JG Thirlwell at Self Immolation Studios, Brooklyn. Jan 2013 - Photo by Gea
JG Thirlwell (aka Foetus aka Manorexia aka Steroid Maximus, the list is near endless…) has been creating some of some of the biggest, nastiest sounding guitars you have ever heard for over 30 years now; whether through his own releases as Foetus in it’s various forms or through his remixes for the likes of Nine Inch Nails, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Pantera amongst others. After arriving in the UK from Australia in 1978 and inspired by the post-punk DIY ethos, he launched himself into the music scene under a bewildering array of aliases and sounds. We were interested to find out some of the equipment he used and abused in the recording studio over the years.
GP: Your earliest releases were recorded in Lavender Sound, an 8-track studio in Clapham; did you already know your way around a mixing desk or were you learning as you went along?
JGT: I had been at a few studios before Lavender Sound but I did many sessions there, including the first two Foetus albums, with Harlan Cockburn engineering. I didn’t know my way around the studio but caught on with mixing and eq-ing. The amount of outboard there was minimal, I think we had one multi-effect there! I had a delay pedal (I don’t remember what model but it was one of those large Electro-Harmonix-style boxes) which we plugged in as an effect, and we also used tape delay from the 1/4” machine. I think they may have had a spring or plate reverb, but on my first single I had drowned the snare in reverb and became stolidly anti-reverb for a while. A lot of my recordings from that time are quite dry, and with little bass or low end. I soon started to discover recording drums with live ambience - they had a nice stairway in the back that we used to record toms and snares. This is around 1981-82, so it’s pre-midi and sampling. I was experimenting with my own versions of sampling using tape loops, and flying sounds into the multi track via 1/4” tape and cassettes. There’s a lot of musique concrete on the first album (DEAF).
GP: It’s still an incredible sounding album. I read that when you first started performing live you performed to backing tracks for a few years; was that out of choice or was it easier to do that than hire a band and try and approximate the songs with conventional instruments?
JGT: I didn’t feel that I could actually play Foetus songs live with a band as the instrumentation was either too big (symphonic) or the instrumentation was so disparate from song to song. The first Foetus live performances were with backing tracks, a lot of smoke and a baseball bat. Later I added freshly slaughtered pig heads as a visual foil, hung rakishly around the stage. I formed the first Foetus live band in 1988. I toured Europe in 1988, then there were a few US tours in the 90s. I stopped doing Foetus as a live band in 2001; I had been frustrated for some time by how the live experience tended to flatten a lot of the nuance and weirdness out of the music, substituting it for heaviness, and that, along with the ritual of being in front of a “rock band”, ceased to feel genuine. It became way too “rock”. Also I have hearing damage and I couldn’t handle the volume levels any more. The last iteration of Foetus live was at the Donaufestival in 2005, where I performed as a “double-bill” of Steroid Maximus and Foetus as a 19 piece band. The festival commissioned me to create arrangements of the album LOVE. That was truly a satisfying way of presenting Foetus music live and I really feel I can only ever do it on that scale now, to be true to the work and myself. The trouble is that it’s expensive to do with so many people and so much equipment.
GP: Were you creating the songs in the studio itself or did you have them written beforehand?
JGT: I had them written out beforehand in a numerical system. That included the instruments I wanted to use and the order in which I wanted to do the overdubs, as I had to bounce as I went along as I was only on eight track. Usually my notes were the sections and length of the piece, instrumentation. The melodies I usually figured out in the studio. I usually laid down a click track and a track where I announced the sections so I’d know where I was on the tape as I laid the tracks down. That would get erased once the shape was there.
GP: With all the software available these days it’s difficult to conceive of working that way and having to mix down as you went along, solely to free up extra tracks. Did you find that helped you focus in the studio more or did you find yourself wishing for more tracks?
JGT: I was wishing for more tracks, but the workarounds I used to achieve what I wanted to do actually influenced the compositional and creative process.
GP: Since FLOW, your releases have been credited as being recorded at Self-Immolation Studios; at what point did you start to assemble your own equipment/studio and were there any pieces of kit that proved important or that have remained with you?
JGT: Actually the first releases that came out of Self Immolation Studios were probably the Butterfly Potion EP and the Steroid Maximus albums, ten years before FLOW. I’d been somewhat itinerant in the early ’80s, but I first started putting equipment together for a studio in Brooklyn around 1987, with an Akai S900 sampler, a Tascam mixer and then an Atari 1040 running Creator software. That was one of the first affordable samplers. I had done a lot of work with the Fairlight, but only in studios; they were
very expensive back then. Then I got an Akai 12 track, which had 12 tracks of audio plus two sync tracks, so I could run midi and samplers live on an external mixer. After that I moved into an ADAT phase which didn’t last too long; I had three (and one spare for when they broke down), so 24 tracks of audio plus live sequencing. Then I moved into my hard disk recording phase. Creator mutated into Logic, and I have followed on into Logic and stuck with that platform. I still really like the Akai S-series samplers and I have three S5000’s and still use them. They sound really good. I do wish I still had my Korg MS20 from the early days.
GP: A lot of your songs have a heavily sequenced sound; I’m thinking of songs like ‘Quick Fix’ from FLOW. How much of what you do is sampled from other sources and how much of it is played?
JGT: Theres a lot of sequencing, and bunch of sampling, synths, keyboards, and soft synths and then playing of “real” instruments and it all blends together, and it really depends on the song and album. My approaches have changed a lot over the years and from album to album. For example the first Manorexia album Volvox Turbo was done as one long piece, all sequenced and in samplers. Manorexia Mesopelagic Waters is all acoustic instruments, played by my ensemble. But on most of my albums I mostly play everything. In my daily work it’s using sequencing and soft instruments and sampling, and at the moment I use Logic to generate score notation to
give to musicians as well.
GP: Yes, I’ve noticed that the guitar has taken a backseat in your more recent recordings. You were famous for creating some pretty fearsome sounds with it like on ‘Butterfly Potion’ or on ‘Verklemmt’, but it seems recently that the area where you’d previously have expected to hear a loud distorted angry guitar on a Foetus song is now taken up by harpsichord or string arrangements, I’m thinking of songs like ‘(Not Adam)’, the more up tempo ‘rock’ songs - is this down to any one reason or are you just using the full palette available to you with the computer based setup?
JGT: I don’t really feel guitar has too much of a place in what I’m doing now. I get that kind of power out of other instruments.
GP: What’s your current setup, are you entirely computer based now? I saw a couple of Apple Macs in a background photo for an interview you gave to The Wire.
JGT: Pretty much. The heart of it is a Mac Pro 2.8 Ghz Quad Core running Logic 9. The digital interface is a MOTU 2408 and I have a Yamaha 02R mixer and use a MOTU midi timepiece too. I still have a G5 off to the side which I need to pull up if I need to reformat old cues plus a MacBook Pro for business and live performance. Nothing fancy in the mike and pre-amp department. I don’t use my outboard so much any more as a lot goes on in the box. Plug in-wise, a lot of Native Instruments and UVI plus orchestral libraries
GP: And finally, what can we expect from you in the future, will there be more Steroid Maximus and Manorexia or will the next release be under the Foetus name?
JGT: There will be a Foetus album which is a companion album to HIDE or, as I call it, a satellite album.That will have material recorded around the same time as HIDE that couldn’t fit onto the album, some material that has been recorded since then, a rework of the track “Cosmetics” by Secret Chiefs 3 and other surprises. That will be followed by the score I wrote for the film “The Blue Eyes”. The instrumentation on that is contrabass, tuba, french horn, bass trombone, cello, viola and violin and some electronics. Then there will be an anthology of the early Foetus singles which have been long out of print and never remastered, which will include some unreleased material.
I have a few other albums in mind after that which may come out in rapid succession, it depends on what my other commitments are. I’ve just finished scoring season five of The Venture Bros cartoon. I’m writing another piece for Kronos Quartet this year, and I’ve written some string arrangements for Zola Jesus which we performed live and that may see the light of day. I would like to do new albums as Steroid Maximus and Manorexia too.
I’m interested in continuing work in site specific sound installations, eternal music and writing for other ensembles. I’m part of a sound-art collective called freq_out and we have a bunch of events in various locations around the globe this year. And I have started conceiving an opera which will hopefully see the light of day before the end of the decade!
You can keep track of all these upcoming releases at www.foetus.org