The Creative Technology Institute
Chris and Cosey
Formerly one half of Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey have since leapt to the forefront of Britain's avant garde electronic music scene. Interview by Dan Goldstein.
Free from the theological nightmare that was Throbbing Gristle, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti have since risen to prominence as one of the foremost exponents of British electronic music, and one of the most prolific producers of videos and associated communications.
It's probably fair to say that Throbbing Gristle were not the most accessible band to emerge during Britain's independent labels boom in the mid- to late-seventies. Their use of deliberately shocking imagery and bizarre instrumental and vocal arrangements isolated them from the mainstream of electronic music development, despite the consistent emphasis they placed on technological innovation and experimentation.
The band was formed in 1976, when Chris Carter joined Peter Christopherson, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Genesis P-Orridge, who had formed the nucleus of a previous band, Coum. TG's first album - perversely entitled Second Annual Report - was recorded using two cassette recorders at a cost of £15: the band sold their initial pressing of 785 copies and then gave the master away free to interested friends to exploit.
One of the first bands to experiment so ruthlessly with anarchic tunelessness, they dubbed their product 'Industrial Music for Industrial People', though one critic preferred to describe them as 'the first band to produce an electronic record that sounded like goose farts.'
'To begin with', Chris recalls, 'we had very little of our own recording gear, so we used to hire it all. Genesis and Cosey used to live in the basement of a big old dress factory that had converted into lots of little artists' studios, and we used to keep our own PA down there and a lot of our instruments.
'Whenever we recorded an album, we hired eight-track or 16-track equipment. I remember the first time we hired a 16-track machine, Paul McCartney had been using it the day before at his farm up in Scotland. Everything kept shorting out, and we opened it up and found there was moss growing inside it. Apparently he'd been storing it in a barn!
'Although we were using multitrack equipment, we had a real mish-mash of gear, like mics from Tandys and so on. It was an unorthodox arrangement but it gave us the results we wanted. What we normally did was record the backing tracks using the hired gear at home and move into a commercial studio to mix it, and that worked well.'
Before playing their last gig (in San Francisco on May 29, 1981), Throbbing Gristle released a veritable barrage of recorded work: every one of their live performances was recorded and released on cassette, while their vinyl offerings included the vaguely commercial 20 Jazz Funk Greats (nothing of the sort, in fact) and the ranting Discipline, as well as numerous soundtracks to films and multi-media occasions.
It was a concert at London's Lyceum Ballroom back in 1978 that first told Chris and Cosey that they were marching to a different drum from their TG colleagues. When the split finally came, Genesis and Christopherson continued to take Gristle's excesses to further extremes in Psychic TV (see interview, E&MM December '83), the propaganda wing of their bizarre Temple Ov Psychick Youth, but Chris and Cosey opted for a more orthodox career in electronic music.
Cosey: 'We actually started work on the first Chris and Cosey album while TG were on their final tour in America, and when that was over we came back to England to finish it. We sent the finished tape to Rough Trade and they put it out on record as Heartbeat. We then made a second album on cassette called Trance, but Rough Trade liked it so much they decided to put it out as a record as well.'
Both Heartbeat and Trance are examples of well-crafted, swirling industrial collages, though the music they contain is generally more accessible than the majority of TG's output in the band's final years. As a further extension of this accessibility, Chris and Cosey recorded a single - 'October (Love Song)' - that was uncompromisingly commercial.
Cosey again: 'Chris was doing some recording in our own studio (which at that time had a TEAC four-track and a Seck four-channel mixer), and suddenly he rushed downstairs and asked me to put some vocals on tune he'd just come up with, so I did! It was a long, fairly slow song, and very, very commercial for us.'
Chris recalls how 'October' progressed from there.
'We took it to Rough Trade as usual, and they loved it. The song was originally just going to be part of another album, but everyone there was so enthusiastic about it, they told us they wanted to make it into a single.
'Quite simply, they promised us some better recording equipment if we could then come up with a really good version of 'October', and what happened in the end was that they bought us an eight-track Tascam and we borrowed some money off them to pay for a 24-channel mixer: that's still the system we're using at the moment.
'Anyway, we made the single, and it flopped totally, mainly due to bad promo, I think. We decided that from then on we wouldn't go out of our way to be commercial, and the result was Songs of Love and Lust.'
Chris's reference is to the duo's most recent LP release, a collection of what this author can only describe as 'electropop that is deliberately amateur-sounding', though that hasn't stopped it becoming the best-selling record either of them has ever made. Strangely, Songs of Love and Lust has not been so widely licensed abroad as some of their previous recorded efforts, though the reluctance of foreign record companies to take it on has only accentuated the rapidity with which Chris and Cosey have sprung to the forefront of the electronic music scene here in Britain.
Part of the reason for their success probably lies in the fact that, of all the synthesiser-based acts currently doing the rounds of the British music media, Chris and Cosey are one of the most prolific. Their current situation vis a vis record deals is a unique one: three different contracts with different companies to produce different sorts of music. They're fortunate, and they know it.
'We are very lucky in a way because we're able to put out different things all the time, instead of having to stick to one predictable style', Cosey reflects. There are really two sides to our music: the Chris and Cosey stuff, which is still quite commercial and comes out on Rough Trade, and our CTI (standing for 'Creative Technology Institute') material, which comes out on our own label, Conspiracy International, distributed through The Cartel. Then again, there's our video soundtracks, which are released by Doublevision, Paul Smith's label.'
Having so many different projects running concurrently obviously requires that Chris and Cosey have their own recording facility at home, and their 'Studio 47' has been in almost constant use since the demise of Throbbing Gristle. In addition to the main recording equipment outlined above, the studio contains a vast array of electronic instruments, varying from the everyday to the bizarre.
Chris gives me a brief run-down.
'The main synth is a Roland System 100M, which I've had since TG days. I started off with just a few modules and gradually bought more, and in addition to the Roland stuff, I've also got some Digisound 80 modules that I built myself. The controlling keyboard is just a Roland SH101, but we don't really ever find we need any more, and we also use an MC8 Microcomposer that we've had for ages. Landscape had it before us, and they had the software modified which brought it more up to date: the great thing about it is that it's got a Tape Sync on it, which means you can link it to almost anything - we've got it going with a TR808 drum machine.
"I've modified our Boss DE200 so that you can play samples from a keyboard. It's a bit hit and miss which keys will actually trigger, but it does work."
'We've also got an old Wasp synth and a Casio MT30 that a guy in San Francisco modified for us for about £40, which was ridiculously cheap for what he did to it. He put infinite sustain on it, harmonic fuzz, and a transpose function that adds two octaves to the keyboard's range: thanks to him, we still use it quite a lot. The next thing we want to buy is some sort of polysynth, but the manufacturers are changing them so quickly, it's difficult to know which one to go for.
The duo's 'instruments' aren't confined simply to keyboards, however. As Chris explained, his latest fascination is with rack-mounting outboard equipment, to extend the capabilities of the duo's recording set-up.
'Most of what we've been buying lately has been rack-mounting effects. We've got a Roland vocoder and a Dimension D chorus, a Korg SDD3000 digital delay, and a Boss DE200 which we use for sampling. I've modified its trigger input so that you can control it from a one-volt-per-octave keyboard. It needs an inversion circuit on the output, otherwise the higher the note you play on the keyboard, the lower the pitch of the sample will be. It's not to any logarithmic scale or anything, so it's a bit hit and miss which keys will actually trigger, but it does work.'
Both Chris and Cosey have been involved in artistic projects outside the field of music for some while. In the early days of Throbbing Gristle, the band carried a portable VHS video recorder with them for 'journalistic' purposes, and that fascination for the moving visual image continues in the context of the Creative Technology Institute.
Chris: 'The most recent thing we've done is a video to go with a live album we're releasing on Doublevision. We did the whole thing in a weekend; editing from eight hours' worth of material, shooting some new images, hiring all the gear, and mastering onto U-matic. We had about four different machines in here and one of them didn't work at all - it was a nightmare! Still, we managed it in the end, and cut the album on the following Wednesday. It'll be out in a couple of months, I expect.
'In the past we've used a video suite sponsored by the Arts Council. You paid an £18 annual membership and it only cost £46 a day to use it, whereas most places charge about £500. We couldn't have done any of our recent video stuff without that facility, but the rates are going to shoot up now because they're turning it into a commercial venture, so we're going to have to get some video equipment of our own in the near future.'
The adventures of Chris and Cosey don't stop there, either. As well as taking an interest in investing in some video hardware, they've also just bought a 16mm film camera, the intention being to use it in projects that require film's inherently superior picture quality. The first will be entitled Time Seldom Visits, a documentary concerning the history of an old Victorian house in North London. Chris reveals that it's something the duo have had up their sleeve for some while...
'We've had the script written for ages, and now we've got to make a portfolio out of it plus some production drawings, to see if we can get funding from somewhere so that we can actually make it.
'We'll be collaborating on it with John Lacey, who's been involved with all sorts of projects since before even TG days. We've made a lot of videos with him, and he also works a slide show to provide the visuals at most of our gigs.'
He also records music under the title of 'The Lonely Hammers', and his collaboration with Chris should soon see the light of day on the Conspiracy International label, mentioned above.
At this stage of the interview, I'm more than a little confused by the bewildering array of different Chris and Cosey record releases, both real and planned. Chris clears things up easily enough.
'The first thing on Conspiracy International will be a series of twelve-inch singles, and what distinguishes them from the ordinary Chris and Cosey material is that they'll be collaborations with other people, or they might be Cosey or myself recording on our own.'
Among those musicians teaming up with Chris and Cosey to produce CTI releases are Konstruktivists (playing at this year's UK Electronica), Lustmord (comprising ex-members of SPK), and perhaps most surprisingly, the Eurythmics. How did that unlikely collaboration come about?
Cosey: 'We'd known Dave and Annie for a while, going right back to the days when they recorded in a loft in Camden Town, with low beams you used to hit your head on. We started recording together nearly two years ago, before they'd had any of their chart success, but obviously as soon as that happened, things got done at a very slow pace, and although we've now finished a mix we both like, there's no way of telling whether Dave and Annie will like it as well. We haven't actually seen them since Christmas, and since then we've been communicating by telex, but we're hoping the single will eventually come out in some form.'
In addition to their future multimedia releases, Chris and Cosey are also about to move house: from a non-descript two-up two-down in Tottenham, to a converted church near King's Lynn in Norfolk, part of which will, of course, be dedicated to the re-siting of Studio 47.
'Having extra space will certainly be a help', Chris muses. 'And we're going to try to incorporate some sort of video facility into it, as well as possibly going 16-track. I've looked at the Fostex B16, but I think I'd rather go for a Tascam again: I have a feeling it'll stand up better to constant use (and when he says 'constant', he means all the time!), and anyway I prefer dbx noise reduction to Dolby C.'
And once the duo have moved in comfortably and settled all their current recording commitments, they'll be going on the road again, taking their eccentric music to as many of their followers as possible.
Contrary to popular belief, they won't be performing - as they did last year - at the annual UK Electronica festival, but they will have a stand there, proving that in amongst all their current projects, they still have time to listen to the music of others and to hear the comments of their admirers.
Which is more than you can say for most of them...
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