Composer, musician, and producer James George Thirlwell has been known as JG Thirlwell, Clint Ruin, Frank Want, and most famously, Foetus and its many incarnations. Lately he has been doing quite a bit of scoring for television, with Archer and The Venture Bros. among his credits. I dropped in at his Brooklyn loft a while back to learn more.
Were you making music in Australia before you moved to the U.K.?
No, I moved to London in 1978. That’s when I started making music. When I was a kid in Australia, I learned a couple of instruments. There were bad teaching practices. The first instrument I tried to learn was cello, and then some percussion. The problem was sight-reading, which I didn’t get a handle on before. I was learning it and trying to sight read, and their idea was, “Okay, he’s done it for a couple of months. Let’s put him in the orchestra.” They had to fill a seat in the orchestra; I’d be trying to play, but I’d get halfway through the first page and I’d be lost. I couldn’t catch up. The whole thing was so humiliating. I stopped doing that and then I started doing percussion. It would have been better to teach me some chords on a guitar. I loved music, and I still love music, obviously.
Yeah, I think so!
So, that was the end of that chapter of my attempting to play an instrument. When punk rock came along, that democratized the idea that you didn’t have to be a virtuoso. Everyone can play and pick something up and make sound with it. I bought a bass guitar, and I played along to records. When I moved to London, I was 18. I knew that I wanted to be involved in music. There was so much happening. From ‘78 to ‘83 was an amazing time to be there. Then I bought my first synthesizer, which was a [Electronic Dream Plant] Wasp.
Not as common over here in the States.
Yeah. They were £99.
Very affordable at that time.
Yeah. I’d heard about them and thought, “That I want to try!” It ran on batteries and had a built-in speaker. That was my entrance to making electronic music. Somehow, I got a delay pedal, and I would make tapes in my room.
To cassette or something?
Yeah, to cassette. I had a roommate who had another cassette player, so I’d do cassette to cassette [overdubs]. After one or two generations, it would get so distorted, but then it would have its own sound. That was my idea bank. Around about that time, somewhere along the way I also got a Korg MS-20 [synthesizer]. I was making tapes with that. I did a lot of squatting in London. I was also working at Virgin Records, on the retail side.
One of the record stores?
Yeah, on Oxford Street. My roommate, when I was squatting, was a guy named Keith Allen. He’s a comedian. He was saying, “I know you like to make tapes in your bedroom, but you should get out and play with people. My friends Susan [Gogan] and John [Studholme] are starting a group.” They had a group called pragVEC, with a couple of singles out, and I used to see them play; I knew who they were. Keith introduced me, so I went over to their place and started playing a bit. They had a Wasp as well. They were making electronic songs. As result of starting to play with them, I realized that I didn’t want to work in a democratic way.
You need to know if that’s conducive.
Yeah, that was one thing. At the same time, I then had my first experience in a recording studio. We made some tracks, which turned into an album [No-Cowboys]. I think we recorded to a 16-track in London. It was engineered by Gerry Shephard who was the guitar player in Gary Glitter’s band. That was awesome, because Gary Glitter was one of the first groups I ever went to see. I got a chance to ask him about the “Glitter sound.”
That was so layered.
Yeah, they had two drummers. He said they would tune all the guitars to an open tuning in octaves and then they’d play them with a slide. That was how they got the Glitter sound. I got to firsthand have a recording experience. Working at the record store, I was very interested in experimental music and post-punk. That’s where I started to get deeper into 20th century classical music, and I met Steve Stapleton from Nurse with Wound. Steve worked down the street. He came in one day, and we had the first Nurse with Wound album in stock. I listened to everything that was left-of-center. He saw it, and he said, “Have you heard this album? What’s it like?” I described it and he said, “Well, that’s me.” We started chatting and got to be friendly. He invited me to the studio, which he had locked out on Friday nights – a little 8-track studio in Shepherds Bush called IPS [Recording Studio]. They’d done the first album with John Fothergill, who played guitar a lot on one side of it; but he was going a different direction. Steve was going into the studio every Friday night and doing whatever the hell he wanted. He didn’t always necessarily have an idea of what he would do, but he would always come out with something. There were some instruments in the studio, but Steve didn’t need instruments. There would be a squeaky chair, or he’d come in with some object and say, “This thing makes a cool sound! Let’s record that.”
Anyone reading this would need to go and listen a little bit to understand. It’s not ambient, but it’s very interesting and dark. Very creative.
He also had the deepest, vastest knowledge of the most obscure music. On the first album [Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella], there’s a list he put inside the album. It’s called the “Nurse With Wound list.” People still refer to it now. On the list there are a lot of very obscure French and krautrock bands. He turned me on to so much, and his approach broadened my mind.
Were you watching him work?
Oh, I was collaborating. I would have an idea and we’d make sounds. Then, by the time he was through with it, it didn’t sound anything like what the source material was. He really messed with sounds! We started making this album later on, which was called The Sylvie and Babs [Hi-Fi Companion], which was all cover versions. While I was still with Spec Records, which was the ashes of pragVEC, I decided, “I’m not interested in this democracy thing.” I booked some time at IPS, and I decided I was going to record and mix a single in a day, which I did. It was the first Foetus single [“Spite Your Face” b/w “O.K.F.M.”]. I thought, “Okay, once I’ve done that, I’m going to do this one show with Spec Records, and then I’m going to leave.” They kicked me out before I could do the show, which was at the ICA opening for Cabaret Voltaire, which I really wanted to do. I made the first Foetus record. That came out on the first of January, 1981, on my own label [Self Immolation]. I was 20 years old. Those were some of the forces that were at work that led me to doing Foetus. The reason that I played all the instruments myself was that I was so heavily drawn to make the opposite of this democratic experience. I wanted to do something where I could stand or fall on my own merits. I couldn’t necessarily play the instruments that I was playing. I play enough to make the overdub and put it back in the box, and I continue to do that. The way that I came to music-making was that I want to work in the studio, and I want to make records. Not, “I want to be a great bass guitarist,” or, “I want to be a great keyboard player.” I want to make music that I want to hear; music that maybe isn’t out there, and music that’s interesting and inspiring to me – my avenue of expression. So, I put it out on my own label.
How did you figure out how to start
Well, I worked in a record store and I knew how records were distributed, because we talked to distributors. When I got there, it was the dawn of independent labels. Rough Trade had been releasing records for about a year. I went to Rough Trade every Saturday morning to look at the new releases, and I started to meet people there. The Desperate Bicycles would say, on their second release, “It was easy, it was cheap – go and do it!” Scritti Politti, on their first single instead of a sleeve, was a stapled piece of paper. On the paper, they printed a breakdown of how much it cost to press and how much they spent in the studio. Then there were fanzines like Sniffing Glue, where they were saying, “Here’s three chords. Now go and form a band!” That was a lot of the atmosphere then. I had to look up a pressing plant. I called them up and said, “What do you need?” I’d been to art school, so I did the sleeves. Then they said well, “Do you have a publisher for this?” I said, “No,” and they put me on for Cherry Red, which was a publishing company. I knew where the music papers were, so in my lunch hour I went to the music papers and gave them [the singles] out. I went to the BBC and put it in John Peel’s little box. That’s how it worked.
Did he play it?
Yeah. He played the first single.
It was an honor to have him notice your music and present it to everybody.
He also used to come down to the record store occasionally. When I started working at the store, it had more of a disco orientation. I worked at the singles counter. I was pushing more underground music. We were getting all the U.S. imports, German imports, and a lot of obscure records. The store became one of the places where someone would come if they were looking for something weird. We had a huge wall of all the sleeves. People would come, stare at the wall, and say, “What’s that? What’s that?”
Could they hear them at listening booths?
There weren’t listening booths, but we would tell them about the music. Sometimes we’d play records for people, but we were constantly playing music to bring people in, and then we’d put on our music and that would drive people out!
What happened after the first single? How did you proceed with recording?
Within the next two and a half years or so I released three 7-inches, a 12-inch EP, and two albums, all while I had a full-time job! It was evolving each time. I would take the money from one release and put it into the next one. I did the next single as You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath, “Wash it All Off.” I did that quickly, and it’s totally different from the first one. That’s when I started to get more of a handle on my vision and my voice. Literally, my voice. That I recorded in a different 8-track studio; I don’t know how I found it. Probably in the music papers. It was underneath a pet shop in south London. You had to go through the pet shop and climb down this ladder, and then I’d be in the studio. I don’t remember the name of that place, but I might have had the luxury of doing two days there for recording and mixing.
Did you have ideas mapped out, or were you working more like Steve did?
Oh, yeah. I had systems that I devised. I would have my own form of notation, where I would figure out how many bars of intro I needed before “this” happens. I’d have it all written out. First, I’d run a click track, and then I’d do a count track where it was, “Okay, chorus, middle eight, weird section, break down.” When I was recording the overdubs, I could hear when the sections were coming up. I didn’t have to count. Then I’d erase that. Because it was on 8-track, there was a lot of bouncing. I’d fill up all of the tracks with percussion and bounce them to one track. I’d have to figure out the order in which to record instruments. Sometimes I’d have to record the percussion, and then I’d have to record all the backing vocals.
Whatever had to be layered.
I’d be running out of tracks on many of them. I had to figure out the order in which to do. You have to have that one empty track, so you aren’t bouncing to an adjacent track.
Right, the weird cross-head feedback.
I’d go in and say, “Okay, this is the order in which we’ll record.” Then I’d fill it up. Funnily enough, on that first single at IPS I guess they had a plate reverb. I’d been listening to records, and I wanted to have a big drum sound. I thought the way I could get a big drum sound was putting lots of reverb on the drums. I recorded the drums myself. I might have even played a kit on that. I put lots of reverb on the drums, and then it became this big wash. It put me off reverb! It took me years to get back into accepting reverb. As a result, a lot of those records are very dry-sounding. That particular record is probably totally dry. A lot of people think there are samples on those, but it was live drums. I’d record them one at a time. I’d record a hi-hat, and then a kick drum, and then a snare, and then I’d bounce all that down.
It gives you a different feel, because you don’t have those pauses where you’re hitting another drum.
Yeah, and you’re playing totally un-drummerly; the way a drummer couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play. I would do that, and then my other best friend, at the time, was varispeed. I’d record parts at half-speed, especially pianos. They’d play back really fast. Backing vocals too; vocals at all different speeds. It sounded like a choir. Those were some of my tricks. And tape echo. Those were the sorts of ideas that I would use in those days.
What were the engineers like at these various places?
Pretty openminded. I’d tell them what I wanted to do, and they’d say, “Yeah, we can do that.” Then I’d ask, “What happens when we do this?” Then they’d show me.
Sometimes people have stories early on where they’re up against someone who makes the studio experience rough.
No, I don’t think I’ve ever had that experience. Well, there are one or two experiences I’ve had with incompetent people. I’ve always found that when I suggested things, they are more than willing to try them because it’s exciting to them to do something that they don’t normally do. After that second single, I made an album [Deaf] at this studio in South London called Lavender Sound. That’s where I met Harlan Cockburn, who was the house engineer. I worked with him quite a lot. He was really good for suggesting some techniques which I put into my tool kit. One of those – because I was still anti-reverb at that point – was recording ambience.
Yeah. There was a nice stairway there, and I used to put the drums at the bottom of the stairs. We’d mic the top of the stairs. That’s when I started to get room sounds on tracks. Everyone heard [Public Image Ltd’s] The Flowers of Romance. We’d all think, “How do you do that?”
Yeah, it’s got that weird echoing thing.
That was Nick Launay [Tape Op #105]. It was a lot of ambient room mics.
When we were recording through the ‘80s, one could not avoid the reverb discussion.
Yeah. The ‘80s was a lot about gated reverb drum sounds. I definitely used those. I started to lose my reverb phobia a bit. I would still always put snares in hallways, bathrooms, and stairways. At Lavender Sound – where I also ended up doing the second album and a 12-inch EP and more – what they had was bare-bones. We had a 1/4-inch tape delay, which I’d put straight onto the instrument, so it would be on tape already.There was a [Simmons Digital] Clap Trap [digital sample playback device]. There was one delay box that had about five settings on it and one knob. I can’t remember what it was. I’d use that for regeneration and sounds like that.That was the only piece of outboard there. I don’t know if they had a plate reverb, but if they did I didn’t use it.It was an 8-track studio and I was getting increasingly more complex on my systems when I would come in. I started to do more with tape loops. Another one of my tricks was I would compile these cassettes of sound effects and manipulated records, and there would be a point where I’d say, “I want to bring that in.” I’d find it on cassette, have the pause button, and spin it in at the right time. It’s a lot of that.
Flying it in?
Yeah, flying it in, and tape loops going around the studio. Recording them and then doing another one; filling up six tracks, and then bouncing them to one, but punching them in and out as they went across. Then I’d have this one track of that and I’d do it again.
The first records I did were all on 8-track. We’d have to plan ahead and make some compromises.
That informed those records. It had to. You were stuck with that drum balance. You were committing to mixes on the way over. There wasn’t much remixing you could do.
Your hands are tied on certain tracks.
Yeah. Because I didn’t have too much money, I was working super-fast. I had a full-time job, and I would work on vacations and weekends. I was cranking it out.
Were the records selling?
They were selling enough to pay for the next record. John Peel was playing them, and they were starting to get reviews. On those first records, I was anti- the idea of presenting myself as the front person of Foetus, so I started all this mythology around it that it was semi-informed by The Residents [Tape Op #45]. I could also go to NME or whomever, and say, “Here’s my single. I’m from Self Immolation Records. Here’s this seven-piece from San Francisco.” I discovered from the first single that if you write a press release and send it to the music papers, they’re going to print it verbatim. I instantly had this mythology.
Did you keep changing the story behind it?
I did. First, Foetus Under Glass was two Brazilian statistics collectors and their pen pal from Athens, Georgia. Then those guys had a fight, and one of them formed You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath, which was a seven-piece band from San Francisco. Then I had the names of all of the people in You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath, one of whom was Clint Ruin. Clint Ruin popped up later. Then one of them was Frank Want, and I used that name a little bit. I eventually got tired of doing that. It was too hard to keep up after a couple of years.
Did you start performing at all along
I didn’t perform live as Foetus until when we did this thing, The Immaculate Consumptive, which is actually what brought me to New York. It was an event that Lydia Lunch put together, which was myself, Lydia, Nick Cave, and Marc Almond [of Soft Cell]. We only did three shows. It was Halloween ‘83. We did two shows at Danceteria and one show at the 9:30 Club in D.C. Each of us had a few songs, then we had duets, and one song where we all played together. We had some instruments and backing tracks. When I came here to do that was when I ended up staying in New York. It was the opposite of London, at that point.
What was it that attracted you to New York?
Well, I’d been living in London for five years. At that time, New York was very East Village-centric. There were people who probably never went south of Houston [Street] or north of 14th Street. You could walk everywhere, and bars were open until four a.m.
Quite unlike London.
Yeah. London was sprawling. The tube stopped at midnight and bars closed at eleven. It was so different here. I fell in love with it, so I didn’t go back. I eventually went back, because I was with Some Bizzare Records at the time, so I was going back and forth recording. I had an apartment with Lydia here in ‘84 on 12th Street. Before that I was staying with a bunch of people. But I got involved with Some Bizzare in about ‘83, and that’s when I graduated to 24-track. Then I was a kid in the candy store. It was like having a cool breeze on your face and the vistas opened up. There was so much more I could do.
Did that open up a new way to build layers and still have tracks open?
It did for a day or two, until I filled up every track on the 24-track. No, it was so much better. It meant that I could have more expansive sounds. There was a tangible difference in those sounds. The first record I did on 24-track was the album Hole. I also had a bigger budget and could spend more time. One song, “I’ll Meet You in Poland, Baby” on that album, I spent five days constructing the backing track. There are no samples on that album, either. We used pre-sampling technology, but what was great about that was that they had an AMS delay that had a lock-in on it, so I could load in a snare sound and trigger it. I used the hell out of that.
It technically is a sample, but it’s a lot of work to set up!
There were delays with lock-ins that I would tweak. I’d put in a vocal and then tweak it to keep it in time with the click track and construct it like that. It was proto-sampling. That was a great liberation to do that.
Did you spend time trying to understand any new technology that had come out?
Yeah, I’d do that. When sampling was introduced and I heard those samplers were available, I rented one.
You couldn’t buy one, unless you were Peter Gabriel [Tape Op #63]!
Yeah, you couldn’t. For an album like Hole, I had so many ideas. I knew what I wanted to do, and I’d think of systems of how to do them. I’d go in and say, “We have to create 18 tape loops of my voice.” That album had a bunch of parts where I’m looping my voice but playing with the pitch speed on the tape machine and making tracks that way. Then I began using the mixing desk to create parts. I’d have notes so that I could make chords on the mixer and bounce that across [to a new track]. That would be the backbone of the composition, and I’d start overdubbing on that. That took a lot of time.
It has to. There’s no way around it.
Originally, I’d get in and the engineer would say, “Well, we can do that, or we can do this. We have this AMS.” I’d rented a Mellotron, but then I heard about sampling technology. It was what I’d been doing all along, but it was a way to organize it. Sampling times were still very short, and the bandwidth wasn’t very good. You’d have to record sounds at half speed. The first thing I got was an [E-mu] Emulator [sampler]. I didn’t get one myself, but I rented an Emulator. I was using that on the sessions that I produced for the band Coil [Scatology]. The next album after Hole was Nail, and I did a ton of that on the Fairlight [CMI sampler]. I rented a studio that had a Fairlight, and I did tons of programming on the Fairlight while working with [producer/engineer] Warne Livesey. That’s when there was a lot of the orchestral sounds happening. Still, on Nail all the drums are live.
Did you ever bring other people in to play instruments?
On the Foetus records, it never was anyone else until ‘94, with the album [Gash] I did on Sony.
To stay out of the “democracy” and get your own focus across?
Yeah. I thought it would dilute the purity if I did that. Even though it took me forever to play some of the parts, I didn’t want to dilute that purity, because that’s what Foetus was. Then I relaxed that a little bit later.
Was that transition interesting, to have people come in and play parts?
Yeah. It opened up a lot. I probably could have done that earlier. For whatever reason I didn’t, and it’s fine. A lot of what I do now, I play everything, but I bring in people when I need to.
Was there still an image you were cultivating for who Foetus was, or was it an extension of you? If there was an interview with you back then, you certainly weren’t talking about picking daisies.
No, it was an extension of me. I was pretty full-on and full of piss and vinegar.
When I first met you years ago, I was almost a little nervous. But you were chatting away and being nice.
Yeah. Well, I would hope that I evolved, as we all evolve over our lives.
Who would be exactly the same person they were when they were in their twenties? But those records did have an aura, and they made an impression.
Oh, they were intense. I still make intense records, but they’re intense in a different way.
How so, in your opinion?
There’s an emotional intensity, in even my more pastoral work that’s probably a foreboding quality; that something is not quite right. I can’t help but twist that screw a little bit and put that in. That’s what I want to hear. It’s not what I want to hear in every piece of music that I listen to, but it may be a hallmark.
And there’s a lot of music to listen to in this room.
Yeah, there’s a lot of music. I’m a big believer in physical media.
Were there any records you heard that gave you insight into the direction that the Foetus project ultimately took?
Not consciously with Foetus. I wanted to come at it with a certain purity. I’m still like a whale that devours plankton, and that plankton is music. I take in so much, and I can’t help but exude some. It’s informed by years of listening to music. If you listen to music from the first couple of years of what I was doing, you can see strands of what’s happening there. It’s colliding. A big revelation for me was discovering Steve Reich [Tape Op #15] and his early tape experiments, like “It’s Gonna Rain” or “Come Out.” I would listen to those over and over. It blew me away. Then, with Philip Glass; I can hear the repetitive thing going on. I was also reading John Cage and [Karlheinz] Stockhausen’s ideas. I’d read about Cage mapping a score to a celestial map of the sky. But there’d also be a bit of James Brown, a bit of Throbbing Gristle, or there’d be a bit of 10cc. With a lot of the music I listened to as a kid growing up – Alice Cooper or The Sensational Alex Harvey Band ?– there would be a big band in there, or a string arrangement, all of a sudden, in the middle of their rock band track. It would turn on a dime and be like that for 12 bars, and then it’d be back out. I liked that contrast and schizophrenic arrangement of ideas. I mentioned 10cc, where it’s very heavily-produced and using studio technology. My earliest musical memories are of Warner Bros. cartoons. That was my introduction to classical music, but the way that music is cut up...
There are elements of that in my early music, and probably in my music now.
It’s a destabilizing of the listener, so you keep them on edge.
Yeah, it’s disorienting. You can do that with keys as well, dissonance.
Did you ever start using MIDI for compositions? I assumed that happened at some point.
Well, MIDI didn’t exist initially. After I moved to New York, I’d been going to recording studios with my weird, numerical systems. There was a certain point where I wanted to build my own setup, at least for preproduction. MIDI had come in, and I’d gotten my first computer in about 1987. That was an Atari 1040ST. That ran [C-Lab] Creator; that was a dongle, which was about the size of a breadbox. That’s when the AKAI S-series [samplers] came out. So, I got an AKAI S900, the 1040, and I had a keyboard and a couple of other bits and pieces. I’d do preproduction on that. I had thousands of floppy disks.
With all the samples stored on disk, where you had to load them in?
Yeah. The whole thing of maximizing the sample time. That’s when I started to experiment with MIDI. Then I got an AKAI [MG1212] 12-track. They came in during what was probably the late-’80s or the 1990s.
That used the cartridges?
Yeah, they had those tapes that were like Betamax tapes. I don’t know if they were Betamax, but they were the same size.
Yeah, few people know about that deck anymore.
What was great about that was it had 12 tracks and two sync tracks. One sync track sync’d up the computer, and then I would have outputs from the 900 and from the keyboards that were running through MIDI through another mixer, which would come into the AKAI 12-track. Then I’d have 12 tracks to record on. That gave me a lot of flexibility, for those days. I started this project called Steroid Maximus, and that was all done in that way for the first couple of albums.
Whenever there was a name change, was it because, “I’m doing something different, so that’s going to be a
Yeah, it was. For Steroid Maximus, I felt the whole compositional aspect [of Foetus] wasn’t getting its props, so I’d do an instrumental album and let that side blossom. I decided to change the name for that. I was trying to think of a name for a long time, and Steroid Maximus actually came to me in a dream. That was also a chance for me to collaborate. I let down the rigid bars of Foetus to let some other people come in.
Who were you collaborating with on that?
Lucy Hamilton, Raymond Watts, Don Fleming, and Away [Michel Langevin], the drummer of Voivod played on that. I got a lot out of my system with that. I did a lot with that 12-track. Then there was the ADAT generation. I might have added an ADAT and sync’d it up.
Because you could sync it from everything.
I may have added one ADAT, and then I evolved into going full ADAT. If you wanted 24 tracks of ADATs, you needed an extra ADAT, because one would break all the time. I still have mine. I don’t know what to do with them. They’re doorstops now. But they facilitated a lot. That was why I got the [Yamaha] O2R.
The digital mixer.
Yeah. Then I was automating mixes, so I had 24 tracks of audio, and I was also syncing keyboards and MIDI live, and running the ADATs.
How many years did you work on the ADAT tapes?
I don’t think it was that long, to be honest. I don’t think I could put up with it. Soon after that, hard disc recording became accessible, and I went that way.
Did you go with Pro Tools?
I always stayed with [Emagic] Logic, because Creator actually turned into Logic. To give Creator its props, I was using Creator through the ADAT years and syncing it up. It was rock solid. I already had a Mac that I was using for something else. When I started using a Mac for recording and sequencing, it wasn’t as rock solid as Creator had been.
As far as timing?
Yeah. I don’t know why. That was Logic, and then Apple bought Logic.
Do you spend any time working on archiving?
I still have thousands of floppy disks, and I still have four ADATs in the back, and the Akai 12-track is in here. But I always go straight ahead. If I had an intern, maybe I’d think about archiving, but even with reissues, it’s hard to think about. Right now, I have four albums in various states that need to be done, but I’m doing all this TV work. That gets in the way of finishing those. Two of the albums need a bit of funding. I’m going through that at the moment. I tend to release music in clusters.
You have a lot of different project names. What are all the current active ones?
Well, the thing I’m doing right now quite a lot is Xordox. I had an album under that name for Editions Mego. I’ve been doing that live; a couple of shows opening up for The The on their comeback tour. It’s all instrumental, and it’s all synthesizers.
It reminded me of classic Vangelis sequencers.
That’s kind of how it came about. I had that Moog Little Phatty, and a [Korg] microKORG. I MIDI’d it up to my laptop and was playing around with arpeggios. John Zorn contacted me about doing a concert at The Stone for William Burroughs’ centenary. At first, I thought, “No, I don’t really have anything.” Then I thought I could put something together with this. The Stone would hold 75 people, so you’re not under too much scrutiny. I thought, “Maybe at The Stone, anything goes. Maybe I’ll throw something together.” Not the way I usually think. I’d been talking with Sarah Lipstate – who has this project called Noveller – for years about doing a collaboration. She was going to be in town on the date of the show. I told her I was putting something together, where to come in, and the notes, so we did this thing. It turned out good. We did it a couple more times, and then she moved to L.A. Then I decided to make an album of it. I had written some new music for it, and it didn’t fit with putting that guitar on there. I kind of took it over. She plays guitar on a couple of tracks on the album. It’s slowly becoming its own new thing. Now I’m working on another album of that, and it’s pretty far along. I want to do at least a trilogy of albums with Xordox. It’s fun to do live. We played at the Adult Swim Festival a in L.A., and people dug it. It’s totally different to anything I’ve done before. I use synthesizers a fair bit, but I’ve never done something that’s all synthesizer.
I was surprised when I put it on. I did not expect it.
At the same time, I’m doing an album with string quartets, and I’ve started working on a new Foetus album, which will take years to do, plus various other projects. That’s the core of it. I’ve also been working a lot with this guy, Simon Hanes, who has this group called Tredici Bacci. It’s a large ensemble, very inspired by [Ennio] Morricone. We’ve got a bunch of material that is seeping out.
What name is that under?
We haven’t got a name yet. We’re writing for various singers. Some of it is finding its way into Tredici Bacci as well. Then there are the cartoons, which take up a lot of time.
How many cartoon shows are you currently writing for?
I know Archer, but what are the other ones?
Well, The Venture Bros. I’ve been doing Adult Swim scores since 2003. We finished season 7 this year, and we’ll start season 8 next year. Archer I came onto a few years ago. They did the first six seasons with needle drop [stock library music] and felt they’d gone as far as they could with that, so they contacted me. I’ve been doing it since season 7. I did another one called Dicktown. FXX is starting a new block of programs with shorts, lower-budgets, so I made a score for that. I’m doing some film work. I did a short film for director David Slade, who made Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, and one of the Twilight movies [The Twilight Saga: Eclipse]. He was a fan of my Manorexia project. He approached me about making a score that blurred the line between sound design and score.
That makes a lot of sense, these days especially.
I was delighted to do that. I think it was really successful.
With all these scoring projects, how much back and forth do they entail? Are you told where the cues are?
On Archer, they know where the cues are meant to be, which is great for me because it saves me a lot of work. Sometimes I’ll say, “It needs something here, but it doesn’t need something there,” and I’ll write notes. We always do a round of revisions, but we’ve got a good back and forth. When you start with a new project or director, it’s always tough to get a language going where you understand each other. With The Venture Bros., I came in right at the start of the project. The creator, Chris McCulloch, approached me because he’d heard Steroid Maximus when he working on the pilot script. He thought that the music was the perfect translation of The Venture Bros. universe, so they approached me about that. It was what I was doing anyway, which was great. It was an intensive scoring cycle. I wasn’t as adept at it as I am now, so it took me much longer. I’ve gotten much better at it, and much faster; I got 10,000 hours of scoring under my belt a long time ago. Something clicked around season 4 or 5 where it got easier and I’m better. With The Venture Bros., I block it out. I’ll get the animatic, which is like the storyboard but with the dialog locked. It’s all edited together, and the camera moves are put in. That’s what the animation’s going to look like, so I have a timecode. I can do tempo changes, but it’s all locked to that so I can animate and write to the action. I’ll take that animatic and block it out where I think the score should be. With cues, usually using my own cues, not that I’m going to use that particular cue but as an illustration of the tempo and intensity and how it could go. Then I’ll have a meeting with Chris, and we’ll go back and forth. He’ll say, “No, that’s the wrong thing. It should have this vibe.” Then we’ll talk; we’ll listen to music and talk about the direction. He’ll talk about the motivation of the characters. It’s pretty complicated; there’s been a lot of backstory in the characters over the years. I take copious notes. I’m very specific about where cues change, and when they stop and start. Sometimes I’ve got to leave space for dialog here and leave a beat there. I have to let that cue ring out over this. I have really detailed notes. Then I start scoring it; they’ll do a round of revisions and we get there. I’ve had pretty good luck with directors, about them having a musical language. There have been a couple of rough ones, but normally it’s been pretty good.
As far as them being able to express, like, “I want something less rhythmic”?
Yeah, actually speaking in musical terms. I had one experience with a director, and they couldn’t articulate what they wanted at all. It was difficult. I ended up recording something and it wasn’t right, and I didn’t mind. I let that project go. That was years ago.
It must be a huge difference between a Foetus record and a soundtrack, because of where you put your own creativity, expression, and ego.
I’d done some scoring before The Venture Bros. came along, but not the volume of scoring that I’ve done now. The thing is, scoring is like doing a commission; you have guidelines. If you’re commissioned to do a string quartet, you have four instruments. I know I have to do a cue that starts at 1:06 and goes to 2:32. I know it’s got to be this emotion and have this break here and that break there, and then it’s going to change tempo. I’ve got this template of what needs to be done. When I come to do my own projects, like Foetus, Xordox, or whatever, I usually have that template in my head anyway. I don’t sit around on an instrument coming up with ideas. I usually have the idea in my head and then go, “Okay, how do I get this out?”
Melodically, thematically, or conceptually?
Melodically or tempo. If it’s going to be aggressive or dark. What it’s going to be, or it’s not going to be. I’ll start, put a skeleton down, and get a template. I guess that I always have a guideline. Music is problem solving. How do I get from this troubled head onto tape, so that this thing’s coming out of the speaker? With scoring, it’s the same type of thing. How do I elevate the material, make it exciting, make it so I’m proud of it, try to get out of the way of the story or the dialog, and still be there but propel this? How much sound design is there going to be? What am I going to clash with? What instruments are going to be pushing this? It’s problem solving. Sometimes, if I’m scoring a scene that’s four minutes long, I have to do a lot of weaving and changing.
What are deadlines like? Are they on a deadline with you, and the animation is parallel?
Well, before I started doing Archer and when I was only doing The Venture Bros., I always liked to work way ahead of my deadlines. When I was doing one show and doing all of my other music, performing, doing installations, and commissions, I would usually get a few episodes under my belt way in advance of the deadline, and then I might go off and make an album or continue on my work. Then I’d do another episode and continue on my work. By the time I got to the end of the season, then I was right on top of the deadline, and they’d be screaming at me for it. Last year, Archer and The Venture Bros. were both in production at the same time. I had to go from one to the other, do one episode of one and then one episode of the other. With Archer, it was coming up way fast, and they said, “We actually need the last episode by the 15th.” I had to reorganize to do that; I got it in time, and they were all happy with it. I thought, “Well, I wonder when this season is airing?” It was already on the air. They were up to episode six.
You were barely ahead of it.
That show that I had finished was going to be aired in three weeks. Now they’re not in production at the same time. I’m also doing a commission for a String Theories Festival by The String Orchestra of Brooklyn. I’m going to be doing an episode of Archer and then work on the commission.
How does a commission of this type come to you?
We talked about it about four years ago and I couldn’t do it. I went to the last festival that they had, and I started chatting to them afterwards and said I’d love to do something. We rekindled our conversation about it. I’ve done a commission for Bang on a Can and Kronos Quartet. Kronos Quartet came about from a curator, David Sefton, who’s booked me several times and is a big supporter. He turned David Harrington from Kronos Quartet onto my Manorexia project, and he thought it was good. I met with Harrington, and it went from there. I wrote two pieces for them, and then a third. They haven’t played the third, so I don’t know what will happen with that. I did rescore it and resubmit it. We’ll see. It may or may not happen.
When you do those, are you building mock-ups and with samples and a string library?
What I usually do is build a template in Logic. I use the library that I lean on heavily, called EastWest. I use the EastWest Platinum Series. I’ve got a quartet playing arco, a quartet playing pizzicato, and a quartet playing spiccato and tremolo. I have all those articulations.I know that I’m going to have violin playing arco in this part, so I’ll put in the arco part. Then, while that’s happening, I want cello and viola to be doing chugging here, so I’ll put that in spiccato. I usually work in cells. I’ll do a cell of something and then put it to the side. I’ll develop it for a minute or so. But sometimes I’ll make a whole lot of cells, and stick them together, and figure out how to get from here to here. “That’s good, but I need this bridge to get to that point.” I know, in my head, dynamically what’s going to happen, and I know it’s going to be 12 minutes, and then it’s going to open up into this other thing and build back up again. Once I’ve built it up and can hear how it sounds in MIDI, then I’ll go to the score page. I’ll consolidate all of that into one quartet, so to speak. Then I’ll go to the score page of Logic, and I’ll generate the score with that. That’s when I write the expression in, so I’ll write in “sul pont” or “mezzo forte.” Then I’ll end up with a score, which is maybe a little clunky but it’s usable and playable.
With one of these commissions you’re doing locally, do you sit in on rehearsals and make changes?
With Kronos Quartet, I’ll usually either assemble a string quartet or get a quartet that exists, and I’ll pay them to play it. When they play it, I’ll say, “Okay, that works, but can you repeat bars 106 to 109 two times there?” Or I’ll say, “Viola at bar 211, can you go up an octave?” Whatever works, I say, “Okay, write that on your score.” At the end of those three hours, I have the composition with all of these notes on them. Then I change the notes, because I’ve heard a string quartet play it and I know it’s playable.
That’s a good auditioning idea.
Yeah, then it’s auditioned. Sometimes what I’ll do is work with someone like Simon [Hanes]. I’ll get him all the MIDI information and have him put it in Sibelius [notation software]. It’s a much better scoring system. You can put in much better expression, as well as page turns. It’s hard to put page turns in the Logic scoring program; it’s not very elegant. But that’s the platform that I work in, it’s easy for me to compose in, and it’s fast. That’s how I’ll do most of it.
When you get to the stage of hiring a group to do a test run, do you find you’ve written something that’s too hard to play?
If you’re a trained composer, or a violinist, and writing for violin, you’re writing parts that are comfortable to finger. I write pieces that are a nightmare to play, because I want to hear this weird twelve-tone type music. Then it’s like, “Can I do this one note an octave up?” I’ll say, “Let’s hear it. That’s fine.” Sometimes they’ll be able to change the fingering. But they may make a suggestion that makes it much easier to play. I wrote a particularly difficult string quartet piece especially for this program of string quartets that I did at The Noguchi Museum here. The quartet that I put together had a hard time, because they had to rehearse a whole lot of it. They didn’t quite get it to tempo. Recently in Australia, I had that piece performed by a quartet at a university. They rehearsed it in advance, and then I went and workshopped it with them. They played it really well. Interestingly enough, that was the first piece of contemporary music they’d ever played. They had a lot of fun with that – it was totally different.
It’s good to make them work.
I will write pieces that will injure the string player. Not deliberately, but...
Did you ever think any of your projects would lead to commissions or TV or movie score work?
No, it was never intended to do that. When Steroid Maximus happened, I actually said that it was music for an imaginary film. Now that’s become a cliché. A lot of my work is cinematic, and it sounds like soundtracks, but it was because I listened to soundtracks all the time and wanted to make that type of music. Sometimes I’ll get references from people about what they want, and I make musical references all the time in those scores. Like, “Make a Morricone-type thing because there’s a showdown happening.” Or it’s a musical joke. I don’t have any qualm to step outside and do that. I do that in my own music as well. I make musical jokes, or musical references, and twist them.
Do you ever think about other people’s film soundtracks, and how they were scoring?
Oh, yeah. What I find particularly hard is to be neutral. I find that’s difficult. What is not sad, it’s not happy, it’s not anything, but it’s something that lays there. I’ve got a whole other wall of soundtrack albums here. Sometimes I’ll pull out a dozen and listen and think, “How do you do neutral? Or how do you do sentimental without being too soppy?” In the first season of The Venture Bros., I didn’t want to be sentimental. Then Chris urged me a little bit more, and I did it. I saw how well it worked. “Okay, I’ve got to explore this. I’ve got to have that in my toolbox.”
And you learned something.
Yeah. And then how do I pull that back a bit? Another thing is that, with something like The Venture Bros., you can be pretty extreme in emotions. Action can be really action-y, which is what I did in the early seasons. But now, it has to be more nuanced. I’ve done that, and now we’re pulling back. There has to be shades of that. Certainly, when you move on to live action, it has to be pulled back even further.
It’s been interesting to talk about your career.
These are just different avenues to put my work in. Especially since the advent of the internet, we have to adapt and evolve. There are areas in music where I was thriving, which don’t even exist anymore. Surviving in the music business is an art.