Interview: JG Thirlwell & Simon Steensland
I wanted to write music that was complex and not adhering to a conventional song form or dynamic.
JG Thirwell is best known as producing music as Foetus. but has recorded and performed under a slew of different names as well as producing, remixing, performing and collaborating with so many varied artists. Simon Steensland is a Swedish composer and multi instrumentalist who has released a number of solo albums and worked with an array of artists as well as his work as working on many scores for theatre. The two artists have collaborated on an expansive sonic journey of an album entitled Oscillospira on Ipecac Records and Gavin Brown caught up with them to hear all about it as well as chatting with them individually to hear all about their vast musical careers.
E&D: Your new album Oscillospira is out now How did the creation and recording process for the album go?
We did it all long distance, Simon in his studio and me (JGT) in my studio in Brooklyn. It was a long process of working on each other’s pieces, then we brought in other musicians to overdub and replace sounds. Finally after some preliminary mixes at my studio I made stems of the whole project and took it to Gary’s Electric in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I made final mixes with Al Carlson.
E&D: Who else did you work with on the albums and what did they bring to the albums sound?
Morgan Ågren played drums and he brought his extraordinary energy and musicality to the drums and made the parts jump alive. Many other musicians came in to replace midi parts that were written for oboe, violin, percussion, voice etc on their respective instruments, and it made the music more organic.
E&D: How did you hook up as collaborators in the first place?
I (JGT) have been spending a lot of time in Stockholm on a residency at EMS (Elektronmusikstudion), working on the Buchla and Serge modular systems. As a result I had met Leif Jordansson, who is one of the main movers and shakers of the Great Learning Orchestra. He invited me to write some graphic scores for GLO, which I did. They performed them and had them in an exhibition of graphic scores, which coincided with another of my visits. So I got to workshop with them and conduct a performance of the graphic score. Subsequently they commissioned me to write a longform piece, which I proceeded to do. Simon Steensland was playing as a member of GLO, and I already knew his work. After I’d returned to NYC, Simon wrote to me and told me how much he enjoyed the music I had come up with for GLO, and asked if he could cover the last movement, “RedBug”. I sent him the score. He made his own interpretation, voiced for different instruments, which was great. He didn’t know what he wanted to do with it, it seemed to be a shame to just put it up on YouTube or something. So I suggested we collaborate and make an album, so we started sending files back and forth between Brooklyn and Stockholm.
E&D: Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted the album to sound like in the first place or did it come together as you were working on it?
I knew Simon’s work and I wanted to write music that was complex and not adhering to a conventional song form or dynamic. It took a lot of sculpting and we chopped up each others’ arrangements.
E&D: Having listened to it, the sound of Oscillospira seems very vast and immense but also experimental. Is that the sound you were looking for with the tracks album?
Yes, the way the album sounds is what we were intending.
E&D: Do you explore any particular themes on the album?
It’s instrumental music and the listener should employ their own ears.
E&D: What has the feedback for the album been like so far?
It has been overwhelmingly positive, so far people really like it – I didn’t know if people would “get it”.
E&D: What would you say each of you brings to this project?
Thousands of hours of work and experience. Different approaches to composition.
E&D: How did you hook with Ipecac Records to release Oscillospira?
In 2003, Ipecac released Ectopia by Steroid Maximus in 2003. When we had finished the album, I immediately thought of Mike Patton, and thought he would understand and appreciate this music. As it happens my instinct was correct. They got back to us very quickly so I was thrilled.
E&D: Are there any plans for you to work together again in the future?
Not yet. It would be great but we both have multiple other projects we are working on.
We talked to JG Thirlwell about his musical beginnings and long career in a very interesting talk that takes in all aspects of his musical work and history.
E&D: What are your earliest musical memories?
Singing Viva Las Vegas to a girl named Viva in kindergarten when I was three years old.
E&D: You moved to London from Australia in 1978. What are your main memories of your time there and was it exciting with punk/post punk at the time?
I moved there to do something in music, I wasn’t sure what. I was swept up by the energy of punk and post-punk, and the democratisation of not needing to be a virtuoso to play an instrument. I went to see music nearly every night. The music being made and performed at the time was incredible – Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, This Heat, The Pop Group, Swell Maps, Raincoats, Cabaret Voltaire and so many others. A lot of ideas, experimentation and freedom. Started squatting and got a job for Virgin Records. I started to discover the music of Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Penderecki, Ligeti. Independent labels were flourishing and I started putting out my own music. I played in a group, Spec Records, briefly and that set me on a course for doing my own project, Foetus, where I play all the instruments and am the sole member. Also meeting and working with Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound was pivotal on the path I took.
E&D: You then moved to New York in 1983. How was the change from living in London to New York?
I lived in London for five years. When I got to NYC, I immediately felt that it was the opposite of London. It was centralised instead of geographically spread out, as the city was very East Village-centric in those days. It was a 24 hour city, whereas in London the pubs closed at 11 and the subway closed at midnight. The atmosphere and culture were different and I met a lot of great people. I fell in love with the place and stayed.
E&D: How vibrant was New York back then and how inspiring was it to make music?
NYC had a lot of energy and it was much less expensive to live than it is now. I am always inspired to make music, doesn’t matter where I am.
E&D: You still live in Brooklyn, how is New York these days and do you still find the City inspiring to make music?
I moved to Brooklyn in 1987 and still live in the same loft that I moved to then. It’s not the same city I moved to, but it is still the cultural capital of the world. The culture inspires me. I devour it like a whale devours plankton, it gets absorbed into my bloodstream and becomes part of my DNA. I still love NYC. Before this pandemic I would go to see live music several times a week. NYC will endure. The city facilitates my work and I play here more than anywhere else. I just get on with it.
E&D: How did you initially meet Nick Cave back in your early days in Australia and did you collaborate on any music early on?
I saw Boys Next Door play live many times in Melbourne before I left here in 1978. We hung out a lot socially when they moved to London in 1980 and changed their name to the Birthday Party. I played sax on one show in Athens, Greece with Birthday Party and I co-wrote ‘Wings Off Flies’ with Nick on his first solo album, From Her To Eternity.
E&D: You formed the Immaculate Consumptive with Nick Cave, Marc Almond and Lydia Lunch. Can you tell us about that project?
Lydia Lunch proposed it. It was a demented cabaret revue where we all had solo sections and collaborative sections. We did three shows altogether – two at Danceteria in NYC and one in DC.
E&D: The Immaculate Consumptive was very short lived, was it always meant to be that way?
Yes, it was meant to self destruct. We all had other commitments and obsessions.
E&D: What are your memories of the Flesh Volcano project with Marc Almond and touring with Soft Cell?
I think I first guested with Soft Cell, I would sing a cover of the Suicide sing ‘Ghost Rider’ with them on the encore. We knew each other through the Some Bizzare label. I wrote a song for a Marc and the Mambas album and it eventually led to more studio work, which became the Flesh Volcano record. Marc and I even had a one-off live project together called Bruise & Chain, we opened for Cabaret Voltaire in Sheffield I believe.
E&D: Have you still kept in touch with Nick Cave, Marc Almond and Lydia Lunch over the years?
Yes I have kept in touch, but more so with Lydia. We were partners for several years in the 80s. I usually go see Nick when the Bad Seeds play in NYC and say hello. I recently re-connected with Marc. I wrote an arrangement of a T Rex song that Marc sings, which will appear on Hal Willner’s final project, a Marc Bolan tribute record. Marc is doing very well and working a lot.
E&D: What are your main memories of your early days as Foetus?
The excitement of inventing my vision, experimenting in the studio and having the audacity to try my most outlandish ideas.
E&D: What were some of the highlights of your time as Foetus?
Probably that time when I played at the International Space Station.
E&D: Did you ever think that your work would be as influential and revered as it is?
I can’t really answer that. I don’t particularly feel influential or revered, there’s no way to quantify that. I do my job, trying to be as excellent as humanly possible.
E&D: How do you feel about the influence of Foetus on so many artists and bands?
It doesn’t keep me awake at night, or pay my bills.
E&D: You have also produced work as Steroid Maximus, Manorexia and Wiseblood. Did you always want to keep on reinventing yourself as an artist?
Yes, I always had many different variations on the names as Foetus. Then I started using different names for different projects that had different intentions and inhabited different musical universes. It took me 30 years to release something as JG Thirlwell. The latest nom de musique I have is Xordox, and the second Xordox album will be released in the fall of 2020 on Editions Mego.
E&D: You have worked with Swans, Melvins and Zola Jesus over the years. How were these experiences?
Each collaboration has a different dynamic and they all have different things to offer. Michael Gira from Swans is one of the first people I met in NYC. They have had a long and diverse musical path and our lives have intersected a lot. Many members of the Foetus live bands that I had in the 1990’s were also members of Swans. Melvins are simply one the heaviest and most cathartic and prolific bands on the planet and have a very open approach, so it has been an honour to work with them, and I hope there is more to come from that union in the pipeline. Working with Zola Jesus was excellent – she had me write string quartet arrangements of a bunch of her works, and lead the quartet. It started as a show at the Guggenheim Museum and then turned into an album and a world tour.
E&D: As a producer who worked with the likes of White Zombie, Silverfish and Rowland S Howard. What were some of your most memorable moments as a producer?
With White Zombie, I hung out a lot with Rob and Sean before we worked together. I watched their band evolve. Rob was quite hilarious, Sean was super nice. I think I was able to help realise the sound, and our recordings got them the deal with Geffen. Silverfish all stayed at my loft when we made that album, and we lived and breathed it. Some of the ideas they had were quite skeletal and we fleshed them out in the studio which was great. They had a positive energy. Rowland was an extraordinary talent and a sweet, smart and funny guy. It was great to hear him play guitar, he sounded exactly like Rowland S. Howard. Which of course is extraordinary. We made that album in Memphis.
E&D: You have also remixed everyone from Pantera to Swans to Nine Inch Nails? Who was your favourite band to remix and did you try to bring about your musical personality to your remixes?
The bands were never around when I remixed and I was sometimes just hired by the label. In the 90s there was a lot of money in remixes and it dried up when everyone got their own studio in a laptop, and they thought any asshole could make a remix. Some of my favourite remixes out of the ones that I have done are the ones I did for John Carpenter, Excepter, The Beyond and Alan Vega.
E&D: How was the experience of working with Kronos Quartet and the piece being performed at Carnegie Hall?
It was an honour to write for Kronos and hear my work performed, They are probably the most prominent string quartet in contemporary classical music, and it was an education to hear the amount of expressivity, nuance and passion they put in their playing. I wrote three pieces for them, and they played my works extensively all over the world. Carnegie Hall is a fine venue.
E&D: You have worked as a composer on the tv shows Venture Brothers and Archer. How did these opportunities come about and will you do more in the future?
Venture Bros came to me in 2003 as a result of my Steroid Maximus project, and ten years later Archer came to me as a result of Venture Bros. I recently wrote music for another animated show called Dicktown which hopefully will be airing in the summer of 2020 on FX.
E&D: With such a vast artistic body of work, do you ever look back at the majesty of what you’ve achieved?
Not really, I usually look ahead at the huge amount that I want to achieve in the future, and am humbled by the small window of time I have in which to make it.
E&D: When you first started making music, did you ever think you would have a forty plus year career in music?
Like every other twenty year old, I probably thought I’d be dead at thirty
E&D: What have been some of the proudest moments in your career so far?
There’s been a lot. Composer spotlight at the Whitney Museum with my Manorexia chamber ensemble and a string quartet playing with robot instruments was a good one. Manorexia at Pace University with Pauline Oliveros. Kronos Quartet at the Melbourne Recital Center with my mother in attendance. Conducting Steroid Maximus live at the Prospect Park Bandshell. Nominated for an Annie Award for my work on Venture Bros. And finishing this interview.
We also talked to Simon Steensland to hear all about his fascinating musical history too.
E&D: What was your musical upbringing in Sweden like and what are your earliest musical memories?
I got the Beatles Revolver album for my 6th birthday, and that changed my life. Since my rather rigid father was of the opinion that pop music was dangerous and bad to listen to, I only got to listen to maximum one side a day but that only made music even more exciting to me.
E&D: Who are the biggest influences in yourself as a musician?
I must say Charles Ives and Univers Zero to make it short but obviously I’ve listened to tons of music in my life.
E&D: Are you working on any new music at the moment and can we expect another solo album in the future?
Yes, hopefully to be released sometime in 2021.
E&D: You released your first solo album back in 1993 and have had a long career since, did you ever think about the longevity of your career back then?
Not at all. I had just started to write music then, and I only did it to amuse myself.
E&D: Your last solo album was A Farewell To Brains, what are your recollections of making that album?
Ah, it took some serious TIME! But it was a very worthwhile experience. For the first time in my (album) career I succeeded to reach the aim I had when I started composing it. And I’m happy with it and proud of it.
E&D: That album contains the epic compositions ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’, ‘One’ and ‘The Idiot’. Do you enjoy making immense tracks such as these?
Yes, why would I write them if not? In my profession I always have to adapt and mostly write “1 minute jingles” under specific circumstances. My albums are my hobby music (since no one pay me to make them) and I can do whatever I want. And that is to please myself and to see how far I can take my (stupid) music.
E&D: What are your main memories of making your other solo albums The Zombie Hunters, Led Circus, Live Gang-Gang and Fat Again?
Ah, Zombie Hunters was nothing but fun! I had a breathtaking 8 channels to thrive on, which almost felt limitless. Everything (except the drums) was recorded in my living room. As I recall it, the whole process were both fast, joyful and without any setbacks. Led took much more time and effort to complete since it´s more pretentious and ambitious. Today I think Zombie is a FAR better album. There were no rights or wrongs, almost like punk rock. Gang-Gang was sort of a failure since we had way too little time to rehearse the material, resulting in that we played like crap. Some of the music sounds almost ok though. Fat was composed for the Kamikaze Band, and we played the 2 long tracks from it live on the release party for the live gang-gang album. THAT was a GOOD gig. Maybe I will release it in the future.
E&D: You have worked with a multitude of artists in your career. Who has been the most inspiring to work with?
I have to say Morgan Ågren. Morgan is my best friend since forever, and he´s a mind blowing musician! But I really enjoyed most of my collaborations with other artists. I loved playing bass with Thinking Plague. Obviously this collaboration with JGT has been an incredible journey and invaluable experience for me!!!
E&D: Who would you like to work with in the future?
Ah. One dream I have is to release a trio album with Morgan Ågren, Fredrik Thordenal and myself. But since we´re all very busy and on totally different agendas, I doubt it will happen in the near future. But at least we’re talking about it. I hope for another album with JGT. Hopefully I will play on Michael Johnsons upcoming effort next year. It would be challenging to play with Univers Zero. Oh, and I would absolutely LOVE to play drums with Radiohead!!! But for the moment I want to mainly focus on my next solo release.
E&D: You also work composing music for theatre. What have you worked on and what have been the most memorable productions you have worked on?
Nothing to write about I guess. I’ve supplied music for over 150 plays though, “all” the classics obviously, as well as many contemporary plays. I have worked in all the grand theaters in Sweden, but since it´s only in Sweden no one knows about them in the world outside… That’s how I make a living though, and it´s the BEST job in the world! I can recommend my homepage for more information.
E&D: Were you a fan of JG Thirlwell before this project?
Not until I played his music.
E&D: What have been some of the most memorable moments from your career so far?
For me? Almost impossible to say. So many. Performing the music of Frank Zappa with Mats/Morgan & the Kroumata Ensemble is one. Jesus Blood with “the great learning orchestra” at a big, totally crowded, church with Gavin Bryars conducting the piece. Playing the streets/parks in Zürich with a great 7-piece funk band for a month. A +70 gig tour with Romeo & Juliet where i orchestrated and arranged Romanian folk music for a brutal 4 -piece band. I have to mention the bass trio I led in Georg KaisersGAS at my “own” theatre “moment:teater” in 2018. Contrabass saxophone, bass clarinet and my own fretless electric sub bass. The sound was VERY fat an ominous. A great experience! I also have to mention each and every time in Morgans studio, that’s the best place on earth to be! And OBVIOUSLY playing the music of JGT conducted by JGT here in Stockholm with the great learning orchestra. That was great fun, and it eventually led to THIS collaboration! Thanks for asking!