Disturbing Currents For The Senses [2010-05-08]A disposition to deviance and a wayward imagination threads through Stephen Thrower’s polymathic pursuits. Since moving to London in the mid-eighties he has become a principle player in post-Industrial experimental music, from his work as part of Coil from 1984 to 1993 to today’s hallucinatory electronics as Cyclobe with Ossian Brown (a member of Coil from 2000 onwards) and as UnicaZürn with David Knight (Arkkon, Shock Headed Peters) to name but a few. He is also an author of essential texts on cult cinema, publishing his own journal, Eyeball: The European Sex and Horror Review, that ran from 1989 to 2002, and more recently writing authoritative tomes that record the otherwise hidden histories of American exploitation movies and Italian horror for FAB Press.
m[m] You are currently putting the finishing touches to a new Cyclobe album, the first for five years or so. How do you feel it compares to previous releases? Was the recording process the same this time around and is it a case of live or improvised experimentation subsequently treated, honed and edited, or is there initially less randomisation with maybe a loose ‘score’ to express your intentions?
ST This one is so spread out, time-wise, that in some cases it's felt more like finding ancient artefacts and then smelting them into new shapes. One piece was completed just hours before we mastered the record, another had been 90% completed for a several years but was 'turned to the wall' because we couldn't work out how to finish it until quite recently. There's a very long piece called The Woods Are Alive With the Smell of His Coming which was worked upon entirely along its interior time line, starting with a basic pattern and then building and shaping it minute by minute from beginning to end.
m[m] That sounds like a really productive way of working, avoiding temptations of constant refinement that can make it difficult to determine when something’s finished. Have you worked this way before on previous Cyclobe albums? What inspired you to follow this more instinctive process?
ST No, this was a new way of working for us. As much as trying to devise new sounds and new patterns is important, finding a new way of working really helps to keep things fresh. The piece has a very strong 'narrative' thread, so working in this chronological/sequential way helps to amplify the sense of going on a journey, where the destination is less important than the journey itself.
m[m] You and Ossian have mentioned how presences have manifested in the studio while recording with both Coil and Cyclobe – were you visited while recording the recent album?
ST The ghosts are all in the music this time. You'll have to meet them, we're just holding the doors open!
m[m] Earlier this year, Cyclobe exhibited an audio work at Tate St Ives as part of an exhibition exploring modernism and the occult (The Dark Monarch – magic and modernity in British Art) – did you find other exhibiting artists reflected the tensions between existential atheism and mystical spirituality that you’ve observed before in relation to music?
ST There was that tension in quite a few instances, yes. A few of the artists were active magickal practitioners, quite a few others employed magick as a metaphorical or exotic component, or a strategy, a refusal of rationality.
m[m] Where do you see yourself these days in relation to magick – active practitioner, exotic metaphorist or strategic refuser of the rational?
ST Probably the latter. Ossian has different views to me on these matters.
m[m] You recently contributed an ‘Epiphany’ to The Wire magazine expressing how a spell in the Welsh countryside meant the “auxiliaries of pleasure aligned” to give you a refreshed enjoyment of the music of Yes. What do you think needs to be in alignment to create the best listening environment for your music?
ST 'E' and poppers? I wouldn't want to be too prescriptive, but I think a solitary experience might be best, at night, on the edge of a volcano, with a panoramic sea view. Take a strenuous walk immediately beforehand. There must be no wind, just an eerie calm. On the other hand, it may actually be good for listening to while driving in Wales, Cornwall or Scotland! I don't know, I'm a bit too close to it. It's night music again, I can say that for sure! We're not really daytime people when it comes to music.
m[m] Opportunities to see you play live seem increasingly rare – Cyclobe has performed just a couple of times (augmented by Thighpaulsandra and Cliff Stapleton at Donau Festival in 2007 and playing from a concealed location in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of its Ether festival in 2005). Are there going to be any further opportunities to see Cyclobe live? What have the experiences of turning an otherwise studio-based project into a performance been like to date?
ST I'm sure we will play live, now that we have new material to perform. We wanted to complete this album before getting a new show together. I always enjoy playing live, Ossian finds it quite stressful, but I think we'll be doing something in the UK later this year. It's quite hard turning what we do into a live performance. We're compulsive fiddlers with the minutiae of sounds, so playing live, with the diminishment of that careful control and the need to let things happen spontaneously, can be hard, especially as Ossian doesn't much like improvisation. I'm very comfortable with improv' so we're cut from different cloth in that regard, but we were both very happy with the Donau show, so it can work.
m[m] As UnicaZürn with David Knight, you performed a short live set at your album launch party at the end of last year. Is this a one-off project or something that you hope will yield further performances and recordings?
ST We're doing a UnicaZürn show at the Schiphorst Avant Garde Festival in Germany this year, at the kind invitation of Jean-Hervé Peron. We played there a couple of years ago as The Amal Gamal Ensemble, so I'm really glad to be returning. It's a great event, small and intimate and just a wonderful atmosphere. We're also recording a new CD album for the Klanggallerie label for release later this year, so UnicaZürn is pretty active this year.
m[m] Among other things, you play saxophone and clarinet – have you had formal training in wind instruments? Have you found any understanding of the fundamentals of tonal music theory restricting or enabling?
ST I had some training as a boy because I played tenor horn in the school band for five years. But then punk rock came along and I ditched everything I'd learned! I don't, to be honest, find myself falling back on the vestiges of that training very much, and when it comes to reed instruments I've never had tuition. I just heard Captain Beefheart's soprano sax playing on Trout-Mask Replica and thought, 'that's how you do it!'
m[m] Since your Coil days in the eighties and early nineties, to what degree has developments in computer music hardware and software affected your musical processes and recording studio activities?
ST The main benefit of computer technology is simply that it gives us unlimited editing and multi-track options. We're not, however, champing at the bit for new software, and we don't often read the product review mags. We have a method of working, we have most of what we need technologically, and we bring in outside help on the occasion that we need it, but apart from the occasional new fx plug-in our studio set-up has remained fairly consistent for the last ten years. Give me a decent mike, editing software, a sampler/keyboard and a few acoustic instruments and I can do something good. There's such a myriad of possibilities in a single sound that as long as you can make good quality recordings and the chance to layer them and cut them up and play them as chords etc, there's not a lot of need for fancy gizmos.
m[m] Do you feel the homogenisation of music you perceived around the time of acid house rave and recording Love’s Secret Domain has accelerated in parallel with the increasingly-cheaper music making technologies?
ST Well, that homogenisation was obviously a problem for people making music in that idiom, as might be inferred from the all the sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, the endless repackaging of the same basic idea with ever more ludicrous descriptors! I remember walking past a poster advertising 'sexy underground garage' a few years ago and doing a double-take - sexy what? Very Ballardian! There was an atomization of terminology along with the atomization of production and consumption. We're so deep into it now that it's impossible to see the edges any more. Cheaper music-making technology appears to have inspired a desire for cheaper music, or free music even. So audiences are fragmenting, and then they actually stop paying! I must admit I didn't see that coming. I certainly think there's been a sort of freeze-frame or a trapped loop in popular music culture. No one seems to know how to set things moving again. Nothing really startling at the level of mainstream music culture took place in the 2000s.
m[m] I totally agree - the past decade is arguably the first since the birth of recording that’s had no new scenes and related social tribes of any significance. Nor do I expect there to be in future, at least not rooted in music. Thanks to affordable technology and web-based distribution the means of discovery and subsequent gains in momentum for a new scene to develop are drowned by the sheer volume of music released. Do you share this pessimistic view or do you think that the ‘trapped loop’ you describe may inspire new forms in the same way punk refreshed a stagnating pop scene in the seventies?
ST I don't really have a clue, or else I'd be out there peddling my 21st century pop records! I'm as stumped as anyone else in that regard. But you have to wonder when the young of this country are going to get really, really bored of their own complacency and invent something exciting again. Instead they're just swilling around in the decayed remnants of their parents' hip-hop, r'n'b and 'indie' CD collections. Maybe it'll happen if there's a nationwide collapse of the economy, like we're seeing in Greece. We need national bankruptcy and a year-long volcanic cloud! My personal taste, a whole swathe of my favourite music, remains out of the question in terms of popular influence - I doubt if tomorrow's teenagers will rampage to the music of Tod Dockstader, more's the pity.
m[m] You’re arguably better known these days as a film journalist than a musician (you certainly seem to have done more interviews wearing your writer’s hat). Do you find these activities mutually exclusive (maybe fulfilling different needs), or does one somehow feed into the other?
ST There's a connection inasmuch as I'm always alert to the musical side of film, I always pay close attention to the use of music in movies. And I've scored two films in the last couple of years, with another on the way. In my film writing I'm commenting on someone else's work, rather than producing it myself, that's the big difference. And writing is solitary, whereas music is always collaborative for me, so they come from different places in that sense too. But I get good ideas from film scores, ideas for textures or moods, and conversely my taste in music probably informs my priorities as a film viewer - I'm very attuned to mood and atmospherics in movies, maybe more so than narrative in some cases, which feeds into my love for bizarre or plotless or incoherent horror films.
m[m] What first got you interested in writing about horror films and what was the first film you reviewed/critiqued?
ST I first got interested because I couldn't understand why my favourite movies were being massively misunderstood, or loathed, or scorned. I remember seeing reviews of David Cronenberg's early films, Shivers, Rabid and The Brood, and they were incredibly negative and hostile. I thought those films were works of art, really and truly, and it made me angry to see them being dismissed and reviled. The same thing when I saw Andrzej Zulawski's Possession back in 1982 - the reviews for that were vicious! It was slagged off for being 'pretentious' and 'senseless' and 'hysterical' and so on, whereas I thought it showed the most incredible artistic vision. So if no one's admiring your favourite movies, what to do? That's why I got into it. My first published piece was on the gay avant-garde classic Pink Narcissus for Stefan Jaworzyn's Shock Xpress magazine, and I think I ended the review by saying that what the movie really needed was a damn good rape scene! So it was a nice, calm, studied, intellectual debut!
m[m] What do you think of Cronenberg’s more recent works and have you ever got chance to meet him in person?
ST I liked both History of Violence and Eastern Promises, good thrillers both of them, but I miss the weirder kick from his films. I would love to have him back in Dead Ringers or Videodrome mode, taking us to distressing psychological plateaux and leaving us there, stranded! No, I've never met him.
m[m] Last year you released your huge tome, Nightmare USA - The Untold Story of the Exploitation Cinema; which found each chapter covering a certain film and the related horror director’s work. Who was the most difficult to track down of your subjects?
ST It took me a long time to trace Fredric Hobbs, the director of Alabama's Ghost and Godmonster of Indian Flats. And he was so guarded about letting me see his first film, Troika, that I was writing that review while the book was being designed! It took a long time to gain Fredric's trust, but eventually we were fine. And, thank goodness, Troika was worth the wait! Amazing film. I just hope he gets round to putting it out - it's never been available on DVD or VHS, and he's still tinkering with it, like George Lucas on Star Wars!
m[m] Is there any news on when volume two of Nightmare USA is expected, and who do you hope to cover in this book?
ST I hope it'll be done by the end of 2011, although with my experience of writing Vol.1 it's more likely to be 2012. The contents are listed in the back of Vol.1.
m[m] I believe you recently got back from interviewing Jess Franco, how did this go and what will the interview be used for?
ST I'm writing a book which sets out to review every Jess Franco film. There are approximately 171, depending on how you count certain contested or re-edited titles, and I've seen 119, so I still have a way to go! Fortunately I now have access to all but five titles, and who knows, maybe even they will turn up in time. The interview went very well, I spent two days with Franco and his wife Lina Romay at their apartment in Malaga. He's quite infirm these days but mentally he's still sharp. It was an enormous thrill to meet him, as I regard him as a true artist and a unique figure in world cinema.
m[m] What do you count as your all time favourite movie by him?
ST I'm very fond of Christina Princess of Eroticism (aka A Virgin Among the Living Dead). A totally dreamlike film where, if you had to explain what's going on, half the time you would really struggle! It's a poetic film really, with themes of incest, love and death, corruption, madness, merging and melding without articulating anything directly but leaving you feeling very strange and transported afterwards. Eugénie (the Soledad Miranda one, not the Christopher Lee one) is pretty amazing. Again, incest, madness, a slightly more explicable storyline to do with a Sadean father-daughter couple murdering people, while a curious onlooker observes their actions without intervening, played by Franco himself! A little masterpiece, that one. Diary of a Nymphomaniac is great, a gloomy photo-román about a prostitute's revenge on the man who abused her as a girl, with a fantastic French library music score and a wonderful downbeat mood. Les possédées du diable (Lorna l'exorciste) is extraordinarily morbid and depressing and squalid, which makes it very special of course! But I think my favourite is a fairly obscure one called Shining Sex, which just seems to distill the strangeness of Franco's semi-improvisatory approach down to its essence. There are times when virtually nothing is happening, but the aura of sickness and dysfunction that hangs over the sex scenes is suffocating. It's psychedelic without any of the usual cliché trappings - no fish-eye lenses, no wild cutting, no frenzied camerawork or colour overlays... just plain functional hotel rooms, but something super-strange is oozing out the celluloid.
m[m] Was there any mention of his last movie 2008’s La cripta de las mujeres malditas (A Bad Day At The Cemetery) and when it will finally see the light of day?
ST We didn't discuss it actually. I'll be able to see it for the book though.
m[m] When do you hope to release the Franco book?
ST The plan is to have it finished by the end of this year, so hopefully next Spring.
m[m] Much of your writing work covers films of the past, but do you rate any more modern films or directors say in the last five years or so?
ST Yes, very much so. I rate Gaspar Noe very highly, Irreversible is possibly my favourite of the past ten years. Lars Von Trier isn't exactly new, but I thought Dogville was a masterpiece, and I loved his Five Obstructions film as well. Not so keen on Antichrist though, it felt to me as if he'd run out of reasons to make it but slogged through it anyway. I hope someone gives Asia Argento money so she can repeat the brilliance of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the greatest films of the last thirty years; I just wish Synecdoche New York could have equalled it, instead of turning into a big fat intellectual grumble. On a trashy level, I loved [rec], the Spanish original not the remake.
m[m] Aside from your film journalism, you’ve acted in a handful of films (mostly Derek Jarman’s) and provided the score for the Pakistani zombie movie, Zibarkhana (or Hell’s Ground) – would you like to get more directly involved in film production, encourage more soundtrack work, or even turn your hand to screenplays or directing?
ST Yes, and in both cases I have projects on the go at the moment. I can't discuss them yet because it's too early, but I hope that they'll come to fruition within the next eighteen months.
m[m] Your obsession with underground currents in world cinema presumably involves a fair degree of hunting and gathering of banned or ‘taboo’ material – is this the same instinct that lead you to correspond with Throbbing Gristle, the ‘wreckers of civilization’ at the end of the seventies?
ST Yes, it's the same impulse. I just hope that in the saturated media environment of today teenagers can still get that thrill of discovery, even though everything is now just a mouseclick away, whether it be super-obscure films, weird music, strange pornography or videos of Russian kids beating a guy to death with a hammer. I think there's a different world on our doorstep now, and I'm just glad I'm not too old to appreciate it and take an interest. I'm really curious and fascinated to see what becomes of us in the next thirty years, so I guess it's important I don't drink myself to death too soon!
m[m] What are your current listening habits and what informs them?
ST I love electro-acoustic music, so François Bayle, Bernard Parmegiani are very popular in our house. I've been listening to a lot of Tod Dockstader again, I never tire of those records. He really is a master of sound. Works like Luna Park, Quatermass, Apocalypse, Water Music, etc, are just stunning. Lots of 1970s French library music, especially that produced by the Musique pour l'image label. I've been getting back into Borbetomagus recently, their stuff with Voice Crack is a killer. And Wings. Can't beat a bit of Wings. More recent-ish music, errr.. Holosud are great. Pluxus I love. Haven't heard anything really super-new that's amazed me for a while.
m[m] What do you think of the new Doctor Who?
ST Love it. I've loved pretty much all of it since it came back. I'm really not very critical of the new show. It has its ups and downs but I've found it about 80% marvellous, which is a good enough percentage.
Many thanks go to Stephen for all the time and effort that he put into answering our many questions rising from his multiple undertakings. Thanks also to Stephen for letting us use the great pictures for the interview and the credits are as follows for these; the main front page pic is by Gabe Bartalos©, the smaller frount page pic is by Ossian Brown © as is the first picture in the main interview text too.
Information on his various activities can be found on his blog: http://www.7doorshotel.blogspot.com/Russell Cuzner
Cyclobe and UnicaZürn information can be found on http://www.cyclobe.com/