From Death Factory To Norfolk Fens: Chris & Cosey Interviewed
, May 5th, 2011 12:23
As we continue our series of Mute Short Circuit previews, Luke Turner talks to Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti about their lives and work together. Photograph taken by Chris and Cosey in their home studio
On Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti's living room floor, next to a glass display cabinet containing gnomes, Daleks and other sci-fi ephemera, sit two knackered cardboard boxes. Delivered by courier while Cosey was collecting me from Kings Lynn station in Norfolk, they're packed with old video cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes, part of the Throbbing Gristle archive that takes up an increasing amount of space in the converted Victorian village school they've lived in since 1984, a few years after the group disintegrated for the first time.
The demise of Throbbing Gristle after a brief but remarkable period of operation — five pioneering albums released on Industrial Records, the first completely independent label; notorious gigs, including one that provoked a near-riot by the boys at Oundle public school; being branded "wreckers of civilisation" by Conservative MP Nicholas Fairburn for their infamous 1976 debut at the ICA in London — allowed Chris and Cosey the space and freedom to properly embark on both their music and relationship, both of which had overlapped with Throbbing Gristle and the end of Cosey's time as partner of fellow band member Genesis P-Orridge.
After TG had ceased to exist, Chris and Cosey had been living in North London but, as Cosey explains, "We were running to stand still, and the vortex which is London sucks you in the minute you step outside the front door. We found that very counterproductive to what we wanted to do creatively and practically. TG had finished really, two years before we announced its end. I'd left Gen in 79 and after that it was in its last throes. So we'd started working together on Heartbeat.
They found the school after an attempt to purchase a former church had fallen through, with much of its appeal having to do with its remoteness, in part to avoid Cosey's stalkers. ("One found me, though," she says. "We got home and there was a letter through the door.") Initially, they were so short of funds to work on the fabric of the derelict building that Cosey had to commute to work in London: "I was still stripping for the first six months to pay for the playground to be taken up."
Nevertheless, Cosey looks back at the time fondly: "I don't even remember thinking about being poor because we were so happy. We were doing what we wanted with music, our son Nick was here and the house was here. If it was falling down we could repair it at some point. It was exciting on every level, and idyllic. We were out in the country, you'd pick up your child and be able to go to the bottom of the garden and showing them harvesting. It was like going back to Enid Blyton days! That's what we were saying on the way here, when you're living in the city all the time, you don't connect with the world and how it operates in the same way. Fundamentally, if everything falls apart you're left with the earth itself, and you have to work with it."
Their music, too, subsidised the creation of what was to be their home and working base, allowing them to become what Chris describes as "a cottage industry". He continues: "We had to do a project to pay for the roof or the windows. We'd spend advances on getting the plastering done and buying gear."
To allow them to work quickly, they built a phenomenal home studio that they use to this day. Inside it are enormous Mac monitors, synthesisers sprouting wires and a picture of Cosey from her days as a pornographic model on the wall above a blackboard outlining works in progress. On the sideboard sits the 'Tutti Box', a synth built by Chris for Cosey, and fitted into the shell of a faux-vintage radio bought from historic tat shop Past Times. It's here that, aside from a few days at Christmas where they go into total shutdown, Chris and Cosey have worked continuously for 20-odd years.
"We had a routine in a way," says Cosey. "We'd record and album and then we would tour. Chris would be mixing, and I would then take Nick to the beach and stuff, 'come on now, out we go while daddy works' and I think that was the only time we did it, because that was the crucial point at which the mastering had to be done right, quiet with no interruptions."
"One of the advantages of having the studio just off the kitchen is that I can come to make a cup of tea, and I hear sounds quite differently," says Cosey.
"The speakers are underneath the upstairs toilet, and you can hear certain frequencies when you're in the toilet," adds Chris. "You come down and say, 'That bass sounds great.'"
Those who only know Chris and Cosey as members of TG might be surprised to take a journey through the vast back catalogue, much of which was created within these four walls. Their music moved away from austerity of their first group towards the glacial electronic pop heard on early records like Heartbeat or Exotica (both reissued on vinyl earlier this year). As Carter explains: "None of us went on to do anything remotely industrial. We'd burned ourselves out of it and we didn't want it to sound like TG. We were going along with the flow, like we always do. It was exciting times for producing music electronically. We had no formal musical training, so it was an experiment, to see if we could come up with some songs and make it sound like we knew what we were doing."
Where Chris once emailed Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis to warn him against listening to/reviewing the 2003 24 Hours Of Throbbing Gristle boxset in a single sitting, the music of Chris and Cosey — especially in the ambient work of their later Carter Tutti albums — has an almost meditative quality, something reflected in Cosey's vocals, which frequently resemble incantations or prayer. Where does this neo-spiritual element stem from? "Our love of good pop, because it is a modern-day version of church songs, with harmonies that people can connect with," says Cosey.
"I imagine you'd have got that at an ABBA gig when they were around, or when people are really into the chanting at football matches. When you get into your own emotions you are getting within yourself and once you start externalising it, with a vocal, then you're trying to recreate that feeling so the listener understands what you're trying to say. It's about something very deep inside, not just uttered words. Lyrics don't have to be a dialogue between people, but can be an inner dialogue. People rarely come out of themselves, they're very guarded."
It's interesting you say church songs because a lot of the vocals do sound like incantations, and the depth of the recordings and the low end of the music feels very physical.
Chris: We do seem to come up with these frequencies and voice and instruments that hit you at a certain point, it's funny how that works. When we were doing the new Chris & Cosey it did get emotional.
Cosey: I think it's as fundamental as the fact that you're saying it with honesty, it's not a 'performance', it really isn't. So many big bands now put on these theatre shows, it's great to go along to it, but it's so far removed from where music began, it's not about the music any more, it's about the spectacle. I think a lot of strength or power is lost in that. You go and see Factory Floor or TG and maybe there's a projection or two, but it's soley about what these people are delivering for you.
Chris: And you can have a different performance from one night to the next.
Cosey: Then it's the conversation between yourselves and the audience, and you should only ever have a conversation once. You transcend performer and audience, and that's what we've always tried to do. And you transcend written music, for a specific function or effect, because everyone is different and they react differently, but there comes a point when you're unified at a gig. It doesn't happen, so when you get it…
Chris: It's interesting to me when you meet someone who says 'I've never been into your music before but that gig did something to me'. They make that connection, and they've tuned in.
Cosey: Or I understand your music now, because they've felt it, they've realised what you've tried to give them. We're sharing it, we're not giving a product on a plate, that's not what we've ever been about.
The spring of 2011 finds Chris and Cosey at another crossroads. Just days after a Throbbing Gristle performance in London last October, Genesis P-Orridge walked out of the group for the final time. He has subsequently offered no explanation for his departure, though Chris says that last performance was similar to what happened the first time the group split in May 1981: "It was very physical. The tension in the band affected the way we played, in a good way, funnily enough. And that's what happened at Village Underground [London]. There was so much going on that night and it really came across. It was probably one of the best gigs we've done."
Then, mere weeks later on November 24, fourth TG member Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson died in his adopted home of Thailand. The loss of their friend and collaborator clearly still affects both Chris and Cosey, and they frequently refer to him in the present tense. "He never changed over the years," remembers Chris. "I realise how young he was compared to the rest of us. He started out as the baby of TG, and then he became like the daddy."
"It's funny, he always used to call me 'mum'," says Tutti, who gave the young Peter Christopherson the name Sleazy thanks to his non-musical 'interests'. They recall the Oundell School performance that became one of the most infamous incidents in Throbbing Gristle's career:
Chris: A whole entourage of industrial people were there, we made it a big event, and they just got carried away with the sound. The kids couldn't work out whether they liked it or not. They were only kids, I think the oldest was 15 or 16, and you could see the teachers in the balcony frowning and thinking 'what's all this about?' and then Gen just whipped them into this frenzy, they were shouting at you 'show us your tits'.
Cosey: I said, no you take your shirt off, and one did, he took his little rugby shirt off and gave it to me. And the pressure I had from Sleazy, he wanted it so bad! When they all broke out into Jerusalem we were all [expression of draw-dropping incredulity] it's as if the instinct kicked in And in those days!, they all started singing. We were all onstage thinking YES.
Was that do you think the most pure realisation of what TG were all about?
Chris: Oh yeah, absolutely
Cosey: Yes, because when Jeff got in touch to arrange the gig we said we'll come as long as we can have lunch with the boys and get a tour of the school, and then we'd play the gig on those conditions. We didn't want to go in, play and come out again, we wanted to be part of the school for the whole day.
Chris: But we didn't know it was going to go quite that far, that they'd go as hysterical as they did. It was fantastic.
With the difficult end of Throbbing Gristle and the loss of their "soulmate", it's no surprise that Chris and Cosey say that the end of 2010 was grim. But on February 4, 2011, there was the glimmer of something new when, as Carter Tutti, they played reworked versions of Chris & Cosey material to a packed, sweaty, dancing ICA — a far larger crowd, in fact, than was present at that infamous 1976 Prostitution event. They say that the naming of the performance – Carter Tutti plays Chris and Cosey – was significant:
Cosey: The phrase Chris and Cosey meant something to people and it had certain connotations, so immediately you put that out there was an expectation of a certain thing from us, and we've always dashed expectation. It reached the point where we didn't feel that we were that moniker any more, personally we weren't Chris and Cosey as people perceived us with those songs, we'd moved on and moved away from that. So we made the decision to say right, Chris & Cosey was that era and that sound, and Carter Tutti is us as we've moved on, so at the ICA it was Carter Tutti play Chris and Cosey because that's who we are. We're not going to present you with Chris & Cosey songs as they were in the 80s or on record, they're going to be us, Carter Tutti, playing them live to you.
The songs did sound very new.
Chris: That was intentional.
Cosey: Richard [Clouston, Cosey Club organiser] has asked us for years to play and we've always said no. But then we said if we do do it, we're going to do it as Carter Tutti, not as Chris and Cosey. But when Chris got all the tracks, they were all pre-digital…
Chris: We knew it would be a big undertaking. We had to listen to the tracks to see if we could do something with them that we could be happy with. A lot of it was midi, and then pre-midi.
Cosey: It was a nightmare. The reconstruction of the tracks and using the technology we wanted to bring it forward, took six weeks to get it ready for one gig. [laughs] that's madness! But in a way it was really good because when we'd got all the tracks together to sort out the set, and started going through it in the studio, it was quite wonderful.
Chris: It got quite emotional didn't it?
Cosey: We got really emotional. We hadn't played them for ten years, and that was what was really good - we could revisit them and really feel good about it. I think that really came across at the ICA because the people in the room, you could really feel that atmosphere.
Chris: When you're playing something slightly new that you haven't played before, and people go along with the ride, that really happened there.
Cosey: There was one point where I was enjoying it so much I forgot I was supposed to be performing. I thought 'oh fuck, it's supposed to be me providing this!' It was that euphoric for me, it was a lovely feeling, it really was.
Chris: We got extra subs in, used TG soundman Charlie Chicken, who hadn't really heard what we do before. Part of the reason it sounded so different was because he was tweaking it. The sound setup was like a cross between TG and Chris & Cosey, that's why it was so powerful. He knows how to tune a room on the fly.
There are plans for further Carter Tutti live events, along with any number of projects, currently detailed in a pile of clear plastic folders on the kitchen table. "I want to get it down to four, that'd be nice," says Cosey. "But there are just so many different strands going on at once, Chris & Cosey, Carter Tutti, my art."
Future possibilities include a piece with artist Yann Marussich — who once had his body filled with dye so he'd exude the colour blue through his pores — sound installations, their Harmonic Coaction performances (see the Vimeo below) Throbbing Gristle reissues, and collaborations, including music with porn actress, writer and musician Sasha Grey and a one-off with Nik Void of Factory Floor at Mute Records' Short Circuit festival in May. "I've never played with a woman before," says Cosey. "Well, I have played with a woman, but not in the same way as that — musically, you know." This will, of course, require another folder.
Perhaps their phenomenal work rate and the exposure of Chris & Cosey to a new, younger audience will finally rid them of some of the misconceptions that have dogged them since the end of Throbbing Gristle, such as when one writer who dubbed them "Sonny & Cher of the suicide set". "We've found there are post-TG camps; we find that people are either into Coil, or us, or Gen," says Chris. "And some people don't get Chris & Cosey, or they don't want to."
"Because when we were into magic we didn't wear it on our sleeves and use it as a promotional tool, people assumed that we were less serious than the others," says Cosey. "But we're just more private, and have an approach to that side of life and spirituality that is very personal. It's not to be shared in a way that lessens it or treats it as a commodity. We're perceived as something different because of that."
Even where they live has been taken the wrong way, says Chris: "We're seen as not being edgy, we've chilled out, it's the whole thing that goes with that 'rock stars retiring to the countryside' thing."
An inspiring afternoon around the living room of Chris and Cosey dispels any such notion. From the way their conversation flows, their connection is tangible; their shared clear-mindedness over their music and art self-evident. Decades after they first collaborated and fell in love in Throbbing Gristle's Hackney Death Factory, this old school will see many more years of creativity. As Cosey Fanni Tutti says, looking at those cardboard boxes of relics from another time, "It feels as if our past and present lives are collapsing in on us." And then, writing on her Twitter just as The Stool Pigeon goes to press a few weeks later: "Been on that magic creative wave today when things just happen — all channels open and flowing freely."
Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti will perform a live collaboration with Nik Void of Factory Floor at the Mute Short Circuit Festival, which takes place at the London Roundhouse next weekend. For more information and tickets, please visit the Festival website. For information on all things Chris & Cosey / Carter Tutti, visit their website. This is an extended version of an article that originally appeared in the May 2011 edition of The Stool Pigeon newspaper. For more Pigeon, go here.