high levels of testerone were a perfect compliment to the bunch of Nellies that Coil consisted of, though our relationship has always been strictly platonic, and probably pentatonic, as well.
When Coil ceased to exist (John & I & Coil were One Thing – I could not ever imagine part of that Singularity being changed or replaced), I initially thought I would probably continue to make music solo, but Ivan came on holiday to Thailand, where I now live, and after lots of (probably drunken) conversations around the pool, it became clear we agreed on many subjects, including the most interesting way forward for music, and [it was] natural that we should collaborate on something.
Our first efforts -- making songs based on cut-ups of a Japanese girl's singsong memories of the melodies of her childhood, has yet to be completed -- but it showed us that we could work together enjoyably and bring very different elements to the project.
This was a new experience for me, having been largely the sole originator of the sound of Coil songs (as distinct from the lyrics which were all John's). Based on the experience of working together in my studio, Ivan and I decided to form a band together, and after many attempts to find a name for it, we settled on SoiSong.
Soi means something like lane or side-street in Thai, and Song can also mean the figure two, depending on how you say it. Soi2 for Thai people has a gay connotation because of a famous street of gay bars in Bangkok, but I prefer to pronounce it, and think of it, like Song in English… Joyous melodies from the mouths of dirty, possibly naked, street children, playing football in the back alleys of the most uniquely decadent -- for me, the most fascinating -- city in existence (on this planet at least), and without doubt having the sweetest and most beautiful citizens in all the world.
I recently picked up the new re-release of Coil's 1984 collaboration with the New Blockaders and Vortex Campaign. Richard Rupenus is one of my personal heroes. Can you tell me what it was like to work with him? Did you find yourself connecting with that early-'80s British noise scene or did you consider yourselves more part of the industrial scene, and can you talk about the difference or convergence between the two? Listening to a few early Coil releases, they are bordering pretty close to pure noise. Elsewhere, I've heard you say something to the effect that you respect Merzbow, but that your don't listen to him. I guess my question is to what degree did you feel connected to that early noise scene or the other genres (industrial, dark ambient, power electronics) that were being promulgated in those days in Britain, and where do you think your sensibilities lied most?
I'm sorry to say, that period for me was one of isolation. Apart from our connection via Some Bizarre with Marc Almond and his friends, Einstruzende Neubaten & co, I was hopelessly badly informed about what else was going on at that time. John was an avid letter-writer and often said to me “Look I need a track (or part thereof) for these people – they're cool. Can you put something together by tonight, while I go to Tesco's?” so I did. Maybe he told me who it was, maybe not. That lack of involvement on my part with the real world, coupled with my loss of memory, means I am not able to give you much of an answer to this question at all. Sorry! ,-)
Coil was by far your longest running project. It would probably still be going strong had it not been for the tragic death of your bandmate John Balance.
John and I ceased to be ‘lovers' around 1982, although apart from in name (and bedroom) nothing much changed. He was already well down the road of alcoholism by then, and so I continued to try and care for him as best I could, but at the same time I felt relieved of some of the emotional burden (perhaps this was part of John's intention), and I started to consider how my life might be better in Thailand.
John seemed to have no problem finding new ‘lovers,' so even if I went abroad for a few months at a time, I felt he would be okay. Despite these changes, we planned to continue working together as Coil both via the net, and with twice yearly alternating visits. John was looking at little houses in Scotland to buy. He had always loved to visit Thailand; he just didn't want to live there, on account of his love of England's Hidden Reverse (the Quality that is, which came before the Book).
Neither he nor I saw the messages about what was to be, that his subconscious was delivering with repeated strength, in his lyrics…
Did John's death close the door on Coil for good?
On making new Coil songs yes. Not on trying to complete those works started but as-yet unfinished, such as The Ape of Naples, and maintain the availability of the archive for future generations, which I still try to do.
Did the vacuum of playing with others after his death influence your decision in any way to do Throbbing Gristle once again?
No, Paul Smith, not the designer, the other one, who is a music visionary and maverick, visited Coil backstage when we playing in Prague, and said “What would it take to get you back on stage with TG?” I named the most outrageous figure I could think of on the spur of the moment and he said “Fine. Let me see what I can do!” Then apparently he asked the others, and told them what I had said. Unfortunately, the plan to make a grand “Return to Industrial” Festival did not come to pass, but for relatively mundane reasons, and by that time the die was cast…
John can be seen in the video of TG's first show in 23 odd years, wearing a bowler hat and striped jumpsuit. He was drunk, as usual, but very happy to get another chance to see it happening.
"Just walking along the street, I am constantly struck dumb by the beauty of a piece of rust on an old gate, or the purity of the sound of a blind beggar singing for his supper, or the chord made by three competing air-conditioners."
Are the rumors true that the group had been essentially incommunicado for all those years?
Yes. TG had split initially because we felt it was no longer possible for anything we did to confound our audience's expectations, but also because Genesis and Cosey had ceased to be lovers. As with most situations like that (except mine and John's for some reason), it had gotten quite vindictive and unpleasant, and there was no desire from either party to remain in touch. John and I continued to keep in occasional touch with both camps, and indeed we started PTV with Genesis, but this became untenable after a few albums because we felt (though Gen might tell it different) that he/she was saying one thing (esp about the Temple of Psychic Youth), but actually practicing the opposite…
In the years that followed, there were several occasions where Genesis was reported in interviews to have said some really quite horrid things about me and John (such as we had AIDS, that my father was in the Houses of Parliament and somehow had engineered Gen's problems, etc.), which he/she knew quite well were untrue, and when the police raided his house on an unconnected matter and found a large quantity of incriminating material, that I had advised him to get rid of many years before, and Gen was in trouble, I was not sympathetic or helpful... which I believe was a further cause of his ire.
In recent interviews, the four of you always seem so jovial and finishing each other's sentences and all, I find it difficult to see a time when you weren't getting along.
Ch…ch…ch…Changes… Only an idiot (me included) holds a grudge forever, especially when it's costing him or her artistic interest, fame, and money; and strangely enough I do still feel some responsibility to bring the message of TG to a new generation that is not served well by the music business (again!) ,-).
In my opinion, someone should make it impossible for computers to allow the inclusion of the word “music” and the word “business” in the same sentence.
The world would be a better and more enjoyable place.
I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't bug you about the return of Throbbing Gristle. We Americans are feeling quite neglected by the fact TG won't come across the pond and entertain us. Will we still have to wait in anticipation, or does TG have some plans on coming to America?
Paul Smith, being the inexhaustible proposer of new projects he is, has been in negotiation with various parties in the USA since we started playing again. It's not that we won't come across the pond; it's just that TG is very expensive, especially with the weak dollar.
All of us are not as young (or in my case as thin) as we used to be, and sitting in an economy airplane seat for nearly 24 hours straight (Bangkok is a LONG way!) is bad for you. People do die from it. Various other TG members have different and quite serious health problems that require special treatment or medication that would preclude a lengthy van/bus tour that might otherwise help with the financing. All this adds to the price.
Quite apart from that, although TG has a wonderful and loyal following, their numbers are not so great that on any given night one could be sure of a turnout of even 800 or 1000 people, with ticket prices as they are, and that would quickly be eaten up, just by expenses.
Also since we all have our own musical projects, the extra time we would have to take out from them, to work together to prepare a good TG show, does actually mean a substantial loss in revenue for us personally. It's like you taking a three-month unpaid sabbatical from work. These days we just cannot afford to give our time to TG for free.
Hopefully, some day soon an American promoter will find a way to make it practical.
Even better, hopefully soon the undersea fibers will be sufficiently fat and fast enough that none of us will actually have to leave home at all. I SO look forward to the day we can give you a personal live TG show in the comfort of your living room, without any of us needing to pack, or even get the car out of the garage! ,-)
[...,] I'm off out to a Dog Show!