Music

Interpretations of Genesis: An Interview with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

Mike Pursley
Photo: Mute/Industrial Records

Ahead of Mute's Throbbing Gristle reissues, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge connects the tactics of The Second Annual Report to he/r contemporary practice.

Throbbing Gristle. The name alone may be enough to horrify you. Then add the atonal, mind-jamming reverberations. Then add the songs of possession and perversion. Then add the readymade history: "Wreckers of Civilization" who made "entertainment through pain."


It's all excellent grist(le) for the Byzantine, bizarre mill of TG's as-yet-to-be-codified legacy. Slippery is the natural state for a project that repelled analysis and sought cracks in meaning, gleefully subverting the ideas and ideals of consensus trance. Throbbing Gristle -- Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter -- were performance artists and gearheads who were (a) possibly a real band but were (b) definitely a twisted take on what a band could be. This was the '70s, and they didn't even have a drummer!

November 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of TG's debut album The Second Annual Report. Mute Records is marking the milestone with a limited edition white vinyl reissue of Second in its original packaging. (It will also be available on double CD.) This begins the opening volley of a new "Throbbing Gristle and Mute Worldwide Partnership" that will also reissue 20 Jazz Funk Greats and The Taste of TG at the time The Second Annual Report drops. From there, Mute will release seven more Gristle albums throughout 2018, in effect getting the entire catalog back in print and on streaming services. Box sets and rarities are also planned. It's great news for today's Industrial researcher.

Mute's reissue schedule drew my attention to The Second Annual Report in particular, and not just because of its upcoming anniversary. As the story goes, it's the least well-regarded work in the band's catalog. And while Second does lack a classic searing cut like "Hamburger Lady" off D.O.A., or the range of 20 Jazz Funk Greats, it emanates an overwhelming push/pull quality that's almost magnetic, equal parts attraction and repulsion. It's a strange, bleak, severe work.

Side A of The Second Annual Report was mostly cut live, with various, disparate takes of two songs -- "Slug Bait" and "Maggot Death" -- all amounting to a churning, flanged, flayed, delayed, inkblot of confession and misanthropy. Side B upends all that, with a single 20 minute track, the soundtrack to the COUM Transmissions film After Cease to Exist. Here, even early on, Throbbing Gristle display legit musical chops. The track is a remarkable demonstration of shifts between sonic space and sonic density, a patient warping of sound that somehow conjures a sense of pursuit without a sense of propulsion.

On a call with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, I ask he/r to share he/r involvement with the new reissues (turns out, very little) and he/r reflections on that first, Second album (turns out, quite a lot). Genesis was tremendous to interview, equal parts kindness and wit, disarmingly open, full of fantastic stories and insights. Throughout our discussion, Genesis would repeatedly tie specific points back to what amounts to a unified practice: he/r lifelong interrogation and dismantlement of business, as usual, be it in terms of sound, film, gender, or behavior.

Consider that on The Second Annual Report there is a live take of "Maggot Death" where Genesis curses and insults he/r audience. It's ugly and it's angry. In total contrast, during our interview, Genesis remarks that recent Psychic TV shows include a moment where the music slows, and s/he asks the audience to hug and smile at each other. Yet, these perfectly opposite methods of working a crowd share that lasting Genesis goal of cracking the current structure of reality. 1977 called for rage. In our fraught and frightening 2017, we need more reasons to smile.

Just days after our interview, Genesis announced s/he'd been diagnosed with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, and that an upcoming Psychic TV tour would be canceled to allow for treatments. However, the gravity of the health concerns Genesis was undoubtedly facing at the time we spoke was not a feature of the discussion we shared. Gen's vibe was one of absolute positivity.

* * *

What's been your involvement with the current batch of the reissues?

My involvement has been almost zero. We live in New York, and Chris and Cosey are in England and Mute are in England. And so they send me copies of all the artwork and everything, so we discuss and agree on everything together, but at a distance. Quite honestly we don't know whether they remastered the tape or not. I'm hoping that they didn't, that they just cleaned it slightly. Because way back in 1971 when we met William S. Burroughs -- "we" is me and Lady Jaye -- you may know that.

Correct. Yes.

OK. So, we met William S. Burroughs, and when we decided to start the TG project in 1975, four years later, we made a call to William and said, "Hey William, we've got this new project with Chris and Cosey and Sleazy, a music thing, but we want it to be really non-technological. We want it to be kind of anarchic, low-tech, guerrilla action. And so what would be the best kind of cassette recorder to record with?" And he recommended a TDK recorder. Sadly we don't remember the exact model, but it was a flat one, about ten inches square, with a condenser mic. And all that first album was recorded on that cassette recorder.

So it was totally low-fi, content-driven, and concept driven. And that's something people haven't really realized yet: that record, that recording, has been available in some form, whether legally or as bootlegs, all the time since it was made, always, every year for 40 years, recorded on a cassette tape. I think that's really significant. That's almost the most significant thing, that the ideas you have, and the ways that you deconstruct the overriding reality of the time are always so potent and powerful, that they can destroy the status quo and the establishment with the minimum technology or resources. It's the ideas that ultimately win everything, you know?

Does the album still feel dangerous to you today?

Actually, not to me. But in terms of its effect on people who've never heard it before, it still can really rattle people. Most people grow up with a sense of form. They have jingles on the TV; they have pop songs playing on god knows how many different satellite stations. There's always a basic form. There's certain 4/4 rhythms; there's certain constructs: verse, chorus, verse. So people, from birth, are conditioned to expect certain forms. And in other cultures too, although the standard might be different, there's always a basic cultural norm of what's thought of as the song. And so when you come in and you take away any time signature, and you take away any melodic backup, and you take away the idea of singing in the sort of official, operatic idea of the voice, and you do it as a certain being speaking a message, you change everything. And no matter how long it's been, if someone's never heard it before, they'll be surprised. Their mind will be tickled.

On The Second Annual Report, you talk about taking away -- taking away conventional singing, taking away basic 4/4 rhythms. I'm thinking, you're also taking away naming. In the prankster-ish fact that it's called Second Annual Report, for one. But also you've got multiple versions of "Slug Bait" and "Maggot Death", which somewhat thematically hang together, but they are very different songs grouped under similar names. Can you shed any light on that?

Probably. First of all, we liked the idea of calling it Industrial Records, because we were thinking of The Hall of Records. You know when you go and try to find your birth certificate? That's the Hall of Records, and the whole of our Western Societies are built on data. That everything is records, recording things that have happened, or people's physical states, or their medicines, or their wage earnings or whatever. But everything is these recordings. So it wasn't "records" as in a piece of vinyl or a CD. We were thinking information. Stored information. So for us, an Industrial Record was a piece of stored information of a project in the process of evolving. Therefore, when we had an idea for a subject and a sound -- which is much more close to what we did, rather than saying, "We are going to write a song" -- we'd make a sound we liked and they'd say to me, "Do you have any stories you think you could tell over this?" And we'd think, "Oh yeah, we could talk about this thing we've been mulling over."

So there is more than one version because there's more than one version of everything that happens. You know this, when there are witnesses to a crime, the police interview everybody and they all have a completely different description of who did the crime. So there are no definitive, definite, finite versions of information. There is information interpreted through the prejudice of those who read it or hear it. So it's about that whole structure. You're taking away the idea of entertainment; you're saying: these are lumps of information in an ongoing process of stripping away this cultural opium to see what works, why it works, and can it be subverted. And that doesn't need to have poetic names, it just, here's what we did when we were thinking about this. Here's three or four versions of the conversation we had with ourselves. So those are just topics in the Industrial Record. Topics and files in the databank.

Fantastic. That actually sheds a lot of light on the notion that this isn't a song, this is a topic we're looking at in any number of ways.

Yes, exactly. And of course, that's why we did the seven-inch singles all looking the same. We had the idea that when they're in a rack, you flip through and it's like looking at library cards. They're all the same structure, and you know where the title will be, you know where the image will be, and you flip through, and you recognize that that's all Industrial. They all look the same. Because they're just documents. There's a difference between information and product. We weren't making product. We were making information.

You said Throbbing Gristle was non-technological, low technological. But at the same time, the band was doing new things with technology, with the homemade synths, the Walkman, the tape manipulations. Can you pry apart that contradiction a little bit?

Well when we said what we did at the beginning, that was about Second Annual Report specifically. When we do a project, once we've made a point, we tend to look for another point to make, and so Second Annual Report, in a very real sense, wiped the table clean in terms of what was possible with music in a sort of electronic, youth culture setting. It said anything can be part of the music, any sound could be included in the music, silence is part of it, the sound of the people listening is part of it.

[It was] very much a post-John Cage approach to the idea of sound. But we were also fascinated, again, partly through Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs and their cut-up experiments, in the idea of taking the tools and the toys of the military industrial complex that filter down to the public. We wanted to see what we could do to utilize relatively cheap or unique instruments and tools and gadgets, what we could do to play with them in such a way to subvert their original intention, which was control.

The problem has become that there's a plethora of laptop [music] now. And people think, "Oh, I've got a laptop, and it's got these various programs, and I can now make all this amazing music." Which they can. But they forget that all the programming has the limitations of the person who designed it. If that person thinks there can only be X amount of bass frequencies, that's all that's there. And you can't do anything to get more. Or if you do, you start having to break it down and rebuild it. And so you're actually being governed by people you've never met.

And that's why we've gone away from that answer, and we've gone back to the much more chaotic and frustrating rock and roll band. But again, it's what we say and how we assemble the sound that makes the difference. It's still unique. It's still like no one else because we have a very clear sense of what we're trying to say and how we want the people to respond, and to make it a celebration.

Basically, strategies for me are always the opposite of what is the overriding culture. So TG -- there was this intransigent, frozen, old-fashioned culture in place in Britain, which both punk and we with industrial, wanted to smash. Because nothing was being done. Nothing was improving. And it made us angry and frustrated, so we tried to break it. Now, the world is so nihilistic and narcissistic because of the new technologies, and cruel, and more and more like a sequence of dictators and authoritarian governments, that you need the opposite. And what's the opposite of that? Loving, caring, sharing, compassion, forgiving, celebration, joy, smiles, hugs. All the things that are being suppressed, you have to bring into the music and the event. And that's what we do now.

What a world we're in that a smile and a hug is what is needed to overturn the culture. That says so much.

Believe me, it's needed. Sometimes at certain gigs, we'll signal to get quiet and then we'll talk to the audience. The song just goes quiet. And we start talking to the audience we'll say: "Let's try an experiment. Everybody these days is always worried about what everybody else is thinking about them. Let's try and break that because that's not who we are. So how about this? Everybody turn to their right, and just smile at somebody you don't know." And people get really self-conscious. But a lot of them do it. And then they giggle. And they realize nothing bad has happened to them. And then we'll say: "Now let's try and go a bit further. How about you turn to your left, and you give everybody a hug?" And a lot of people do. And suddenly, everything shatters.

And the idea of being conscious of how you look, and looking cool, and not giving away any power to someone else by showing that you're enjoying yourself; all of that dissipates. And there's this great sense of unity that builds between everyone, including the band. And then it can really go places.

The strategy should always be: what did you do last time? Do the opposite. When in doubt, do the opposite. That's was TG did, you know? We did what we did in the beginning, Second Annual Report and D.O.A., and everybody started to get that. And then we did 20 Jazz Funk Greats and fucked with their heads and got lots of abuse for it. Now, everybody says it's a classic album. But when we did it, it was like saying: don't relax, keep awake, don't just do things because that's what you did last time and it worked last time. Look for new solutions, new answers, new ways to say something. Don't stay in one formula. Don't get a fucking brand!

Second Annual Report comes out in 1977. Another record out in 1977 is the Carl Sagan Voyager Golden Record. So those are both coming up on their 40th anniversary, and I feel, that if you look back to that year, they're almost yin and yang, in terms of reporting what is going on on this planet. One is on the darker side, one is a little bit more on the hopeful side. But there's a polarity between those two albums.

You know what that is, don't you? It's the humanity. It's the humanity that links them. Because for all of our apparent disgust and frustration with the way that societies work and with the way the humane species screws itself over and over, voluntarily, because it bows down to people with power, despite all that, all the foibles and faults, and errors of judgement of humane beings, we're wonderful too! We are amazing. We can send a record into space. We can share information. We can entertain each other, love each other, fall out of favor with each other. And that's the beauty of being alive. And both of those projects talk about that in their own way.

Say we're going to shoot another record out today. You're making the playlist. What are some things that you would want to go beyond the galaxy, beyond human time, as a representation of what is best in us?

Oh good lord! That is a question. I mean, we know what it would be. It would be our capacity for unconditional love. The film The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is about that. It's about saying that you don't lose power or individuality by absolute surrender to those you love. In fact, you amplify everything good in you when you find unconditional love. And the world changes and you realize your place on this planet is only valid when you come back to serve others, that giving to others is the only thing of value. Nothing else has value. How would you show that? I'm not sure. It might have to be a small, very symbolic video clip. We'd have to consult with His Holiness The Dalai Lama. How do we show absolute unconditional love in three minutes?

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