When I heard HEALTH‘s new album, I was transfixed by the progress they’ve made over the past six years. I’ve seen them play countless times; their live shows are some of the most intense experiences of my life and the cause of at least three chipped teeth, a badge I drunkenly showed off when I interviewed them in 2008. Their self-titled debut was formative to my music taste, and the follow-up Get Color took it a step further with melodies you could actually sing along to. Not to diss Merzbow or anything, but with noise, sometimes a good proper anthem is what’s needed.
Death Magic, their third LP out August 7th via Loma Vista Recordings, feels like one BIG anthem, and they underpin the noise I’ve come to expect with imminently danceable (or thrashable) beats and what seems like critique of youth nihilism, as noted in my review, which was actually wrong and proves I shouldn’t read so much Thomas Ligotti. I sat down with the band in a room with a friendly dog—pretty much my favorite kind of room—to catch-up after seven years apart. My first order of business was asking about the European shows they’d been playing recently.
Benjamin: The tour has been really good. We’ve had dedicated fans obsessively coming to multiple shows all across Europe. A funny comment I’ve gotten from them is, “Your sound is so varied?”—spoken like a question, like they were surprised. Like, why would you have each song so different?
John: “You should create a similar sound for a dance floor.”
EB: Like techno or something.
Benjamin: Yeah, I guess so.
Jake: We’ve always done that to our own detriment, where we want every song to be different.
EB: I don’t think it’s necessarily so confusing; with your albums and any time I’ve seen you live it’s always felt very cohesive. Of course, Death Magic has its highs and lows, noise and pop, but that’s what makes it interesting. When something maintains a single level without evolution, that’s when I’m bored.
Benjamin: We think it’s cohesive, but most people think in rigid genre parameters. You know, “Oh, it’s a garage rock band. I get it, I immediately understand.” We try to stay away from that idea. But we do also want to be cohesive.
EB: It must have been a bit of a struggle when you toured with Nine Inch Nails.
John: That was such a mainstream experience, though. It’s totally removed from anything alternative or independent. That crowd probably goes to one show a year.
Jake: It’s not the intelligentsia of the music scene, really.
John: They have a very different relationship to live music.
Benjamin: They have a tattoo and a poster on the wall.
John: But it’s for one band! The average person goes to one concert a year.
Benjamin: Now it’s changing, though, because of large festivals like Coachella.
John: So they don’t even go to a show—they go to one festival a year. It’s a very different idea of being a music fan.
EB: Do you find that there’s a higher level of musical apathy nowadays in the US?
John: As a guy who’s been going to shows and music festivals for a very long time, I definitely notice a change. I’ve been going to Coachella since high school. The majority of people there would wear band shirts. For several years, I’ve seen almost none.
Benjamin: I think now it’s more about the event itself rather than the music.
John: And since the advent of social media, it’s about the perfect photo. You never see shots of young kids watching the band or the DJ; it’s just about capturing the perfect moment of having been there. I feel like, in a certain way, everyone’s in the industry now. I’m not saying they don’t enjoy being at these shows, but they’ve got work to do promoting their own personal brand.
EB: When I was listening to Death Magic, I felt like it was commenting on this idea of apathy in youth clubbing culture: being in a place where you only respond to drugs and don’t care about anything other than the moment, if that. The phrase “So what?” definitely appeared a lot.
John: We didn’t mean that in a negative way, though! We’re definitely not trying to criticize anything. It’s more about feeling a real human emotion about what you’re doing at the time, you know? Feeling like someone is saying, “Have fun, you can do your own thing.” It’s a positive thing.
Benjamin: Positive or negative, we’re just here. So what can you do about it?
John: Times have changed. In LA there’s now a very active party scene. There’s a lot of older people—people who’ve been in the noise and experimental scene for a long time and who now do a lot of party drugs because that’s the vibe—staying up all night at these parties. It’s a fun thing, but there is this certain…not sadness, but it feels like everyone is reaching for something.
Benjamin: That’s the whole reason you’re doing it anyway.
John: It’s profound, but we wanted to reflect that in a non-cheesy way. But it is a very real thing.
EB: There’s definitely been a shift in America’s party landscape in the last five years toward some kind of idealization of Berlin—especially Berghain, which represents the dream of a massive techno club where you can party all night on drugs. I suppose on some level it can be traced to the rise of EDM, which acted as a gateway for many into electronic music.
John: I think it was also reactionary to EDM. The underground sees it’s crap, so they have to seek out the “real thing” instead. So many people think, “I can only have this big techno experience in Berlin,” but now every weekend in LA there’s “Berlin-style” all-night warehouse parties. Berghain is definitely the model for it. And the people doing this are the same ones who were doing weird noise or punk shows before. The underground has a wide breath of sounds from different periods, so it’s always changing.
EB: How do you think that this idea of reaching for a higher quality of sound has impacted the DIY scene?
John: It’s weird, because there’s a lot of artists striving to make what, to them, is “authentic” techno or “real” music, but the real good shit can be hard to differentiate from the other shit.
Benjamin: Also, it’s really easy now for anyone in the DIY scene to make totally hi-fi music.
John: There’s no separation between the quality anymore. You can make something that sounds as good as anything on the radio with your computer. That’s exciting. But the thing about the underground is that it’s still tied to this idea of an authentic method or sound. So someone makes “authentic” techno the “right” way, but I can’t tell the difference between their real techno and some other techno.
Benjamin: We’re not huge techno or house fans.
John: No, but I mean that it’s just hard for songs to stand out sometimes.
EB: It’s interesting, though. Can you imagine James Ferraro five years ago being where he is now?
John: Exactly. With modern technology, there’s no reason why your music can’t be hi-fi.
Benjamin: It’s great that you ask that question, actually, because we’ve been getting asked why there’s such a stylistic change in our sound a lot. But I mean…how can you not do that? Unless you want to be a retro band, you have to respond to what’s going on. You have to be excited about the possibilities of music around you.
Jake: Some interviewers seemed almost disappointed that we’d changed.
Benjamin: “You’ve really changed your ghetto-ass record production style.” Well, sorry we made it better!
EB: When I saw you play Berghain a couple years ago, I was surprised at how pop-y the material had become—but even more surprised at how it made the more noisy parts sound fresher. It captured the same spirit in a new way.
Benjamin: What would be the point of waiting for a record or a show if you just knew you were getting what you already heard? It was very important to us not to go that route. It also speaks a lot on youth and progressiveness. People are afraid of change. They want to say, “I know what that band sounds like and it should stay like that.” No. There’s no integrity to that. You have to take a risk.
John: All the punk and noise stuff, if there was a button or some easily-accessible technology they could have used to make themselves sound high-end, of course a lot of them would have used it.
Benjamin: If the Misfits could have recorded at Abbey Road, they would have.
EB: This technology has really allowed freaks to come into the mainstream on their own terms.
John: That’s the thing about the internet too; these genre sub-divisions are all great because they’ve created interesting culture around them, but they’re out of necessity. Now, there’s really no rules. Anything goes.
When I first moved to the West Coast, I spent a lot of time at weird, noisy shows. They were usually in someone’s backyard, living room or wherever Don Bolles from Germs happened to be at the moment. As I poked at the edges of the industrial scene, eager for new and interesting sounds, the name Prurient started to come up more often. Eventually, I found a copy of 2002’s blistering power electronics collage The History of Aids, and my mind fragmented into shards of glass. It felt like he was screaming at my soul. I liked it, but it wasn’t until 2005’s Black Vase that his rough aural sex found a lasting place inside me.
Prurient’s beauty isn’t readily apparent to those without a taste for the more depressing and difficult end of the musical spectrum. It isn’t always the nice kind of beauty, and often you have to dig at it like a scab, pry it up until the wet rawness is visible. But when it is, when some particular element of production is uncovered, some mysterious fragment of lyric deciphered, it can open a constellation in your mind.
After the dance floor epiphany of 2013’s Through The Window, Dominick Fernow proved that Prurient’s sonic claws stretch further than previously imagined. His new album on Profound Lore, the monolithic double LP Frozen Niagara Falls, is certainly his most ambitious to date. Across 16 tracks and two records, Frozen Niagara Falls expands on what Fernow has shown so far—gorgeous ambient synths, rhythmic cacophony and various degrees of black metal epicness—and matures it, expanding these familiar aspects into something that approaches a definitive masterwork both graceful and obscene, and which you can stream in full below.
Browsing Fernow’s extensive catalog and numerous monikers gives an idea of the mind behind them. The submissive, fetish-obsessed Exploring Jezebel, the noise-metal collaboration Ash Pool, the occult psychedelic mystery Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement and the militaristic techno project Vatican Shadow (which once performed at Ibiza with Richie Hawtin—I KNOW) are just a few of the ways Fernow spends his time when he’s not running several labels, including his original imprint Hospital Productions. In this guide I’m focusing purely on Prurient and some of the project’s most striking moments since 2005. It even comes with a megamix of every track featured here (with the exception of the Nico Vascellari collab, which I don’t have) so you have some essential music to take with you to the gym or local luncheon.
“Sorry Robin” from Black Vase (Load, 2005)
“Sorry Robin,” one of Prurient’s first forays into more focused song structure, stands out amid Fernow’s usual collage of power electronics. Rhythmic shards of noise punctuate tribal percussion before descending into walls of crackling distortion and harsh, chewed-up vocals.
“Apple Tree Victim” on Pleasure Ground (Load, 2006)
This highlight of Pleasure Ground is a churning, noisy dirge that builds on slow waves of distortion and blown-out, Carpenter-esque synths that lurk in the background. Once a trance-like state has set in, Fernow unleashes anguished screams about extinguishing lust and cruel final ejaculations. Recommended for weddings.
“Pipes and Water” on Lily of The Valley/Return of Happiness (Hospital Productions, 2007)
A sluggish, static-laden beat guides the way into this slow burner, a reflective piece that, while as the pulsing electronics remain fairly static, create a sense of growing unease thanks to Fernow’s gruff spoken word. One of the more majestic early pieces, and a prelude to more ambient works.
“He Tied His Horse To A Tree” on The Golden Chamber (Hospital Productions, 2007)
Honestly, The Golden Chamber is filled with great tracks from beginning to end. It’s one of the first occasions when Fernow allows the synths to shine through the layers of harshness, which illuminates moments of unmistakable beauty and adds a sense of grandeur to the aural monstrosities being birthed. “He Tied His Horse To A Tree,” is pure evil, and evokes the grim realities of the militaristic machine with distant, echoing drums and inhuman vocals that snarl about the deaths of soldiers.
“Dog of Addiction/Cocaine Death” on Cocaine Death (Hospital Productions, 2007)
I’m including both of these cuts from this cassette and compilation CD together because they feel like sonic continuations of one another. Equal parts blown-out noise and the haunting synthwork that was becoming a Prurient staple, the shrieked selfish vitriol on “Cocaine Death” and slowly-spoken tale of what seems like unreciprocated love on “Dog of Addiction” make these two of Fernow’s most emotional tracks. When he emphasizes the word “bound” on the first verse, the hatred in his voice is palpable.
“Memory Repeating” on And Still, Wanting (No Fun, 2008) and 7″ single (AA Records, 2006)
“Memory Repeating” is a full-on noise assault that allows tension to creep in via brief discordant guitar and a few moments of silence. Slabs of bass nail them back down, tipped with knife-sharp feedback guaranteed to shatter the nerves of house fans when played at 5 a.m. (trust me). The piece’s disorienting ferocity is offset by Fernow’s almost delicate spoken word, which is mostly buried beneath the throbbing agony of sound that, at times, seems to scream. “It’s hard to believe,” Fernow intones in one of his few audible moments, “Only hours ago—I was laughing.”
“Egyptian Bondage” on The Black Post Society (Cold Spring, 2008)
Despite the maelstroms of noise that form the majority of the compositions on The Black Post Society, on the whole it’s a fairly meditative work. While the topics deal with death and S&M, it’s channeled not through black metal growls but in a monotone processed voice speaking with the patience of glaciers.
“Spins The Worlds Wheel Again” on Rose Pillar (2009) and cassette (Hospital Productions, 2008)
There’s a power to this ten-minute composition that Fernow has yet to top even in his most ambitious pieces. Much of Prurient’s discography focuses on themes of destruction, but here we finally explore the loss that it brings. A heavy ache hangs over the Rose Pillar EP—named for the traditional Roman symbol for burial sites—and its accompanying collage of art and text written by Fernow’s mother. Listening to it feels rather like dying. “Spins the Worlds Wheel Again” is the centerpiece, and it’s a true showcase of Fernow’s own gift with words (as well as I can interpret them):
“Does one live on after it’s over? Or is there some other way of existence? Or do only invisible traces of us remain written in the starry logs of the celestial orders? What does one do in paradise?”
“Untitled 4” from Jesus (Hospital Productions, 2010)
“Untitled 4” was captured as part of a live performance with artist Nico Vascellari. It marshals walls of saw-edged oscillations around samples from Klaus Kinski’s live show/standup performance Jesus Christ Erlöser, and the effect is something akin to an acid-addled and disillusioned preacher ranting into the collapsing skies as the world ends around him. A beautiful listen for Sunday picnics in the park.
“Palm Tree Corpse” on Bermuda Drain (Hydra Head, 2011) and cassette (Hospital Productions, 2009)
Bermuda Drain is a well-honed marriage of each aspect that Fernow had shown in his work to date. Harsh vocals and blasts of noise are backed with a clean production that allows the eerie synthwork of Kris Lapke’s (of the wonderful Alberich) to dominate rather than lurk in the shadows. “Palm Tree Corpse” is one of the album’s quieter moments—until the halfway point—yet its ostensible tranquility is counterbalanced with the horrifically psychotic spoken word. When Fernow finally erupts, the sudden explosiveness is shocking—but it’s not, after what he’s just said, surprising. Shoutout to the self-castrating Attis.
“Time’s Arrow” on Times Arrow EP (Hydra Head, 2011)
Take away the vocals, and “Time’s Arrow” could be a superior Vatican Shadow track. Clattering rhythmic percussion overlaid with woozy synths appear on “Time’s Arrow,” one of Fernow’s more subtle tracks; rather than pushing extremities of sound and mood, it hovers ethereally like the lost soundtrack to a broken night. The stars seem like they went out long ago.
“Through The Window” on Through The Window (Blackest Ever Black, 2013)
Fernow goes full-on techno. This one pissed off a lot of noise purists, which is fantastic. I like the idea of transgressing a scene that was born out of a desire to break down imposed limitations in the first place—I’ve written about the phenomenon before—and besides, this so damn catchy. Unlike Vatican Shadow’s instant hit-and-repeat method, however, here Fernow teases release at the end of a well-honed hook. On Through the Window, exquisitely textured synth pads arch over the thumping repetition of concrete-tinged bass and chunks of percussion, and the vocals here barely discernible whispers. No longer shrieking, Fernow is content to let the music be his voice—and it’s as loud as ever.
Daniel Jones has written extensively about Dominick Fernow. To see a full archive of EB’s Fernow-related material, click here.
The founder of controversial noise and industrial pioneers Whitehouse now operates as the African rhythm and vaudou-inspired Cut Hands, and is making some of the most vital music of his 30+ year career. Interviewed by online editor Lisa Blanning as part of Berlin Atonal’s day program, we present the transcript from the conversation in its entirety.
Thank you to everyone for coming. My name is Lisa Blanning, I’m a music journalist and I work for Electronic Beats as the online editor. With me is William Bennett, who most of you will be familiar with as the founder of Whitehouse and currently the artist Cut Hands. I’m sure everybody knows already that some people regard Whitehouse as actually the originators of noise, or if not that, certainly one of the pioneers and probably originators of power electronics. So we’re going to have a general conversation about William’s activities ranging over three decades.
William, I, for one, was really glad for the opportunity to interview you because it seems obvious to me that you’re a cool guy. You’re a middle-aged white man—British at that—who likes Dr. Dre. What is it you like about him?
[laughs] I think he’s really hot. And he gets better with age, have you noticed?
In terms of his looks?
Absolutely. The last video he did, I don’t think he’s ever looked better. In terms of his music, not only do I love it but his work ethic, as well. He does things over and over again, spends hours on one single project in order to get exquisite results. I really admire that, in anyone, but Dre to me is the pinnacle of that sort of ethic.
His career is very long as well, and varied, even. Is there other rap music you like besides Dre?
I’m a West Coast guy when it comes to rap. That era is my favorite.
Yeah. I like Snoop, and the Geto Boys. I had the great fortune to meet Bushwick Bill a couple of months ago in Texas.
I saw the picture online, actually.
He played live, he has this new band with three live musicians, and it’s absolutely fantastic. If you ever get a chance to see him live, it’s incredible.
It wasn’t on the same bill as Cut Hands, was it?
No, different venue but part of the same festival, Chaos In Tejas.
I wondered if it wasn’t partly because a massive part of rap music is how it uses language, and especially with Whitehouse, it seems that lyrics and language are really important. You describe yourself as an expert in meta-language—or you’ve been described that way. How would you define the term?
Meta-language exists whether you use it consciously or unconsciously. It’s the art of understanding what people are really saying. You can use it accidentally or by design—very few people use it by design—but it’s happening all the time. It’s often the little words that make it powerful. “But”, for example. Somebody might say, “Oh, I really liked the last Tom Cruise film,” and somebody might respond, “Yes, but…” and then give their opinion. The meta-language of “but”, which is different than the definition in the dictionary, is essentially, “my opinion is more important than yours.” That’s why, on an unconscious level, when somebody says, “Yes, but…” to us, we lose the connection with that person slightly. So, it’s not a very useful form of communication if you can break rapport through such a simple thing.
Would meta-language also encompass things like body language and physical signs?
Yes, it’s all forms of communication that essentially work on an unconscious level. As I said, it’s often at odds with what the dictionary definition would be. I don’t know if you read magazines like Cosmopolitan, but they like to talk about body language. Men’s magazines are full of that stuff as well, stuff like, “Oh, if a girl is sitting next to you on the train and her legs are crossed toward you, she’s interested in you in some kind a sexual way. Whereas if her legs are crossed the other way, she’s not.” But in actual fact body language doesn’t work like that at all. Each piece of body language can’t always be defined in a particular way, as you would with a dictionary.
This power of the unconscious and communicating through unconscious channels is something you’ve mentioned as important, and which pops up frequently in your work. Interestingly, you also work as a motivational speaker, which I found absolutely fascinating. I could see how being an expert in meta-language could serve that role—but how do you even become a motivational speaker?
I don’t call it motivational speaking because I’m not really there to specifically make people feel better about themselves. It’s difficult to explain, but they’re sort of workshops about acquiring skills in unconscious communication techniques. This stuff is very useful in so many different spheres, and comes up so often in social interaction. It’s useful to have these skills.
It’s incredibly useful. But how did you start doing that for money?
It was quite a long, gradual way. I became qualified for training teachers, and at the same time I became very interested in hypnosis. It wasn’t connected, but those journeys came together on a long path through method acting, through neuro-linguistic programming, through magic, hypnotherapy, mind control, mentalism—all these different spheres, and that came out the other end, really. We tend to think of academia as covering all the skills one would need in life, but I found very quickly that that isn’t the case. That most of the really interesting stuff comes from outside academia. It was really a very long journey learning about things you can’t learn at university.
And letting other people notice you were good at this, and hiring you?
Yeah, it started when I did this thing in Edinburgh called The Relationship Academy, which we had in the center of the city every week. It was very popular, even Red Magazine—a women’s magazine in the UK—came along to review it. It was mostly women who came along to that to learn techniques for dating.
This is really great, that you can get dating advice from William Bennett. You previously talked about the concept of transparent concession, which I thought was really interesting and of course relates to your ideas about the unconscious. Can you explain the concept briefly?
That came about when I got involved in magic. I was very fortunate: I was in the library and I was looking through books and found a small piece of paper that said “Magic Circle” with a telephone number. I like to think I belong to the Let’s See What Happens Club, so called the number and said, “I’m interested in this Magic Circle thing.” And they told me to come to this venue in Edinburgh, which was down a dark alley and up a few stairs. I went in there and it was this 18th century apartment with wooden panels and these mostly aged gentlemen who just meet every week to talk about magic. They keep all their secrets to themselves, and suddenly after a couple of visits they allowed me to join the circle and gain access to all their secrets and books, which I found fascinating. You can’t buy these on Amazon because they have very small numbers printed, maybe 100 or 200 copies, which really tell you about all the techniques for achieving amazing things. Then I sort of thought about magic and how we are going to define magic in a meta-linguistic sense, if we can call it that. Magic to me is achieving what you previously thought was impossible.
For me, magic is being able to impose your will on the outside sphere.
Going back to the concept of transparent concession, if we accept this notion of achieving what you previously thought was impossible then in order to achieve that, you apply ‘transparent concessions’. A mundane example would be if you saw a magician pulling a bird out of his hand. We know in that situation that there is some kind of trick, that he doesn’t possess supernatural abilities, and yet we don’t know exactly what he is doing. We can call that a transparent concession because we accept that something is happening, that there is some trick involved, but we accept that we don’t know what it is. We’re often disappointed if we do find out what it is. Another example, which I learned from Stanislavski, would be where an actor must decide what to do off stage between scenes. Should he stay in character, in terms of his voice and appearance and so forth, or should he go and have a cigarette and a Mars bar during the break and have a chat with his friends about what he is going to do after the play. Now, it doesn’t matter to the audience because they don’t see any of that, and yet Stanislavski—and I—would argue that it makes a difference to how the audience perceives the performance. That’s a transparent concession: it’s invisible and yet it makes a difference.
That can also be described as a part of art where the audience doesn’t directly experience it and yet they benefit from it somehow.
Yeah. I thought about this more and I remember looking at a Schiele painting in Vienna and it struck me that in fact every artistic experience is pure transparent concession. In other words, the artistic experience is everything that you’re not directly looking at. It’s the entire environment and everything that’s happened and is happening around it, rather than the thing itself. The illusion is that it’s the piece of art that you’re looking at—in actual fact it’s everything that isn’t that piece of art.
How does this idea relate to what Whitehouse did?
For me it was kind of mind-blowing to think of things in these terms. Referring to the Schiele painting, he wasn’t applying transparent concessions deliberately but I thought about how in the context of magic or drama you could apply transparent concessions in a deliberate way. In other words, what can you do visibly to change somebody’s experience of your art. That’s when I began to apply that to Whitehouse.
But it seems that with Whitehouse that it’s not invisible at all. It seems that Whitehouse is so confrontational as an aesthetic experience that it’s almost counter-intuitive to think of everything that you’re not experiencing directly with Whitehouse being the experience.
The way I see it, everything is, whether it’s Whitehouse or anything else. It’s always the invisible, the transparent concession applies to everything. The difference with Whitehouse is that it’s being applied in deliberate ways, as with Stanislavski when he’s suggesting to the actors to stay in character. By definition it’s invisible, so you wouldn’t notice it and it can’t be seen, but it forms your experience.
In the past you’ve talked about taking the audience through a threshold so to speak, or on a journey with Whitehouse and then what happens after that is not up to you, it’s up to them.
Yeah, well although it kind of sounds creepy, metaphorically speaking I say this, but that’s only because this is how I like my own experiences to be. I’m a big fan of Ingmar Bergman’s films and that’s how I feel if I see a great Bergman film. For me, it’s like wandering around the countryside and you see some woods. And you don’t know where you are when a perfectly friendly stranger comes up to you and offers his hand to take you into the woods and says there’s something wonderful in there. The question is, do you go with him or do you think, “Oh that might be a bit dangerous, I don’t know this person, I don’t know what might be in the woods.” My instinct is to take that guy’s hand and to go into the woods, but not everybody feels comfortable about that. I want my music to be that hand.
For me personally, that is actually a more successful proposition with Cut Hands, in the sense that it seems that you’re reaching a larger audience with Cut Hands. The progression from Whitehouse to Cut Hands was actually very organic, but when you decided to stop Whitehouse did you think that might happen?
I really had no idea. I mean it was fantastic for me that people got off on Cut Hands at all. It was just something that I had to do and I felt that for a long time. But that certainly wasn’t something I was expecting. I think that sometimes with music you can be lucky in the sense that the right things happen at the right time in the right place.
Did you make any theoretical changes to your artistic practice?
No. The big difference of course is that there is no singing in Cut Hands, so the explicit language aspect of it isn’t there anymore. If we extend this metaphor a bit further, I suppose the hand is a little bit friendlier than it was, so you’re more likely to go into the woods, maybe you can hear some music in the woods that sounds nice, you have more reasons to go there than you did with Whitehouse. Whitehouse definitely requires more bravery to go down that path.
Whitehouse was really provocative so it created a reaction, no matter what. It might have been negative, in the sense that people shut it out or ignore it or denounce it. But one of the large differences is that there’s a lack of physical theater in Cut Hands that was really present in Whitehouse. Does that have to do with you changing how you wanted to present your ideas?
In the ’70s there was a movement in San Francisco called EST, which stands for Erhard Seminars Training. It kind of still exists today in the form of Landmark Education. They had a very confrontational approach to people’s problems in their lives and where for example they wouldn’t let anybody go on toilet breaks during these very long seminars and trainings. Even people who had terrible things in their lives would be verbally abused, but it wasn’t done to humiliate them—in fact, it was done in a therapeutic sense in order to get beyond the illusion of identity, because it is only through breaking through that threshold that there’s the potential for change.
Our belief systems are so rigid, the way it typically happens in some people’s lives is through what are traumatic events—you know where people say, “such a thing changed my life.” The reason I left London, for example, was that some burglars broke into my house and took everything, which actually did me a favor because it allowed me to break through this threshold and do something different. A lot of people say this, someone may have passed away in their lives or there might have been an accident or suffered an illness, and this caused them to change their lives.
EST achieved this through confrontational training techniques without the traumatic events in order to help even people who had suffered abuse as children to overcome this identity which they might use as an excuse for everything bad that happened to them in their lives. Werner Erhard, who ran these seminars, would call these people assholes and tell them it was a scam, that they were running a racket, that it was their fault that all these things happened and that they had to take responsibility for it. At the end of the three or so days, after all this very emotional verbal interaction and the various exercises, people would come out the other side and it would allow them to change their lives. Luke Reinhart, author of The Dice Man, wrote a great book about it. It was pretty controversial at the time, and I find it very interesting and Whitehouse is very similar to that. The people who get through it, for so many of them it had an enormous impact on their lives. I’m not saying that Whitehouse was designed to be some kind of musical therapy or anything, yet it does have a value to it which I think is under-appreciated.
It definitely has a value to it. Are you familiar with the term ‘porno-misère’, also misery lit or misery porn? It’s usually meant to describe stories of redemption after years of abuse, usually child abuse or sexual abuse, and it’s a literary genre that boomed massively and became very popular and made a lot of money. Proponents talk about how it helped writers and readers come to terms with these sorts of horrors, but critics suggest that the appeal is actually in voyeurism, prurient titillation, and the suggestion is we delight in and are aroused by the misery of others. Do you think that there is validity to that criticism?
Are you referring to Whitehouse or the literary genre?
Yes and no. I mean it’s obviously exploitative. I posted a picture on my blog that I took when I walked into a major book store in the UK, WH Smith. They had this huge display exclusively of these types of books. I mean now, interestingly, it’s all 50 Shades of Grey pornography, but then it was all misery porn literature. It’s obviously exploitative, there’s no doubt about it, and the books, I suspect, are written by hacks, many of them. I don’t consider Whitehouse to be similar to that.
I don’t mean necessarily that, but rather that there are so many taboo subjects that Whitehouse is famous for incorporating into their work, and there is a lot about the taboo that is intriguing to a lot of people that Whitehouse freely use. And not just Whitehouse, obviously. As everybody knows, there were many groups, such as Throbbing Gristle, that were mining this field heavily, especially during this period. And I do wonder if this arousal by the taboo was part of it.
No. One of the problems I have is the retrospective view of these things. It’s not a criticism, it’s an analysis really, that a lot of the groups that copied this formula as they saw it. And it was seen in these visceral terms. I can assure you that for me, personally, it wasn’t done with that in mind. The way it looks is that there are hundreds of bands that are, as you say, mining those fields, it looks like Whitehouse is part of that whole scene, but it wasn’t originally, it wasn’t created in that spirit.
I was very young at the time, and I felt that I had to immerse myself in all horrors to come to terms with them. I went through a lot of these things one by one. Although it again doesn’t look like that in retrospect when you view it from 2013, but then it was very much from the perspective of the suffering from it. It was trying to come to terms with the suffering rather than the victimization, even though it looks different. People identify certain themes and are attracted through the visceral component rather than where it comes from, in the heart.
It’s the same with the language that was used. A song like “A Cunt Like You” was seen by a lot of people, critics and fans alike, as being a of sort of paean to misogyny. I hate explaining lyrics, because I don’t think one should, but I gave a talk in London where I explained that the truth is that it was anything but. It was actually language used by my parents against each other and part of it was about the hypocrisy of men and their relationship towards women of their own age and, say, their teenage daughters. I saw it as the same thing, they have the same feelings towards their daughters that they do towards women of their own age, but it’s a nasty, dark secret. So, that’s what that song is really about, it’s not a paean or anthem to misogyny in any way. But as soon as it’s picked up like that, especially when some are even people who like your music and start seeing it in those terms, then I’ve got a problem.
You said that you don’t like to explain lyrics, and that’s something you didn’t used to do, as far as I can tell. You didn’t really respond to accusations of fascism or racism that would arise from Whitehouse. But earlier this year you very strongly and publicly responded to these accusations via Facebook and your blogs. Obviously it’s been more than 30 years since you started Whitehouse, but what has changed to make you want to address this commentary?
I still believe that. It’s a big sacrifice to do that. Most art is rationalized in some kind of way, whether it’s literature or music. We live in an era where everything is rationalized. When Caravaggio painted he didn’t need to do interviews or magazine reviews or features, he could pretty much do as he wanted. I’m kind of jealous of not being able to be in that position. The reason for not rationalizing is to give people the freedom to experience art however they wish. I hate movies with a message at the end telling you how you should feel about what you just watched. Oliver Stone is a particular transgressor in that regard. If it’s not at the end of the film then it’s in an interview or a blurb. I want to give people the freedom to experience it in whatever way they want, whether they like it or don’t like it. I strongly believe in that freedom, and if I start coming out with stuff regarding my personal beliefs or the reasons why I made something then I’m taking away some of that freedom.
Regarding your question, I’m in a very fortunate position where I’m doing a lot of shows and other people depend on that, it’s not just me who’s affected. Somebody was sending anonymous threats to venues and I didn’t want people to have to deal with that. Not everybody is as knowledgeable about early ’80s industrial music, for example, and you can’t expect everybody to do all sorts of research to find out. So, I can’t be so arrogant as to presume that everyone knows what kind of person I am. I felt that, especially for the sake of other people, that it was important to put that on record.
I think that it was probably helpful for a lot of people who encounter your work and form an opinion. As a music journalist, obviously I would say this, but context is important. Or it can be and it can help a lot and it can give you a different perspective. But now, 30 years down the line, as an artist who is renowned for manipulating the boundaries of both ethics and taste to become somehow canonized—Whitehouse haven’t quite reached the point of Throbbing Gristle with a multiple-day event at the Tate devoted to your work—but it’s interesting especially because quite often the discussion around Whitehouse is based around notions of transgression as opposed to music. But Zeitkratzer legitimized your music in a way by performing it alongside composers like Morton Feldman. What is that like for you as the artist?
I’m thrilled. It’s extremely gratifying. One of the most magical moments I’ve ever had was when I arrived in Marseille—because it was a big classical music festival and there’s a lot of money behind all that—I arrived at the venue on this beautiful day in May and I could hear them rehearsing this classical interpretation of one of my own pieces. You could hear it from outside and it was just incredible.
Isn’t it quite odd for that music to be decontextualized from how it originally appeared?
Yes, it’s bizarre. But it’s fantastic. I don’t know if people enjoyed it, but for me, personally, it’s beautiful. I also started in classical music funnily enough, so it was kind of like a full circle being connected.
And those boundaries of ethics and taste? Are those kinds of manipulations still a concern for you with Cut Hands?
What do you mean by ethics and taste?
Well, I think that Whitehouse were deliberately pushing boundaries. Trying to see how far things can go. In terms of aesthetically, before Whitehouse, noise wasn’t really a genre and now it’s codified as a genre, so that’s one example. And obviously, the ethics of all these references to things that are pretty much universally agreed on, for instance denouncing the Holocaust, misogyny and using those sorts of references in your work.
Again, I don’t really see it in that way. It’s understandable, but everything is seen retrospectively, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. There’s nothing as far as I’m concerned that’s controversial about Whitehouse. I understand that people would perceive it in that way but it wasn’t intended in that spirit. For example, there was no use of pictures from Nazi Germany or anything like that. But a lot of groups like Throbbing Gristle used these kinds of images, and even to this day use those kinds of images. We never used that imagery once.
But you did call an album Buchenwald.
Yeah, and so what? It’s just a name.
It’s a name that’s charged.
It’s just a name, though. There’s no message beyond the use of the name. There are lots of books that use that name and even classical pieces. I mean there’s a band called Joy Division, why isn’t that controversial?
I think that alone it wouldn’t have been controversial, but stacked up with everything else.
Again we go back to the transparent concession. So here we’ve got music and the transparent concession is that there’s no friendly beat to it. It’s not part of the rock’n’roll paradigm. It’s using this very aggressive, extreme music—extreme bass, high-pitched frequencies and so forth and that unsettles people and they make the association with dark, and then it becomes something for them to worry about.
Well, there were also song titles that were problematic and all of that together makes it seem as though this is the concern. I’m not saying that you’re promoting deviant behavior, or what have you. What I’m suggesting is that you’re actually asking a question about human darkness.
Well yes, I’m asking a question. At the time I was consuming a vast amount of books about all these things because it was something I really wanted to come to terms with. It was the same with books about murders or serial killers, all sorts of terrible things. A lot of these are mass circulation paperbacks, so a lot of people are reading about all of this stuff.
Yes, and I think that this is actually related, although it’s obviously not the same thing, to the misery lit, the misery porn.
Absolutely. For a time these kind of books would have been the equivalent in those days. I really had to come to terms with these things, so I read all there was to read and then I moved on to other things. The other aspect, and I think this is true for many people in Britain, is that I grew up incredibly disenfranchised from life in terms of broken relationships with family, a lack of opportunities, disenfranchisement from music where I grew up.
Thank God for punk rock because finally there was a chance, but even after punk rock it wasn’t that good. I mean I learned to play the electric guitar and went to dozens of auditions with bands and they would just laugh at you because they would ask what music I liked and I would say something like The Residents or Yoko Ono, and you could see that there was a lack of interest. I felt very, very disenfranchised. Radio and television in the UK, the press, there’s so much of young people’s amazing cultural activity that’s ignored, even to this day. You get to the point where you say, “Fuck it, I’m going to create my own universe,” and really Whitehouse is a sort of separate, parallel universe to everything else. That’s why there are no obvious influences noticeable in the music.
That’s interesting that you do point out, and I hadn’t really thought about it like this, but it’s true that so many of these groups—and it might have been proximity—they’re British. And it was the same era, that is interesting. But this was actually an important movement, and now we know that, retrospectively.
You used the analogy of acting in reference to your work a few times, and I think it’s telling. I really like that you have these alter egos that you don’t hide but nor do you promote them. In addition to your role as a kind of motivational speaker—even though you don’t call it that—I love your alter ego of DJ Benetti, which to me is really surprising. You guys probably know that William is also an Italo disco DJ.
[puts finger to lips] Shhhh. [laughs]
You wrote this great piece for Red Bull Music Academy, and I quote, “But times were changing all too quickly, and this process of commercialization signaled the end of Italo disco. As discotheques steadily became engulfed in the pop dance trash typified by Stock, Aitken and Waterman and the flood of house and techno in the late ’80s, it didn’t feel the same any more. So I moved to the Far East. In Bangkok in 1988 I got a residency at a sweaty katoey club in Soi Cowboy. There, they favored much faster BPMs in the hi-NRG style that would later be termed Eurobeat, the direct descendant of Italo. Unfortunately for me, and the establishment’s he-shes, the owner fell out with some local policemen over unpaid bribes for live sex shows. And that was that.” I think this is very funny, and I also think it’s probably not true.
[laughs] I have this terrible habit of referring to Benetti in the third person. It just helps my method, shall we say. But believe it or not there’s actually a half-truth to everything in that article.
I do believe that, because I read another interview where you said that you spent some time in the Far East. How do you view these other strands of your work? Do you think of them as alter egos?
I guess they are. Benetti started by accident. A journalist friend in London called Piers Martin had these monthly nights in the West End of London where he would invite people that he knew through working in music to come and they could just play whatever they wanted to in the evening as DJs. This would be about the late ’90s, I guess. His club was called Cocadisco. It wasn’t really for dancing, it was more to have drinks. It was quite trendy place, I mean Björk would often come in there. And he’d had people like Russell Haswell and Richard James were invited and came along. And it’d just be a very basic fee.
He invited me and I asked, “What do you want me to play?” And he said, “You can play whatever you want.” I didn’t fancy the idea of playing noise or anything, and I remembered that when I moved to Barcelona there was this music called Italo disco that I loved and bought loads of records of and was a bit of a guilty pleasure, and I could play that. He said, “Yeah, you should play Italo disco.” But I didn’t want all Whitehouse fans to turn up because they would hate the music and hate me, and it would just be kind of ugly so I said I’d just change my name and make it Italian sounding. So, I changed it to DJ Benetti.
And now you’re getting bookings all over the world as DJ Benetti.
Absolutely. I did this huge fucking art event in Berlin where all the galleries sort of combine as one and it’s held at this huge venue. There were like 500 people invited from the art world and they all came along in dinner jackets. Gilbert and George gatecrashed the event! Anyway, DJ Benetti was invited to DJ at the event and Benetti arrived at the event coming from Edinburgh and I just had my laptop and a controller. They had arranged a huge table with turntables, CDJs and computers and everything else. There was also a space for the laser show, which was separate.
The guy said to me “Oh hi there, are you the DJ?”. I thought, “Hang on a minute, did you say the DJ?” I thought I’d just be playing for 20 minutes and that Paul Oakenfold would be playing or something and I’d just be at the beginning. I said “Yeah I am a DJ,” and this guy was like, “Oh great, you’re the DJ, here’s all your equipment.” I was the only DJ and I just played Italo disco—I didn’t even have enough music for the whole night! Very weird, especially because it was in Berlin and there must be more DJs per capita here than anywhere else in the whole world and to have somebody flown in to do an amateur Italo disco DJ set…
And they probably had no idea of your other roles?
No, absolutely not!
There’s one more alter ego that probably only shows up on your blog, Uncle William. He’s actually very funny—is this just the crotchety old man alter ego?
He’s not really as crotchety as he appears. The way I see relationships is that people get stuck in these patterns where the same problem happens over and over again and they can recognize the problems that they have and yet they feel incapable or are incapable of doing anything about it—in other words, making the change that would make a difference in their lives. Because that’s something that I’m really interested in: what would really make a difference? And again it’s related to this notion of magic we talked about earlier. It’s actually much more difficult than it appears, to make a difference in one’s life without these traumatic events taking place.
So, the language that Uncle William tends to use is abrasive and designed to have people get through this threshold in order to find a place where they can indeed make a difference in their lives. I’ve always loved the letters pages in British tabloid newspapers or women’s magazines where they talk about their sexual problems or whatever. You know, “I’ve been going out with this guy for ten years and we haven’t had sex for four years,” this kind of thing. You know, “Dear Auntie Sally, my cock is two inches long, is that normal?” The kind of response you get is, “Oh yes, don’t worry, that’s normal. As far as women are concerned, it’s all the same. It’s how you do it, not what you have.” And I find that that type of language doesn’t make a difference in people’s lives, so I wanted to make Uncle William’s replies in a form where they can, in fact, make a difference.
So, as you can see, the man’s got a lot of varied interests and talents. And you’ll be able to see one of my favorite versions tomorrow night here at Berlin Atonal. Thanks to the organizers for letting this happen, to William for suffering my questions and to you for showing up. ~
For the first of our three interviews with the organizers of Berlin Atonal, click here.
Rather than operate as a music news source, Electronic Beats operates more as a music information source. We want to share with you; we want you to know what we’re hearing, what’s reverberating through our cochleas and sending broader vibrations throughout our bodies, and by extension our audio-addled souls. Down with that? Then welcome to Editor’s Choice.
Michael Aniser (Contributing Editor)
Mark Broom – “Acid Dik” (Preview)
The latest release on Power Vacuum comes from legendary British DJ and producer Mark Broom and is a hard-edged floor destroyer. Also check out the video on YouTube. The 12-inch will be out on June 6th.
Louise Brailey (Deputy Online Editor)
Mount Kimbie (featuring King Krule) – “You Took Your Time”
I first saw King Krule supporting Young Montana in 2011 when he was known as Zoo Kid. Low level hype was perceptible even then (well, half the NME office was there), and it’s been thrilling watching Archie Marshall’s stock increase, particularly through the strategic alliance with Rinse (sorry NME, he’s one of ours). Here his resonant, beyond his years weltschmerz finds interesting contrast in Mount Kimbie’s brittle percussion and gently carbonated pads.
Planningtorock – “Misogyny Drop Dead” (Holly Herndon Remix)
The combination of Holly Herndon and Planningtorock is delightflly apt; both artists are masters of composition, both seek to question conventions of artistic practice. Herndon’s remix sheers out almost all traces of the vocal (bar accents of eerie gasps and breaths) and moulds the queazy, unstable angles of the original into cleaner lines. However, the track’s refigured spine still buckles and spasms, mapping the original’s confrontational evasiveness onto the forward thrust of broken, eerie techno. You can read an interview with Janine Rostron as part of our New Sounds Battling the Fear of Queer series.
Michael Lutz (Magazine Duty Editor)
Peter Gordon & Factory Floor – “Beachcombing”
Peter Gordon is a former Arthur Russell collaborator and founding member of Love of Life Orchestra. Factory Floor do hypnotic post-industrial electronics and noise. This collaboration once again cements FF’s status as one of the rad-est contemporary acts in the wide field of electronic music to come out of the UK. Signed to DFA, we’re all waiting for the release of a proper album. Expected for this summer…
You might remember DJ Richard from his recent Mix of the Day, which featured an energetically raw and uncompromising take on techno and house. As co-founder of White Material, that translates to the label’s no bullshit approach to techno, and while it’s only released three records so far, it’s quickly established itself as a label of note. Michael Aniser met up with DJ Richard to discuss Berlin vs New York, his noise beginnings, and White Material’s future releases ranging from Morgan Louis, Alvin Aronson, and Young Male.
When did you start White Material Records, and what made you start the label?
White Material was founded by myself and Young Male in the summer of 2012. Starting a record label ourselves just seemed like the most logical thing to do. We both were sitting on years of material, so we just wanted a way to put it out on our own terms. Just straight up, no bullshit techno, or whatever, records. Now that we’ve got the ball rolling, the focus has somewhat shifted onto the extended network of producers and DJs that we came up with. All of the records we are putting out in the next year are from people who have lived in Providence, Rhode Island, at one point or another. Young Male and I met there and we both spent a long time living there. It’s a great city, and probably my favorite community of musicians in the states.
Providence, I thought you were from Brooklyn. What made you move to Berlin?
I’m from Rhode Island and lived there until i was 22 or something. I lived in California for a year, and then moved to NYC in 2010. I came to Berlin for the first time last summer, and after the first couple days, my mind was completely set on moving here. Berlin is just way more my speed. I’d been living in Brooklyn for two years, working five or six days a week consistently, but here I have so much more time to focus on making music, reading, etc. I still love New York, but honestly I’m not sure if I would really want to live there again. Great people, but the city itself really drove me crazy. I think I made less than ten tracks living there, but within the first two months of living in Berlin, I made something like 20. I feel like Berlin has everything I loved about living in New York, just compressed into a much more manageable network of people and places.
Berlin also has a thriving house scene, do you see yourself in a house tradition?
Sort of. For most of the time that I spent living in Providence, I was focused on noise. House is something that I came to from a somewhat twisted path. If I had to place a starting point for me, I say the records that Wolf Eyes were making in the mid 2000s would be a good place. From there, a friend of mine introduced me to Detroit house and techno, specifically Underground Resistance and Sound Signature, and the rest sort of sequenced itself from there. When I DJ, I’m always striving to create a zone where noise records can coexist with deep house and I feel like Berlin in general is very open to this.
Listening to your mixes and tracks, I can hear a somewhat punk approach to these patterns, e.g. breaking the 4/4. What noise projects where you involved in? Was it more experimental stuff or harsh destruction?
Sort of oscillating between raw, messy punk, and projects utilizing primitive electronics, simple rhythmic elements, and voice. I’m definitely more drawn to the harsh side of the spectrum.
I wanted to ask about the persona DJ Richard? DJ Richard is like the hardest thing ever to Google…
It’s actually not a persona at all. When I was 18 or so, I didn’t have a computer, and was making music on my friend’s dad’s laptop. His name is Richard. So that’s that. It’s not some forced veil of anonymity. You just have to really know how to use google to find me, ha.
Your next release will be Galcher Lustwerk, tell me more about that.
Galcher Lustwerk is an old friend of ours. I’ve known him since I was 18. He’s actually one of the people who taught me how to mix. Young Male and I have always been really into everything the guy produces, so doing a record of his was a no-brainer. He’s a huge influence for both of us, I mean, I probably wouldn’t be DJing if I had never met him.
That’s followed by a White Material crew record. Then we have EPs planned from Morgan Louis and Alvin Aronson, who both live in New York now, but used to DJ in Providence. Second EPs from Young Male and DJ Richard should be out this summer. Young Male is doing a live set on May 4th at Source Material, which is a monthly party started by myself and Mo Probs in Berlin.
White Material 003, Galcher Lustwerk’s new EP, is out on May 9th and available exclusively through Honest Jon‘s. Source Material 03 featuring Young Male and TRAXX takes place at Chesters in Berlin on May 4th.