2020 Interviews

Foetus Under Quarantine: An Interview with Musician JG Thirlwell

JG Thirlwell

Photo Credit: Marylene Mey

Oscillospira, a collaboration between composer JG Thirlwell and Simon Steensland, is the most recent release in Thirlwell’s decades-long oeuvre of uncompromising music, a “stunning accomplishment, one whose fundamental pleasures reveal themselves further with repeated listens.” The album title was inspired by a bacteria, but it’s a virus that has kept Thirlwell (and indeed, most of the world) inside for the last few weeks. A longtime resident of New York, Thirlwell’s name and aesthetic have become inextricably intertwined with the city; in fact, a 2009 documentary about his life and music is even called NYC Foetus. I asked Thirlwell what it’s been like to be quarantined in The Big Apple and how that has impacted his work. 

How are you dealing with the lockdown? Does it make it easier or harder to get work done? What is it like being at one of the epicenters of the pandemic outbreak?

As to what it’s like being at one of the epicenters of the pandemic outbreak, this is all I know, so I have nothing to compare it to. The number of infections and deaths here in NYC are staggering and tragic. It seems everyone I know is heeding the stay at home orders and social distancing. I mostly see people on Zoom these days, and I spend time with my partner. I know several people who have had COVID-19 and, unfortunately, I know people who have died.

I work from home, so my work continues. It’s easier in some ways, and harder in other ways, as it’s easy to slip into being gripped in anxiety or anger, or start future-tripping. I try to stay in the moment, but that’s always been hard for me. I stray in the moment.

I’m working on projects which had started before the pandemic. I’m scoring season 11 of Archer, and working on a commission for Alarm Will Sound. I’m also working on a symphonic arrangement for William Basinski of Disintegration Loops IV.

There are a few less distractions since I am not socializing, and I am catching up on some things that have been on my “to do” list for a while, like finally launching my Bandcamp page.

You travel often and enjoy copious amounts of concerts and art exhibits. Is it difficult to get used to not being able to do these things for the time being? What are some other resources you’re using for inspiration and stimulation now and for the foreseeable future? 

It is tough to make the adjustment of not going to concerts and seeing art. I usually go to between two and five concerts a week. I’m very sad for the performers who are not able to work, and for the shows and exhibitions that have been cancelled. On the plus side, I’m not experiencing FOMO.

I listen to a lot of music, and I have binged on Escape at Dannemora and Succession, but my workload is pretty heavy.

You’ve talked about how the Foetus sonic palette evolved due to live performances of the music, but that you were not necessarily happy with the “rock show” results. Recently, you have reworked some of your older songs to be performed with a live orchestra, and now there is Oscillospira. Do you see those more recent incarnations of your work as closer to what you have always wanted to achieve? Is this what your compositions sound like in your head?

I would say the Foetus sonic palette expanded with live performance, and some parts of that experience informed my recording and composition practice.

Each iteration of what I do in performance is different and brings a new side to the material, including the ”rock band” versions of Foetus. Although I have said before that the “rock band” version of Foetus went down a rabbit-hole and it wasn’t giving me what I wanted. 

When we put together the first Steroid Maximus ensemble, I felt my studio vision could finally be realized, and I could do justice to what was in my head. It’s expensive to do though.

Recently Simon Hanes (of Tredici Bacci) and I rearranged some Foetus material for chamber ensemble, and it is great to perform that material in that context — it adapts perfectly. Unfortunately, we had to postpone our London concert of that project due to the pandemic.

My projects Cholera Nocebo and Silver Mantis were actually conceived as performative vehicles which could mutate every time I play them, and I will eventually record those. They are multi-channel audio-visual shows, so I hope to make them available in surround. 

Simon Hanes and I have recently been working on some symphonic arrangements of Foetus works which hopefully will be performed at some point, maybe in 2021 if we can have that many people sitting next to each other. The arrangements are monstrous, so I’m very excited about that.

There are many references to religion on Oscillospira. Did you come up with the track names before or after the music was completed? Is there a story or theme behind this work?

I come up with the names as soon as I start writing a piece of music. I always give my compositions working titles, and I try to make them good ones because sometimes they stick. The first piece I wrote for the album was “Heresy Flank,” and I chose to name the others on a thematic continuum to that: “Papal Stain,” “Catholic Deceit.” They were images that climbed into my head when I opened the portals. Apart from the actual names, there isn’t a deliberate reference to organized religion in the musical content. 

The album title came about from my obsessions with medical and scientific names based on their abstract beauty and their fundamental, hidden importance in the structure of our existence. I made a list of types of bacteria that appealed to me, and between me and Simon Steensland, we chose “Oscillospira.”

JG Thirlwell

Photo Credit: Marylene Mey

Do you feel that vocalizations (such as the ones on Oscillospira) can be more effective than lyrics? Do you feel that music gets across the ideas you want to convey better than lyrics? Do you plan on releasing more work that includes your singing or do you prefer to work with other vocalists instead? And why?

I love wordless vocals and feel that they can get out of the way of the music. Lyrics tend to add a literal translation to the music. That can overshadow the music and that’s fine, but different. Simon Steensland is really good at working wordless vocals into a piece as another instrument as well.

I do like working with other vocalists, as my voice is not always the right vehicle for what I’m writing. I’ll be singing on the next Foetus album, but I will probably invite some other singers too.

Although being in isolation will make live performances in front of crowds impossible for the time being, it doesn’t seem to have affected your collaboration process because of technology. That said, would you consider streaming live performances if concerts go by the wayside for the next two years? Have you thought about other ways to perform your music in the interim?

I don’t envisage any streaming live performances in the near future; I feel a lot of my colleagues already have that area covered and the field is pretty crowded. I’m looking forward to performing again, hopefully in 2021, but absence makes the heart grow fonder. As you mentioned, I continue to collaborate remotely, and I continue to expand the network.

Are you currently planning any more releases under the Manorexia or Foetus monikers?

I have started a new Foetus album. It’s taking a long time, as I want it to expand the musical vocabulary of Foetus. I haven’t been sure what that would be, but now it is starting to crystallize in my mind. I want to compose the whole album at my studio in Brooklyn, then record it with an orchestra in Europe. I’ve also started a new Manorexia album. 

Before those two albums happen, there will be a new Xordox album released on Editions Mego in the fall of 2020. I’m recording an album of some of my string quartets with Mivos Quartet in September 2020 which I hope to release in 2021. Also on the cards is an Archer soundtrack album, which I have been trying to organize for years. I have done a lot of work with Simon Hanes over the last five years, and one of our projects is an album of songs for female singers. We have written all the songs and have started recording. We’re using a different singer on each track. I have also started some preliminary work on new material with Melvins. 

And finally: Why Diet Coke and not Coke Zero? 

Anyone who drinks a lot of Diet Coke could attest to “that sparkle” That was their advertising campaign slogan a few years ago. It’s some kind of mood elevator, and it has a bite. Or maybe it’s just the caffeine. In Europe, one has to drink Coca Cola Light, which is their Diet Coke, but I think it tastes more like Coke Zero. It takes a bit to adjust. Maybe Europe’s Coke Zero is more like Diet Coke, I haven’t done the blind taste test. I’m trying to switch to Seltzer.

For more on JG Thirlwell, visit foetus.org (http://www.foetus.org) and Tumblr (http://jgthirlwell.tumblr.com). 

Leslie Hatton (@theinsolent1) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.