Stefan Jaworzyn: Interview
“When I used to read what musicians actually ‘think,’ it regularly put me off listening to them.”
Between 1989 and 1996, Stefan Jaworzyn’s Shock label was home to a wildly diverse roster. Divine Horsemen, Current 93, The Dead C, Nurse With Wound, and Skullflower were all on the bill, together with a number of others whom unwittingly stretched the definition of musical categories often applied to their work. As a member of Skullflower between 1986-90, Jaworzyn blurred the boundaries of improvisation, noise, and power electronics amid creative flings with Tony Irving as Ascension (which later became Descension with Simon H. Fell on double bass and Charles Wharf on saxophone) and with William Bennett as a member of Whitehouse on Never Forget Death and Twice Is Not Enough. In addition to his instrumental escapades, he also edited the Shock Xpress zine while finding the time to co-organize the Shock Around the Clock film festival, which rendered him a cultural chieftain in extending the reach of horror, gore, and splatter movies in London.
After a 17-year absence, Jaworzyn has rekindled Shock Records by dropping two solo 12-inches (EP1 and EP2) and a full-length (Eaten Away By Shadows) on the back of Kino, a four-disc discovery of previously unreleased, reissued, and remastered Skullflower material. To make this resurgence a little more potent, Jaworzyn’s next solo album, The Annihilating Light, will be released February 12 on Graham Lambkin’s Kye label. And on January 27, Blackest Ever Black is slated to release Drained of Connotation, a collection of home recordings from 1982 that provide a particularly twisted perspective on Jaworzyn’s back catalog.
TMT shot Jaworzyn over questions with hopes of finding out more about his experiences in Cardiff — the city where Drained of Connotation was initially laid down to tape — as well as his life and work in London, the resurgence of Shock, and his forthcoming solo material.
Did you find the lack of UK government funding for public arts projects in the 80s helped or hindered artists working outside of the mainstream? How did that play into your work as a musician?
I’ve never considered myself a ‘musician’!
But it didn’t affect me or anyone I knew. I wasn’t active in areas where funding might have been involved. I did work at a hospital up North for a couple of years in the very early 1980s, and there I saw Tory cutbacks and general twattery at work firsthand; it was not pleasant. Fascistic ‘administrators’ brought in to cut budgets at every level, make it difficult for unions to protect their members and do their work efficiently, producing an atmosphere of tension and ill-feeling. People losing jobs, vacant positions not being filled, the local job centre closing, and a needle exchange opening — that was the direct effect of Tory policies. Experiencing that perhaps served to make me less sympathetic to whining that a grant for 10,000 rolls of film to document The Colonic Wart Growth Project had been refused…
I guess ‘they’ say that intolerant or regressive governments fuel some level of creativity — it’s perhaps true in recent-ish times with rave culture, which blossomed under the Tories — but you only need look at the fate of Pussy Riot to see how a genuinely oppressive regime behaves toward ‘artists’… If the worst you have to complain about is being underfunded by the Arts Council, you aren’t actually having your creativity stifled.
How important was London as a creative environment in your work with Skullflower, and how did that differ from a city like Cardiff?
Cardiff was a toilet. It was run-down, incredibly cheap to exist, lots of unemployed; pretty messed up generally. Oddly enough a guy set up a sort of ‘new romantic’ club and was also curious about ‘underground’ music. We got a couple of gigs from him! (God knows how he ended up in Cardiff.) I guess he perceived us as intriguing human oddities, maybe thought he could create some sort of sub-cultural scene…? His brother was a poet obsessed with the Futurists. Slightly eccentric, he was supposed to perform with us at some point but I don’t recall it materializing… Probably better to fantasize about such events anyway.
The music I’m making now doesn’t seem the product of maturity or looking out the window at the forest — it seems the product of a batty old man who’s still always pissed off about something.
It was Alex Binnie, who I met in Cardiff and whom was in an early version of Skullflower, who urged me to move to London, so he’s largely to blame for my various activities since 1983.
London just happened to be where we all lived. London is London, there’s always god-knows-how-many ‘scenes,’ like-minded(ish) people around to share ideas with. You can always get something going. In Cardiff I think the scene was maybe half a dozen disaffected nutters. It’s conceivable that London’s ‘urban dissonance’ had an effect on Skullflower. It’s conceivable that wandering around Soho on LSD had some effect on me… However, I’d hazard that the early 1980s power electronics/noise scene was shaped more by the contemporaneous atmosphere in London. That felt much more a product of its environment. I guess we (Skullflower) might have been considered an ‘urban’ sound, but I believe had we convened elsewhere we’d have made the same music.
At The Sage, Gateshead, Arika’s Music Lovers’ Field Companion Festival 2007 (Photo: Bryony McIntyre)
As an artist, how has your opinion of London changed since you were recording with Whitehouse and Skullflower?
It’s age, not art, that changes your perspective on London. (Anyway, I’ve never thought of myself as an artist either.) I hate it here now, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m middle-aged and 10,000-times more intolerant. When I was in my twenties I thought London was about the coolest city on earth, now I can’t stand it. But so much has changed in the last 30 years it’s unrealistic to compare it now to ‘the good old days’ — which probably sucked but didn’t seem to because we were young and, uh, enthusiastic. When you’re young you barely notice and care less that you’re living in a shithole with no hot water. Or you haven’t eaten for two days because you spent your money on drugs.
It could be true that the place you live affects how you work. But my state of mind has never been, um, tranquil, so the music I’ve been involved with has generally reflected that, right back to when I started. When I was editing Shock Xpress I was generally frothing with bile about something or other… I haven’t really calmed down much in the last 30 years, just tried harder to avoid interaction with assholes… To me, the music I’m making now doesn’t seem the product of maturity or looking out the window at the forest — it seems the product of a batty old man who’s still always pissed off about something…
Audience response also plays into those psycho-geographical factors. You’ve talked before about people chucking glasses at you on stage — was that something you experienced regularly or in certain cities? What do you think provoked the audience most to do that?
The glass-throwing was only one incident, when Descension supported Sonic Youth in 1996 or 97 at The Forum. It seemed to be felt in some circles that the London SY ‘fans’ were particularly intolerant and thus easily freaked out — in the U.S. SY had been taking free-jazz players on tour or having them as support with no similar incidents. I don’t really know why that Descension ‘riot show’ occurred, but it was a one-off. People still occasionally mention it, I dunno, it seems to have been memorable for those who experienced it — I’ve never forgotten the waves of hostility washing over us, that’s for sure…
When did you first become aware of The Shadow Ring?
I knew Graham [Lambkin] before they formed, or rather we’d been writing to each other — I can’t remember exactly when we got in touch, possibly in Shock Xpress days. He sent me their first 7-inch, I loved it and reviewed it for Music From the Empty Quarter (in a typically meaningless, mentalist style). He did the artwork for my Dead C release… I was reminded recently I ‘gave the bride away’ at their wedding. So it’s over 20 years anyway…
The Annihilating Light LP, due February 12 on Kye
How did you wind up releasing material on Lambkin’s Kye label?
We’d been out of touch for a while. He saw my interview in The Quietus and dropped me a line. At some point in our emails he mentioned that if I had anything, uh, suitable, he’d be interested in releasing it. I had two pieces that were unlike most of the material I’ve been recording, and he liked them. It was surprisingly easy.
What can you tell me about the recording processes behind The Annihilating Light? What were you trying to achieve with that sound?
It’s rare that I set out to achieve anything. Since I started recording again I’ve been approaching it on a slightly more considered basis than, say, the pure improvisation of Ascension or the semi-improvisation of Skullflower. (Talking about influences, ideology, and ‘philosophy’ can make me uncomfortable. When I used to read what musicians actually ‘think,’ it regularly put me off listening to them.) There are certain aspects of music and art I thought might be interesting to consider when constructing certain types of sound. That, however, only applies to one of the two pieces on this album.
“Oasis of Filth” is a ‘live’ recording on a digital synth I was tinkering with. In the way these things happen I thought, “Wow, that sounds fucked up, better record it.” I recently described it to Scott (Foust) along the lines of “a psychotic ‘experimental’ piece that sounds like a lunatic trapped in some installation and banging the door against his head in an attempt to make it all go away.” Think of it that way.
“Cast Out” is much different, here I was consciously trying to create something less rhythmic than usual. (I mostly use a sequencer to trigger rhythms.) Here I wanted to produce something more menacing and unsettling — it has a sort of pulse to it, but it’s ‘beatless’… And I have previously enjoyed producing long pieces involving repetition — if you listen to “Winter”’ on [the] Eaten Away By Shadows CD it’s not a million miles from “Cast Out” — now I guess it’s an actual intention rather than an accident or some half-formed notion I wasn’t fully aware of.
What attracts you to analog recording?
Well, it’s not analog recording. I have a few analog synths and a couple of sequencers. I absolutely love the MFB Urzwerg Pro sequencer and their Dominion X SED synth, they’re both spectacular instruments. But I’m not into them for exclusivity or analog snobbery. The sound is all that matters — I also love the Access Virus TI and use it a lot; a good digital synth is just as much fun. “Make a Joyful Sound” on the last 12-inch was produced using the Novation Nova, a digital ‘virtual analogue’ (yeah, right) synth with numerous irritating aspects. I dragged it out of the basement and ended up with “Make a Joyful Sound.” I mean, I’d like a studio full of analog equipment, but that’s not going to happen. And digital synths can produce great sounds, they shouldn’t be underrated…
Drained of Connotation LP
You’re also releasing Drained of Connotation on Blackest Ever Black. What do you enjoy most on Kiran Sande’s roster? How do you think your music fits into that context?
Oh, I absolutely insisted Kiran allow me to audition his every release before I could allow my music on his label. If there’d been a single one that didn’t meet my standards I would have lost all faith in him and it would have soured the deal. (As ‘the internet’ appears to contain a couple of dumb fucks who take everything at face value, I should probably explain I am blatantly lying.)
I like Kiran’s aesthetic and his attitude, I like his label’s identity and the fact that he knows what he wants but is also happy to take a chance… (I’m still kind of surprised he wanted to put out something by me.) Cut Hands, Regis, Raime — I’m in good company. Does my music fit in? Does it matter? My album’s from 1982! In that respect it doesn’t fit in at all, yet Kiran obviously thinks it does, and despite my feeling of disbelief and increasing middle-aged crankiness, I do too. Maybe BEB reminds me of early Shock; I guess if Kiran likes it he’ll put it out, isn’t that the most important aspect of running a label? When your label is popular and/or successful and you can say, “Well, too bad if the people who bought xxx don’t like this, I’m putting it out anyway.” I mean, I released a Lol Coxhill LP in between two Skullflower albums and it sold out, isn’t that what matters?
so much has changed in the last 30 years it’s unrealistic to compare it now to ‘the good old days’ — which probably sucked but didn’t seem to because we were young and, uh, enthusiastic. When you’re young you barely notice and care less that you’re living in a shithole with no hot water. Or you haven’t eaten for two days because you spent your money on drugs.
Last year saw the first Shock releases since 1996. How does it feel to be putting out material again and what inspired you to do that?
It feels like hell. It’s a fucking nightmare. I hate the fucking internet and I wish I could do everything by fax and letter again! Anyway… It started with the Skullflower CDs, which took getting on for two years. It was something I thought would never happen for a variety of reasons, and working on them was a shot in the arm (though not of the type I might now choose given the circumstances). When I went through my cassettes looking for unreleased Skullflower material, I brought up the tapes of my old bedroom junk, and playing through the synth stuff that Kiran’s releasing reminded me how much I enjoyed using machines.
I’ve been increasingly reclusive and it struck me that ‘electronics’ was ideal for working alone and at home. Once I started screwing around I realized I had notions of what I wanted to create and the way in which I wanted to create it (it must be said this is informed as much by my inabilities as my abilities). Once I’d done a bit of recording I thought, “This sounds pretty twisted, I might as well release it — what’s the worst that could happen? People don’t like it and say I’m a cunt? What else is new.”
The first five acts on Shock were Skullflower, Coil, Current 93, Nurse With Wound, and Drunks With Guns. That’s a hugely influential roster. How did those connections come about and how do you feel now looking back on those releases?
Well, some of us were (independently) mooching around/hanging out at Vinyl Experience on Hanway Street. They (Vinyl Experience) were starting to manufacture and distribute records… Geoff Cox was usually behind the counter and he was a great source for odd records and knew just about everyone… I was obviously in Skullflower, we were recording a fair amount and no one else was releasing anything, so what the hell… Edwin/Savage Pencil suggested I start a label and it seemed like a good idea.
I knew Steve Thrower from our mutual interest in trashy movies, he’d written for Shock Xpress and played on Form Destroyer, and he’d introduced me to Geoff Rushton and Sleazy. I’d encountered Geoff/Jhon earlier in the 1980s via John Gosling when they were in Zos-kia… And I’d interviewed Coil for Shock Xpress about their score for Hellraiser, which ended up unused (and thus did the interview). So it seemed like a good idea to ask Coil to do a record — theirs was supposed to be the second release but we had so many production problems the Current and Nurse records came out first. (We sold 3000 copies of the Coil 7-inch, that’d probably put it on the charts these days. The Skullflower 7-inch sold out in a day. Stuff that up your fucking internet.)
I think Edwin suggested I ask Current 93 to do something and ‘officially’ introduced me to Tibet… There was a scuzzy Spanish bar (Bradleys?) we’d usually end up in, most of our ‘business’ was done there. I think Tibet said, ‘Well, if Coil’s going to do a record and so am I, then you should ask Steve (Stapleton) too.’
Then I got introduced to Fritz from The Strangulated Beatoffs, who’d gravitated toward Vinyl Experience on a trip to London. He ended up staying with us for a couple of days and put me in contact with Stan Seitrich, who had a couple of unreleased Drunks with Guns tracks in his vault. People told me that Stan was ‘difficult’ but he was a sweetie! (Christ, if they thought Stan was difficult they never had to deal with me.) I may have the chronology wrong here, I might have got Stan’s address from Byron, then met Fritz after I’d put the DWG record out — does anyone remember?
I love those first five records, and I enjoyed producing them the same way I enjoyed the early issues of Shock Xpress. Me and Sav folded most of those 7-inch covers sitting on the floor upstairs at Vinyl Experience, stuffed all the stickers in the first thousand Coil singles.
Eaten Away By The Shadows LP
Starting a label is a lot different now to what it was when you started Shock. Music consumption and the portability of music has completely reshaped the way it’s experienced. Does that have any impact on you in reviving Shock, and if you were starting from scratch right now, how might you adapt your strategy?
I am basically starting from scratch! I have no strategy. Everything I might have once known or understood is hopelessly outmoded and/or obsolete. I don’t think like a ‘young person’, my perception of ‘the market’ is completely addled and I feel useless and out of my depth, pissing in the wind. Can someone tell me how to run a record label?
People losing jobs, vacant positions not being filled, the local job centre closing, and a needle exchange opening — that was the direct effect of Tory policies. Experiencing that perhaps served to make me less sympathetic to whining that a grant for 10,000 rolls of film to document The Colonic Wart Growth Project had been refused…
The Kino records are an excellent opportunity for new audiences to discover your work. Why do you feel that now is a good time to be releasing them?
Well, it’s not my work, it’s Skullflower. That stuff should have come out years ago, it’s been unavailable way too long. I guess Matthew and I were both sitting there wondering if we should contact each other then not doing it… Stupid really, but there you go… At least we finally did it. Listening to it all properly after 20-odd years reminded me how powerful so much of it is. And the CDs sound fantastic, I’m really pleased with the unreleased tracks. Richard’s mastering is perfect, as were Steve’s ideas for the covers and design — finally we got it all right.
Will there be a live show to go with The Annihilating Light? What can we expect in the coming months?
I haven’t figured out how to play live, sometimes it takes me a day to find one rhythm I like. I don’t use a laptop or anything and I don’t program sounds into the synths’ memories — I might produce an hour of total shit! (Which I suppose might amuse some people…) But I have no transport, and no real desire to stay up late or deal with anything other than the TV remote and the vodka bottle. So that probably rules out gigs.
As for the future, I have an album of new material I’d like to put out, which vaguely resembles the material on the two Shock records. But it’s more, um, evolved and conceptually continuous, it seems more like an album than the 12-inch tracks, which aren’t really related, if you see what I mean… So I guess I’ll end up putting that out next year some time… By which point everyone will have had far too much of me and I can retire to the sofa for another couple of decades…
For Shock inquiries, contact: email@example.com
Top photo: Descension supporting Sonic Youth at The Forum, London, 1996 (by Jo Fell)