"The thrill of horror, or something really strange…"
Elizabeth Bernholz of Gazelle Twin is in a unique position. Her debut album, The Entire City, was hugely acclaimed by broadsheet newspapers—but no one seems to know what she looks like. Travelling to Brighton to interview her face-to-face, I had no idea who I should be looking for. Elizabeth frequently performs with her face covered, and even in her videos she is a fleeting presence. Given that her last video involved a woman destroying a supermarket with her mind I might have been forgiven for being surprised by the softly-spoken and agreeable person I met, waiting patiently in the corner of a small coffee shop. Before tea had even been poured, she had made a link between Brutalist architecture and Mind-Temple structures. I knew at that point this was not going to be a normal interview, but I had no idea it would take in everything from creative trance states to the evolution of moths.
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Given that you’re living in this seaside location, I’m almost surprised at how urban your music seems to be.
In The Entire City a lot of the imagery I looked at was of very ultra-modern urban architecture. Especially when they’ve been overtaken by nature. Nature will reclaim anything. I like that idea, it comforts me actually. I great up in provincial towns and near idyllic countryside, but it’s very easy to beautify that into some sort of cliché that makes it all feel country versus city life, which I think is wrong. Now I thrive on the smells of exhaust fumes and tarmac, neon lights, motorway tunnels and towering buildings. I still love the woods, the smell of damp earth… I don’t get out much…
How much does your music consciously try to reflect the urban environment? Or is it just natural?
I’d probably say the latter, if there is such a thing. It comes from lots of research and reading, as well as plenty of introspection. The Entire City is very reverb-y, choral, landscape-y. I think I visualized landscapes when I was writing and recording it. I don’t really remember. I did a talk at Goldsmith’s University in December about the idea of the Eerie in landscapes, and the fact that you can create a horizon from a barren landscape, just with reverb and a voice. There’s something about those spatial acoustics and tones that create a visual image and a feeling of a place. It is eerie in all senses of the word.
It brings to mind Martin Hannett’s production with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. It’s interesting that our minds are attuned to recognize something- the sound of a landscape- even if we don’t have the language for it.
Yeah, it is strange. It’s the one thing that I can’t really break down. When I work I always come from an improvised background, and I’m in a sort of trance state. I very rarely listen to my songs once I have finished a record, unless to perform them. I simply don’t remember making them unless there was a particular event that stuck, like when I fucked something up and it sounded good, or when I broke my voice or something. What I create becomes a bit of mystery to me in the wake of it all being created and then refined, and then mastered, and then pressed… but it expresses something very real and recognizable. Maybe songs are more like photographs in that sense.
So how personal is the creative process to you? Does it help you “cope” with life at all?
Coping and creating are two inseparable things. I would have given all this up ages ago if it didn’t serve me a very crucial purpose. I don’t want to sound over the top—I just think it’s not really a choice for me now. It doesn’t even really matter if this stuff gets released or not, or if no one hears it. I have reached a point where the creation of something and the assimilation of instinctive ideas—colors, textures, natural phenomena, things like that along with my own personal experiences, have become so satisfying.
The success of my work was a much bigger deal, before Gazelle Twin existed though. Gazelle Twin was a big marker in my development. I was composing for small scale concerts trying to get commissions and get into film scoring, and then performed in a band for a few years, but with both I felt so restricted. I wasn’t writing from deep within. That was just because I hadn’t really developed a way to channel the right things and I was too busy trying to pick an identity I felt comfortable with, which I eventually realized didn’t really exist because I am generally an uncomfortable person when I feel I am in a spotlight, and always have been. I had a bit of a crisis moment, well less crisis, more an epiphany really, and realized I had to blank canvas my entire understanding of how I absorb and how I create music, fashion, art. Everything. I tried to be as brutally honest about what I really wanted to do and what I really felt about performing, being a musician, being a woman, being a human, being me as much as possible—it was like starting from scratch completely and almost standing outside of myself to get perspective.
From that point on it was very natural. Ideas came easily, I was unrestricted in what I did from a creative perspective and that has fed into my life as well, I have developed more and more confidence. I have tapped into an endless pool of inspiration that includes absolutely every experience.
There’s not that sense of “growing up in public,” that you get with some artists with Gazelle Twin. Its reminds me of how PJ Harvey arrived—fully formed as an artist. I wondered how you did that.
I’m usually a “yes” person. I have always avoided conflict and have never been outspoken about things I really believe in through being too shy or afraid of conflict or whatever. But I’ve developed a conviction about what I want in life as an artist and the values I want to communicate or challenge through that. I started to develop a manifesto that was really specific and it helped me find a way to really live out my real desires through art instead of through myself, if that makes sense. What kind of gigs should I do? What should I avoid? How should I present myself on stage? How should I conduct interviews? How can I say what I want without having to actually say it? Very early on I knew I wanted to make the distinction that as a performer I’m one or many things. I’m not accessible, not really there. But off stage and out of costume the total opposite applies. This distinction allows me to keep a distance from the identities and also avoid any pretense about what’s going on behind it all. In interviews I like to be able to talk frankly and honestly about what I do, even if it means shattering some of the mystery. I’m not interested in keeping up appearances or coming off all abstract and elevated. It’s not really about that.
When I think of, for instance, Morrissey, he says how he’s always being himself onstage. You seem the opposite—very much acknowledging how performative it is.
The stage is a great place to create an idealized version of yourself. It must be easy to get attached to it. I think that’s why I like to change things regularly and not really give off a personality on stage, but rather embody something else. I’m very wary of becoming typecast into being an eccentricity rather than an artist who can change roles like an actor does. I prefer to be completely anonymous. Things get more interesting when you take the person out of the equation in terms of the tradition of singers and performers on stage, especially female pop artists, if I am anywhere close to that at all.
In the new live shows for Unflesh I perform in a version of my PE kit from school. I went back to my teenage years to literally live out the idea of being a freak, like I thought I was (and was often made to feel) at the time. Performing is about elevating myself to feel powerful, but not through an ego or through trying to look great, it’s by facing my fears. School was hell, so in Unflesh I wanted to be able to embody some of that rage – rage that you can’t really express at that age. So there is clearly a very large part of me in that guise, but it is an invention or maybe an interpretation of my former self.
In “Belly of the Beast” we have a girl in a hoody telepathically wreaking havoc, using her mind. Is that also about your past?
Not really, well kind of. “Belly of the Beast” is half trying to get across the idea of a “teen ghoul” and half exploring something more outwardly political. There’s a strong tradition in horror with teenagers having supernatural powers and I think it comes from a very real experience of physical traumas and terror. I wanted to have some fun—yes fun—exploring that, but there’s a few reasons I used a supermarket sample. First off I heard this bleep sound in Sainsbury’s and when they’re all running together you sometimes get the odd harmony or chord that is struck depending on where you are standing. I’m really switched on to hearing music in machines, it’s actually annoying—anyway, supermarkets are busy, frantic places of desire, domination, class, greed etc. There’s all these smells and liquids and animal products—it feels like a microcosm of modern capitalism – all the really bad shit under one roof. All kinds of shit crunched together. But most of us just don’t want to think about that—we don’t want to linger in there, we want the place to serve its function quickly and get out and get home.
There’s also just the pure aesthetic of it too. I enjoy the feeling of being in clinical, non-places like that. Car parks, harshly lit waiting rooms etc. The more luminous the lighting, the more run down the better too, because that’s when you see the cracks exposed. The ultra-normal provides greater opportunity for something uncanny to pop out, and there’s something about corridors that just haunt me—I guess they do for everyone in some way. You don’t really think of a corridor as a nice place to hang out or linger. You think of it as a momentary space where you might glimpse the outline of a figure in the distance.
Anyway, I liked the idea of the animal products – the milk, the meat etc in the supermarket suddenly taking revenge on the shoppers, almost taking on a life of its own. It was a playful idea and I managed to find existing footage of earthquakes which gave this appearance inside supermarkets. As I was shooting the video with Esther [Springett, co-director], I also felt it sort of made a connection to youth culture too, and the London riots came to mind quite often. The idea to pixelate my face was to remove my face, but in the end it looked more like a surveillance thing. This was actually by chance. But in the riots there was this powerful revenge instinct that seemed apparent as a result of values set by big business onto young people, and I thought—this all makes a weird sense to me. This mad desire mixed with destruction. It all seemed totally logical.