“I Get Off on Intense Atmospheres”: An Interview with Gazelle Twin

Guy Mankowski

We speak with Elizabeth Bernholz, the woman behind the Gazelle Twin project, about the relation of music to the natural landscape, the nature of performing, and the work of David Lynch.

The things that I would normally avoid or hide away are always the most interesting to me.

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!

You’ve talked in the past about your admiration of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, mentioning its “profound anxiety.” I wondered if you are drawn to aspects of art which some might consider “negative?”

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.

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