Friday, August 8, 2014

S/he Speaks H/er Mind: A Conversation with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Part 1 of 3

Photo courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/pages/Genesis-BREYER-P-ORRIDGE/171735929627691

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is a subject worthy of an introduction longer than most books. If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you are at least familiar with some of Gen's various creative exploits and victories over the last 64 years. But if you are completely new to this British “cultural engineer,” here is a bare-bones narrative:

Born Neil Andrew Megson in 1950, P-Orridge first gained notoriety as a member of COUM Transmissions, a subversive art/music collective that also featured h/er then-partner, Cosey Fanni-Tutti. In 1975, P-Orridge and Fanni-Tutti (along with Chris Carter and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson) formed the infamous Throbbing Gristle, still one of music history's most intriguing and incendiary projects. (You can – and should – read more about the group's caustic existence in Simon Ford's exhaustively researched book, Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle). Following TG's termination in 1981, P-Orridge and Christopherson (later of Coil) launched the first of many incarnations of Psychic TV, an ever-evolving group that exists to this day. There's also Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY), Thee Majestystints in Pigface and Nik Turner's Hawkwind, an ill-fated TG reunion and countless other adventures along the way, many of which are explored in an ever-expanding array of print and video interviews on the Web. And if you're curious why P-Orridge uses “we” in many instances, that's because s/he became one with h/er longtime partner Lady Jaye when she “dropped her body” in 2007. (This body modification/gender-combining experience, which P-Orridge calls “the Pandrogyne,” is explored in the can't-miss 2011 film The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye as well as the 2004 issue of the Bob Bert/Linda Wolfe magazine BB Gun).

And that's all the background you'll be getting from me here, because Gen is a subject worth exploring on your own – just as I did when I discovered TG and Psychic TV as a grade schooler in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s. No matter what you uncover in your journey, you will experience a deeply intriguing – and always challenging – artist who is has lived a life beyond anything this extensive multi-part interview can tackle. It will take a century or two for the rest of us to catch up to where P-Orridge has already been; all I can hope to offer in this interview series is an entertaining and enlightening glimpse.

A brilliant conversationalist with a lifetime's worth of colorful tales, P-Orridge is an interviewer's dream. What follows is the first of three lengthy excerpts from a mammoth chat Gen and I had earlier this year shortly after the release of an extensive book covering h/er life's work and the release of an archival COUM Transmissions album on Dais Records called Home Aged & The 18 Month Hope.

A lot of the material in the book certainly encompasses where you've been in the past. There has been a fair amount of looking back in compiling a project like this. When you looked back specifically for this book, what were some instances where maybe you encountered something that you had done in years past and thought, 'When we went into this project, we had this particular goal in mind,' but with the hindsight of 10, 20 maybe 30 years, you look back and say, 'Well, we wanted to do this, but it ended up this way, and this is really magnificent and totally unexpected”?

The thing with the book was that we were approached originally by Fabrice [Couillerot], a French guy who's just a beautiful man. He has a publishing project, First Third Books. He'd done a book about the band Felt; he'd done another one on Serge Gainsbourg and also one on Punk, in which all the photos were by Sheila Rock, who in fact took a lot of really striking photographs in this book. She did all the first publicity shots for Psychic TV when we were briefly on Warner Brothers Records and did Force The Hand Of Chance. That might be an example [of your question]: We were signed as an experimental band to a major label for the very first time ever, and did all of these well-lit, professional publicity photos. We had no idea that they would be of any relevance for more than a few weeks. Looking at them again, it's a surprise to realize how long all these ideas have managed to last, and obviously to some degree stay relevant. There's one [image] in particular; it's myself and Sleazy – Peter Christopherson. We're both wearing black suits with black shirts and black ties, and we both have white carnations in our lapel. We shaved our heads at the front, but kept Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth hair at the back. Between us is an antique copper bowl on three chains, which was found in a deconsecrated church by a friend. Inside that [bowl] is something burning, which was actually our own human hair burning as the photograph was taken. When we see something like that, we kind of [say] that it was sort of a...not a joke, but, 'Why don't we make it our own hair? What do we put into this incense burner?'

I guess the point is that nearly all of these pictures were taken for ourselves; it's really our private family photo album. To see it become more than that – a story and a revelation of a very intimate, determined form of art and life – seemed quite shocking and shattering. Seeing early pictures of me as a child in church parades in Manchester on Whitsunday...In the '50s, they still used to do this parade, and there would be banners with embroidered flags, and then ribbons. All the little children would wear outfits to show that they were pure, and we would march through Manchester. That's all gone. And that's part of what we see...how much is gone, and how much changes during a lifetime.

There are pictures of Beck Road, where we lived in Hackney. When we first moved into those houses in 1973, we got a tip-off from some friends in the north of England that there was a house that they had been living in as a squat and they would give us the keys so we could move in when they left. We moved in, and suddenly there was all this banging on the front door. The back door and the back windows were boarded up. It turned out that the people next door were IRA! They decided that they wanted to squat this house. We wouldn't let them in, and one of them came around to the front that night with a shotgun and said in a very strong Irish accent, 'This is our house! We want this house, and you've got to get out.' My answer was, 'No!' He said, 'If you don't get out, we're going to kill you.' Of course, we didn't know he was IRA at that point. My answer was, 'If you're going to kill me, why wait? You might as well do it now.' He kind of mumbled and grumbled at bit and then left. But he was living next door for another year and a half before he disappeared from it.

To go to the bathroom, which was an outside toilet, you had to share this backyard. So it was actually always scary to go to the toilet, because he could be waiting to kill you! (laughs) Later, we found out that people from the Angry Brigade – which was the equivalent in England of your Weather [Underground] people – were also living in squats down that street. Briefly, a couple of the Baader-Meinhof Gang were hiding down that street. We ourselves were raided more than once by sort of police special units looking for weapons and so on... They assumed everybody was a revolutionary anarchist. So things like that are triggered when you look in the book.

You've always struck me as someone who is mostly interested in looking forward, where things are always in a state of evolution – whether it be or your physical makeup or your artistic output. I think that's sometimes difficult to do when you're someone who has a 40-year, celebrated history. I know you have embraced certain elements of your past – there have even been some COUM releases in recent times – but you don't seem to be chasing your past.

No, we're not emotionally attached to it or re-assessing it or anything like that...With the release of COUM records – the first one was made was Early Worm in '67, '68 - we only pressed one copy at the time and forgot about it. The way [the reissues] happened was that we had to catalog the archive, because the Tate Britain were interested in buying what was left of it. Our friend who's now our manager, Ryan Martin, volunteered to be on one of the people who did the cataloguing. Ironically, so did Benjamin Tischer, who know runs the gallery Invisible Exports with Risa Needleman, who represents our art. Ben and Ryan were volunteer cataloguers at the archive. Ben found all this artwork that no one knew we'd made because we kept it secret – it was my private world, making collages and pieces of art [and] small sculptures that we did as a meditation. It was our private world; it was the one thing that was mine that no one else knew about.

Ryan came across reel-to-reel tapes in a cardboard box and came to me and said, 'What are these?' We went, 'Oh, that's nothing. That's just stuff we did in the '60s and early '70s when we were figuring out what kind of sound we wanted to make. But don't worry about it; just write down the titles and forget about it.' He goes, 'Well can I hear them?' We went, 'We don't have a tape recorder.' He goes, 'Would you mind if I borrow them and listen?' We said, 'Sure, of course you can.' Off he went; he listened and came back and said, 'Would you mind very much if I released one of these?' We said, 'But they're old. That's me when we were still at school just trying to figure things out.' He goes, 'Exactly, Gen! That's why you don't get it. People like me want to know how it happened. How to you get from A to here?' He said these were really important to him, because he could then see that even in '67 while we were still in school, we were still using improvisation, poetry and distorted sound. It helped you see that there was a continuity of approach that otherwise might not be as obvious. [I said to him], 'If you think it should be a record, then you do it.' But he did (laughs), and it sold out in seven days or something. To his credit, he never re-presses things, so that was it - gone. Since then, there have been at least three [COUM releases on Dais Records]. He was right, and we were unaware that just as we would like to read notebooks by Williams Burroughs from way back, that to another generation, they want to see the equivalent of those notebooks that we've made. As you say, my way of looking is not just looking into the future – it's even more than that. We look from our deathbed backwards as well. People say, 'Why did you archive so much? Why did you keep so much?' That's why. Based on what we've learned to love about other people that we respect, we couldn't wait to get ahold of letters between William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville that no one has ever seen. We wanted to find out everything we could. We thought if anything we do is of any interest to people, then we are beholden to keep everything that we can so they could have that experience of discovery. It's turned out that that is exactly what's happened. So it's kind of a loop; we look into the future aware of how the past might become.

The cover of Home Aged & The 18 Month Hope by COUM Transmissions

In terms of the people you've worked with over the years, you've certainly had a very long list of interesting collaborators – or co-conspirators, as the case might be. When I look at the current incarnation of Psychic TV, the majority of them have been with you -

Ten years.

Yeah! I think I may have seen one of your very first shows, in Los Angeles at the Knitting Factory on Election Night, 2004.

That was a good show, too!

Obviously, Lady Jaye is no longer here -

Well, we would dispute that. She is.

I understand. What has it been about this particular combination of people in Psychic TV that has enabled it to work for as long as it has?

We've always tended to pick people because we liked their personality first. If we don't like them as people, then we can't feel comfortable around them and feel that we can fart and take a piss and tell a joke or say we're bored or whatever. If we don't feel absolutely comfortable and able to just have no inhibitions in terms of being in the company of everyone who is in the band, then we can't do it. Who people are and their attitude and their personality is the most important; how they play comes second. Based on the skills they have, the music changes and mutates in order to hopefully give the best of what their skills are in the next form of music. Having said that, it was Lady Jaye who knew Morrison Edley way way back in the '80s. When they were teenagers, they met at a Siouxsie And The Banshees concert. They were waiting in line outside, and they just were drawn to each other and became really good friends.

We were in Haight-Ashbury back in 1993, and we were walking along and Jaye goes, 'Edgar! Edgar!' It was Edley. He happened to be there doing a concert or something, and that’s how we reconnected. By 2003, myself and Lady Jaye were living in Brooklyn and Edley would invite us over for dinner quite often. He said, 'You ought to re-start Psychic TV.' We got very skeptical and said, 'No no. We've done that. We’ve been there. We've been repressed by the business side of music, and it's been spoiled for us. There's so much bigotry, hypocrisy, theft and fraud and pressure from the wrong people to get the wrong things. We don't want to have to go back there again. It's a corrupted atmosphere.' He said, 'I understand, but do you realize you've actually just written some great songs?' We sort of hesitated and said, 'What?' He said, 'You've written some really good songs, and you could write more and the world could really enjoy that. You were a great band before, and it could still be great.' We were like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you think that, you do it.' It was the same answer that we did to Ryan – 'If you think it could be an album, you do it.' 'If you think it could be a band, you do it.' Then he came to me and said, 'I've found a lineup of musicians that are all from New York. They're all people I know, and I really love them all. They're all great friends. Why do we do a rehearsal and see what you think?' 

We did, and he was so right, Morrison Edley found beautiful people with amazing musical skill – something we were never seeking. We were just looking for, 'How are they to hang out with and be on tour with?' The rest, well, we'll figure it out. But he actually added this extra quality of amazing musicians. We never thought that the two went together, but we were wrong...We realized that he was right; we had to get rid of our own prejudices that we hated music, hated the music business and all the BS that goes on.

He organized for us to do a one-off concert at this incredible club that had a massive fish tank with girls who would swim around as mermaids. He said, 'Why don't we do this one concert, see how you feel afterwards, see what the audience feel? Here's the setlist based on what I think are really great songs.' We went, 'Okay, why not?' It was the 23rd of December, 2003. That happened to be the night of a huge blizzard, literally about 12 inches of snow. So me in my still-grumbling, cynical way is going, 'Well, now there's 12 inches of snow. No one's going to be there anyway, so it doesn't matter whether we play well or not.' It took us three hours to get from Brooklyn to this club because of the snow – and there was a line of people outside, in the blizzard. Two or three hundred. All of my resentment and dismissive attitude was destroyed and shattered at that moment. We thought, 'Well, if there's that many people prepared to stand and freeze to hear these songs, then Edley's right about something.' We went in and played, and it was amazing. It was really fantastic. At the end, we were playing so loud, and we had strobes going, that it triggered the warning device for the firefighters. Suddenly, all these firefighters came rushing in. There were smoke machines going, so they thought there was a fire going. Suddenly, there was this weird neo-riot between firefighters and the audience and smoke machines. That was it; that's when we were convinced there's still something really special about this idea, and there's obviously people who still want to hear the ideas and want to know what we're talking about, both through the songs and through the ad libs and everything else, and we should not dismiss those people; we don't have that right. We feel that playing and being in Psychic TV or writing books or doing our art exhibitions is the equivalent of being a priest, a doctor or a nurse. It's a calling. To me, it's a holy way of living. You have a huge responsibility and duty to maintain the best possible quality, but most of all, the best possible integrity to those people and tell them how you really feel and what you really think, no matter how abstract it may need to be lyrically in order to say it. We fell in love with communicating again.

There was a little shift. Douglas Rushkoff, who was primarily a writer and did books like Cyberia and so on, always wanted to be in a Rock band and play keyboards. He played that night, but for him, it was just a little gift to have him do that. Then we had Marcus [Persson], who played for quite a few years. But Alice Genese played bass, Edley played percussion and drums and [there was] myself on violin and vocals. David Max was on guitar for several years, but then he moved to Switzerland. Jeff Berner came in, who again Edley found. And Jeff changed everything.

We were on tour in Europe, and we had done a few weeks on a bus. We got to Russia; we were all tired and we had played for nearly three hours nonstop in Moscow, and the audience was still going crazy for another encore. In my head – who knows where from – we suddenly say to Jeff, 'Do you know 'Maggot Brain' by Funkadelic?' He says, 'Yeah.' We said, 'Do you think you can play it?' He strums his guitar and goes, 'Yeah, I think I can do that.' But then he goes, 'But there's a keyboard part.' Jess Stewart - who is our female keyboard player and flutist since Marcus left a few years ago, goes, 'I've never heard of 'Maggot Brain.' What is it?' He says, 'Four or five chords.' And she goes, 'Oh, yeah, I can do that!' So we say, 'Okay, out you go. Play 'Maggot Brain'' (laughs). So they did, for half an hour. And it was stunning. We were sitting at the side of the stage watching, and my little brain's going, 'This is really amazing. Something is happening here. This is one of those special moments where everything changes again.'

I guess one of my skills is mulling things over and figuring out the implications. We just knew that there was something incredibly special about what had happened, and what it might mean. We talked with Edley and came up with this idea. We said, 'How about this, Edley? We do these records, and the A side of one of them is 'Maggot Brain,' and the B side would be 'Alien Brain' because [the other songs on the singles] should always have the word 'Alien,' but be an original. Also, we have to play them '60s style, where the band all play together – it's not overdubbed. We play live and that's it. He goes, 'Yeah, let's do it!' So that's what we've been doing.

Edley got into this; it re-opened his interest in the '60s and '70s. He comes back and goes, 'What about 'Mother Sky' by Can?' We said, 'Yeah!' That means the other side had to be 'Alien Sky.' So we improvised 'Alien Sky' with a whole new lyric, which was based on notes in a notebook. Although we didn't know it in advance, it turned out to be about the atomic bomb and the irresponsibility of scientists and so on. 'Mother Sky' changed a bit because nobody except Edley had ever heard it! (laughs). After we recorded [the tracks], there was still some time in the studio, so Edley said, 'Why don't we just make up something else?' So they started playing a bass riff, and he came around on the drums. We just closed our eyes and thought about Lady Jaye, and how much she gave me through meeting her and loving her, and that was the song which became 'Thank You [Part One].' It was just me remembering the first night that we spent together, when she ran me a hot bath and filled it with rose pedals, washed me and then wrapped me in silk and put me to bed and talked to me as I feel asleep because I was going through a difficult time. And then there was “Thank You [Part Two],” which happened later on in that jam and became a second song. It turned out to be my thank you to her, and then hers to me. The next one that was actually chosen was 'Silver Machine' by Hawkwind.


Psychic TV/PTV3, 2003 (photo by Photographed by Kyle Dean Reinford/ www.facebook.com/psychictvptv3)


It's funny with the Hawkwind thing, because obviously you've covered them in recent times with “Silver Machine,” but -

I also played with them.

Right. Was that with Nik [Turner]'s [version]?

With Nik's, yeah. You can get ahold of those recordings via Cleopatra. It was the West Coast, and it must have been before '96, because in '96 we came to New York, Somewhere between '93 and '96, Nik Turner's Hawkwind toured the West Coast and he asked if I would play sampling keyboards with them, and so we said, 'Yes, of course!'

Was Helios [Creed, Chrome] playing guitar at that point?

Yes. He was just living down the road from me at that point, actually. Its funny how the world goes around. In 1971, Hawkwind played a benefit concert in Bradford in England, at St. George's Hall for some commune that got busted for drugs. Somehow, we [COUM] finagled our way onto second on the bill – even though none of us played any instruments and didn't even have a band! On the actual night, we had a dwarf on lead guitar who never tried to play one until that night. We had Cosey dressed as a schoolgirl with a starting pistol, just walking around firing her gun. We had a guy from Ridlington, who was a kind of obscene blue comedian, on a surf board in surf clothes on a bucket of sea water. (laughs) We had the biggest drum set in the world. It was during the era when all the bands wanted to have the biggest drum kit. If you look on [Pink Floyd's] Ummagumma, you'll see that Pink Floyd laid out all their equipment. It was a joke on that, so we borrowed all the other drum kits from all the other bands and put them all together. We couldn’t even reach the drums, but it was just a spoof. At the end, we fired off all this expanded polystyrene granules, like a snowstorm, which jammed all the foot pedals of Hawkwind! So when we saw Nik 20-odd years later, we said, 'Hey, Nik. Do you remember playing with COUM in Bradford in '71? He goes, 'How could we forget! The schoolgirl, right?' I went, 'Yeah, the schoolgirl with the gun.' He goes, 'Yeah, everybody wanted to fuck her!' (laughs) And then he goes, 'Yeah, and you messed up all our gear with those fucking granules!' (laughs)

We did Hawkwind's 'Silver Machine,' and Edley came up with the idea of segwaying into 'Hurry On Sundown.' It has a banjo on it, and we got a mandolin player, John Jackson, who's now a member of the band through that track. The B side was 'Alien Lightning Meat Machine,' which is all about Nikola Tesla. We got ahold of the various biographies, and went through with a yellow highlighter and just highlighted every phrase or word that looked interested or triggered some kind of feeling, and then that became the basis of what would become the lyric.

Because these are all played straight to tape and we don’t do overdubs, on 'Hurry On Sundown,' we had to add the mandolin afterwards. And then a few weeks ago, Edley and Jeff 'Bunsen' Burner were listening through to stuff on the hard drive to see what they could get rid of, and they came to this jam session that none of us remember ever playing, and it's called 'Greyhounds Of The Future.' It's great! We just lifted it, and it's the new 12-inch single. No one remembers even plying it, never mind planning it or anything else. The B side to that is 'Alien Lightning Meat Machine Part II.' It turned out that after we did the Nikola Tesla tracks, we must have kept going. Sometimes, we grease the wheel with alcohol (chuckles), so I guess we were a little bit drunk because none of us recall playing these new tracks. But luckily they got recorded, and we mixed them and that's  the new 12-inch single.



It's a wonderful era for me, because it's totally spontaneous; [the music's] recorded '60s style. It's nothing to do with click tracks and computers; it's to do with emotional and technical skills, and the band are amazing, as you've seen. If we suddenly go off on a tangent, they follow me. It's really much more like a very, very hot Jazz band in that sense. We bounce off each other; we're all listening intently to each other. A little riff on the guitar can trigger a new chorus by me, and then that can trigger the bass doing a flourish, and that can trigger the keyboard player adding something. So we're playing in the moment, all the time. And that's what we've always dreamed of.


Essential reading: Bob Bert's extensive interview with Genesis and Lady Jaye in the 2004 issue of BBGun (photo by  Chris Buck, www.chrisbuck.com)


I appreciate you making that correction earlier to my use of the expression “no longer here” [with respect to Lady Jaye], because that's clearly not the case. This leads to a question about your efforts in the last several years regarding the Pandrogyne. My first exposure to that was through an article written by a mutual friend of ours, Bob Bert (in BBGun). It has been 10 years since the publication of that particular story. How do you think the public's understanding of what you were Jaye were working so hard to do has evolved in that timeframe?

It's still growing. The one way that we could theoretically measure it would be that sometimes, more often now than before, we get invited to go and give a talk at universities. We've given talks at NYU, Columbia, Yale, all over. At all of them, at Rutgers for example, we broke the attendance record for a lecture ever. At Yale, the same thing. Where the usual audience is 40, we've been getting 300. When we were asked to do a talk at MOMA, it was in the theatre where it holds 500. It was sold out the week before, and there were 200 people in line waiting to see if they could get in on cancelled tickets. They had ticket scalpers outside for a talk on avant garde art on a Monday night when it's raining. Which, to me, suggests there's a hell of a lot of curiosity and interest. And that's all we need – a mind opened enough to allow you to speak. Within all that, we've avoided being sidelined into transgender alone. One reason we like that word “pandrogyny”...there's many reasons...there's “Pan,” “drowning in,” “Pandrogyne – the positive androgyne,” “the divine hermaphrodite"...it just doesn't have baggage like “tranny” does. That's not anti-tranny; of course, we would love to speak to that community and, hopefully, in ways that they approve – and that seems to have happened. But we really want to speak for everyone and say, 'This is about evolution.' This is about our belief – and Lady Jaye's in particular, who was a driving force here – that mutation is a law of nature. Without mutation, then you have inertia and entropy. What we found is this amazing hunger to listen to even our most eccentric ideas. One thing that may give some credibility is that when they listen, they know everything we talk about. We've really lived it; we don't just talk about it. We only talk about what we've done. If we say the human body can be this, it's because we've done this. That gives it some authority.

When we gave the talk at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh during the respective they did of Breyer P-Orridge last year, there was this amazing moment. We gave our talk – apparently, we talked three hours without stopping, without knowing, with no script, and a pin could drop. Suddenly, there's a line of about 80 people to the left of the stage as I'm looking out – all with iPhones that want photographs with me. To me, that's a little bit spooky; we don't really get that. But we honor them; we always say, 'Yes, okay.' But then we had this feeling. We turn to my right, and there's this little girl. She's about eight, and she just stood there very prim and proper, just looking at me very intently. We say, 'Who are you?' She tells me her name. I say, 'Are your parents here?' [She says], 'Oh, my father's over there.' We say, 'Okay, Why are you here?' And she says, 'I've been into your work and ideas all my life.' And that knocks me back. 'All my life?' Seven, eight? That’s a hell of a concept for that age. We say, 'Have you seen the exhibition yet?' She goes, 'Yes, I've seen it twice and I'm going to go again. It takes time to take it all in.' Who in the fuck is this?! Wow. Amazing.

Her father came over; we said, 'Did she come to the concert?' He said, 'No, we thought it would be too loud.' But he said, 'She's been nagging me about coming to your exhibition since January.' It opened in June. What does that mean? We're still trying to figure that out.

How was she introduced to your work?

She heard the music through her mom and dad, but she was really interested in everything – the art, the lecture. She sat silently listening to a whole three-hour talk. So there's things going on out there in the atmosphere. There's a hunger for mystical reinterpretations of what we feel is reality or what we call nonsense. Those who are able to move into this demographic are hungry - for someone, some people, some groups, whatever it might be. But they're hungry for people to tell them how they really feel. They're sick of virtual information, they're sick of bigotry, they're sick of spin. They just want people to tell them, 'Yes, life can be different. It's okay to feel how you do because, yes, the world is really fucked up.' Culturally, it's really, really in jeopardy. Some go to religion because they're paranoid and afraid; the others – as we have and always will - look for any kind of truth, any kind of a true connection with something that has meaning. Which makes me hopeful.

Psychic TV performs this Saturday at Foo Fest in Providence, Rhode Island.

Check out Part Two of this conversation. 



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