The Radical Sounds of JG Thirlwell, Interview

James George Thirlwell, known as JG Thirlwell and by aliases like Clint Ruin and Foetus, is an Australian multi-instrumentalist, composer, and record producer. Born on January 29, 1960, in Melbourne, Australia, Thirlwell studied fine art before moving to London in 1978, where he became embedded in the post-punk scene with pragVEC and initiated the avant-garde project Foetus. Throughout the 1980s, Thirlwell collaborated with influential artists including Nurse With Wound, Marc Almond, The The, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He founded the Self-Immolation record label, debuting with the single “OKFM/Spite Your Face” and followed by albums like Deaf, Ache, Hole, and Nail. His move to New York City in the mid-1980s marked a prolific phase of collaborations and musical innovation. Thirlwell’s work is known for its eclectic blend of styles, including classical, noise, jazz, punk, and film soundtracks. Thirlwell’s compositions are intricately layered with percussive, orchestral, and electronic sounds. His lyrical content navigates dark and surreal themes, expressed through a lens of dark humor. Since 2000, Thirlwell has also composed music for ensembles and soundtracks for television shows like The Venture Bros. and Archer. His instrumental projects such as Steroid Maximus and Manorexia reflect his continuous evolution as an artist.

What initially drew you into the world of music, and how did you begin your career?

I was always obsessed with music from a very young age. Some of my earliest memories involve music. I remember first listening to the radio and singing Elvis Presley‘s “Viva Las Vegas” to a classmate in kindergarten. As I grew older, my interest deepened. The first concert I attended was The Monkees in Melbourne during the ’60s. I was about eight years old and had convinced my parents to take me. I also tried learning a few instruments; my first was the cello, followed by percussion. However, I struggled with sight reading and didn’t have the best teachers, which led me to eventually give up on those instruments.

Over time, my passion for music only grew. I consumed all the music magazines I could find, collected records, and attended numerous live shows. The emergence of punk rock was a significant turning point for me; it introduced the idea that you didn’t need to be a virtuoso to play an instrument. This inspired me to buy a bass guitar and teach myself how to play. At 18, I moved from Melbourne to London, where I purchased another bass guitar and my first synthesizer. Moving to London, I was certain I wanted to pursue a career in music, but I didn’t know in what capacity.

The time that I moved to London was a particularly exciting and fertile time for music. It was 1978, and I lived there from ’78 to ’83 and saw incredible music. It was very stimulating, a very creative time. It was also the dawn of independent labels and independent distribution, Rough Trade and the DIY culture that kind of went hand in hand with the punk explosion. So there were a lot of independent labels ; it was possible to press and release your own music. The means were in the hands of the people, it was demystified. So that’s what I did. I spent a small amount of time playing in a band for about eight months, and during that time, I realized I didn’t want to work in a democratic situation. I didn’t want to be a member of a band, I wanted to create everything the way I wanted to hear it. Given the limitations of my musical abilities, I wanted to stand or fall by what I created. So I went into the studio and I spent a day and I recorded and mixed both sides of the very first Foetus single at the end of 1980, and it came out on the 1st of January, 1981. That was the start of that journey.

JG Thirlwell interview
© Marylene Mey

Can you describe the first piece of music you ever produced? 

Before the first Foetus record, I had been involved in recordings with a band originally called pragVEC, which later changed their name to Spec Records for the album I worked on. I also collaborated extensively with Nurse With Wound, which was a major influence on me in terms of process. Working with Steve Stapleton, who was proudly a non-musician but full of ideas, really opened my eyes.

Steve used the studio as an instrument itself. He had regular bookings every Friday at a small eight-track studio in Shepherd’s Bush, London, called IPS. He would invite me there, and we would use whatever was available to make sound—be it a chair, a ladder, or random objects found on the street. It wasn’t necessarily about using traditional instruments. We made recordings with these items, and Steve would manipulate tapes—turning them backwards, cutting them up—until the results were completely unrecognizable from the source material.

It was also around that time that I started reading writings by people like John Cage and Stockhausen and getting into that type of theory about found sound, chance and the minimalism that was coming up at the time. Philip Glass and Steve Reich were touring with their ensembles. I saw that type of stuff. But at the same time, I was interested in funk music, noise music, the independent music scene and soundtrack music. It all went into the blender, and the very first Foetus single, the first Foetus recording, one of the songs is called “OKFM,” and the first three minutes of that song is in two parts. The first three minutes is my kind of version of Philip Glass, who I was listening to a lot at the time, but it’s a very demented sort of version of Philip Glass made with synthesizers.

And on the back cover of that single, there’s a bit of text that says forthcoming releases, and one of the releases is “Foetus on the Beach,” which is a reference to Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach,” It said “Foetus on the Beach” would be a triple album and “Einstein on the Beach” is a triple album.  So it was a little nod, a little love for that minimalism there, although that was blended with, you know, certain amounts of chaos tempered with certain amounts of very strict discipline. I always had a composer bent to what I was doing. I was always organized. I created my own systems of composition, numerically working out the structure of the piece I wanted to record in advance.

JG Thirlwell 5
© Marylene Mey

What were some of the most significant challenges you faced in establishing your sound?

My early career started when I was quite young, and I was full of energy and enthusiasm. It was during a time when the independent music community was still of a manageable size, unlike today where it’s vast and difficult to decipher due to the immense volume of music being released every day. Back then, it was much easier to grasp what was happening in the music scenes in London, New York, Berlin etc. 

As I progressed, I could see marked improvements with each record I produced as I learned new recording tricks and technologies. Riding on that wave of excitement, I didn’t really encounter what I’d call challenges; I was fearless and it felt more like I was just flowing with the process.

My very first single even got played by John Peel, which was a significant boost, even though I wasn’t selling a massive amount of records. I was handling everything myself — pressing the records, distributing them, and using the proceeds from one to fund the next. In the first two years alone, I had produced three seven-inch records, a 12-inch, and two albums, which was quite prolific. That period was like being shot out of a cannon, just bursting with ideas and a relentless drive.

JG Thirlwell 4

How did the experimental music scene of the 1980s influence your artistic output?

As I mentioned earlier, the time I spent in London was incredibly fertile for music, particularly with the improvisation scene flourishing alongside other movements. Minimalism was actively performed, and groups like Throbbing Gristle and many more were playing live. Their performances were unique events—dramatically different each time, not just in the music, but also in the environments they chose, which ranged from assaultive to clinically precise. It was a time rich with ideas and possibilities. Groups like This Heat, Essential Logic, Swell Maps, Joy Division, Scritti Politti, The Raincoats, Gang of Four and Birthday Party were performing often. In that environment, I felt my work had no boundaries. I drew inspiration from a diverse array of sources. I was as influenced by Ennio Morricone and James Brown as I was by Steve Reich and The Pop Group. It was truly a remarkable period for music, one that fed my creativity and allowed me to explore without limits.

JG Thirlwell 3
© Marylene Mey

Over the years, you’ve collaborated with many artists. Which collaboration do you find the most interesting or prolific?

Despite appearances, I’m not a really big collaborator. In the 80s, it seemed that I was collaborating more. I’ve gotten better at collaborating, suppressing my control-freak inclinations. I did a bunch of stuff with Marc Almond, which I think was really important to me, and I think it was a very fertile relationship. Marc was very open to my ideas. One of my first production jobs ever was with this group Coil. That was a sort of blurring the line between production and mixing and collaborating, and with some of the material that we were working on was very unfinished and we would complete it, or they’d come in sometimes with a full idea which we would flesh out. So that was interesting, and it was a challenge. That became the Scatology album and Tainted Love EP. I’ve done some other production over the years and collaborative projects such as Wiseblood with Roli Mosimann, Baby Zizanie with Jim Coleman and Hydroze Plus with Fred Bigo. I’m more used to working alone.

I think the most prolific collaborative partner I’ve had is actually Simon Hanes, who I’m working with now, who has a group called Tredici Bacci. We have written maybe 30 songs together, maybe more. Some of these songs are crafted for the female voice. This stuff is not released yet, but I’ve also written a bunch of stuff with him that has appeared on his albums. It took me 30 years to figure out how to be a good collaborator and to find someone like Simon, with whom I feel simpatico. We share a lot of similar reference points in what we want to express through our music. The world we’re trying to inhabit with our collaborations often references Morricone, Burt Bacharach, Italian soundtracks, but we’re also drawing from areas like avant-garde jazz, folk and showtunes. We can draw from a wide array of influences.

I also made an album with Simon Steensland a few years ago, which we created long distance, sending files back and forth, and I mixed it in NYC. That is an incredible album, displaying more of our dark prog tendencies, blended with chamber music, Zeuhl and soundtrack influences. I’m very fond of that one, it’s called Oscillospira and it was released on Ipecac.

JG Thirlwell 2
© Marylene Mey

What are your favorite pieces of equipment?

Well, I always use the studio as an instrument. My music has always been technology-driven, even from the very start. Before sampling technology existed, I was creating my own version of sampling using tape loops, cassettes with pause buttons, turning tape backwards, and editing. When sampling technology became accessible, it was a way of organizing what I’d been doing up until then. One of my mainstays for many years, and I still use it today, though not as often, is the Akai S5000 sampler. It’s a hardware sampler, and I really prefer it over the soft samplers on the market; none of the ones I’ve tried anyway compare. It sounds better, transposes better, and I’m quite fast at using it. It’s a piece of hardware I really like.

Instruments are a means to an end, in other words I don’t practice. The end goal is creating a piece of audio. I’ll pick up any instrument and play it for an overdub. I play keyboards all the time, which is probably my main instrument.

What are you currently working on, and can you share any details about your upcoming projects?

For the last 20 years, I’ve been doing a lot of scoring for television, scoring three different animated TV shows, most notably The Venture Brothers on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, which I did for seven seasons. Concurrently, I worked on another animated show called Archer. The last show of the series aired in December 2023. After 20 years of non-stop TV work, I have a small break from it. Although I never stopped making my own music while I was doing the scoring.

I have a lot of albums that were in various states of completion over the last few years, which I am now finishing. I just finished making the new Xordox album. Xordox is my electronic project, and I just completed the third album. I’ll be tweaking the mixes a bit.

I’m also working on the first new Foetus album of all new material since 2010. I’m very excited about this—it’s also going to be the final Foetus album, completing the arc that I began in 1981. It will be the tenth Foetus studio album that was conceived as a stand-alone album. There have been numerous other Foetus albums as well, offshoot and satellite albums, live albums, remix albums, compilations and the like. This tenth album will be followed by a satellite companion album of overspill material and other gems which havent found their way onto an album. Which is not to say that there won’t be more from Foetus. I’m planning a large orchestral show around the album’s release which will be documented. Maybe there will be Foetus 2.0, but I like having the chance to write the final chapter.

It looks like I’m doing another volume of Venture Brothers soundtracks, which I’ve got lined up, and the first volume of Archer soundtracks has just been released on Iam8bit.

I also want to complete an album of soundtracks for Ken Jacobs. I have two projects, one called Cholera Nocebo and one called Silver Mantis, which will turn into surround sound albums. The Cholera Nocebo one is already recorded. I’m planning two more string quartet albums, and hopefully albums of my chamber compositions for Alterity Chamber Orchestra and Alarm Will Sound. I’d also like to make an album of my JG Thirlwell + Ensemble project, which I have been performing with over the last few years.

Given this backlog of music, I need to increase my output to avoid it taking forever to get all this work published. I’m aiming to release 2 or 3 albums a year to manage this effectively.

JG Thirlwell live

What music are you currently listening to, and are there any new artists who have captured your attention?

I’m always digging, always looking for new music to listen to. I publish a playlist every month on my Tumblr blog , which reflects the music that I’m currently into. In the last few years, one label that has particularly excited me is Dur et Doux from Lyon, France. They release a lot of bands from Lyon, and there’s something very exciting about these bands. Many of them seem to be informed or influenced by groups like Magma or Univers Zero, which are akin to the Rock in Opposition-type groups. On Dur et Doux, I like bands such as Chromb, Le Grand Sbam and Ni, among others.

I was lucky enough to be in London last year when one of the Dur et Doux bands, Poil, played under the guise of Poil Ueda. They were doing a project with a traditional Japanese singer. It’s outside of what they normally do, but their own personality was very much there, and it was an amazing show.

Here in New York, I go to a lot of concerts. We’re lucky in New York to have what I think is the most fertile contemporary classical and new music scene in the world. There’s a stunning amount of great music that comes out of here, available almost any night of the week. Recently, I’ve seen groups like the JACK Quartet, an incredible string quartet with a great repertoire, and So Percussion, a percussion quartet. There are institutions like Bang on a Can, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and Yarn/Wire, a two piano, two percussion ensemble. There’s a lot of really inventive and exciting new music that comes out of New York, and a lot of exciting composers. It’s very stimulating.

Last Updated on May 14, 2024 by retrofuturista

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