JG THIRLWELL (aka Foetus,Steroid Maximus,Manorexia,Xordox,Silver Mantis,『Venture Brothers』etc.) INTERVIEW Nov. 2019 at his Self Immolation studio
I've read an article of your interview, you said, "I hear things cinematically".
Did I say that a long time ago?
Around the middle of 80s, you do even today?
That's pretty much true. It's so kind of true(laugh). Yeah, I do think very filmicaly in composition. It's interesting. I've been collaborating a lot with Simon Haynes. He has a group called Tredici Bacci, and we started writing. We've been writing songs for last few days for the next Tredici Bacci album, and it's very much like a small film. When I talked to him about it, I will say like in this section, this is like, this is the wide open expansive of space, and this star crew is coming in here because this particular song sounds a lot like the theme from a space movie. I will say to him, "Okay, in this section, we have to cut to the villain. The villan is in another galaxy, and he is in the castle when he's doing this, blah, blah, so when I speak to him about the different sections of song, I talk about it in terms of like, this is what's happening in the film, you know? So this is what is happening, there is a fight here with bad guys. We're back out of the expanse of space and come together. So I do use, you know, when we are talking about that, not only is that there's not language, but also when I'm working in the song format. If you're telling a story in, it's like telling a story. You know, in this with a piece of music. And so you might want to punctuate things musically. And so , yeah, but also I am very inspired by soundtrack music.
I listen to a lot of soundtrack music, and what I like about listening to soundtrack music divorced from the soundtrack, is that it creates a lot of unexpected dynamics because if the images taken away. You have a lot of eccentric dynamics, but you do not get in. Uh, that would not be that conventionally, because they placed that for to a mystery possible. But, that's not exclusively how I work, but it is. But I do work with dynamics.
When you made the first record in early 80s, you didn't have your own studio, did you? I guess you needed to use a studio to record.
When I started I didn't have this technology. Technology that exists now didn't exist. I was working with very few instruments I had, like I had 2 cassette players.
At that time, did you have a sampler?
No, I didn't. This is pre-sampling. When I was making takes in my bedroom before I started to go into recording studios, how vicious! Using like drum machine, monitor synthesizer and one little effects box. That was it, I think. I would record into cassette player, make something up and then, some of those were just like demos I used later. The recording studio became another instrument for me quickly. That was one of the defining aspects of my music. The recording studio was the way that I sculpted my music as supposed to performing at a live, actually supposed to like siting down on a piano and playing a song from start to finish. I didn't practice. Try and become good at an instrument, and but also, when I dediced going into recording studios, it was because I wanted to make a record instead of I want to perform live, something like that. I never thought about performing a live. I always thought this is a record, and the record was an object that I wanted to make. That object was important as well, instead of just writing a song and having a lot of songs, I wanted to make a record finished thing.
It's not rarely that artists compose soundtracks. Do you see and listen to newest films like Hildur Guðnadóttir's Joker?
I love Hildur's work, I've known Hildur for a long time, and I'm excited by her. I do listen to what people are doing now, and it's really interesting what's happening now. Because, people like Ben Frost, Mica Levi and lots more. So yeah, I'm definitely interested in hearing them and hearing how they are moving the conversation forward. For a long time it's been where people from the contemporary music world have been a crossing into films. I think Touch is doing quite well with film stuff. Jóhann Jóhannsson was doing very well before he died. He has got two Oscar nominations and I think Hildur was working with Jóhann before he died.
I listen to a lot of new music as well, and I'm always looking for new music. I find a lot of music on Bandcamp, and I'm always looking for to hear new stuff because I go and see concerts all the time. Maybe 3 times a week or sometimes more. Because I want to hear what other people are doing in pushing the conversation forward. I'm not the sort of person that I think something other people of my age, they stopped listening music and only listen to music from when they were 20 years old or 30 years old, something like that. I want to hear more music, what's happening in music now as well as discovering music from that I haven't heard before, from the 50s, 60s and 70s, whenever, or in the classical world that there are a lot of stuffs I haven't heard music because there is a lot in music that hasn't been done yet. I mean, people say it's all been done, it hasn't all been done, you know?
I feel Steroid Maximus lead you to your present works, didn't it?
I would say in a very big way, it affected my working on scores because first of all. When I started Steroid Maximus, it was because Foetus album had become increasing. I've been putting much, many more instrumentals on the Foetus albums, but I felt like that-nobody noticed these instrumentals because people's idea for Foetus was monstrous kind of, you know, homicidal. A lot of it was concentrated on the vocal part, so I thought, "Well, I'll...just want to make a project where the instrumental work gets a chance to take the center stage. When I made Maximus, it was about 1989 through 1990. At that point, I was calling it-soundtracks got a movie. Now, since then that has become a cliche but at that point that was one of the ideas behind it. Then I do musical score for this cartoon Venture Bros. And the reason I got the job was because of Steroid Maximus. The director heard Steroid Maximus while he was writing a screenplay and said, "This is the perfect marriage of what my concept of Venture Bros is". So they contacted me. It's because of Steroid Maximus that I got the Venture Bros. And it was the Venture Bros that I got Archer. And I've now done something like 80 episodes of Venture Bros, and maybe 40 episodes of Archer. So that's a lot of scores. And it's because of the amount of scoring I've done, that means I've gotten better.
In early 90s, around the same time as Steroid Maximus, you released a 7 inch of Garage Monsters as well. Were they related each other?
No, not really. I was doing that anyway. I was a friend of Pizz (he passed away in 2015), and he had the idea doing the cover of Powerhouse for Sympathy For The Record Industry. I said, "Okay, I'll do the music for it". But I also want it to put it on Steroid Maximus album because I had already started Maximus. That's what we did. And then we did another one with 10 inch Safari To Mumbooba!.
Carl Staring or Raymond Scott (who played Powerhouse) inspired Maximus' big band music?
I think there's a little bit of that in it. But I don't think that's the main idea of Maximus. I mean Quilombo and Gondwanaland, there's a lot of variety in that. There some of the music almost like ethnic music, some of it sounds like Mile Davis and some of it sounds like musique concrète. It's a lot of different stuff. But when I came to do Ectopia album, which was about 10 years later, by then, it had been a long time. I synthesized a lot of things I worked (I had done more studio work), I was bit better with hearing things and achieving things. And I think I really wanted to make some music that was very referential to, some partially inspired by blaxploitation. cop show, detective and stuff like that. It's more directly derives from soundtrack music that Ectopia album, then the earlier ones. That was the conscious choice because I wanted to make music that my version of cop show stuff. All Steroido Maximum's ideas goes into Venture Bros, the OST is like Steroido Maximus' album, in a lot of ways. It's like Steroid Maximus on steroids.
Let's talk about one of the famous scenes of VB, that is Dr. Venture played a progressive rock LP to let his son listen to it. The music sounds like Yes, did you enjoy it?
Yeah, I love that. You think that was the funniest one? That was one of my favorite part of VB ever, because, I mean, Dr.Venture pulls out The Counts of Crimson King. He said "Alas! No, you're not ready to go to the corner on to taste it ", then just said Yes. He showed him the Roger Dean record cover . And then so that point, Chris Mcalloc said, "Okay, we wanted we could have a fantasy sequence and it should be like Yes song". So I wrote this Yes type songs. [singing synth phrase] Then I sang it, I had these lyrics about dragons and stuff like that. But then I got a note from Cartoon Network soon, and the network said, "You can't do this because it sounds too much like Yes.". I said, "Well, that's the whole joke. It supposed to sound like Yes, I mean, it's not a Yes song. This is an original piece of music I wrote, but I wrote it to sound like Yes style. They said, "No, we are going to get sued". So I had to change, I could not use my vocal on that. So I said to Chris that I wanted him to do the lead vocal. "I did mine in the style of Jhon Anderson", I said to him, "I want you to sing this in the style of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. He redid the vocal, I wrote two chapter Yes type songs.
David Bowie appears in Venture Bros. How do you feel about that?
Crazy. You know they… Well, obviously Chris (the creator of Venture Bros) really likes David Bowie, and Chris is also very good at Impersonating voices so he could do him. But on the show they got an actor to play David Bowie. They actually asked David Bowie to be the voice of himself on the show, but he didn't respond. There's one episode which has David Bowie, Klaus Nomi, and Iggy Pop…
That’s famous in Japan. People say, why do they fighting?
I think it's interesting, I understand the homage to him, and I understand that it's being affectionate, you know? It's not making fun of him. It's an affectionate thing, because they love him, you know? I love David Bowie. I’ve loved Bowie ever since I was a kid. And I met him a few times. He’s still one of the best artists of all time to me.
It was interesting, there was a certain point in Venture Brothers where Bowie had to appear and there had to be a sound when he appeared. I was thinking, “What’s a David Bowie sound?” I had to think about it for a long time. And then I got a Stylophone, which is — you know what that is? It's a little musical instrument, which is about this big, and it has a pen you play it with and…on Space Oddity it’s the sound that goes “Brawwwwn!”, that's the Stylophone. So I just kept playing that when he came on, “Brawwwwn!”.