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Jim Thirlwell - Magazine Interview
An article in Stiletto # 24 June 1985, pp 64-65, by Marie Ryan.
The Intensity Of Ruin And The Wisdom of Blood
Clint Foetus was an arsehole. He said so himself. But the man with the sick name and the sick past is living in a very intense present, cathartically realizing an awesome musical vision that has few peers. Under various aliases and the Foetus moniker, young, bent, blistering Jim Thirwell is making some of the most essential recordings burning on the fringes of the musical scene. MARIE RYAN gets totally absorbed with the Thirlwell-Foetus world - his obsessive passion, uncompromising brilliance and hyper-charged revolutionary aesthetics. A study in the meaning of the word TOTAL.
When Jim 'Foetus' Thirlwell, aka Frank Want and Clint Ruin, sniggers "stick that apple pie into de oven ... I need something to chew on" (Hot Horse) he ain't thinking about filling his tummy. When he rasps "I like the way you fill out Your clothes/I'm gonna stick my head under your hose" (Clothes Hoist) he ain't beating around the bush. No sirree - this man is a SEX FIEND, and if you don't share his lusty inclinations then you better hotfoot it home to momma. Sex, death, Satan, crucifixion: all those specifically '80's preoccupations are there in Foetus' dark fermenting HOLE, a crematorium of hot rhythms, violent sounds - the rhythmic crunch of bone - and lyrics that bleed all over the page. 'Sick Man' a less than flattering ode to Nick Cave, has the protagonist reducing his constant companion to a pool of blood and ending his own life in a dead end alleyway pumped full of HOT LEAD. Jim Foetus takes the modern fascination with Death and the Devil to such extremes that he can't be dismissed as just another silly dabbler in Gothic horror. A furnace of passion and suffering burns within Foetus and by letting out the smoke, he keeps a hold on his sanity and a grip on his soul.
When Jim was a teenager back in Melbourne he was a complete arsehole, a bastard, totally unapproachable. "I was really discontented - that's why I was a shithead." The mixed-up offspring of a Scottish mother and an Australian father, he fled that care-less country in 1978 at the comparatively tender age of eighteen, vowing never to return. In fact, he did return briefly in 1979 to attend his sister's wedding but he has no plans to go back again.
It was in London that he discovered the immensely cathartic effect of writing and recording his own songs. Financed by a succession of shitty jobs, he set up his own Self Immolation label and released a series of records under the Foetus moniker (Foetus Under Glass, You've Got Foetus On Your Breath etc) most of which sold out their pressings over a period of time but received only minimal attention from press and public. However, Jim wasn't interested in fame or money; as long as he could finance his next record he was happy. For, unlike most rock artistes, it was the creative act and the effect it had on him that was important, not its public impact. Creation as catharsis. Naming the fear and thus defusing it. "Since I discovered that cathartic effect, I've been a much calmer and more satisfied person. I really feel the need to purge my inner turmoil and commit it to tape because then I can categorise it and get it out of my system. It's purged and it's documented and if I listen back to it, then I can re-purge myself every time. It's almost ... regenerative. It's better than aerobics."
Jim Foetus is a man of extreme self-consciousness, He is self-reflective to a degree, but he is also self-conscious in a more physical sense, which makes him nervy and jittery. When he strides into Some Bizarre for our meeting, he doesn't look at me but dances around the office in a state of agitation. After five minutes of consciously avoiding eye contact, he mutters "Well, we'd better get going round to my flat to do the interview then." He still hasn't looked at me.
We stroll the couple of streets to the Soho flat that a friend has lent him while he records his new album in London (his current home is with Lydia Lunch in New York). The lounge room is bare, save for a table at one end, and at the opposite end something that looks curiously akin to an altar, on which stand about fifty empty bottles of Smirnoff arranged like some unholy offering to a tetchy underworld God. On the wall above the table is a headline cut from a newspaper, which proclaims MY MISERY IS OVER. A photo of Lydia stares sullenly, pouting down at me. The table is covered with the usual ciutter amongst which I notice a small glass bust of Lenin. Jim is wearing black pants, black fringed leather jacket and cowboy boots. He is thin and pale and sweet, the archetypal angel in devil's boots. I reach down and pull a bottle of Smirnoff from my bag, pour a couple of glasses and our nerves settle down into the anodyne balm of its caress. One of the better jobs to come Jim's way was at the warehouse for the Virgin record stores around London, where he acted as buyer of the 7" and 12" independent records for the chain. It was a position of some power, providing him with the opportunity to push the sort of indie records he favoured, as well as giving him the opportunity to hear a wide range of current music. But, one day he was retrenched, a victim of the failing economy, and not long after found himself virtually bankrupt and 'stuck in this disgusting apartment in Hackney'. Things were not looking good for Clint Ruin.
As has so often been the case, enter the good fairy in the unlikely form of Stevo of Some Bizarre. Jim had first encountered Stevo whilst working at one of the Virgin Megastores on Oxford Street. Stevo was working as a delivery boy delivering records for Phonogram and moonlighting as an electro DJ, as well as putting on gigs for bands like DAF and Fad Gadget. "He also used to come into our store to buy really over-the-top, weird German records. I was into that stuff myself and I used to go out of my way to get those records for him."
The next time their paths crossed, Stevo had gone up in the world and was now the notorious supremo of Some Bizarre. Jim's movement, unfortunately, had been in the opposite direction. Stevo suggeated to Clint that it might be a good idea if he joined the Some Bizarre roster.
"I ummmed and aaaahed for about a week, I really turned it over in my mind and paced around the room, rung up a few friends and asked their advice, then finally thought fuck it, I can't do anything else, I'm stuck." It was, as it turned out, the right decision. "So here I am, living in the lap of misery", he quips with only the merest hint of a smile.
When I first listened to HOLE and the 12" follow up, Calamity Crush, I thought, hang on - this man is a musical genius! Frank Want plays all the instruments you hear on his records and the music is as violent, sex-sodden and powerful as the lyrics. Pow! Pow! Pow! Yet musical prowess is something he lays no claim to. "I know how to manipulate the studio. I know what I want and I know how to make it sound like I can play instruments because, basically, my main instrument is the studio. To me it is very important that every overdub is perfect and really tight because then it's really focused. I just drop in or go over and over and painstakingly get it in time."
Clint jumps up and puts a tape in his cassette player. It's a rough mix of a new track called 'Descent into LA.' Epic, orchestrated music leaps from the speakers, rather like film music, evocative of Eisenstein landscapes and scale. "My new songs are the best thing I've ever done" he announces. After the majestic prologue, the music turns hard and dirty. "You always get what you deserve" growls the chorus. The song does not flatter LA. What was it you hated about LA?
"I just had a totally lousy time. It's flat, featureless, impersonal and hollow. It reminded me a lot of Melbourne, actually. You're totally stranded if you don't have a car. If you want to walk to the shop it takes fifteen minutes. It's absurd. I had a really good time when I first got there but after that it was just dreadful. It was really like purgatory and I was so fucked up by the end."
After a month, he moved on to New York where he proceeded to go out every night till seven in the morning, more as an experiment than from any desire to live that sort of life.
"I had this concept of 'stream of consciousness man', which was just don't reflect on what you're doing, just do or be although I came to the conclusion that's not a good way to be because you don't develop if you carry on like that, since you can't assess the experiences you're having. I'm normally a lot more reflective, I scrutinise my actions, but it was good to do for the experience even though it was pretty frivolous and empty."
Right from the start, Jim has held a horror of being transformed into a public commodity, of being a party to the construction of his own myth, and to this end he has always hidden behind the various fictional characters he has created, Frank Want, Clint Ruin etc. He turned down two interviews with the NME before he finally relented in early '84 and submitted, reluctantly, to the ordeal. "All this was at a time when I was totally poor and hungry. It's just a dignity thing as far as I'm concerned. I don't like to become a commodity so easily. That's why I do so few photo sessions because to me it's not anything to do with the music. It's something different altogether - it's about ego and fame and all that shit, which I'm not concerned with whatsoever. I don't like it. I think it detracts from the music."
But surely you want your work to get across to a reasonable number of people and recognise that a certain amount of publicity is required?
"I don't care about that. I don't care how many people I get across to. Some Bizarre care, I couldn't give a fuck. It just so happens that I think I've retained a lot of dignity in the whole media process. I might be totally deluded, I might be kidding myself but I don't think I am. Everything that I set out to do in 1980, I've done. I'm doing the work that I want to. I've not compromised in any way.
A lot of the Foetus imagery seems calculated to offend. First, there's the names - Foetus Under Glass, You've Got Foetus On Your Breath, Scraping Foetus of the Wheel and, most recently, Foetus Art Terrorism (FAT), my favourite. Then there's publicity shots which show him nailed to a cross - the anti-Christ? - which most music papers refused to print. What sort of reaction is he seeking?
Well, Foetus is a concept I came up with four or five years ago and I don't think I can remember why I chose it in the first place. Foetus is such a great word, somehow strangely taboo. Everyone has been one, and anyway why are people so offended when I say Foetus Under Glass?"
Foetus Under Glass isn't so bad, but You've Got Foetus On Your Breath and Scraping Foetus off the Wheel are more ... er ...
"Well, You've Got Foetus On Your Breath is supposed to have a certain amount of duality, or triality, in terms of the fact that it can be taken in so many ways. It can be interpreted as having eaten a foetus. But the way I see it, You've Got Foetus On Your Breath is analogous to being pregnant.
Scraping Foetus Off The Whee1 is a lot more blunt. My mental image of that is a foetus being tied to a railway track and being run over by a train and the engineer going, 'Oh shit, not another!'. It's a strong image and I like it. The word foetus is great, you know. I love f-o-e-t-u-s. I love the fact the oe is ee. I see it more in an abstract sense. It's like a vague, abstract term."Foetus music comes encased in covers alive with revolution, coloured, - naturally enough - in red, white and black. Jim does all the artwork himself and yes, he is another art school drop-out. (Do they all seek solace in the music industry?) The cover and inserts for HOLE, for instance, bear the sort of social-realist art popular in post-revolutionary China.
"I think propaganda is the highest form of art in the same way that advertising is, because it's about power. What I like to do is juxtapose different forms of propaganda. On the cover of HOLE is an image from communist China, while on the back there is supposed to be a hidden swastika. (Check out a copy of HOLE and see if you can spot the swastika in the four hand held rifles.) Juxtaposing the communist and nazi imagery is confusing -- you don't know where I'm aligned."
When Jim returns to New York later this month he plans to do some more live outings with Roly Mosimann from the Swans under the banner of Wise Blood (formerly known as Foetus Flesh). It was, he says, the film of the Flannery O'Connor book which inspired the name.
"One of Lydia's nicknames for me is 'Wise Blood' because in some ways I'm similar to that character because I do subject myself to torture unconsciously a lot of the time, really putting myself through the grinder when I don't need to. It's an unconscious thing. I don't need to torture myself but I do it anyway."
Jim Foetus recognises the link between the terrorism of art and the terrorism of torture. The idea is innate in all his work. The connection becomes flesh through Jim's transformation of his anguish or mental torture into that 'rhythmic crunch of bone' ground into those flat black pieces of plastic. I sure as hell do hope that he don't get any silly ideas about seeing one of them Noo Yark analysts.
Jim, Clint, Frank, Foetus - you are one hell of a man. Stay tense.