Music

40 Years of Finely Tuned Nonsense: An Interview with Severed Heads

At Severed Heads' third-last show in New York, after decades of playing electronic, art-pop, Tom Ellard swung a noose around his band's head and, with an imitable grin, slowly pulled tighter. After 40 years, Severed Heads is done, and Ellard muses on his long career.

Let me try and sum it up really, really fast. It was never designed; it just fell together. It ambled on at its own speed. Sometimes it was successful, other times it was non-existent. It was never meant to be anything fancy. Other people seemed to need it to be more than it was. We tried to fulfill that dream, but it was never our dream, and we were never really in control of it.
-- Tom Ellard, Severed Heads, 2020

The longest-standing member of Australian band Severed Heads, Tom Ellard, has remained humble over an uncompromisingly inventive and celebrated 40-year career. Announcing his decision to disband last July, Ellard would say that it's good to take a racehorse you've won lots of races with, stroke it nicely, and then shoot it in the head. He would support this comment with a history of his very own actions. His band developed musical techniques and later labeled them as anachronistic. They unlocked the potential of analogue gear and later dismissed '80s revivalists as victims of nostalgia.

At Severed Heads' third-last show in New York, after decades of playing art-pop to varying audiences, Ellard swung a noose around his band's head and, with an imitable grin, slowly pulled tighter. Not wanting the corpse to be taken away without first pocketing some evidence, I thought it only appropriate to capture this final live show and include Ellard's commentary throughout. Keeping to the six dimensions of the concert experience, the act, music, genre, audience, venue, and merchandise, here lies Severed Heads' capstone concert review sprawled out in full.

Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License Pixabay)

1. The Act

Ellard and long-time collaborator, Stewart Lawler, stand behind a rambling of wires and a trestle table indistinguishable from where my grandmother plays cards. Wide-eyed and cheeky, Ellard sips on a long straw stretching into a Dunkin' Donuts takeaway cup. His T-shirt reads, "Tacocat spelled backwards is Tacocat". Ellard picks up a rat plush toy and smacks Lawler on the head. Lawler gives his assailant none of the attention he's after. His look is stern, matching his t-shirt that reads, "The current state of affairs is NOT to my liking."

Humour's always been at the heart of the Severed Heads offering. How deliberate has this been?

Severed Heads has always been very tongue and cheek. I'd say that the majority of the people in the band have always understood that there was something funny about the whole thing. I don't know if we did the video of the little papier-mâché heads on the ends of sticks going up and down in New York, but come on! We do a track called "Big Car", and we did a retread – you know, it's not a remix, it's a retread, because of a car, you know. We've been carrying little rats around too, and hopefully, everyone understands why. The rat is the important person, you see, we're just the band, and there's the rat, the rat's the reason everyone's come, they all want to see the rat. Just ignore us, we're just here behind the rat.

There's always been a sprinkling of politics in the Severed Heads' batter, no?

Yes, but more in the past and only ever secondary to humor. I had these stickers I'd send around to people who had the Three Stooges on them, but instead of the Three Stooges, there would be John Howard, George Bush, and Tony Blair. Fuck man, you just changed their faces, and they really looked like the Three Stooges. Now, there has always been politics in there, but one thing you notice very quickly is that politics is an art form that not many people understand or play well.

So, when you create a sticker with these three guys, you start getting death threats, and you start thinking, am I really communicating well with other people? Not really. Am I changing other peoples' minds? No. There has always been a mixture of politics and humor in there, but at a certain point, I said that I'm going to pull out all of the politics because it's not effective, and the second thing is, who the fuck am I? Because I'm a musician, do I have any better grasp of politics? Fuck no, so why the fuck should I be talking about it? So shut up? Shut the fuck up?

2. The Music

Blurps and beeps are married to chaotic visuals described only as silly. Drum machine noises roll on as odd effects strike to the sound of Ellard's sweet and self-aware voice. Is Ellard infatuated with his band or disinterested in the endeavor altogether? A familiar track descends into a jarring noise break before resuming its previous pace. The audience wants to move to the songs but finds it difficult to predict just what might happen next.

If we rule out alien intervention, how did the Severed Heads sound come about?

The music industry in Australia at the very end of the 1970s was progressive. I want to see something that I haven't seen before. I want to be taken somewhere I haven't been before. I want to see technologies in use that I haven't seen before. So, if you were to use video or electronic equipment -- we're pre samplers here -- you had an audience who wanted to be taken on a journey forward. And we were part of a general culture where people were always talking about the future, the future, the future. But we also didn't want to seem pretentious. Severed Heads' music is good-natured. We're not going to tell you what to think. The music's supposed to be generous and say hey, there's nothing really special about us and we hope you're enjoying it.

Do any stories come to mind about pushing technological boundaries?

One time we played with SPK at a nightclub called Stranded. We used a tape recorder with a couple of keyboards, and all we did throughout the show was play tape loops. We'd lift up one of the tape loops and stick it on the tape recorder, over a bust of Napoleon, and let it go around and around the bust. The loops had little snippets of music on them, so you'd have to lift the faders up and down. That whole show was released on a cassette called Blubber Knife, and we called it Rocket Summer from the Ray Bradbury story. We had this box full of tape loops with our noises recorded over the top of them, and people liked it because, at the time, it was an unusual thing to use a tape recorder as the main thing.

A work is never finished with Severed Heads, is it?

There's this idea that the work is the work, and the work must stand on its own and blah blah blah, but why? Why not get back in there, get out the sheers, take out the shit, and put better stuff in there? When something is finished, people say don't touch it, can't touch that, but why? The world now exists in high definition, you can't even get a television shaped like what we used to perform with anymore, and so if you put one of our old films on a new screen, it would look fucking weird. So, we just want to meet reality, and reality is not the little box you grew up with, black and white. It would seem pretentious to have it on a phosphorous screen, and I don't want to seem pretentious.

3. The Genre

The evening is triple-billed: Paul Barker of Ministry, Severed Heads, and Test Dept. Quirky and harmless, Severed Heads seems oddly placed between the two earnest industrial pioneers. Test Dept's total absence of humor, their sincere use of metal and fire as politicized mise en scene, stands in stark contrast to the eternally playful Tom Ellard. From their early art-noise records to the good-natured electronica of the 1990s, Severed Heads has spent a lifetime ricocheting off walls of genres and has tonight bounced into industrial territory.

How do you feel about being billed alongside Paul Barker and Test Dept?

We're not industrial. I know what industrial is – industrial is the folk music of the midlands of England from the mid-'70s. Folk music is getting up and hearing the birds sing, hearing the water splashing, and you take this environment, and you put it into the sounds of your music. When Beethoven emulates the sounds of barking dogs and the wind, it's folk music. When Throbbing Gristle very early in the '70s heard smokestacks, factories, people walking, and cars, they said, that is our folk music. They made folk music that sounded like the industry around them, and that's the folk music of the industrial world.

Einstürzende Neubauten extended this with "Collapsing New Buildings", that's the sound of the demolition of old Germany and the construction of new Germany. But you have to clan up with people, so you could say that we got on the industrial thing because you need friends, you need community.

What's your perspective on genre and the increasing pressure on artists to slot into playlists?

When we came in, you said you wanted a black coffee, and I got a cappuccino. Imagine the barman said to you, do you want it from Colombia, Venezuela, Lichtenstein, and you said, oh, I guess Colombia. Well, do you want it from the South of Colombia, the East of Colombia, the North of Colombia, the West of Colombia? Oh, maybe, the South of Colombia. Do you want it from the left-hand side of the mountain, the right-hand side of the mountain, you'd say, shit man, I just want some coffee!

Now, a lot of people, with music, they go, ah, can I have some music. Well, do you want speed metal, I'll have speed metal, well, do you want industrial speed metal or Northern speed metal? After a while, you say, shit, man, just give me some music! Right? The majority of people just want music. In the same way as the majority of people just want coffee.

4. The Audience

Large men wander about in black T-shirts, each with the very same long, mottled hairstyle that would individually be held as unique and dear. With erect poses and arms hanging at their sides, they appear like they're expecting to be zapped up to some UFO above. Their heads seem to be secured by bulky headphones clamped around their necks. Only the few people who arrived in groups are speaking. The city's software engineering teams got let off early, and here they are, assembling in anticipation of Severed Heads.

I'm curious who you consider your audience over the years?

The audience we had last year was people who are part of an idealistic concept of where we're going, or, maybe, they were raised by people who had that idealistic vision. The context of the late 20th-century was looking forward, a feeling that the world will be changed by us, we will progress, we're going someone, and if you roll that along a little while, you get to the point where the internet comes in. I recognize I'm jumping huge swarms of history here, but let me be.

The internet was in the early 1990s, a progressive, idealistic thing. It's hard to believe, but at the time, I was heavily involved in it, before it really started. The idea was that if you could connect everyone in the world, they would settle their differences. Clearly, this was immensely naïve, but it seemed at the time that you would create a global understanding. Our audience comes to celebrate this progressive concept.

5. The Venue

A dimly-lit stairwell with framed celebrities on opposing walls opens to a vast carpeted room. You don't need to venture to the bar to know that only beer is on offer. Book-ended by a small stage perched in front of a home cinema screen, this spot lacks any distinguishing features from the pub down the road. Tower speakers sandwich the stage and are playing host to open beer bottles and cups. Wires crawl about and link up to the odd piece of sound and light equipment. We should really be seeing a punk outfit.

From your neighborhood club to the Sydney Opera House, what's been your venue journey?

The first gig we did was in someone's warehouse in Surry Hills. Then we played in nightclubs, and then lots of pubs - I've been beaten up and thrown out of a lot of pubs. That's the sort of things bands aren't used to now, coming on, playing, and actually being ejected from a pub. Then we played at bigger venues, we did the RAT Parties over in Moore Park, and then we went to England and played at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. You get your ups and downs, some bands go up and stay at Wembley Stadium level, but with us, we've had constant volatility and haven't known what's coming next.

The gigs that made the band were usually in art galleries and warehouses because if you're playing at a nightclub, people want to be entertained, but if you're playing at an art gallery, people expect to be intrigued. The last time we played in New York, we played in Irving Plaza, a lovely big theatre venue, and this time it was like the Hopetoun on a Tuesday night. Rest assured, I'm not flying halfway across the world again to play at the local pub.

6. The Merchandise

Some bands do merchandise, others throw stones at those bands that do merchandise. Severed Heads is the latter group's flag bearer. Somewhere along the line, concert promotor Cold Waves failed to get the memo. On entrance to the venue, a Severed Heads T-shirt is laid out on a basic table alongside a recently released live album CD. Capturing the classic foot-on-face shot on the back and the distorted babyface on the front, the shirt is every bit the product of a Google download and T-shirt vendor upload. Would I walk out with one? Well, yes, certainly.

I was surprised to see that you had some merchandise for sale on the night. Have you drifted into the "band as brand" camp?

Coming into this century, I think that intellectual property is the artform. If you own the IP to Mickey Mouse, then Mickey Mouse can be a ride, a movie, key rings. A band was once a group of people – who is your favorite Beatle, is it John, Paul, George or Ringo? It was all about people and the way they interacted with each other. A tonal soap opera. But now I think the idea of a band has worn out its course and it's all about IP.

If I were starting a young band now, I would be thinking about the signs and symbols that I could use as my IP, which I would then develop into video games, albums, board games, and, I don't know, ringtones. So, on one side, I've always known I'd hate a band if they've got a logo as their band name and it shows up on every record cover, but at the same time, I realize, of course, they're smart, they're smarter than me.

The End

The weirdness comes to a close. The beautifully eccentric videos of egg heads cracking on the screen fade out. Ellard and Lawler step back from their desk, and impassioned applause breaks out. Excused from their usual selves, the crowd remains stationed in front of the band and looks on warmly. While Severed Heads still has two more nights to play, the curtains are closing for this audience.

All these years, what's motivated you to keep trudging along?

To create shit. If I'm not creating things, then I feel sick. There are people who, if you ask them, why do they do this, they say I want to be famous. And then there are the other kids who say, "If I didn't do art, then I'd fall apart." If no one listens, fine, although you're breaking a rule. It was Duchamp who said that something only becomes art when there are a maker and a viewer. There's a lot of people who make and never get seen, I've just been incredibly lucky that some people have seen what I've done, so that's fucking yay me. But it wouldn't matter even if no one heard me. That's why I'm shutting this band down and starting a new project. I have to do stuff, but whether someone listens to it or not, it doesn't matter.

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