“SONG FOR EWE” is the feature where artists & music people beloved by VELVET SHEEP choose an obscure song they’ve been listening to that day. It would be quite possible to write a thesis on today’s guest such is the panoply of musical and artistic projects he has sired. JG Thirlwell is a composer, producer, artiste, performer curator, experimentalist, archivist, remixer and non conformist. He has recorded under many aliases, notably Foetus, Manorexia, Xordox and Clint Ruin. He’s worked with a who’s who of the alternative rock fraternity including Melvins, Swans, Faith No More, Nine Inch Nails, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the list is endless. Born in Melbourne, Australia, he passed through post-punk London, squatting with Keith Allen, was as thick as thieves with an early incarnation of his Melbourne compatriots Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, originally a full member he co-wrote “Wings Off Flies” on first studio album “From Her To Eternity”. He wound up working with the likes of a pre-Nurse With Wound Steven Stapleton and then via his friend Matt Johnson of The The he ended up on the legendary Some Bizarre label (home of Soft Cell, Psychic TV and Coil) whose notorious impresario Stevo was a fan of his sonically dextrous solo excursions as Foetus. After touring the US with collective Immaculate Consumptive which featured Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave and Marc Almond, enticed by the legends turned friends of the No Wave scene and the industrial urban anonymity of New York City, Thirlwell made it his permanent home. Foetus got signed to major label Columbia in the post Nirvana gold-rush and it was through the immense and arresting alien sounds of sixth studio album “Gash” sent to me when writing the original Velvet Sheep xeroxed zine when I became a bona fide fan, its sailor-esque tattoo logo on a Time Square jumbotron etched in my retina, it’s reverberating hammer falls resonating menacingly in my eardrums. Columbia had originally given Foetus absolute creative control no matter how uncompromising – a similar story to post grunge major label bands like Royal Trux, The Jesus Lizard & Helmet – which meant this was to this fanzine writer’s ears an absolutely golden time for music and creativity crossing into the wider ether – but when the A&R that signed Thirlwell moved on, the appetite for deconstruction at the heart of his music quickly subsided.
This of course would never perturb an already prolific anti-didactic, fully dogmatic artist committed to a voyage of musical self-discovery no matter what alleys it took him down. And it took him to some pretty high-brow places – which for a perpetual outsider artist felt his natural home – including commissions for Kronos Quartet, Bang On A Can, Experiments in Opera, Zephyr Quartet, solo sound installations which have exhibited in Santarcangelo, Italy and Kaliningrad, Russia and not to mention performing live with a chamber ensemble version of his Manorexia project, with his electronic project Xordox and his solo electroacoustic projects Cholera Nocebo and Silver Mantis. He has been in residency at Elektronmusikstudion in Stockholm, a completed a composition for solo contrabass for James Ilgenfritz and a commission for solo cello for Jeffrey Zeigler and scored artist and Bowie collaborator the brilliant Tony Oursler’s film installation, “Imponderable”, which was on exhibit for six months at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2017. That’s not to say that the more intellectual leanings tempered Thirlwell’s thirst or ability to bend to mainstream tastes and needs, since JG also creates the musical score for the Emmy-winning FX show “Archer”, and for Adult Swim / Cartoon Network show “The Venture Bros”, for which he was nominated for an Annie Award.
JG can play pretty much any instrument, but he’s more manipulator than maestro – by design – interested in how to use machines to elevate the music. Thirlwell was an early adopter of samplers and synths, pushing the envelope in 24 track studios and now Logic, but always returning to an organic starting point before digital denigration. His work is the mind expansion of Dada combined with the broad brush-stroke statement of Warhol, the magpie eye of Malcolm McLaren with the fastidiousness of Eno with the unsung heroics of Jack Nitzsche. Above all, he’s a consumer and lover of music, and on the eve of his mind-altering latest project with Simon Steensland – “Oscillospira” out on 24 April on Ipecac Records, at Velvet Sheep fanzine we’re honoured to harness some of the undeniable passion of the uniquely talented and gratifyingly erudite JG Thirlwell!
JG Thirlwell first met Simon Steensland in Steensland’s native Stockholm during a workshop for the Great Learning Orchestra, a collective operating on the model of an experimental music ensemble from the late 60s, Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, using musicians from a variety of backgrounds and abilities, something which very much appealed. JG was also a fan of Steensland “through his albums like Led Circus and Fat Again. I admired the dark power in his work and it seemed adjacent to a lot of music that I love and inspires me – groups in the Rock in Opposition and Zeuhl worlds such as Magma, Univers Zero and Present, as well as 70’s era King Crimson and Bartok.”
With Thirwell’s commission for Great Learning Orchestra as the touchpoint, the pair exchanged ideas and then sounds with the extended work becoming the cinematic and sometimes almost operatic album “Oscillospira”.
With virtuoso drummer Morgan Ågren (Mats/Morgan band, Zappa, Devin Townsend etc) adding urgency, the sound is filled by an orchestra of musicians playing oboe, bass clarinet, violin, voice not to mention Thirlwell’s customary adventures in stereo to make a record rich in cerebral and sonic texture.
With an oeuvre so expansive, a list of collaborators so extensive, and a musical knowledge and love sans pareil, it was impossible to predict what song JG might select for this feature but I knew it would be simultaneously both educating and entertaining. And I wasn’t disappointed. Without further ado, this is JG Thirlwell’s “song for ewe”…
“Robert Normandeau “Le Renard et la Rose”
A couple of months ago a friend of mine was cleaning out her basement and called me to say she had a box of CDs she was getting rid of. Sure, I listen to music digitally, and discover a lot of new music that way. But the humble and much maligned compact disc is my preferred musical delivery system. I own thousands of arcane CDs, (along with thousands of albums on vinyl) and fortunately enough space to store them all. So in that box in the basement was a CD by an artist I had never heard of, Robert Normandeau. The CD has a charcoal drawing reproduced on the front and is entitled Figures. It comes in a small cardboard CD sized box with a flap that lifts on the front, held in place with a folded cardboard tongue like shape.
It has four long tracks on it. The first track caught my attention immediately as it is composed entirely from edited and altered voices, all intoning onomatopoeic words. It is a startling and sometimes harrowing soundscape composition that undulates, swoops, rattles and throbs. Robert Normandeau is an electroacoustic composer from Quebec City Canada, and “Le Renard et la Rose” is a commissioned adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince”. The sleeve notes mention that he creates a “‘cinema for the ear’. I’m delighted to have found this treasure, I’ve had it on rotation for a while.”
THANKS TO JG THIRLWELL AND TO LAUREN BARLEY AT RARELY UNABLE PR