[ there's no place like home ]
by Mark Teppo

Open the liner notes of any record by J. G. Thirlwell -- under any one of his many guises -- and you'll see these three words "All instruments by." And, as the record explodes and you fight for the opportunity to breathe, you wonder just how in the hell one man can fit all that sound in his head. J. G. Thirlwell does it regularly, and with a flair that speaks mightily of his admiration and love of spy soundtracks and crime scene mood music.

There have been a number of aliases over the years -- Clint Ruin, Steroid Maximus, DJ Otefsu, Wiseblood, Manorexia, Garage Monsters, Baby Zizanie -- as well as a number of permutations involving the word "foetus," but behind it all has been J. G., whirling together big band sleaze, industrial noise, blaxploitation funk, Martin Denny lounge at 3am through a haze of cigarettes and badly poured drinks, and wildly orchestrated string quartets. The man has his hand in many pies. The amazing trick is that he always manages to serve up the perfect slice without getting filling all over everything.

But what makes his work even more remarkable is that it transcends the sour hint within it. Okay, some slices are more sour than others. It's all noir, baby, but even in the deepest pit of night there is still some swing to his delivery, some hint that what you are hearing is the sound of a man working towards the light. This isn't music of despair, it is music filled with fire and light. It is just the rest of the world that has gone to hell. Thirlwell is just calling it like he sees it. We're lucky he's got a sense of humor.

What are you working on now?

J.G. Thirlwell: Right now, I'm working on a couple of songs for a German group called Rotoscope, putting on some vocals, writing some lyrics, doing some extra sounds. It's kind of a favor for this label nois-o-lution who put out the last two Foetus records in Germany.

Mainly what I'm working on now is the new Manorexia album which I'm more than halfway through. Concurrent to that, I'm also working on new Foetus material. If anything rears its head while I'm working on the Manorexia album that I can funnel off onto Foetus, I do that. I'm also editing down some material for a Baby Zizanie album -- which is my laptop duo thing with Jim Coleman -- which will come out on vinyl on a small Italian label later this year. I'm following that up with a European tour in November. Next month, in earnest, I have to sit down and work on the charts for Steroid Maximus, which Steve Bernstein and I are going to be performing live in Los Angeles on October 17th with a nineteen piece ensemble.

How is the Steroid Maximus show coming about? It is part of UCLA's Performing Arts Calendar, isn't it?

J.G.: Part of their 2002/2003 Season, yeah. How it came about was that I know the curator -- David Sefton -- from his tenure at South Bank in London. I played the Royal Albert Festival Hall there [in London] and then he moved over to UCLA. I had a couple of projects in development there [at UCLA]. One of which was a night celebrating the Foetus remix album Blow where I was going to pull together remixers and producers and it was going to be sort of a DJ/laptop night. I was trying to corral -- organize -- DJ Food, Kid 606, Pansonic and Amon Tobin. It just turned into a logistical nightmare, trying to coordinate people's schedules. I had also proposed a Manorexia performance which was going to be a thing with a string quartet, live percussion and live electronics. I decided to fold those two things in on each other and do Steroid Maximus instead, and he was thrilled by the idea.

[ j. g. thirlwell ]

I've been thinking with Bernstein for some time about what it would take to realize Steroid Maximus live. He's a really good arranger; he can write charts, which I can't. I wanted to make this a reality, and this was a perfect opportunity to make it a reality. So we're scoring it and we'll be getting the charts to the various musicians who live in Los Angeles. Then we fly in, rehearse, and perform it. Then we're going to take that to France and Holland next April. We're going to assemble a group in Paris and do a similar thing.

Is it fairly traditional instrumentation? Horns and strings?

J.G.: It's going to be -- I think, off the top of my head -- three trumpets, two trombones, three violins, viola, cello, three keyboards -- samples, one guy on piano and harpsichord, one guy on synthesizer, vaguely split up like that -- concert percussion like tympani and vibes and a bell tree, latin percussion, drums, bass, guitar. And then, yours truly conducting. [Laughs] Oh, and a baritone sax player as well. Doubling on flute. Which is an important instrument.

Wow. Having heard Ectopia many times now, it seems like that's exactly what you need to make it all happen live versus trying to trigger it all via samples.

J.G.: Some of the songs are going to be more faithfully realized than others. The challenge is to take a piece which essentially started life with the sounds being more sonic textures and turn it into a song from those textures, transposing those elements into traditional instrumentation being played in a non-traditional way. And there are going to be new segue pieces that touch on areas that I feel didn't get touched on within the songs or even within the album. I want to make it this full cinematic experience and not where you think, "Okay, this is the 'Burned Out Herman' bit here."

Does it become more this full experience now rather than a collection of songs taken from an album? Is it going to have this overarching flow?

J.G.: To me, it is a cinematic experience. What the hell the plot is, I don't know. Each song was conceived as a separate entity, but a lot of the arc -- the story arc -- was created by the sequence on the album. As is true of many of my albums. I'll work on a series of songs and I'll get to a point where I'll stand back from it and realize what is missing from the equation. And then I think it is really important how you sequence it from there. It's like exposition: how it all unfolds.

How does the different aspects and sounds of these projects influence the next project? How do you decide what side-project gets worked on next?

[ steroid maximus - ectopia ]
[ give a listen! ] "Seventy Cops" MP3

J.G.: Each project I work on informs the next one in the same way that working on Manorexia helped inform the second half of the Steroid Maximus album. I had already done the first half of Ectopia before I had even invented Manorexia. What also informed Ectopia was DJing as DJ Otefsu. I DJed a lot of stuff that I enjoy listening to at home, you know, a lot of crime, spy, intrigue, thriller chase music / soundtrack / blaxpoitation -- that sort of thing. Well, that wasn't exclusively what I wanted to do. I wasn't thinking, "Okay, I want to do an album like that." But that was sort of the way it turned out, especially when some of the darker ideas were funneled into Manorexia.

Manorexia was conceived as a place where I could write and compose from a different place of purity where I'm not hammering myself on the head and letting the inner critic chastise me for the ideas before they are fully formed in my head or before they hit the hard drive or the paper. Over the years, I've found that each time I approach something I've got a new set of baggage because of what I've already accomplished before or territory that I feel like I've already mined or this critic that tells you -- or me, actually -- that I'm worthless. It's a matter of silencing that critic and working from that place. Now I'm faking myself out with the new Manorexia album. It's hard to get back to that place. I can't just snap my fingers and get back there. It takes some work. But, by using that as a launching pad, if something comes out that is more appropriate for a Foetus song, well, I'm tricking myself by making Foetus from that same place.

You did the first Manorexia album in an uncharacteristically short amount of time.

J.G.: Well, for me. [Laughs]

Is the process more complicated this time?

J.G.: Yeah. I tried a new process for the first one. If you put on the album and start the CD at rack one, well, that's where I started too. And where the album ends is where I ended as well. It's one long sequence like writing one 62-minute song including all the segues. This time I thought I would write it in four 15-minute chunks which -- I thought -- would make it a bit easier for me. I've already faked myself out by doing it once and I don't want to repeat the process, but I do want to repeat the place where I made that process. So, okay, I've got a precedent. I've got something to live up to in my own head. [Laughs] What is the first sound you're going to hear on this new album? Thinking about that will drive you crazy and so I thought, "Okay, four 15-minute chunks." I could be starting with the middle.

Since I've done the first chunk -- which is great and I've decided it will start the album -- I've realized that I'm starting to write pieces that are more like songs -- more like separate entities. It is really very slow, very somber. It has a different emotional quality than the first one. I'll probably stand back from that and see where I want to take it. I'll try to see if it is going too far into that territory, getting slower and slower. Maybe it's a reaction to everything else, I don't know.

[ foetus live! ]
photo by paul dickerson

In making the distinction between a Manorexia sound and Foetus sound, is it an emotional impact or a sonic impact?

J.G.: Um, I hesitate to say because Foetus is really up on the blocks right now. I'm giving it a real overhaul -- a re-think -- and the new Foetus material is a lot more tender than it ever was. The next Foetus album will shift around the preconceptions that a lot of people have about Foetus. I like to keep moving.

There is always the discussion of the separation between the creating and the marketing. You've mentioned the internal critic which is flavored by the external critic as well. You have a propensity for making a different moniker for different sounds. Is there any thought that this new material may be different enough from Foetus that it might warrant a new project and maybe this shouldn't be Foetus? Or do you want to shift the direction of Foetus?

J.G.: I want to take it somewhere else. It is telling a story. It is creating this legacy -- this lineage -- of what has gone on in my life, and I do see it as a finite kind of thing. This will be, like, the eighth studio Foetus album -- not counting the attendant offspring things that have happened along the way like live albums and compilation appearances -- and I see there being like ten Foetus albums that were intended to be Foetus records. After that, well, I think I will have told that story. Where I take it from there, who knows? I would like to be working with orchestras and stuff. But, at the same time, I have Baby Zizanie which is a real stripped down mobile laptop duo type thing. But it only has room for improv within its flexibility; it can contract and expand based on what we've decided to do or what breaks down in the middle of the set. But neither of those can fully satisfy the same place that Foetus can. They are a different kettle of fish.

But I don't really want to go out and do the live experience with Foetus the way I always have. I need to rethink that. I'm thinking that in a year's time...I have a conception in my mind of the way Foetus is going to turn out in a live experience and it will be, hopefully, the fall of 2003 when I'll be ready to do that.

You've got a very full plate. With your recent output in all the side projects, have you "unplugged the well," so to speak?

J.G.: Yeah, I would say so. There are number of factors really. A lot of the time my material tends to bottleneck as I finish stuff off and then try to figure out how to get it released. Certainly with the Foetus stuff, I was so frustrated by that pursuit, that was one of the reasons that the Manorexia stuff popped out. That's why the distribution of Manorexia is on a completely different business model: it is something that I press, that I sell through the website and at live concerts.

I think I am playing catch up with my legacy. There is a lot that I want to do and the music scene is changing pretty rapidly.

[ foetus - flow ]
[ give a listen! ] "Grace of God" MP3

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