Stefan Jaworzyn is a survivor. A pure product of the ’70s, he was either at the origin or played an active part in several singular adventures of the London Underground during the ’80s and ’90s. First off, he was the editor of the cult magazine Shock Xpress and co-organizer of Shock around the Clock, a fantasy and horror film festival. Next, he made a brief appearance as musician in Whitehouse, the standard in "power electronics", a sort of electronic noise, an ultra-violent genre, both musically and verbally, that first hit the scene at the beginning of the ’80s. But more importantly, between 1986 and 1990, he played guitar with Skullflower, a harsh noise group producing hypnotic rhythms, and then with Ascension and Descension, creating a music just as violent, but structure-free, thus coming closer to the currents of free and improvised music. He also headed his own label, Shock, between 1989 and 1996, with the collaboration of his friend Edwin Pouncey, a.k.a. Savage Pencil, and on which he released records of the most diverse styles, from the noisiest rock to the freest jazz... or is it the other way around ?
You have had many activities until now - as a musician with Skullflower, Whitehouse, Ascension / Descension, as a publisher with Shock Xpress, as a record label manager with Shock records, etc. So, firstly, we’d like to know if there was a common purpose behind all of these different activities ?
Things just seemed to follow each other quite naturally. I like writing and I also love to play music. I haven’t done any writing or played any music for a long time, so I’m kind of retired now. When we started Shock Xpress magazine in 1985, nobody else was doing a horror movie fanzine in England. There was a bunch of us going to the same films and meeting each other - I can’t actually remember whose idea it was to start the magazine. The idea was to write about the weird, obscure movies we were seeing and that nobody else seemed to be covering. There were only a couple of books dealing with them and a couple of US fanzines which were really hard to find. So we wanted to do a similar kind of thing but maybe get the magazine across to more people. The first two issues were a fairly shitty black and white thing then it slowly improved from there until it ended up as a book. When we started Skullflower about 1986 I don’t think we had any distinct aims in mind - at one of the first practices we did a Stooges cover ! So I don’t think we really knew exactly what we were going to do. It took a while to get focused on the kind of music we wanted to produce - maybe it came about that the more we played, the more we played the same kind of music. So it sort of evolved organically without any exterior influences. We weren’t trying to sound like anybody else. It was Savage Pencil who suggested I start a record label. I had been running a film festival called Shock around the Clock, connected to the magazine, for four years, and after the last one I had some money left. I said, "I don’t know what to do with this money" and he said, "Why don’t you start a record label ?" Originally the idea was just to put out limited editions of seven inch singles and he would do the sleeves. So again I didn’t think I would start a label that was going to sound like something else, because if you look at the first five groups on Shock - Skullflower, Coil, Current 93, Nurse with Wound and Drunks with Guns - it’s a fairly broad spectrum of groups. I know some people might associate Coil, Current 93 and Nurse with Wound, but Skullflower and Drunks with Guns are definitely different types of music. Maybe in all those cases we wanted to do something no one else was doing. Maybe that’s what unites them, though I don’t know how much of it was a conscious, deliberate thing. They all had pretty inauspicious beginnings, though funnily enough the first Shock release - a Skullflower single - sold out immediately, which surprised everyone !
And what was the most incredible experience you had in your whole career ?
Descension [an offshoot project of Ascension with saxophone and double bass in addition to guitar and drums] played once with Sonic Youth at the Forum in London in 1995 and about half of the audience of like two thousand people wanted to kill us, and just threw glasses and shit at us for the whole time we were playing. And Tony Irving, the drummer, saw someone right at the front throw a glass that hit his drum kit, and got out from behind his drums and jumped into the audience. And he was like hitting this person with his drumsticks, and when he came back this person climbed over the barrier and followed him onto the stage - they were fighting on stage while the rest of us kept playing ! So there’s all this noise and all these people screaming and the fucking glasses are flying, just like a rain of them bouncing all around us all the time. It was absolutely incredible ! Afterwards we were like, "What the fuck was happening ?" It was really bizarre... Even though it didn’t seem like a particularly good experience while we were doing it, I think when looking back, it’s definitely a highlight of my musical career... To play music that made so many people want to kill us ! It was pretty insane, because it wasn’t electronic noise or metal machine music. I’d say it was normal improvised music with guitar, saxophone, double bass and drums ! But you know, it wasn’t rock, so - "It’s not rock so kill ’em !"
Did you have the same approach of sound and guitar playing with Skullflower and Ascension / Descension ?
No, definitely different. After I left Skullflower in 1990 I said I would never play guitar again. Then I played in Whitehouse in 1990-1991 - I’d also played briefly in 1984. Around the time I was in Whitehouse, Tony Irving asked me if I wanted to come and play with Ascension. Originally he was playing with a bassist so they asked me if I wanted to join them as a trio. But the bassist - when he heard me and Tony play - said that he never wanted to play music again as long as he lived. So he left before we were a trio ! At first I didn’t really want to because I didn’t want to play guitar any more, but I saw him play and thought he was a great drummer. I hadn’t touched my guitar or tuned it for two or three years, so I just played it the way it was. Playing with Tony was fantastic and I knew what I wanted to do was something completely different... It was supposed to be ’free music’ anyway, there was never any chance it would be rock. So obviously there’s a different approach. The guitar sound I wanted in Ascension and Descension was quite similar to the sound I’d been trying for in the last couple of Skullflower sessions. There were certain kinds of guitar sounds that I was starting to make. But what I liked about Ascension and Descension was that I could play without effects and try to get this really clean, clear sound, sort of piercing. But I was definitely aware of the fact that I wanted to play in a different style from Skullflower.
How would you describe the English scene for noise and improvised music of the last 20 years ?
I don’t think there ever really was a scene, I think it’s a myth, though I know some people would disagree. A lot of the time everybody hated each other anyway, you know, stupid little petty arguments and sort of in-crowd bitching. Recently I was talking to the writer Jonathan Seltzer about it, and he thinks there was a scene with God, Godflesh, those sort of groups. Though he thought Skullflower was part of that scene and I don’t think so, at least not while I was a member. But Ascension were never part of any scene - Ascension couldn’t even get any fucking gigs ! There’s an improvised music scene that just about survives, but it’s a very different thing from the kind of music Ascension / Descension were making. Most of the improvised music people hated us because we were too loud, we were too noisy, and our background was in "rock", not "jazz". So we weren’t really allowed into the ’free music scene’. Because I played with Simon H. Fell and Alan Wilkinson for a short time, maybe I was slightly more accepted. But it didn’t take long for those people to decide it was probably a bad idea to accept me ! There are a few noise groups and local scenes, but noise is distinct from the improvised music scene, they are two very separate things. And Ascension was never part of either the noise or the improvised music genres. Nobody liked us in either of those scenes really. Some of the noise people liked us however - like the guys up in Leeds, we were quite popular with them. After that Sonic Youth "riot show", Descension played one last show in Leeds. I accidentally smashed my guitar and said - again - I’ll never play again. I just thought, "Ok, that’s it, that must mean it’s the end, no more." But that’s the only place, if you play in Leeds, people come and see you and they’re actually into it. So if you want to play music, go fucking play in Leeds !
So was creating Shock Records a way to fill or avoid any kind of gap in the English record label landscape ?
No, I didn’t have a concept. Some American record labels I liked at the time were doing limited edition singles. I liked the idea of doing small run singles and just putting out whatever I felt like putting out. Pretty much anything that I issued sold out. People would buy Lol Coxhill LPs - a solo saxophone record - next to Divine Horsemen and Splintered singles. Again, you can’t get three more different artists, but people still bought them. So I think that was quite interesting. For a short time it was fantastic, until distribution problems started. The people who now buy from my list [the so-called Scum List], would buy maybe a heavy metal album with a John Fahey or an Ornette Coleman record. There are a lot of people who buy a real wide variety of stuff and that’s what I was kind of hoping would happen with Shock. I’m glad I was able to do that for a while - put out really different things and have people still be interested and buying them.
Can you tell us about your Whitehouse experience ?
I got friendly with William Bennett not long after I moved to London. I’d seen one of the early Whitehouse shows, like Live Action 4 or 5, and I’d recorded some horrible noise shit at home and played some to William and he seemed to quite like it. So I ended up in Whitehouse for a while in 1984. Five or six years later I bumped into him in a London record shop, and the first thing he said was, "Do you fancy starting Whitehouse again ?" "Yeah, all right !" So we did two CDs and a few shows, a couple of which were really great, a couple of which were just fucking horrible and embarrassing. For one of them in Germany they had to move the show like half an hour before because a bunch of communists were supposedly going to come and kill us or castrate us or hang us for being rapists and nazis, you know. And it seems three quarters of the audience decided to stay at home instead of going to the other venue ! That was kind of lame and a bit of a disaster. People always get the wrong idea about Whitehouse - but I guess that’s part of the concept, isn’t it ?
Are you still interested in what they do now ?
No, but I’m still in touch with Philip Best a lot. William’s my age, so he’s in his 40s now. I think part of the problem with Whitehouse is you don’t want people to throw fucking glasses at you and try to kill you when you’re 43 years old, it’s unbearable. So what do you actually want to do with this music ? What effect do you want it to have on the audience ? Do you really want to make music that makes people want to kill you or beat you up ? Not really. I know it’s probably stupid, we actually thought that we were making good music as well as something kind of visceral. I mean, it was actually enjoyable to produce - the sound that we made - we spent a lot of time and came up with sounds we thought were good, interesting electronic music. Which is what I guess Whitehouse ought to be doing now. If Whitehouse is good, on a good day, it’s the power of the sound and the power of the voice that should affect you. I think by now Whitehouse should stand on its own as electronic music.
What are the best horror films you’ve seen ?
Apocalypse Now is my favourite film - and I class it as a horror film, so fuck it ! My favourite horror films - it’s boring - are probably Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead and Videodrome. They all had a massive effect on me, but at different times. Videodrome came out just when I was really getting into starting to think about writing about horror movies and I was watching fucking videos, like five, seven, ten tapes in a session, smoking tons of dope. Taking loads and loads of drugs : acid, heroin, speed, anything and watching all these fucking movies endlessly. It was insane - when video first started, I had a couple of friends with machines and we were heavily into drugs and videos - we just watched everything. Every fucking lousy gore movie that ever came out, you know, Italian Barbarian movies, anything, just any piece of trash we could find. Videodrome came along just when I was really getting into that, so it just seemed perfect. You know, that’s what it seemed to be all about, it seemed to capture that kind of madness we were going through.
It was about your own life...
Ha ha - well, that’s what you like to think, isn’t it, when you see something like that. "Hey, that’s me ! I could be Max Renn !" You know, I guess I really wanted to be Max Renn ! Jesus, I’ve had some stupid fucking ideas in my time ! Texas Chainsaw Massacre... I remember reading about it and I had to wait for a couple of years before it came out in England. Jesus fucking Christ, I just couldn’t believe it ! I still like it - even after all these years, it’s still a great film. The George Romero zombie trilogy : Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. All three are fantastic, adult horror films, uncompromising - no stupid teenage nerds stuff... But actually, my favourite films after Apocalypse Now are The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Wild Bunch. And also John Water’s Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, I think there’s a good case for calling those two horror films !
And some favourite books ?
I suppose my favourite book is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson - I must have read it ten or fifteen times or something ! I’m sorry to say I think a lot of my thought processes come from the ’70s ! Which reminds me, I forgot to mention Easy Rider - that must be in my top five movies. Easy Rider ruined my life at the age of twelve when I saw it at the cinema on re-release in 1971 or 1972, and it made me want to be a horrible fucking drop-out. I just couldn’t see any point of ever fitting into society ! To me, at the time, everything in that movie was true and real, that was the way it should be ! You shouldn’t have to do anything that anyone fucking tells you. You should just be able to get up and go if you want to get up and go. You should be able to say, "Fuck you !" to anyone ! Of course they end up dead - I sort of forgot about that ! Now I remember ! After thirty years of being kicked in the ass every time I tell someone to fuck off ! Now I finally realise there’s no happy ending for hippies ! So there is a fucking moral to it. Don’t take Easy Rider as a role model, it’s a really fucking bad idea !
| Scum List # 32 - Write to firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Stefan Jaworzyn, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion, Titan Books|