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Jim Thirlwell (Foetus)

Jim Thirlwell by Beatrice Neumann

Five years before there was Trent Reznor, before there was Sonic Youth, and way way before there was a Marilyn Manson, there was FOETUS. The legendary Mr. JG THIRLWELL, AKA FOETUS, AKA STEROID MAXIMUS, AKA MANOREXIA, AKA DJ OTEFSU, these are just a few of the latest incarnations of this musical genius. And by the way, he’s re-mixed for all of the above, which tells you something. He’s the man that took a machete to the music world and carved a path for countless other bands that have come after him, although nobody has even come close to catching up. He wouldn’t cop to it either when I spoke to him, paving the way for Trent Reznor and the likes. “That’s not for me to say,” was his statement, with his Australian accent. He’s a native of Melbourne and gracious on top of everything else. If you don’t know who he is, well, your missing out. A trip to his website at www.foetus.org will give a taste to the un-anointed. There are some downloadable audio and video clips there, as well as countless bios, newsclips, and what he’s been up to lately, which is quite a lot. It’s also the only place that you can order his latest Manorexia CD’s “Radiolarian Ooze,” and “VolvoxTurbo”, superb instrumental trips to the darker sides of the unconscious.

Trying to describe his music is like trying to remember an elusive dream, or sometimes, a nightmare. Monolithic layered sounds pouring down on you, yet meticulously crafted. I saw JGT playing as Steroid Maximus in Los Angeles recently, complete with an 18-piece orchestra. This was a far cry from the fetish S&M crowd that was at the Roxy in 1984 when I first saw him. Yet again, JGT completed obliterated every pre-conceived notion I think anybody had. One word of caution, leave your expectations at the door. These were hand-picked professional musicians from as far away as Italy contributing to what I’m sure will be written down in the musical history books as completely groundbreaking. These were not Goth/Fetish/Industrial whatever musicians, these were professionals who knew they were participating in an event that would be a once in a lifetime experience. Ranging from 70’s spy noir, to be bop zulu jazz, to hauntingly beautiful classical references, add a dose of “Shaft”, times it times ten, and you might be getting close. The man is what Igor Stravinsky was in his day, way ahead of his time, and willing to take chances. When the rest of the music world seems to be clamoring to fall into a niche, JGT seems to have stayed out of all of them. The grand maestro of ceremonies, JGT, was leading the way, accompanied by 18 seemingly very enthusiastic musicians. I still think I thought I saw a little twinge of Foetus coming out once in a while, even if he did have a suit on. Yes, Foetus had a suit on.

I had the pleasure of visiting JGT at his loft in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. I asked him about how he felt about Industrial music, and somehow being lumped into that category. Seems hard for me to imagine after what I saw with Steroid Maximus that people still categorize him solely in those terms. “Yeah, I somehow got lumped into this Industrial category, which is a ghetto…I sort of came under the umbrella of Industrial (in the late 70’s) because I used unconventional instrumentation, such as hitting on objects to get the custom sounds, metal, or maybe vacuum clean sounds, or maybe other weird things. And I challenged, like I was using a lot of tape loops and studio manipulation to achieve what I did, so I don’t know where the Industrial thing came in.”

He has defied every musical genre there is, and simultaneously incorporated most every musical genre, and somehow manages to put an undeniable Foetal spin on just about anything aural. Just try finding his CD’s at a store and you’ll know what I mean, you’ll never know where you’ll find them, if you find them at all. And tell the damn record stores to keep them stocked. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve went looking for his CD’s and they either don’t know where to find them or simply don’t carry them. It seems that the fact that JGT is so versatile, has also made him hard to market. The Internet seems to have been the most reliable source for me. When I asked him why you could only order his Manorexia CD’s through his website or at shows, his response was, “Well, I’m precious about it. Another reason is that if I distribute it this way I make $10.00 an album, and I’d h ave to sell four times as many of my other CD’s for the same amount of money…. I think that Manorexia first came out partly out of frustration in having re-kindled a lot of my connections in the business and trying to find a deal for Foetus and stuff over the course of a year and I was like fuck it, let’s do something totally different and do it myself. And it was such a liberation to do that. I asked JGT about “Volvox Turbo”, just because I’ve heard so many people say it is reminiscent of a soundtrack, if he’d actually done soundtrack work, or it was something he was considering. “I’ve done a little bit of soundtrack work. I did some work for Richard Kern on the “Death Trip”, films, I worked on music supervising and a little bit of score for this film version of JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition which didn’t get a distribution deal, but I think now it’s coming out on DVD with commentary by JG Ballard…and that’s about it. And for me, I am a coordinator for soundtracks, but the films haven’t been made yet. For me to pursue soundtracks, that’s a full-time job by itself but it’s also a committee.”

Jim Thirlwell by Monica Sicotte

He’s up to five acts right now. Five completely different identities coming from the same person. I had an opportunity to catch DJ Otefsu at CBGB’s last year, JGT’s choice of records was actually much better than the bands they had playing. When I asked him where the hell he got his records as I was eyeballing them from his couch he said, “people who collect records just know.” He described it as a “treasure hunt, it’s fun. Especially with sound trackie stuff…I can sometimes look at the song titles and go okay, there’s a chase scene, a party scene, maybe there’s going to be something useful there, but that also forms my own music, it always has.” I asked JGT about the transition from vinyl to CD, partly because that’s the only reason I discovered Foetus in the first place. It was “Scraping Foetus of the Wheel”, and that prolitariate red and black art-work somehow caught my 19-year old eye. Nobody was doing anything close to that at that time, except the Swans, which I also bought. Thirlwell actually has an exhibit of his record covers (over 20) that he himself has designed called “Exit Art.” It has traveled to the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and is now back in New York.

One of his other acts is “Baby Zizane,” an improvisational act with Jim Coleman, ex-keyboard player from “Cop Shoot Cop,” which had one run in New York, but has toured mostly in Europe. It’s JGT/Coleman playing laptop music from their computers combined with visuals in the background, mostly improvisational, which would terrify me. When I asked him about it, he said, “that’s the beauty of doing something like that because your doing it on the fly and so you either get great intuitive things which can come from practice or from reading each other, knowing what works and what doesn’t, or you can just have disasters, where no one really knows where it is….”Yeah, so like people say “Wow, how did you synchronize that little voice coming in with that little girl skipping through the woods and stuff”, and I have to tell them, well, it was just by accident… I think the visual element of Baby Zizanie is really important too because I like laptop music and I like laptop music live, but it’s fucking boring to watch two people sitting at computers, so the visual element is important too….” Vicki Bennett from “People Like Us,” has been the latest visual artist to have worked with Baby Zizanie.

One of the more thought-provoking responses I received from JGT was when I asked him how he felt about BearShare and file-swapping in general. Here’s what he had to say, “I don’t really have an opinion about it to be honest. You know I see it all happening, but you know, it’s kind of like walking down to the ocean and yelling and asking the tide not to come in, because the genie’s out of the bottle. Nothing that I can do or say is going to change it. There are people who are devoting their lives to it full time and I don’t know what my voice contributed to the argument has to with anything. But I do think it’s dangerous that a whole generation thinks that they deserve to get music exclusively for free, and what the musicians are a free ride-along? I mean this is a fucking hell of a lot of work, this is not just something like puttering around and I have a day job at a dot-com or something. I think that I should be allowed to be in control of that and the way the whole Napster thing blew up, the whole Metallica business. Napster blew up really because someone took an unfinished song from their studio and put it out through Napster, and that’s the point where someone is saying I’m a Metallica fan, therefore I think that it’s democratically right for everyone to have access to this. And it’s not their right at all, Metallica should have the final say over what of theirs is distributed, there’s the argument. Is it going to be the death of copyright? There are not enough people going to concerts, where everyone can make a living doing music, because there’s too many people making music now anyway. You know I think the whole process has been too democratized and I think that the availabilities of the means has made it, has devalued music, and instead of a lot of quality music out there, there’s a lot of content, and content is different. And I think that has devalued it. And I also think that maybe there use to be generations of people where music was the central core of what they did of their life, and their lifestyle, it’s really important. And it really mattered to them, and now it’s like for an ADD generation it’s just another piece of upholstery, it’s another piece of furniture, it’s a decoration, and, none of those words are right…maybe it’s an accessory to a lot of other things, you know, the Internet, video games, and DVD’s and so on. And I think (ponders), depends, it’s changed a lot. There are many different layers to that cake. There’s the real underground, then there’s the fake underground, then there is the mainstream, all sorts of shit.”

So, go to his website www.foetus.org and check out some of the latest audios such as “Radiolarian Ooze,” I think you’ll be surprised to the see the evolution of JGT. Consider everything, deny nothing, put your own spin on it, and you’ll come out with brilliance almost every time. Well, that is, if your Jim Thirlwell… One of his friends said to me that OTEFSU meant prince of something in some language. It had to be a joke, right? I mean, it’s just an anagram of FOETUS. Wrong again, it actually means “handsome flame-haired prince” in a dialect of a tribe in Ghana. Seems about right.

Foetus website