More Than The Mind Can Take: An Interview With Cut Hands
, October 18th, 2011 11:56
William Bennett's new project Cut Hands finds his music taking new, percussive and punishingly effective new routes post-Whitehouse. Ahead of this weekend's performance at Supersonic, Rory Gibb speaks to him about the development of Afro Noise
Though quietly intense where his music revels in volume and abrasion, a conversation with William Bennett displays pleasing textural similarities to his compositional approach. Like his music, both in Whitehouse and as Cut Hands, it's elusive and volatile, answers half vanishing in a dense flow of ideas and concepts. He's also remarkably adept at directing the angle of approach towards any particular subject. That in itself is hardly surprising. As the core mind behind Whitehouse, who deliberately set out to make extreme, overwhelming, often offensive music, one suspects he's spent enough time dealing with confrontational interviewers to learn how to hold his own.
Though it might represent a slight shift in musical emphasis, Bennett's thirty-year history in Whitehouse certainly informs the sound of his current project. While later on during Whitehouse's recording career, particularly on last album Racket, he was already starting to incorporate a heavy percussive element and more pared back arrangements, Cut Hands' debut full-length, Afro Noise Volume 1, shifts the emphasis more fully onto rhythm. It's influenced by Bennett's love of and engagement with African music and Haitian vaudou music, their involvement with physical and mental motion, and the intense, hallucinatory states they can inflict upon the mind. With the arrival of polyrhythmic percussion comes a strong sense of forward propulsion, resulting in a record as closely linked to techno as it is to Bennett's noise/power electronics history. In fact, visually and sonically Afro Noise Volume 1 is most reminiscent of Shackleton's more driving music for his own Skull Disco label, where the latter's bounding rhythms were married to Zeke Clough's morbidly funny record sleeve artwork.
But it's a starker and more challenging listen than Shackleton, or anyone else currently exploring similar territories – T++'s Wireless EP too, which tore apart ancient, crumbling recordings of African music from the Honest Jon's archive and reassembled them as skeletal, polyrhythmic techno. On Afro Noise beats are wielded like weapons - the pummelling flurry of djembes and bells that ushers in 'Stabbers Conspiracy' is a suitably purging palette cleanser for the rest of the record – and paired with Whitehouse-esque bursts of forbidding mechanical noise and ear-shredding high frequencies.
And of course he wouldn't be Bennett without flirting with difficult, potentially offensive subject matter. His live show incorporates intense, quite disturbing footage of voodoo rituals, presented with a slightly detached air that could easily evoke some defunct idea of an Afro-Caribbean 'other'. Although Bennett clearly loves and respects his influences, without enough context they could provoke questions about his engagement with, or attitude to, the music that's inspired the Cut Hands project. In advance of his show at Supersonic this weekend, we met after his show at Krakow's Unsound Festival to discuss the motivation and ideas behind this latest strain of Bennett's music.
By the time of later Whitehouse, you were starting to incorporate similar themes and rhythms to those that have fully infused Cut Hands. Was there anything in particular that encouraged you do that?
William Bennett: I wanted to make music that couldn't be reverse engineered, becuase I was getting pretty pissed off with so many bands copying the original sound that was using the original template. I was feeling the inbuilt limitations of when music just becomes a set of rules, just conformism, you want to move away from when things get like that.
That was one of the reasons for incorporating the djembe, learning from Raoul, this Cuban guy I was friends with while I was living in Madrid. He was a Santeria priest who lived in the Congo for a couple of years, in villages and such, and he'd tell me about all the traditions there. One of them was the music making, the rituals, and how they could make music out of almost nothing - rocks, bits of metal, gravel - making the most intense music imaginable.
And you just look at yourself again and realise you get caught up in the whole technology arms race. In actual fact you don't need any of [it], you can take almost all of it away and still make the most intense music. It was a big lesson to learn that, it was around the time I was thinking 'What can I take away from this music?' Which is the application of this notion of asceticism. Like 'Wriggle Like A Fucking Eel', 'Cut Hands Has The Solution', a lot of songs from that era. I was very worried or very self-conscious about whether this was the right thing to do at the time.
That process interests me, one of taking stuff away until you leave the core of the music. Is the appeal in the process itself, or in the final result, or both?
WB: I tend to measure things by how well they work. My feeling is that things work better by applying that process. Another example of a similar approach is Japanese watercolour. The masters would start out with hundreds of brushstrokes, and by the time they mastered their art they could do the whole painting in three strokes.
And it'd still convey the same feeling.
WB: Yes. And I see my approach to music as the same as that.
Do you see Cut Hands as another development of that, then, or just a further extension of it?
WB: It's not so much a further development as just the philosophy by which I make things.
What I really like about your Cut Hands music is that weirdly there's a sense of joy in it - despite its darkness it feels joyful in its use of these textures and sound palettes. Did you enjoy developing Cut Hands? Is that a relevant way to look at it?
WB: We all have our own ways of looking at a feeling about something. That said, like you, I would use the same kind of vocabulary. I'm not saying that people should have that kind of response. But then I get joy from depressing films. The darker, the more joyful. I get depressed by films with happy endings. I think there's a sort of tyranny to response, as far as music's concerned, where music's used as a trigger to make you feel one way. I prefer taking it away and allowing people their own space to respond.
I'd imagine with your music, subjectivity is an issue, because of the wide range of often difficult emotions it triggers - but then again, some people really fucking hate pop music.
WB: I'm not just being funny, but happy music depresses me. You know, joyful, upbeat lyrics, major chord progressions. I've always hated major chords.
Did you ever manage to put your finger on why? Or just an intrinsic response?
WB: If you're taught music, the minor chord represents melancholy, the major chord joy, and different combinations have different emotional effects. But in actual fact, one of the things I learned not that long ago is that in different parts of the world, these associations aren't necessarily true. It could be an inversion of what we, in the West, perceive.
That's what interests me, because it's something I feel quite strongly about - this idea of 'world music' being a really dated, other-centric concept. There are so many ways to approach music outside of the standard 12-tone, Western way of doing things, and to blanket them all underneath one umbrella is actually quite destructive.
WB: It's destructive, it's patronising, it's condescending. I hate that. I blame Peter Gabriel.
That's a nice quote.
WB: [Laughs] I'm sensitive to the use of generic terms anyway. As soon as you use a generic term it's limiting, from a creative perspective. It's a dangerous thing, because it's essentially creating a prison you don't even realise you're inhabiting. With criticism of the record Afro Noise, [people] are saying, 'I really like the record, but it's not noise'. What the hell does that mean?
That's something that's happened to the new Prurient record [Bermuda Drain], too.
WB: I saw exactly the same arguments thrown at his work [as for Cut Hands]. Not so much for the music but for the word noise. There's this sacrosanct meaning now of the word noise, as if there's a really strict definition of noise that you have to conform to in order to use the word 'noise'. How crazy is that? And what are we talking about here? A bunch of effects pedals and a dozen patch chords. Where it becomes this hardware envy situation, where a traditional noise band had fifty FX pedals on the table, as opposed to another noise band that only has three. Therefore the band that has the fifty noise pedals is somehow better than the band that has three.
Had you experienced those kinds of attitudes before in Whitehouse, with the way your music developed over the years?
WB: It happens all the time with all kinds of music. It's just that you get into these kinds of situations where 'Ours is bigger and better than yours', the schoolboy thing where you're all in the showers comparing each other's cocks or how much stubble you've got. That's what you end up with, and you forget what it was about in the first place. I've heard these conversations at drum 'n' bass nights, with guys outside having a fag break, saying 'Oh, that's too four-to-the-floor, these time signatures weren't complex enough'. Meanwhile, there were 500 girls getting their rocks off inside, and having a great time. And as far as I'm concerned that works - if 500 people enjoy it, that's what matters.
On the subject of dance music, what really struck me about your show the other night, is that it reminded me a little of techno. These rolling rhythms and consistent, shifting grooves create the same sort of submissive mental effect. Did you have the dancefloor in your mind, in any way, when you were making it? I ask because obviously, the music you are taking inspiration from - vaudou music, African drumming - is so intrinsically linked to movement and physicality. It made me wonder whether it was almost a by-product of that.
WB: It works on a different level. If we can reduce dance to the body moving, dance exists in all music, people moving to rhythmic music. One of the things I've learned is how we're conditioned to respond to the sound of bass, and that's how we move. That's the same whether it's metal or techno. Most Western music is along these lines. But in a lot of Afro-Caribbean music, you can actually take the bass away and people will still dance to it. Traditional rumba or salsa, or this voodoo music, it's actually the lighter instruments - bells, kessings, rattling sounds - that people are moving to.
What I'm fascinated with, and it's just a theory of mine - it probably isn't true, but I'm not really interested in what's true or not - is that if you overload a person with these types of sounds... If you just had a regular sound, like a beat going 'boom-boom-boom', people naturally do something to that. [mimes clicking fingers in time] And if you incorporate more instruments, it gets more and more complete, these so-called polyrhythms, so people do things with other parts of their body. So while they're doing this [clicks fingers], they also do this [waves moving arms in time with music]. So that's two things. Then you have three [bobs back and forth] - I'm going to do an embarrassing dance now [laughs]. And my theory is that if you keep adding elements, the polyrhythms become so complex, but still recognisable by the organism, that you actually run out of parts of the body to move. What happens then?
The nervous system starts to dance?
WB: Exactly. [Laughs] It goes inside, and things happen inside on a more metaphysical level. And on the more rhythmic tracks that's what I'm attempting.
Have you ever seen any responses to your own music, or to any other people's music, that made you think that would be the case?
WB: Yes. That's exactly what happened when I was at Optimo [Glaswegian club, where Bennett played a set of vaudou polyrhythms to a packed crowd]. That was one of the experiments I wanted to try out. A whole hour they had of that stuff. To begin with, the simple rhythms, people could move to them and express them in the way they could express themselves to mainstream music. But as the polyrhythms became more complex, you could see people start of running out of things to do, and there was a sort of jerkiness to it. Maybe it's just my imagination, or over-optimism, but there was this transferral. If that's true - and it doesn't matter if it's true or not - but if it is, that's the point at which they're entering the enlightened trance state.
That trance-like intensity can also be a by-product of repetition, rather than simply by stacking so many elements up.
WB: But the problem with repetition is that the brain can cope with it. In Western music we're so conditioned to hearing it that even if you hear just a couple of seconds of a song, you can pretty much construct the rest of the song around it and know where it's going. It's amazing how you can do that with a song you've never heard before. So it's important again, if this theory is going to work, that the brain isn't able to do that. So if you listen to a song like 'Stabbers Conspiracy' - there's no other instrumentation, but there are about eight or nine percussion tracks on it. Which is way more than the head and four limbs - that's five - so we have four more to deal with above that.
It's still intrinsically repetitive, though.
WB: It's repetitive, but you listen to it consciously and try to predict what's going to happen. Even if you just take one element from it and try and move in anticipation of it happening, it's extremely difficult. I challenge anyone to be able to do that. In other words, the brain isn't able to cope with that.
I've been wondering about this, because Shackleton is someone who's able to create really weird mindstates, because everything's been so carefully microprogrammed. But then I feel like I've had similar mind experiences when going to see straightfoward, relatively predictable techno. I wonder whether there's a difference between the two states.
WB: I think there's a trance state, and then there's trance-formation. It's another level that goes beyond trance. True, repetition is important for that, but also that the brain can't be able to process it at the same time.
In that sense I guess it's not that different to playing people lots of layers of very abrasive noise, and seeing what happens.
WB: But if it's just noise it's easy again for the brain to cope with. The brain doesn't have a problem with randomness. We're not talking about randomness, are we? We're talking about something that's actually very carefully designed. African music is essentially like that. It's extremely complex. When people first started listening to it they'd call it primitive music. It's anything but primitive. In fact it's so complex that you can't use any form of Western musical notation to describe it.
Is that essentially what drew you in to making Cut Hands music? As in, 'Noise might be easy for the brain to cope with, so what happens when I start working with rhythm?'
WB: With Whitehouse, the way you get around the 'noise issue', if we can call it that, is through the use of language. There I'd apply the same principles linguistically, where you're overloading the brain with very complex linguistic structures very fast - too fast for the brain to cope with. So there are songs like, an example might be 'Dumping The Fucking Rubbish', which is only a couple of minutes long, but you're asked a series of questions, but there's no space for you to reflect on your answers to the questions, and they come so close together that they overload the brain, and induce this trance-formational state.
Have you seen similar states from Whitehouse performances?
WB: It's exactly the same, in terms of the emotional responses. We first started noticing it when I started applying these principles in the words, you'd get this weird thing at the end of concerts. This was around early 2001, and we started seeing this sensory overload thing. It's quite a sophisticated process to achieve that, but I remember there was one concert in Vienna, and there was this barrage of abuse and loud abrasive noise, for an entire hour, but at the end it was extraordinary - the entire audience had these huge, silly grins on their faces, and their hands were in the air like some sort of exaltation.
One thing I am interested in, especially given the visuals you use to accompany your show, is whether you think there's a sociopolitical element to the music you're making or the visuals you're using? Whether it was making a comment on our engagement with other cultures?
WB: I'll tell you why I don't think that's the case. 'Political', to me, etymologically speaking, implies people as a group rather than individually. I'm not interested in institutions, groups or belief systems. I'm very wary myself of getting too attached to beliefs, and I see the term sociopolitical as referring to belief. We use belief as a survival instinct, it's our mind protecting our being by associating. And I don't think we're in danger of something by letting go of beliefs. So going back to your question, seeing it like that, it has no relevance to the creative process, because I see everything on a completely personal level. Which is the antithesis of political.
What you're saying about not wanting to generalise about things like world music, for example - you seem like you're very aware of, and involved with, the musics that you're drawing inspiration from. Which I see as very important if you're not to be seen as shallowly appropriating from something. Without giving adequate context, if you like, are you aware, or worried, that people might consider you to be doing that?
WB: I don't think I could ever be accused of misappropriating anybody's music, because it's not music that's derived from other people. As I was saying earlier, I take responsibility for my music, but it's my music, it's not anybody else's. And if people don't like it, that's great, I have no problem with that. I take total responsibility for it, good and bad. It's music that's meaningful to me, and that's as much as I can say.
I am interested in that context with the visuals though. Because obviously they're very emotive, and quite disturbing, and they could be seen as being quite offensive, in this depiction of a sort of 'otherness' that isn't ever really given a context. Do you feel any responsibility for that? If someone comes to watch your performance, and comes away thinking, 'I really don't know how to take that, without the context, I don't really know what that was trying to say about Africa and Haiti.'
WB: First of all, everything, in my opinion, is respectful. Respect is very important. I might have no attachment to beliefs but I have a great attachment to respect, and it's totally respectful. And I would argue that it's disrespectful to justify things. I see it as the inverse as a lot of people. That justifying is actually belittling things.
My reaction to that would be that there's a weight of human social history behind that stuff, which imbues it with added significance.
WB: Absolutely. But that's part of the problem. Africa doesn't - and I'm sounding political but I don't mean to because I don't really have an opinion about it as such - but it certainly doesn't need these kind of controlled responses. Just as much as nobody... If you imagine it the other way round, it would be just the same, you wouldn't want other people in other countries saying 'We'd better not show this...' And I don't even see it like that, because I see it a perfectly legitimate thing anyway. I'm fascinated by these visuals - I want to be frothing at the mouth, I want to be these guys participating. That's what I want to be doing.
I do have hang-ups, but I take your point about how many of these responses are ingrained through cultural ideas of how you 'should' act.
WB: This is why I go back to this notion of personalising things. It's a genuine artistic experience. How you feel about it, or how anyone feels about it, it's your experience. Who am I to impose, through justification and rationalisation, upon your experience? Who am I to limit what you should feel about something? It's the equivalent of the strings in the Hollywood film telling you when you should be crying or when you should be happy. It's my responsibility to make my music - it's your responsibility it experience it however you choose. Whether you like it or you dislike it, it's entirely your experience, and no-one else's.
There's a sort of modern epidemic where art needs to be rationalised in general. Which wasn't the case 200, 300 years ago, artists didn't do interviews or write books. So you've got the canon of work of any artist, say, Caravaggio, he didn't have to justify it to an audience, he just made his paintings. And it's all the more magical because of that, all the more enigmatic and beautiful. That's not to say everybody's going to like it. In my opinion it's all the better for that. But we live in a culture where there's this constant need to rationalise.
The thing that bothers me, though, is that certain issues are more sensitive than others to deal with, in art.
WB: My feeling is, ditch the beliefs. It's a much better place to be. What is is, and what isn't isn't. I've noticed this disturbing trend in British censorship of starting to ban films again, and I grew up in the seventies when all sorts of things were censored. It seems crazy now, these beliefs that people were corrupted if they saw certain films, or read certain books. It all seems kind of quaint looking back. But these were serious issues at the time, where peoples' beliefs meant that these amazing artists and performers were unable to express themselves. If I believe in anything, or if I desire anything, it's for people to have as much self-expression as possible. And it's entirely personal.
That's not a rationalisation. As far as the visuals are concerned, I think it's fascinating and it's what I'm into, basically. I have a great passion for it. Anything that I show is because I chose it. Just because. And for no other reason.
One last thing I wanted to ask you about: there's been quite a few people incorporating similar aesthetics and themes into their work. Andy Stott's records on Modern Love had African imagery; T++'s Wireless EP, where he built complex, polyrhythmic techno tracks from old African recordings... Do you think there's something intrinsic in those things that's fascinating, or a draw, from a Western perspective? Is there something that draws you in to those worlds, ideas, cultures?
WB: Definitely. This is just speaking as a consumer or a creator, but as a consumer I genuinely like being taken by the hand into a place where I don't know what's going on. I want to be taken into the woods, I don't want to be taken to a place that I'm already familiar with, and I'll go willingly into that situation. You can extend that to the whole Conrad-esque, Heart Of Darkness, where you're taken on a journey and you don't know what's going to happen during that journey.
It's interesting that you mention Conrad, because Heart Of Darkness is one thing that sprang to mind about the visual component of your show.
WB: Part of the reason for doing that – you'd say, 'Why would you want to do that?' - is because in actual fact, the Heart Of Darkness metaphor is a very powerful one when it comes to art, literature, music, life. The metaphor suggests that there's the world in which we inhabit, then there's this dark corner of the world. But I see it the other way round: the dark part is the prison we don't even realise we inhabit, it's self-created. The heart of darkness is actually everything, and we're in the prison.
Cut Hands plays at Birmingham's Supersonic Festival this Sunday, 23rd October