Jim G. Thirlwell
Diabolus In Musica

Jim Thirlwell is a multi-faceted character, a protean artist. On several occasions, he has acted in Richard Kern’s movies of the 80’s. He’s also a graphic designer, and since the beginning of his career he’s designed all of his album covers. Indeed Mr. Thirlwell - who most often hides himself behind the pseudonym Foetus - is most of all a mutant and elusive musician. Considered as one of the fathers of industrial music, he does not limit himself to that style and resorts to all musical genres - from symphonic music, to techno, jazz or blues - with degenerate and ravaging samples. During his last trip to Paris for a laptop-spoken word performance, he told us of his projects, his doubts, and very personal views about his art.

How would you introduce yourself to people who don’t know you ? As the "Master of Disaster" ?
It’s hard to say what I do in one word, in one sentence even. "Master of Disaster", that’s like a catch phrase, but I’m a composer, a producer, a sound manipulator, a DJ, a musician. Sometimes I’m a musician, sometimes I think I’m not good enough to call myself a musician, at other times I think I’m too good to call myself a musician. So, I’m many things, I wear many hats. I’m also an entrepreneur. Well, I’m an artist.

How do you link all of these different activities ?
It’s not something I have to think about, I just do it. It’s not like I feel schizophrenic, that I can only do one thing. One day, I might build a bookshelf, that doesn’t mean I’m a carpenter.

I’ve heard you were a very good plumber...
Plumber ? I may be plumbing the depths of our souls...

You use a lot of machines in your work. How do you manage to keep them under control ?
If you’re nice to them, maybe they’ll be nice to you. I interface with the world and God forbids when the electricity goes out. It’s all part of evolution. I think that society is pushing ourselves in that form of evolution where we are increasingly dependent on those things. I’ve changed the technology that I use a lot as I go along. What I do is like reflected by technology in that, I always felt it’s been about sonic manipulation as opposed to sitting down on the piano and play a tune. It’s always been about taking the sound, manipulating it, distorting it, starting with very crude equipment, pre-sampling, and then using systems that I created or invented, or that I took from other people, and mutated everything, from tape loops to using boxes to do what they are not supposed to do. Then, everything changed when sampling and computers became accessible and affordable for making music. What I create is like an artefact, creating illusions. You’re creating the illusion of perfection, or you’re creating the illusion of an emotion, or of an orchestra, creating an artifice of an environment. I’m building up sonic worlds and taking the listener on a journey. The same thing with artwork. You’re allowed to have an eraser, you’re allowed to rub out things, you’re allowed to mutate things. And then, when I present the finished product, everyone can have an original because it is meant to be mass-produced.

And how do you manage to make a laptop sexy ?
I think different people start from different places. I tend to leave in mistakes and I like to degenerate sounds. I like to move quickly. It’s kind of like sometimes using a sort of sonic paint-scraper instead of a one-hair-brush. I might even use my fingers sometimes !

You’ve said that before, the band was the weapon and you were the bullet. Do you think that now, the machine is the weapon and that you’re still the bullet ?
Well, it depends on the project. I’m moving away from the band thing for this year anyway and I’m constantly re-evaluating what I’m doing, and that was probably right for that period of my life. But if I should stick to whatever I say for my whole life, that would be boring. What I’m doing tonight with Chlo Delaume is something that is made specifically for tonight. I’ll be moving on and doing something else next week which will have a different intention. Next month I’m doing Steroid Maximus with an eighteen-piece band and that will be for that day. And then two weeks later, I’ll be on the road with a laptop-improvisation tour. And each one of those satisfies a different part of me. But I can’t say that what I want to do is laptop-music or all I want to do is big band music. It’s more a large ensemble type of thing. And then, later on, I might do something where I’m singing again. And when I’m singing, that’s a whole different thing with what I am doing this year because I’m not even doing any singing this year. Next year, I’ll probably get back to that. That’s when I’ve made all the decisions about what the music should sound like and I’ve done a lot of rehearsals and I have done all the meticular shiftings of notes. Then, when all the stage is set and that you’ve got the environment set, that’s when I can become a bullet. Because all I am thinking of is "that" moment, I am communicating in that moment and that is very instantaneous. A lot of this other stuff is much more cerebral. If you’re thinking and creating on the spot, it’s not the same as the immediacy of grabbing a microphone and... "Uhhh ! ! !"

"Master of Disaster"...
Yeah, right.

You used a lot of totalitarian art-like material in your artwork. What was the reason for that ?
The roots of that were that I’m an art school drop-out and I started to experiment in art school with tonal dropout in printed making and in oil painting. My oil painting was a lot like screen printing where I used flat colors, just hard lines and blocks of color. And that came from the influence of the printing process. So I’m taking a fine art and making it look like a reproduced art. That carried on with an interest in the graphic styles of propaganda from China, Nazi propaganda or Russian constructivism. Mixing those things to blur any political affiliation. I also threw in a few of my own things into making up hand letters and all the typography. Then, I had to throw in weird little jokes, just like homo-erotic fetishism or other things like that. I moved away from that when I started introducing, let’s say yellow, and then, when my stuff started to come out in Japan, I saw the way that they repackaged it for the Japanese market and they put this strip on the side. I decided that it was a cool look and I introduced this Japanese iconography and it started to go more pop-art. But each time, I wanted to show an evolution through the stuff, so I was exploring different aspects of the same look and creating this unified whole. And I still go back to using the same colors like red, white and black or red, white, black and grey. That’s supposed to give it that look but I feel like I can move on from that too. Sometimes I get back to it just because, if you look at my work on mass, you can definitely see that there’s a thread of someone who’s got a vision.

Is there a continuity, a line in your work ?
There’s a line but I like to cross out the line sometimes and break the line and then, I come back to the line mainly because I am building a body of work. And there are certain things that just recur in a body of work, which is like the four-letter and one-syllable-album titles in all the Ftus stuff. It suits my perverse sense of humor to see that I’ve done so many of those things all over the course of such a long period of time. You have to go and look back to see that this is a guy who obviously has a singular perception. Despite the fact that there’s a great sonic richness in my music, within everything that I’ve done and certain things that I’ve gone through, I see it as a collective work as well as an individual work.

Is your art, your music something like a cure or a therapy ?
It’s something that I have a real urgent, hard drive to do. I went through many stages with my art over the years too, to the point where I couldn’t stand to do it or couldn’t physically do it because I was so fucked up. I think I’ve been playing catch-up for the last few years getting my legacy back to where I wanted it to be. I’m still creating this sort of matrix where I feel happy with. Well, I’m mad and maybe there’s a certain point where I would not be creating out of such a desperation. But I don’t think this is only about desperation. I think it’s also about inspiration.

And what do all these little phrases that you put into your albums mean ("Hairy and pink and a sweet little stink", "From the whisker to the whiskey"...) ? Are these private jokes ?
These are usually private jokes, or little slogans that I throw in there to make people think and ask themselves questions. This is something that defines the moment. I think that I define myself through my art, through each release, it’s a different part of me and that’s why they are so close to me. This is kind of a dangerous thing to do because that means I’m not related, bound to other human beings, that I’m talking to you or talking to the world through e-mail or through my website, as opposed to having human contact. I talk to the world through records instead of normal conversation. That’s why I’ve got a lot to say right now, I guess. I’m not singing right now, but playing and most of what I’ve been doing was much more instrumental lately. I get the chance to say things in my works that I could not say in normal ways. I can be more candid sometimes in my lyrics than I can be in a normal discussion.

In a way you’re a prototype of our future society. With the Internet, people can be together while apart. What are your views on the Internet and the future of society ?
I can’t talk for society as a whole, but I would say that isolation can lead you to unhealthy extremes. I’ve never been the most healthy proponent and communicator anyway. I’m getting worse, so that’s maybe why I’m doing so many instrumental records. Well, I can go a long time without talking to people and my phone hardly ever rings now. Maybe things will change but I think that’s also been the price I had to pay for being working so hard lately.

Do you have a message for the world ?
I’m not a spokesman for a generation, I’m a spokesman for degeneration. But I can say two words : "Toujours l’amour !"

Manorexia, The Radiolarian Ooze, Ectopic Ents International