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A Quietus Interview

Take Your Body Off: Gazelle Twin Interviewed
Luke Turner , September 25th, 2014 12:32

Gazelle Twin's new album is a powerful, violent exploration of the teenage anxieties of electronic musician Elizabeth Bernholz. She discusses medical fascinations and physical self-loathing with Luke Turner

If you've always hated your body, your skin and bones and human meat, then why not create a new one? If the horrors of puberty and teenage pressures to look a certain way made you feel like a freak at odds with the world, why not create a monster, bent on vengeance? This is what Elizabeth Bernholz, AKA Gazelle Twin, has done on Unflesh, one of the most searing, aggressive electronic albums of 2014. I first saw this new incarnation of Gazelle Twin perform at the British Film Institute as part of a night curated by Scanner. Arriving late, I wasn't quite sure where in the programme we'd got to when onstage appeared this cowering figure in a blue hoodie, face obscured, hair falling forward, muttering, singing, half-rapping in an androgynous voice over rhythms as complex and heavy as any deployed by headliners Chris and Cosey, later that evening.

It was the first time Bernholz had worn the Unflesh outfit of blue hoodie, white rolled up socks, tracksuit trousers and obscured face - it comes on the album sleeve with a face of meat and gnashing teeth, Bernholtz' own. Sat in the café of the Wellcome Collection a few months later, she confesses that before she went on stage she had horrific stage fright and considered running out of the building into the Thamesside night, and giving up on the gig and Gazelle Twin forever. Yet that outfit, based on her school PE kit and which she describes as a superhero costume, gave Bernholz a singular, instant power.

That's heard throughout Unflesh, an exorcising of her teenage demons and at times brutally frank lyrical exploration of physical self-loathing and a suicide attempt. The claustrophobically intense music, occasionally puttering like blood through veins, at other moments panicked heart stabs or disembodied and haunting. As Bernholz says, "I used a lot of breath sounds, and I wanted to use far more internal sounds than I could really manage, I don't really have the equipment to be doing any Matmos recording operations type thing, but I wanted it to feel like you're inside a body."

Has Gazelle Twin evolved in the way you were expecting?

Elizabeth Bernholz: When I started I wanted to attack all the performance traditions, every kind of tradition that I felt oppressed by and still do, it really serves a purpose for me now. The earlier material was a bit more polite and closer to the classical stuff I was doing, now I feel it's more about my identity. It has taken on a slightly mutated, monstrous thing.

Can you tell us about the outfit that features at the gigs and on the cover of the LP?

EB: Those clothes are really loaded, what they mean to me. It's directly from PE, changing rooms, pre-teen and teenage years, that horror that we, or some of us, go through - not everyone, some are born perfect. 

I recall it well. A terror of having to go and play football with this big hairy 14-year-old men when you're there in tiny shorts feeling like a stick. The physical display element was fairly awful.

EB: And the bullish attitude of the PE teachers. And other kids, girls are particularly bad in that situation. The outfit was unknowing, up until the point when I realised that it was the school colours I grew up with, the PE outfit. I knew I wanted something a bit more ageless and less alien, shrouded and gothic. I wanted it to be quite garish colours, and blue's always been a colour that's knocked around. I was looking at other costumes, pictures of European pagan costumes. In particular parts of Europe, especially Eastern Europe, you've got a combination of a really bad dog outfit, trainers, and jeans underneath. I saw a picture of a guy with his white socks rolled right up over his trousers and a huge bears head, so I borrowed that. 

At the BFI gig I really liked how it felt real and not supernatural, quite thuggish, from an audience point of view quite tough

EB: I never knew whether or not that came across, though it does in the music. This is ultimatum time, channeling all the power I can in the music and then fighting back with this aggression. I'm a slight female and I don't know whether it comes across, but maybe the facelessness and the wig and the look adds to that.

The album and the live show do feel really claustrophobic, it exists within itself. You're pointed in this direction because of the song titles, but it does feel like this awkwardness of the self because of that intensity 

EB: That's not deliberate, but it's an aspect of it. It's not just a physical detachment, it's a detachment from humanity, a detachment from anything, that feeling that I'm not really involved in this. Anything involving groups or teams, definitely sports, I always felt outside it. 

Considering gender for a minute, I can never decide where your music sits, whether its without gender, equally masculine and feminine

EB: I don't know if I have enough detachment to answer that. I know that I have quite an equal mixture of masculine and feminine, and I know it's a bit more complex than boy or girl, but I remember wanting to be a boy when I was a kid, and I haven't really grown out of that. I'm especially interested in feminist issues and the fluidity of gender, and I think everybody has the capacity to be somewhere in between. Some of the songs on the new album are sung from the perspective of a man, they're about the same kinds of pressures that young men have as young women do but it's not talked about at all. 

It was bad in the 90s, but now you see these weird steroid men with little peaheads, where's this come from?

EB: It's American I think. Fitness. Fashions.

I thought that track 'Exorcise' has a great title. We're always told that aside from making you feel fit and healthy exercise is some kind of mental therapy, an exorcism, if you do this you'll be a better human and your bad self will be removed. I always find doing exercise makes me hate myself. 

EB: Gyms. Oh God. Apparently I should do weightlifting because I have a really low bone density, and I've been told that if I don't do it I might end up being in a wheelchair in my 50s. Even that isn't enough to get me down the gym, I hate it. 

That's how terrifying sport can be

EB: It's bullying, it's bootcamp, the physical... sweating. Getting changed twice a day.

You're very aware of yourself doing exercise, all those mirrors everywhere. You're looking at yourself in your worst state.

EB: I wonder why they started having mirrors in gyms...

For a lot of people it's narcissism

EB: Look at myself, getting bigger and bigger. 

The title Unflesh seems to be about turning self inside out. Has this record had that for you, mentally?

EB: I wanted to shed my skin, I wanted to throw off everything that spited me, a lot of the past physical and mental stuff that everyone has, but some people have it to the point where it becomes a bit debilitating, and I got to that point when I was young. I ignored it well into my 20s, and I started to see the damage of it, and the depth of it, and see it in other people, and young girls. It was a very sudden thing, and I thought 'how do you get away from this? How do you reconcile this prison that you feel in?

You have the Gazelle Twin identity where you're masked onstage, yet your lyrics, in which you discuss a suicide attempt when you were a teenager, are intensely personal and you put them up on your website. Has that been hard?

EB: Weirdly not, and I hope that doesn't mean that come across as being really 'oh I've suffered' because it's not that at all. I think that at the point I reached I was ready to say... my family didn't know until recently, so I went through a very long process of this is now out in the open, and I felt I should be able to talk about it because I've understood what it was about and I've come through it.

Does it worry you that it hasn't been difficult?

EB: Yes because then I'm still trying to deal with it in a way, but there are other things to deal with. That was the turning point in my life. It feels good to share stuff like that, sometimes. There's a lot of other stuff that I won't share which was equally awful. What I didn't expect is that I've heard from young people on the other side of the world who've obviously connected, and I've articulated something that they haven't yet been able to recognise, and they've come to me to ask me about it and tell me about their own experiences, which are far worse than mine. That's been quite eye-opening, because I've realised the risk of being so open is you're almost inviting people to come to you with their problems, which is fine but I'm not qualified to help them.

You feel responsible?

EB: Yes. And I don't want it to go the other way, especially with suicide. The video was supposed to go on MTV, and they requested that certain lyrics be taken out, wanted to end stuff, and a reference to a pill. It actually just makes it filthy. I just thought the irony of that, I was watching MTV when I was growing up and thinking 'my God I'm this inadequate freak'. I don't want it to come across as an incitement to topping yourself.

In the run-up to the album you were having lots of tests and dealings with the medical profession, is that right?

EB: I was having lots of tests in my bowels, and I had an endoscopy where I was put under. It was quite cool, the stuff they give you is quite enjoyable. I woke up and had a plastic cup just under my mouth, and I really enjoyed that. I was spending a lot of time going to appointments, a lot of time feeling ill, I guess a lot of it is to do with anxiety, but I've discovered I've got celiac disease.

I've always been fascinated by biology. Some things do make you faint, that's a natural reaction, but on the other hand the scale of what I can deal with now has gone up quite a lot. I quite enjoy blood tests, I like seeing... I'm fascinated. I've always been close to physically fleshy, bloody things. I lived on a farm in Kent and my dad would hunt and bring back animals. There was always a lot of life and death, my sister was always trying to stop these animals being murdered by my dad, so half the house was a pet cemetery, and the rest was loads of pheasants and rabbits hanging up in the cloakroom, blood everywhere. My dad used to do seances and magic, I don't think he used any animals. Late 70s, dinner parties, that's what everyone got up to, right?

I even find coming to the Wellcome Collection a bit hard as with human biology I'm massively squeamish. I connect my terror at the physical and medical and dislike of the body to having a disastrous birth and nearly dying, being born in loads of blood. Where does your fascination come from?

EB: I'd connect mine with a very sanitised world, one that's completely at odds with the nature of being human, the mess of it all, trying to make it all neat, and it isn't. Especially at puberty, God if you get through that and come out alright it's a miracle. I seemed to spend my whole life thinking 'I can hear my own voice repeating over in a room' when I was six, a whole sequence of extreme experiences where I felt entirely detached from what was going on. I'm not always morose, but I'm strongly weighted towards 'what's the point'.

What do you think of the longevity to Gazelle Twin? After putting so much into this record might this be it? 

EB: I think there's probably more life in it but perhaps not the musical side. I was talking about the image of the girl, and the possibility of that being a character in a graphic novel, this whole idea about transformation, this awkward young teenage girl returning and avenging herself or her upbringing. 

It's interesting that you say 'revenge'. Is Gazelle Twin a bit of a revenge on yourself or other people?

EB: It's a bit of both. This character is those things you feel at a certain age. I don't know if you ever had this, but occasionally you might get a little fantasy or a daydream where you're not this weak person, you're taking charge and fighting back, you know what to say back to the bully, or you've telepathically blown them all up, Akira-style 'I'm going to turn into a monster and absorb it', just very basic fantasy of 'no, fuck you'.

Mine was of opening fire from a machine gun nest along the edge of the sports field...

EB: I've not read much about psychology, but I think whatever happens to you from the age of four until you hit puberty is the template for who you are forever. You see these natural, creative, receptive spirits just slowly get wrung out and crushed. 

When we interviewed you with John Foxx a few years ago one of the very interesting things he said was that when you create an identity you have to be careful because it can kill you. Do you ever worry about that? Or is Gazelle Twin a purely positive force?

EB: It doesn't look it but it is, and I have a reasonable detachment from it, even though this is very personal. It's not a persona, I don't talk in that character unless I'm making a song. A lot of it is trying to be honest, and face demons and chuck them out. I'm going to run with the character for a bit, and like I said maybe take it out of the musical context and start using it as an actual character. The biography of that character is my autobiography, but its obviously fictionalised. 

It's easier to get it out through a character

EB: Absolutely. You can work in all those fantasies you had about gunning down your fellow classmates. I think mine were possibly more graphic than that, if you can get more graphic than a massacre. You shouldn't underestimate those kinds of instincts.

Gazelle Twin's Unflesh is out now. She plays Corsica Studios next Wednesday, October 1st with support from Gum Takes Tooth, Bernholz and Quietus DJs, tickets are here