[23 May 2014]
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.
I get a sense of “warning” from your work. In the photos on your blog, for instance, there are many pictures of raw meat. I wondered if there’s a message you’re trying to put across. About how we, as humans, often behave?
A lot of that is purely aesthetic, but I love art that explores anatomy and danger and fear. I’m very interested in visual rhymes and real things that we’re not used to seeing in the day-to-day swing of sanitized life. How something disgusting can actually be beautiful, or can just make us think in a certain way. Why does that happen? I’m not deliberately morbid actually, just very curious and not particularly squeamish. Human lungs, for example, look exactly like certain plant structures, or trees, which are never seen as something ugly. Is that because they don’t remind us of mortality? Why is it hard to look at one but fine to look at the other? The things that I would normally avoid or hide away are always the most interesting to me.
You’ve collaborated with John Foxx. In his “Underpass” video, I think he was innovative for using a broken urban environment as part of his visual identity. You seem to do that too.
Yes I think he was, and still is. Those Ballardian landscapes of civilisation are so evocative. I guess it was seen as quite futuristic then. It’s hard to say exactly why. But those scenes also seem to be hand in hand with the sound of electronic music. On my way here I was looking at something I’d written on my phone, as I do a lot of commuting at the moment. I was listening to Pye Corner Audio’s Black Mills Tapes, and the sounds went so perfectly with this journey through the tube stations. Music could be a direct reaction to the experience of an environment, like a kind of secretion that we’re not really aware of or in control of in some sense—it just sort of seeps out of us because of what goes in. It made me think further, about this case, in the industrial revolution, regarding moths. Over a very short period of about ten years I think, these moths had changed their colourings to blend in with the blackening environments caused by pollution from the chimneys. It got me thinking that humans must have a similar thing going on with their environment, which becomes our central experience. Whatever we grow up or exist within becomes natural to us and we will adapt to it without realising, whether it is trees and green fields, or grey concrete tower blocks. That’s why I’m so interested in cases of feral children and nature when it is out of the norm. It’s that thread of survival that runs through things so miraculously.
That reminds me of Wayne Rooney, having to have to have a hoover on in his hotel rooms or he won’t fall asleep.
I love that. It’s brilliant that he admits that! I’m sure people that live in metropolises like Tokyo must experience that sort of thing on an extreme level, like with everything being digitised or robotised or synthetic. Well that’s what I imagine, I have never been…
I had a period of not being able to sleep without a fan on. Just to create that sheet of white noise. Our ancestors might have slept better with the sound of rain outside or next to gushing rivers. Who knows?
In your pictures and videos you can see the influence of David Cronenberg, and The Chapman Brothers. There’s this preoccupation with distorted human forms. What is it about that that which interests you?
A lot of it is about going through puberty. Those very intense physical and emotional changes. We are forced to go through this experience so publicly, in school, you’re all expected to get undressed and shower together. It’s so brutal! Other cultures celebrate it, ours seems to punish and humiliate it, well it might not be as bad for everyone but I felt like that! I had a very particular time with it. I realized only recently that I had quite a severe case of Body Dismorphic Disorder. I found myself facing the point of suicide at the age of fourteen. A very clumsy, fumbled attempt. I trace so many things back to the time and place where I felt at my most anxious, and experienced that major turning point– and I realized it was the school changing room. I wanted to take that, and use it somehow in the new album. So the PE kit comes from that, although weirdly, I had already thought of using that look before the penny really dropped that it was actually my school colors and kit!
Initially I just wanted to dress up like one of those freaky kids in “The Brood” and thought that on stage that could look really fucking sinister, and would be something quite fresh to see on stage—really give people the creeps. I imagined loads of mini Gazelle Twins shuffling on stage and performing… But aside from all the personal stuff, I’m just very interested in biology, medicine, anatomy etc. What happens to the body through mutation or disease makes me question the ideologies and social structures, psychologies we create. In the beginning I just set out to write an album about the body, in quite an abstract, non-emotional way inspired by albums such as Matmos’ To Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure and Matthew Herbert‘s thematic study albums like One Pig. But it ended up being about childhood and puberty. So it did get quite emotional and aggressive.
Max Ernst’s work was clearly an inspiration on The Entire City, with his alter-ego of Loplop. How useful are alter-egos to you?
This is true of a lot of tribal cultures, the use of masks and personas as a means of expression of something very particular, or to represent the desires or beliefs of a whole community. I think people living in modern, urban places also do it all the time, but in a far more complex and fragmented way. I’m doing it now, I’m in a costume even though I’m wearing regular clothes. It’s all constructed from something else, set up by a whole chain of decisions and profits and needs and exploitation. It’s all a bit much to think about really- and this is just my clothes. But there is definitely a freedom in that when you start to play with costume and identity deliberately, and challenge it or use it to express things you just can’t say as your normal self. Covering the face in a public place is truly incredible. I got addicted to it the first time I tried it. It’s like wow- I could do anything. I’m free.
David Bowie once said that in the later part of the 20th century we’ve fragmented our system of living so thoroughly its often only through mirroring that fragmentation that we can get a sense of what’s going on.
Yes, I think that’s a universal. A natural product of a very developed culture. My ideal state of reflection is to get away from human form completely. When performing, I’d really like to just go into a trance, be possessed, become a chair, a curtain, anything else. Hindu’s in certain parts of the world have incredible rituals using trance states where they can be possessed by anything. I saw this Attenborough program once where a person was possessed, supposedly, by the lid of a pot! His purpose in life for those few minutes was to go around putting himself on top of things, to be lid-like! I found that incredibly fascinating, the idea of becoming an everyday, otherwise meaningless object. Not an animal, or a god, a spirit or a character from a mythological story. But the fucking lid of a pot!
Yeah, totally. Don’t know why. Always have been. I find it incredibly satisfying. I get off on really intense atmospheres. The thrill of horror, or something that displaces the everyday with something really strange. That’s what Lynch does really well. It is sometimes an expression of anxiety I think, and it taps into something I am familiar with I guess. I did grow up watching a lot of horror movies, sci-fi movies, and so now it is part of my childhood nostalgia. It’s strange that you can be nostalgic about guts! Maybe it comes back to this thing about how the environment shapes us. Whatever we grow up with, dictates our needs and experiences as an adult – good or bad.
How do you write your lyrics?
They come from improvised sounds and vowels, and I work them out and composer with them, then make words out of those when I think it’s right. For me they make sense in a particular way. It’s interesting to read comments on videos, people musing about what my songs are about.
That links to Lynch then, and his love of transcendental meditation. If you start with phonetic sounds and then write lyrics to them, haven’t you tricked your subconscious into action?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that accessing the subconscious, like Lynch says he does, is essential for certain kinds of artists. That’s what you want to be able to achieve in your work. You want to be able to recreate that other plane and hope people understand. The process is very satisfying. It’s nothing particularly spiritual or weird but it all ties together. How I started out with the idea of writing about the body, then chose the PE kit and everything, all has a meaning and relevance but it’s not always clear at first. It’s not random but it also wasn’t entirely conscious. In your mind you make some conscious connections, and many other unconscious things come into your path. It’s almost like a current or slipstream that you can jump into. There’s areas of our minds that have a natural flow, things that aren’t really visible or very easy to access. It’s just a case of tuning in. and to do so you have to know yourself and face yourself as you really are. You can’t lie or have any ideologies about what you think you are, it won’t let you in if you try that. It’s too smart.