In 2010 I was contacted by a writer at Brainwashed.com and answered a bunch of questions. This seems to have been abandoned, so before I trash the emails I’ll put the unedited exchange here so it wasn’t a complete waste. As a lot of the information is out of date I’ve made a few notes.
Are you a remarkably organized person? You clearly spent quite a bit of time amassing a vast library of found sounds and samples – did you have a systematic means of archiving and locating them? Do randomness and chance play a large role in which snippets make it into your work? Fundamental to answering this question is the difference between a library and an environment. The majority of the sounds are those that we lived in – radio and television, odd music cassettes that we already enjoyed, the noises of our life. There’s a different intent between what has become known as plunderphonics – taking up a significant shared sound and incorporating it in a new work, and sample based folk music. Our music was based on the minutiae of our soundscape, whether or not it made sense to outsiders. So I tend to describe what I have done as ‘gardening’, which organises the natural features of a living space.
In many cases I have no idea where a sound is from. It was on the TV or it was from a pile of toys. Once it fell into a bit of music it took on significance in retrospect. We have a policy of saying that all samples come from the film Lassie Come Home which is as likely as any other source.
What you might be noticing is our archiving has been surprisingly good. That comes from using tape recorders – obviously things get documented automatically, and from a happy accident where I could afford one of the first digital recorders in 1985. In that year I threw all our cassettes onto a few digital tapes, which still played when CD-R came along.
Which seems more improbable to you: Severed Heads’ relative success or Severed Heads’ relative obscurity? I’ll borrow from Kurt Vonnegut. “SH was the victim of series of accidents, as are we all.” There have been a few moments where somebody happened to be somewhere and the wheel turned. It turns one way and then it turns the other. Of course I respect the plotting and planning that goes on with some artists and their management, but never really had the nous for it. Look at Graeme Revell, who has organised himself excellently over the years. I can’t help but be impressed, but it’s not for me. When we have climbed I have been pleasantly surprised and each time we have fallen I can shrug and remember that it was all a bunch of kids making noise in any case.
One advantage of this is ego protection. Any artist knows how you get surrounded by praise for a while, and then get told that you are embarrassing dated shit. Wait a little while and everything that was dated becomes cool again. Then not cool. If you care too much you get hurt.
Some of your work (Skippy Roo Kangaroo for example) seems wilfully annoying. Is that ever your end goal? Do you deliberately use “obnoxious” source material sometimes to make the act of transcending it into an entertaining challenge for yourself? Skippy Roo is much more than that. It’s Australian Radio for Schools, broadcast across the entire continent, children clapping and singing in hundreds of tiny isolated towns, the teacher’s broad accent, the way she loses the note at the end of the phrase. This is not just random shit. If you can understand how this represents our take on ‘folk music’ then we’ve made mind contact. I love that teacher, and I’m framing that moment in diamond and gold. When that blast of easy listening hits at the end I think everyone should line up and salute.
I don’t find this sound annoying. It’s like using white noise to try sleep (which I do). The context of the noise matters very much, it becomes music if the mind of maker and listener are able to synchronise. What might seem chaotic and tedious is often infinite possibility.
Were you surprised or embarrassed when Vinyl-On-Demand contacted you about releasing a lavish retrospective of your earliest work? I was curious. It seemed to be an honourable thing, and Frank was very informed and helpful. Actually I was mostly interested in working with two sided media again. I was back at university after decades and working up to a thesis about the influence of recording media on music. How to fit everything into 20 minute long segments?
At the same time, Severed Heads had just been shut down as no longer fun. That called for an exorcism and that’s what the document became, a coffin for the old order. I wrote a bit of a eulogy, comparing the box set to a grave stone. It was a mix of self mocking and serious.
Your earliest work is more conspicuously perverse and uncommercial than what Severed Heads eventually evolved into. Was there an epiphany that steered you in that direction? Like “Hey…dancing is fun. Making uncompromising collages for a small number of serious music snobs is markedly less so…I’m definitely going about this all wrong.” Oh no, not at all. The very earliest music we made was pop music. In 1979 we declared that we made ‘Chinese Fungal Disco’. Severed Heads always made what we enjoyed, and in your life sometimes you want sugar and other times salt. And of course we had very limited equipment and ability which both grew over time; it would have been dishonest to contrive our earlier sounds year after year. No, I am much happier to have so much different music to look back to, even some country and western!
There’s another factor – the recordings did not disappear. Once you make an album it remains made. Why make it again? Why not make something else? It’s still there. People who ask why we don’t make something like (their favourite album) again don’t understand that you are just as likely to subtract as add to a work by doing it over. Really the best thing for any musician to do is to make what they themselves want to hear and if others like it as well it’s an extra.
And another – the earlier music was, to me, too much about calling attention to a single idea or effect. I call it ‘Sci Fi music’. There might be one sample that dominates the whole thing for example. Since then SH made pop music that had just as many ideas, but presented without calling attention to one aspect. Like having bird sounds on every track of the Rotund For Success LP. That’s more fun than stodgily making an album only out of bird sounds.
Do you listen to much “pop” music for enjoyment or do you relate to it in kind of a mad scientist kind of way; like as a body you can harvest organs from for your own creation? Pop music defies analysis; it’s about your body and the chemicals that flow through your head and muscles. It’s like fucking, basically. Making pop music is learning how to fuck, and if you are taking notes you are not doing it right. There was a time when Autechre made some great pop music, sexy stuff. I was really into it, and then they went off in some uptight puritan tangent which might have satisfied some music priesthood, but for me the mind had overcome the ass. Point being too much analysis spoils music.
Have you ever had a collaborator that had as strong an appreciation for the absurd as you? They all did! Everyone who has passed through SH was in some way their own pervert. They all did great music before and after the band and one thing that makes me sad is when somebody like Garry Bradbury gets lumped with his time in SH – about two years – when he’s spent a lifetime making really excellent noise. The band had a revolving door, they came, they went and everyone that came through contributed some of the personality: Richard Fielding’s radiophonics, Stephen Jones and his home brew video gear (now somebody has built a replica!). Bradbury’s intensive tonality, Simon Knuckey’s lead guitar (R.I.P.), Paul Deering and his communist noise bursts (R.I.P.), Robert Racic’s late night House (R.I.P.), Boxcar’s precision, Kriv Stender’s cinematography. It was a really messy shared house; all I did was make sure the rent got paid.
What convinced Richard, Andrew, and yourself that you could release albums and that people would probably want to hear them? In the late 70’s making an album was like making a blog now, although it cost. Not expecting a large audience, but still a making public act – adding our small voice to many. I guess the current jargon is ‘the cloud’. We didn’t think that Ear Bitten would be heard widely (only made 400 copies), but it would add to the general noise and that made life more enjoyable.
Were there any important non-musical influences that shaped your direction? Do It Yourself culture included fanzines, comics, super 8 films and a lot more. A generally creative environment helped us take a chance. There was space to grow as well – less rules and expectations. I already had a computer (a Radio Shack TRS-80) making up word salad ‘poems’ and made super 8 film loops and anything else that seemed like fun. Multimedia had been around since the 60’s and oddly seemed more commonplace than it does now.
What sorts of things are currently inspiring you? I hope I’m not the only person who feels overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ideas, artworks and tools that are pounding at the door. I can’t be, given the nostalgia about. Either you cultivate ignorance or you hopelessly flap between new music, new software, social networks… I mean just on YouTube there’s another 24 hours of video uploaded every minute. There are probably 1000 bands I should love and an equal number of gadgets I could use to make a racket.
I tend to love too many things and collapse from optional paralysis. At my age I probably should just settle down into senile collecting of 80’s underground cassettes… but nostalgia pisses me off.
Anyway I think computer game engines are a way forward. Look at free tools like Unreal Development Kit or FMOD designer. So many untried ideas come from that world that it makes me dizzy (and paralysed). Even a Blu Ray disc has such amazing potential for reforming narrative into branching and looping parts.
Right now I am burned out with music. My favourite music right now is a recording of a thunderstorm. That sucks but it won’t last.
What do you think/hope will follow CDs? It seems like you still have some hope for physical media. Is something important being lost in our shift to “virtual” media? Does the convenience outweigh it? How do you view the current resurgence of vinyl & cassettes in the underground music scene? I think the fetishization/scarcity part is pretty exasperating, but a lot of music definitely sounds better with some crackle, hiss, and grit. Also, I tend to better remember things I listen to on vinyl- putting a record on is an “event” of sorts. The main worry is the change from 20th century mass production to 21st century virtual distribution. Where in the past you would buy a cheap replica of a high end object, now there is the download, a souvenir of the thing itself. The wealthy own the book, the poor own the PDF. The mp3 is the musical object stripped down to its least potential. It leads to music sold by volume: how many songs on your player. It seems to me a bit of a trick and that’s why I still sell my stuff on CDs. (n.b. gave up in 2011)
Piracy is congratulated by many as anti-authoritarian. It’s actually a kind of self harm where the powerless attack those that have some small power, not touching the status quo at all. Lady Ga Ga will survive piracy, but the independent bands will go under.
Vinyl fetish acknowledges the missing magic and is a self empowerment – but also points the wrong direction. Yes, we should resist the virtual ghetto, but not by falling back on safe and ironic. Surely there’s a way forward, and my little survey of formats suggested some of the things we should keep. I think something like Blu Ray or even DVD could be the forward fetish, if it survives.
I’ve always thought that Severed Heads could’ve only emerged from Australia. Do you feel similarly? Are you able to articulate why? Yes, although it’s very hard to explain that from the inside. Think of a small town, it can be dead boring but you can also have good friends, places to drop in – a bit of a scene. A lot of good art moves out of small towns – Sheffield and Seattle are well known examples. Sydney was like that, a small group of people, an internal logic, and lots of in jokes. It was refreshing for outsiders when it finally emerged.
That Australia has since died. Earlier this year we held a festival and seminars about the old ‘inner city’ scene, organised by kids who wondered why it had disappeared (the Circa 79 Festival). It’s just that media became centrally planned for efficiency, and Internet has made it overpowering. Facebook is like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Did the dissolution of Severed Heads coincide with a significant decrease in the amount of time you spend working on music? Kind of. I wanted to take personal responsibility, drop the band bullshit, and make less music better. Just compose and not go through the whole rock distribution fantasy.
Also as an academic I’m supposed to be working on ‘serious music’. I have a commission for a major work next year which is a new, frightening step for me! It means working on the one piece for months on end, and nothing is heard in the meantime. When you are called ‘Severed Heads’ you don’t get offered that kind of work. (The Shape of a Note)
Have many of your current projects been percolating for a long time? Is Aerodrom the most ambitious thing you currently have in the works? Aerodrom is something that … never gets off the ground. It’s like the short story you keep writing and then throwing in the trash and starting anew. And that’s because the interesting part will only come as a side effect of the work, like a soundtrack that’s more important than the film. But I have to ‘shoot the film’ first and that needs some time and skills that I have trouble collecting.
The most ambitious thing is probably my doctorate. The idea is to retrieve video by a psychometric profile, which seems bogus on the face of it and I get some hostile responses. But in the project is a call for data retrieval not based around the ‘who, what, when, where’ kind of thinking which tends to favour narrative over abstract work. If we tend to retrieve video in a certain way then we will end up only with a certain kind of video: a person in a place at a time.
I was recently dumbfounded at a speech by a well known guru of ‘sound art’. In just one part of an annoying tirade he suggested the need to develop ‘expanded cinema’ as part of training for acousmatic listening. It became obvious that he really meant ‘cinema’ – as in narrative movies – and was setting up a whole new academy like the one that used to divide music into ‘serious music’ and ‘jazz’. When I asked about VJ work he basically dismissed it as colour organs. With people like that in positions of power there’s a real potential for non narrative video art to be left out of the search – and these days that means death.
So back to Skippy Roo … I have a ton of questions now: 1.) when is that recording from? did a young Tom Ellard ever get to clap and sing along with Australian School Radio?, 2.) Is that “bury someone close to you” line normally in the song?, and 3.) Were a lot of your loops meaningful/important to you before being re-contextualized in your music/video work? I understand that everything was meaningful in a sense, being taken from your immediate environment, but I am curious about how intimate/personal you were. I am guessing you’d want to slug someone if they described you as a surrealist. Well I did clap along, but not in the late 80’s when that recording was made! I don’t think there’s the line “I buried Paul” in there, but I wouldn’t argue if you say it is. No, I don’t think they are meaningful… it’s very difficult to pick the right words. They are not significant in themselves, but have an important place in a wider ‘sympathy’. Like the smell of toast is not meaningful but could be crucial within a person’s impression of existence. I am really struggling with this point right now and don’t have the training to do it justice.
It’s far too late to be a surrealist, but I believe that we are guided by the unconscious, which is a continuous activity of the brain. I am certain that music is formed in collaboration with instinctual mechanisms that are not explicit to the person. I’ve been through analysis and (to my own satisfaction) have seen how sublimated urges have been honed over the years to allow me to create. It’s a wonderfully rich world and I feel sorry for people who claim there’s no ‘I’. They should stop signing their research papers if that’s the case.
Were you working with tape loops and mucking about with gadgets for long before Severed Heads cohered? I have a romantic image of you obsessively taping everything around you as a child, amassing teetering stacks of unlabelled cassettes that later wound up in your music. Well, yeah. All of us started creating long before the band thing. I have a cassette of me as a kid screwing around with spinning records in the late 60’s. (Actually the most important thing is the cassette itself is an original 1st generation Philips dictation cassette.) By the early 70’s I had a portable recorder and in 1975 some open reel machines which I connected up like the illustration on the back of Eno’s Discreet Music. But tape loops were more fun!
When I met Bradbury he was making some infernal noise by firing off a ghetto blaster in a public space and recording that onto another ghetto blaster. Then repeating that process. Insane volume in libraries and buses! I Am Shitting Up A Room.
Your short wave radio project is one of my favorite things that you’ve done. Do you think hearing all those strange transmissions as a child did a lot to shape your taste and aesthetic? What is the most unusual/memorable thing you remember hearing? Shortwave radio was just the most amazing thing for a child – you could turn a few knobs and make the most wonderful soundscapes. My old man liked to hear people and music but I liked the noises. The thing we could both like were the ‘numbers stations’ which were numerous and powerful back then. I soon got the sound out of the shortwave radio and put it on a tape loop. It’s funny that a guy I met years later called Ian Andrews was doing exactly the same thing a few suburbs away! But we were two of the very few who did that kind of stuff as teens.
When I heard Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity it was like – my god, there are other people out there! I was so happy. Then I heard Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge and realised that it’s a long flow of ideas, and innovation is perhaps a myth.
Do you think distributing your music through Sevcom has worked fairly well? I imagine setting up and maintaining it consumed a lot of time. Sevcom only ever met demand, never encouraged it. Occasionally I’d talk with a company that offered to promote the music & deduct a fee. Talk was about buying shelf space, buying live gigs, paying off radio stations … what use? Back in Severed Heads’ most commercial moment with top 20 airplay and all that, we were talking to our label about what to do next. Can’t be ‘Severed Heads’ – change the name, change the music – roll over, play dead … what was the point of it? Become Elton John? There’s a point where ambition folds over.
Do you think working with record labels in the past was a good idea? I’ve noticed that a lot of bands I like release their music on their own, but it seems like that is only a feasible option if you’ve already established yourself with by making a big splash through shock/extremity or name recognition from a stint at a “big” label. Absolutely! We drew great benefit from our time with majors. The champions of self marketing and market dumping all had major labels first build their goodwill. By market dumping I mean giving away your material, funded by cash reserves that younger bands can’t match. Many multinationals: Roche, Microsoft etc. have done this to destroy their competition. The sad thing is that the young bands are convinced that they too will eventually win the race to the bottom. They denounce labels and publishers without having experienced either.
Has the direction of your commissioned composition been solidified? I’m pretty curious about where you’ll go with with it- will it be a totally new direction or an elaboration upon one of your past phases? I’ve always thought that a piece like Wonder of All the World could work quite well as a long-form work. Are you planning a visual accompaniment? It’s not solid yet, I’m very anxious. It has to be suitable for high school music studies, explain what I think is important about music and yet still be an interesting work. One concept for example is that tempo and pitch are two ends of a spectrum. OK, so that’s easily demonstrated with an oscillator. But how do you make that beautiful? It has to demonstrate that moving image is music – not just ‘visual music’ but all moving image. The conservatorium are taking a huge risk on me and I’m puzzling through the elements and hoping it starts to come together pretty damn soon.
There are a few old things I could rework. I remade Gashing the Old Mae West today as an Ableton project, not too hard as it’s simply an 8 channel loop.
How did your collection of weird cassettes begin? Is there any one that you keep going back to again and again? I’m kind of fascinated by the amount of old “exotica” LPs I find at thrift stores- it seems like the average person used to be a lot more open to music from other cultures than they are now. I am sad that no bland suburban families are buying Hawaiian music or mambo albums any more. The cassettes are mostly family heirlooms, brought back from various trips around Asia in the 60’s and 70’s. They’ve been picked up in markets as souvenirs, bootlegged from records with lots of surface noise and added distortion. I’ve added a whole layer of crank, religious and business tapes from hock shops throughout the 80’s. A curious thing is how mysterious old Asian tapes are now identifiable online. I had reused sounds from some indecipherable Hindi tape on a track 25 years ago. Trying to find a better copy I ended up on YouTube watching the film from which my old cassette was dubbed. That’s kind of disturbing – the obscurity is peeled away and the reuse seems referential now that I know the original author!
Do you see 2010 as a particularly bad time to be a musician? It certainly seems quite hard to make a living or even get noticed in the relentless torrent of releases these days, but it also seems pretty easy to record, distribute your work, and get cheap, sophisticated gear & software. A visit to ‘Mutant Sounds’ shows that back in the 70’s and 80’s there were an enormous amount of bands pumping out cassettes and 7 inchers that no one much cared about. Looks like every second street corner had a teen ‘industrial band’ flogging ten copies. Perhaps there are not more bands now, just more people on stage than in the audience, because everybody can be on stage.
We want what we can’t have: a rare edition or fame or riches. It all comes down to power, and having made distribution more equitable has left the power relationship unchanged. In fact it’s more vicious – the lower end is judged in hits and tweets and downloads.
Did you ever get involved in making videos for other artists? it seems like it would have been quite natural, since Severed Heads was so far ahead of the curve in regards to video art, but all of your work that I’ve seen is very instantly recognizably “Tom Ellard.” It’s endearing to play the piano badly on your own recordings but to then go out and act like a session musician is a bit foolish. I don’t think I should make videos for other bands. I’ve actually done plenty of corporate video but it’s all very nondescript – banks, utilities – and I keep it very secret!
How are you dealing with the culture shock of being immersed in academia? Do most of your students know that you are a titan of post-industrial music? if so, are they appropriately awed? My students were born around 1990. When they were six the Internet became mainstream. Their whole lives have been spent in an information sewer, and the entire notion of scarcity is beyond them. They see history as a mockumentary, everything a punchline. When I have been compelled to talk about myself to them (which I avoid like anthrax) they stare at me like I was their dad on drugs.
One of my friends is very insistent that Dance be played at her funeral. Was there anything notable about the conception of that particular piece? What would you play at your funeral? Dance is based on a TRS-80 home computer which was made before there were rules about RF interference. If you ran a series of instruction loops in BASIC you could broadcast primitive music around the whole neighbourhood and Dance is part of a recording I made with a radio placed near the machine, changing the tuning every now and then to alter the timbre. Computer pirate radio.
I’m flummoxed by the funeral question. It’s not going to matter much to me what they do. They can use a garbage bag and play a polka.
Which of your works is your current favorite? I am especially fond of Cuisine, myself. Is there anything you’ve recorded that still kind of astonishes you (like “Where the hell did that come from?) Every musician probably hates everything they have ever done until that drunken moment when you think – “hey that’s not so shit after all.” I like what I do now far more than any of the old albums, but seems like the opposite is true for the audience. That’s a bit unsettling because it means you’ve become a comfortable old chair. I guess I like the two parts of Over Barbara Island the best. Dead Eyes Opened makes money. Barbara I have to give away.
Do you have any closing wisdom that you’d like to impart to the masses? Well, one reason people make music is to make friends. It works when you are starting out and you do meet some really sweet people. But you also seem to meet these incredibly bitter, fucked up people that vent their jealousy and rage at you like you were a thing, not a person. I used to compensate, but since freezing the band I’ve realised they’re the ones with the problem. I guess the lesson is – they’ve already cast you an arrogant prick – so GO FOR IT. You might even get a laugh out of it.