Aversion To Repetition: Cosey Fanni Tutti Interviewed

Eugene Brennan quizes the industrial music pioneer about the influence of transgressive French art and the need for independence

While contemporary music seems to be increasingly eclectic in its juxtaposition of genres, its frame of reference often feels narrowed within a strictly musical canon. Record-collector rock, the term coined by Simon Reynolds for the unambitious and deferential emulation of musical predecessors, is sometimes contrasted to industrial music and post punk, in which the likes of Howard Devoto and Mark E. Smith were more likely to find inspiration in non-musical sources, such as Dostoevsky or Camus, than the Beatles or the Stones.

The industrial music of Throbbing Gristle was so original partly because of its lack of reverence for music itself, let alone musical predecessors. They went beyond merely filtering extra-musical influences into their work, actually applying and cleverly appropriating extra-musical techniques, most notably taking Burroughs’ literary cut-up method and using it in cutting and splicing recorded material to create dissonant soundscapes. Irreverence for the medium and an amateur approach to their instruments facilitated the creation of a more original sound than would have likely occurred had they approached music as trained musicians. As Genesis P.Orridge put it, "The future of music lies in non-musicians."

Cosey Fanni Tutti’s work since TG, while often stylistically very different, has nevertheless been driven by the same compulsion towards originality and adventure, and many of the same extra-musical influences and ideas. The primacy of improvisation in live performances in particular is informed by an aversion to repetition and a persistent desire to break new ground. The possibility that imposed constraints could, paradoxically, yield liberatingly creative and exhilarating results was particularly evident in Carter Tutti Void’s Transverse, a recording of a partially improvised performance in 2011.

While known beyond the music world as an artist, Cosey’s work has also had a close relationship with the literary world. In the 1970s her poetry appeared in Paul Buck’s Curtains, a journal which was instrumental in introducing the work of French avant-garde writers such as Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille to an English readership. She participated in Violent Silence, an event celebrating the work of Bataille in the Bloomsbury Theatre in London in 1984, also featuring performances and readings from Marc Almond, Derek Jarman, and transgressive French novelist Bernard Noël.

When Jean-Pierre Turmel, the head of independent record label Sordide Sentimental, first heard TG he proclaimed them heirs to the literary tradition of transgression as defined by the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille. While Turmel may have seemed hyperbolic, he did have a point: TG’s attraction towards the repulsive, the drive towards transgression and confrontation of the repressed of modern society echo those literary transgressors.

The Quietus spoke with Cosey about some of these literary crossovers, as well as, more broadly, the extra-musical influences and ideas that have informed her work.

Curtains, a journal noted for featuring translations of transgressive French literature, featured your poetry. Your poem ‘Such Is Life’ also featured in Paul Buck’s Violent Silence, a collection of writings related to the work of Georges Bataille. How did these publications of your poetry come about?

Cosey Fanni Tutti: My contribution came about through my live action as part of the Violent Silence Festival at the Bloomsbury Theatre London. It was a celebration of the life and times of Georges Bataille. Paul was one of the organisers and I’ve known him for a very long time, as far back as TG and prior to that during the COUM years. I’d also done some film work with Stephen Dwoskin that was based on some of Bataille’s writing, specifically and obliquely inspired by ‘My Mother’. I think that the Bataille connection with Steve (who Paul also knew) may have initiated Paul’s invitation for me to participate in the festival and book. Well, that and the obvious links with surrealism and eroticism in my own work.

Did you write much poetry during this period? Do you still write?

CFT: I have a rather liberal definition of poetry that extends to some (not very many) song lyrics, so I regard some of my lyrics as a form of poetry, and these are ongoing.

Was Georges Bataille a writer of particular interest for you?

CFT: I was interested in his work, but not as a point of reference with regard to my own work. It’s just good to know there are others of a similar transgressive mindset and who are so exquisitely creative and evocatively expressive.

Jean-Pierre Turmel of Sordide Sentimental described Throbbing Gristle as "heirs to the literary avant-garde tradition of transgression as defined by the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille". Were you or the other members of TG particularly interested in French transgressive literature? TG’s interest in Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in particular, as well as the Manson murders, is somewhat reminiscent of the fascination for child murderers like Gilles de Rais by many French writers. The idea of the criminal-as-artist is also prominent in works by Sade, Bataille and Genet, as well as the investment of sinful behaviour with a sense of holiness, ideas which resonate with TG and COUM Transmissions.

CFT: Well I think TG collectively covered all those bases. I had a fascination for the criminal and sinful. In fact a lot of people I knew in Hull were in and out of prison for one reason or another, and I was very naughtily sinful from childhood. I had ongoing friendships with musicians, hippies, prostitutes, Hell’s Angels and skinheads. We were all effectively outcasts fighting for our voice to be heard and, crucially, actively defiant and determined to establish our individual sense of self within a very ordered, restrictive and over-policed society. We felt restrained by contemporary culture, and we were all in our own way breaking the established rules of both conduct, behaviour and expectation.

We were ‘sinful’ and ‘criminal’ to some people. As far as the Brady and Hindley murders are concerned, they were going on when I was a child and my parents, like many others, kept a tight rein on their children during that period before they were finally caught. So that case had a particularly personal resonance. The Manson murders happened when I was in my teens so I had a direct reference to them. We didn’t just pick these horrific events out of a hat to shock people. I wouldn’t say that criminals are artistic, they can have a skewed view of the world and likewise their actions in it that is sometimes unorthodoxly inventive and expressive and bordering on what some may perceive as ‘artistic’. On the other hand, artists have been criminalised for their art.

How did your thinking about shock tactics and transgression change from COUM to Throbbing Gristle? TG seemed attuned to the dangers of transgression becoming a predictable norm. An example of this might be the introduction of more melodic songs disrupting an audience’s expectations of more harsh, industrial noise. (As The Quietus’ John Doran suggested, TG were perhaps never more unsettling than when they were being pretty, in reference to the almost electropop ‘United’). Can you think of other tactics TG employed in order to avoid the trap of transgression of a norm becoming a predictable norm in itself?

CFT: There were no shock tactics. That would imply a kind of script, a contrivance that would be incompatible with our improvisational approach. Public self-discovery in the form of art actions or music performances can shock. That’s just the way it was/is.

Ha! John Doran is right. Unsettling is good though. I always say, it’s not the outrageous looking people you should be wary of, it’s the quiet, supposedly normal looking ones. They don’t need the trappings of superficial ‘weirdness’ or the ego trip of attention that goes with it. They know that to get ‘real’ you operate most successfully under the radar, under the guise so to speak. That’s what TG did at times. Sometimes we were aggressively confrontational, it depended on how we felt, what we had to say and what we felt was the best way to "say" it. Also, with ‘United’ we were experimenting with our version of an accessible song, but of course it had an underlying subtext that was not quite normal. A bit like the cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats.

You don’t have to adhere to formulae to get a message across – you can use, play with, pervert, reinterpret and re-present formulae. The fact that people called what we did transgressive was at times surprising. We were just doing what we found interesting and putting it out there… communication, but not in its usual format. A more interesting way to instigate dialogue. Expectations are something I instinctively want to defy.

The importance of music as a medium seems to have become more and more pronounced throughout your career. Your move into music was gradual at first, with COUM transmissions mixing music and art. For TG, it often seemed that music was not an essential medium. Rather, it was the one best suited to communicating challenging and provocative ideas, or to creating a particular effect on an audience. In contrast, the Chris & Cosey and Carter Tutti albums seem less concerned with music as an instrument, or a means of communicating ideas, and more focused on music as an immersive experience. The musical experience itself seems to have become more important for you. Why did you originally move towards music with COUM and TG? When TG split up then, did you feel liberated to explore a different musical direction?

CFT: Music was part of my life before COUM. As a teenager I was closely involved with the local underground music and art scene in Hull, and me and my oldest musician friend Lelli would sit for hours with him playing guitar and just listening to records. My father built radios and created strange sounds during the process, coupled with my uncle, who lived with us, playing his guitar and harmonica. So I was kind of primed for sound from an early age.

The first time TG split it just felt so right. It had run its course and we were ready to move on to new territory with sound. The crossover from TG into Heartbeat was so comfortable for us. We’d been working towards that sound for some time. I think our Chris & Cosey and Carter Tutti music has a double purpose. The communication of ideas can mean many things, not least on a very personal level. That’s what our material is about as well as concepts, like with Cabal and the Library Of Sound series, Time To Tell and most recently Bioschismic. I agree, they’re all very immersive. That’s what music is about for me whether working with TG, or with Chris as Chris & Cosey or Carter Tutti, or my own solo material.

What were the aims of TG’s music? Was there a tension between on the one hand inciting visceral responses from the listener, and on the other hand using music as a means of communicating ideas?

CFT: We aimed for both, really, I saw no conflict in that approach at all. Audience feedback triggered TG responses via sound, and that in itself created a form of communication and physical engagement outside the normal parameters of a gig or an art show. The physicality of generating those sounds through a PA was immensely exciting. TG was always a work in progress.

TG often appropriated and applied extra-musical techniques, most notably Burroughs’s cut-up technique. Were there any other techniques or even influences you drew on from beyond the musical world that shaped your approach to music?

CFT: Of course, there were many influences behind the TG sound, not just Burroughs’ cut up techniques. Chris’ skill at building sound generators, synthesisers etc was the main driving force that made a lot of the TG sound even possible. The science of sound was also one of the main factors. The use of sound as a means of crowd control, muzak, church music, sex, magick, disclosing world events both past and present and personal events – good and bad. I think where TG differed with most is that we didn’t pull our punches, we didn’t dress it up. ‘Hamburger Lady’ is a case in point, as was ‘Zyklon B Zombie’, ‘Very Friendly’, ‘Persuasion’. Delivery can be key to both reception and perception.

Are there any extra-musical influences – literary, artistic or otherwise – stimulating or inspiring you in your more recent Carter Tutti work?

CFT: Pretty much the same inspiration as with TG, but we’re much more subtle about how we express things musically. We like to sculpt sounds more, they’re less raw… but having said that, sometimes they’re very raw. When we play live we fully embrace improvisation and stray from the studio recorded versions of our work. In fact we sometimes prefer the live versions. I guess our working practice has stayed the same, when you think that TG went from ‘Wall Of Sound’ to ‘Beachy Head’. Quite an extreme arc. We do the same, it’s just that we’ve acquired new skills and tastes and we’re not into repeating ourselves. We like to discover new sounds and ways of arranging them.

You’ve often expressed an aversion to repeating yourself and your albums with Chris, as well as other collaborations, reflect a hunger to explore new and exciting terrain. How do you continue to balance an improvisational approach to recording and performing, while at the same time not falling back into repeating familiar sounds and styles? Or have you always been able to rely on an instinctive improvisational approach to bring your music to new and interesting places?

CFT: I kind of have a built in aversion to repetition. As soon as I’ve become accomplished to a particular degree at something, say generating a certain sound, I lose interest in it. I move on to something else. It’s served its purpose. That’s why I’d have been no good learning to play an instrument in the traditional way. In fact I was sent to piano lessons as a child and was happy at first. Then when I could do what was demanded at that level, I started playing the piano in a more interesting unconventional manner, like a prepared piano.

Also the excitement and pressure of being in a live improvisational situation where anything can happen kind of prohibits using familiar sounds, or I may use them in a different way or through effects, so they become something else. Not knowing what sounds are going to be generated from either of you forces the need to find new sounds that will counter or sit well with what the other is playing. You can really create some unexpected sounds that way. Happy accidents, as I call those little sound gems.

TG consistently referenced fascism through both imagery and lyrical content. The 1970s was a decade which gave rise to critical anxiety over the resurgence of fascist imagery in various cultural formats, most notably explored by Susan Sontag in her 1974 essay ‘Fascinating Fascism’. Its proliferation in TG and across industrial music was not exceptional, and swastikas were of course omnipresent in certain punk circles. However TG’s use of fascist imagery and references seems quite particular. Why do you think fascism was of such interest in British music during this period? While obviously oriented toward anti-fascist ends, what was TG’s particular fascination with fascism?

CFT: I refute the proliferation of fascism in TG. We were and remain totally anti-fascist. It was a time when the atrocities of fascism were being somewhat ‘forgotten’. For whatever reason was behind that, we felt that they should not be forgotten. Our interest was in how such a rise to the position of power and destruction happened. The uniforms, the interest in the occult, insignia, the power of a graphic as an emblem of a powerful organisation.

We’d investigated many methods of control, and the rise of fascism in Germany was one of the most frightening and catastrophic events in history. You also have to remember that our parents were in that war, so our ‘interest’ as such didn’t come from being uninformed, nor was it frivolous (like the use of swastikas by the punks). I remember the Hell’s Angels in Hull had genuine war relic swastika arm bands and wore German army helmets as crash helmets. You can imagine the effect that cavalier attitude had on surviving war veterans on the streets of Hull.

When TG started and we designed the TG flash, we were living in Hackney, very close by the seat of the UK fascists, the Brownshirts. We had local people who had been members. We had the train lines with the electrical hazard ‘flash’ warning. We were working with difficult sounds, ion generators, purpose built unpredictable electrical equipment, controversial subject matter, investigating and distributing information on control systems etc. We were somewhat anarchic – and the colours of anarchy are combinations of red, black and white. All these factors contributed to the TG flash design and colour scheme. It stood for individual power, challenging established rules and expectations.

TG developed an increasingly religious element to the music, particularly evident on Heathen Earth. Aside from the sometimes ritualistic sounding music, a religious atmosphere was fostered at gigs and accentuated by Genesis’ interest in shamanism. What lead to TG’s increasing interest in religion? Stylistically, religious and meditative sounds still resonate strongly in your Carter Tutti work. Has music always had a somewhat religious function for you?

CFT: I wouldn’t call those elements religious. It was more spiritual, and an interest to us all at the time of TG and up to about 1999. Like a rite of passage. I’ve somewhat changed my stance now. I believe in the physics of the power of sound, tangible life forces, what we are, what we can become and what we can be to one another. That includes the very palpable sense of people’s energies, in whatever context. The overwhelming surges of power and charged emotion emanate from those present, and not from the ether or any deity. That was the essence of our work and was with TG, despite the magick, spiritual beliefs of the time.

Genesis often said TG were not a political band. However, the scale of the group’s ambition, the desire to change how people think about society and the preoccupation with propaganda and social control seem deeply political to me. Do you think TG was a ‘political’ group, and what were TG’s politics?

CFT: We had no political agenda. We weren’t looking for followers of a "new way"… Well, I wasn’t anyway. We delivered an alternative to the mind and emotionally numbing norm of the time.

TG prided themselves on a DIY aesthetic, setting up your own record company, financing and managing yourselves. In contrast COUM Transmissions depended on Arts Council grants to a certain extent. The huge cuts to arts and welfare benefits have had a tangible effect on contemporary culture, with many arguing that music has never been so conservative. Challenging and experimental art and music, with at least some kind of institutional support, and the capacity to reach a large diverse audience, is becoming a more and more difficult to imagine and realise. Do you think a group as experimental and challenging as TG could make it today?

CFT: I’ve stayed fiercely independent. Even when we have signed to a label, it’s been on a conditional basis that wouldn’t compromise our work at all. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Chris and I have always managed to increase our skill set to enable us to produce our work on our terms. It’s very difficult and time consuming running a business, accounting, recording, mastering, production and manufacture, but we’ve always been self-sufficient… even down to house repairs, etc. Sleazy thought we were crazy not paying someone to do things for us, but what we saved by doing things ourselves meant more money to buy equipment, to make music and so on.

Regarding arts grants, when COUM received Arts Council grants there was much less administrative interference or need for form filling to prove justification of your artistic ideas. Some abused that approach. We didn’t. Since then, there are all kinds of conditions and criteria to be met, and very long application forms to fill in if you want grants. Anyway, after the ICA exhibition in 1976, Arts Council grants were no longer an option. Certainly that’s lead to more ‘safe’ state-funded art works.

Do you think a DIY aesthetic and approach holds the same kind of importance for contemporary music?

CFT: Yes indeed. The time is ripe to take control. It’s tough, though, and I don’t see many bands doing that. It depends how they view their work. My work is my life so I’d never relinquish control of it to someone else. Other people are more interested in a kind of public or financial ‘success’, which doesn’t interest me.

I understand you’re working on a new Carter Tutti album. What next?

CFT: Yes, we’ve got some material set aside for the next Carter Tutti album, and we’re hoping to start on it this winter.

Carter Tutti play Scanner’s unseasonal gothic event at the BFI on December 13th (info here), and head to the US for a series of dates in January 2014 – details here

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