Sonic Mouth: Peter Strickland Interviewed

As his culinary oddity Flux Gourmet is released into the world, Sam Moore sits down with Peter Strickland to reflect on his own Sonic Catering Band from back in the day

Ever since his breakout feature Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland has been a director at one with the senses with his films stimulating the ears as much as they do the eyes. With his new film Flux Gourmet very loosely based on his own time in The Sonic Catering Band, Strickland explores our relationship with noise, the battle between art and commerce and using the pain of others to create.

Following an avant-garde band who play kitchen appliances instead of musical instruments, their wealthy benefactor and a journalist with gastrointestinal problems, Strickland delivers his own warped version of Spinal Tap.

We caught up with him to talk about the inspiration for the film, stomach issues and playing a blender on stage.

The Quietus: Where did the idea for Flux Gourmet originally come from? Has it been in your head for a while?

Peter Strickland: Not really, it started off with a suggestion of doing a low-budget film that revolves around one location, small number of cast, that kind of thing. It was almost a joke in my head about doing a film loosely based on a band I used to be in. I ran it past the other people in the band and they were fine about it. But it led to something more serious, which I thought I could really get my teeth into, which was stomach issues. Obviously, we’ve seen 1000 films about bands, but we haven’t really seen films about the stomach. At least, where it’s treated seriously. It’s always been done as a punching down kind of thing.

Did you want to take a different approach to that material as it’s a serious issue to a lot of people?

Yeah, I’ve been accused of punching down myself so you can’t control how an audience perceives something. When I spoke with Makis about this, he rightly said, “No matter how respectful you are, there are always people who will feel offended, or there are always people who will just find it hilarious and laugh at the character.” I think a lot of it had to come from Makis’ acting, because on paper, when I would send it off to financiers, they’d reply and basically be implying that this was the sequel to Animal House. I can understand on paper, it does read like a frat boy comedy.

Was it a hard sell in that sense?

I think once we got into production, it was so clear what we’re trying to do. You have meetings and you try to explain that this is something we want to explore with some dignity. I don’t want to kind of wag my finger at an audience because of course, I think in the right context flatulence is great fun, I think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t find it funny, but this is a very different context. I think if someone is having chronic issues that are completely inhibiting their social life, that’s very different. So many things in life are great in one context and terrible in another.

There is only one instance of flatulence in the film…

Originally, it was going to be nothing. It was going to be like Berberian Sound Studio, the rule there when I wrote it was no blood apart from the end. It was the same with this one and that was my intention throughout the shoot and then in the edit, and I still wonder if that was the right thing to do. I think it was important to show the stakes with one scene where he’s deeply embarrassed.

I don’t want to pretend I’m doing this for social reasons. I’m still making entertainment, but if as a byproduct someone can feel they can talk about it without any kind of stigma or shame, that’s not a bad thing. I think to me, and it ties in with the whole idea of shock value and taboo, what’s interesting is when it unlocks conversations that shouldn’t be taboo around sexual liberation or gay issues or trans issues. That’s what I loved about Warhol, that’s what I loved about Fassbinder. I’m not interested in shock value when it’s just kind of thuggish and just about one upmanship and who can go the furthest. What we’re doing is confronting you to question why there’s so much tightness around talking about these things.

Something that was interesting about Flux Gourmet was its depiction of the struggle between artists and their financial backers, is that something you’ve had a lot of issues with?

To me, that’s where the comedy is. It’s no secret I have had arguments with financiers, but I didn’t want to turn it into a vendetta film because I owe them a lot as well. I wouldn’t have made those films without them. I did get the final version I wanted in the end, but it always comes with a bit of stress. I didn’t want the audience to know necessarily which side I’m on. I liked it when people thought I was making fun of the artists as much as the financier – I try to be more like a referee in that you don’t necessarily know what side I’m taking.

Can you talk a little bit about being part of The Sonic Catering Band back in the day?

It was great fun when you were performing. When you perform it’s incredibly stressful because it’s not like a regular band where you rehearse chords, and you always hope the hobs are working properly. You don’t have gas in most of these venues. Liquid electronics – they’re pretty risky. We were treating sound the same way you treat food, we’d record cooking a dish then treat the sound by chopping it, layering it, processing it. But really, it was something like an adventure, like a personal adventure. That’s not just in terms of what we made, but what we listened to. We discovered things together like Robert Ashley and Alvin Lucier which really opened our minds, so a lot of it was listening and completely changing the way we think about how you make things.

Did you have a particular appliance you loved to play?

Oh, a blender when I was young, a lot younger. I think you could do that in your 20s but you can’t really do that in your late 40s. It’s not very dignified.

What was it like working with Gwendolyn Christie? She seems up for anything and everything.

She is, I’ve never known anyone who is so methodical with their lines. She’s very consistent, which is not easy for her at all because, obviously, some of those lines are a little bit niche. I think when I first met her, we had a lot of shared references and that was very important. So we’re into the same music, the same films.

I’ve got to ask you before you go, what was it like to work with Bjork on Biophilia?

I loved working with Bjork. I really did. I do miss those days if I’m honest. It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had making anything. She was so laid back, so much of it is before the job where you establish the parameters and wavelengths so once you know her parameters, you work within that. Whatever she wanted, I did. It was absolutely thoroughly enjoyable.

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