J.G. Thirlwell: Cinematic Mad Science

Back in 1981, a cryptic record with hugely uninformative album artwork began turning up in record store bins, emblazoned with the words “You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath.” Anyone daring enough to bring home a copy was assaulted with a frenzied blast of alarming, confrontational bombast as soon as needle was set to groove.

Here was a complete mental breakdown set to music. If mass panic, a train wreck, or an oil-tanker explosion needed theme music, surely, this was it. The LP was labeled “DEAF!!” and it delivered on its promise.

In the years that followed, record-store clerks around the world found themselves befuddled by this mysterious madman again. Does “Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel” get filed under S or F? How about “Foetus Under Glass”? And what kind of music is this anyway?

As more and more confounding manifestos crept their way into stores and onto turntables, the more industrious fans of “blank blank” Foetus “blank” noticed a clue to each puzzle buried in the liner notes: “Foetus is J.G. Thirlwell.”

Yes, there was a real flesh-and-blood person behind this madness.

“There is certainly a level of anonymity running through my work,” Thirlwell says from his top-secret lair deep in the bowels of New York City. “Foetus was born in the studio. On those early albums, I was playing every instrument you heard. As I made more and more records in the studio, the studio itself became one of my instruments.”

Meanwhile, on the outside world, a new kind of grinding bastard hybrid of dance music, thrash punk, and metal was being made popular by bands like Ministry, Public Image Limited, and Nitzer Ebb. Looking for a possible jumping-off point, the music press was quick to lump Foetus into the industrial movement, even crediting him as one of the founding fathers of the genre. But Foetus never made industrial music. Even at his most bombastic, deep under those crushing, rhythmic waves of noise, Thirlwell was experimenting with found sounds and wonky time signatures more in line with avant-garde jazz and art rock than anything else.

Tucked away from prying eyes, Thirlwell continued to involve new and more elaborate instrumentation into his repertoire. His studio became a mad-science laboratory, where horn sections, exotic percussion, and found-objects-turned-instruments replaced the mangled limbs, brains in jars, and electrical coils.

“I find the term ‘industrial’ rather meaningless, but people like to categorize things,” he says. “I’ve always aimed to reach conclusions using different building blocks. There have always been classical elements, new instrumentation, and different ways of approaching a composition in my music.”

Thirlwell’s growing collection of Foetus monikers was not enough to contain the composer’s ambitions. Though, certainly, there was an ascertainable Thirlwell glue holding the recordings together, the Foetus sound began, slowly but surely, to morph into something very different. The albums became more instrumentally varied, shifting away from the nails-on-concrete explosiveness of their predecessors. By the early 1990s, it was different enough to warrant an entirely new non-Foetus project, Steroid Maximus.

“Steroid Maximus began because, by that time, the Foetus works had become almost entirely instrumental,” he says. “Even though there were these long instrumental passages and new layers of atmosphere, people still perceived them as confrontational and coming from a first-person narrative simply because they were Foetus records. I decided to let those instrumental passages breathe on their own; I pulled them away and let Foetus become more song based.”

Under the guise of Steroid Maximus, Thirlwell was free to explore vastly different, entirely instrumental terrain. Alongside the familiar skronky electronics and amphetamine drum machines of Foetus, here were elements of campy spy and bachelor-pad lounge music, classic globe-hopping exotica, and blaxploitative funk. But even when the sound was as far away from those DEAF!! days as seemed sonically possible, Thirlwell, the composer, was discernible underneath. The canvas was the same; only the paints had changed. Steroid Maximus brought the most cinematic qualities of Foetus to the fore.

“If there is a running thread through my work, it’s that it is very cinematic,” Thirlwell says. “I am very interested in soundtracks disembodied from film. With a soundtrack, the logic of the composition is often dictated by a visual element. When you strip that visual element away, the music is put on a different framework. Suddenly, there are weird accents existing as musical events rather than narrating a visual. The music takes on its own skewed internal logic.”

Through Quilombo (Big Cat Records, 1991), Gondwanaland (Big Cat Records, 1995), and Ectopia (Ipecac, 2005), Steroid Maximus created three of the greatest movies you’ve never seen. Each “soundtrack” is teeming with such a distinct personality that it negates the need for visual stimulation.

“I write very amorphously,” Thirlwell says. “I don’t see pictures; it’s more about feeling. Music is bigger than pictures. Pictures are a literal translation. As soon as you attach music to them, it is forever interlocked with that translation, which is unfair to the music. I prefer to let it exist on its own terms.”

Through it all, Foetus continued unabated, shifting like a manic chameleon. Thirlwell produced and remixed work for other artists, and he even teamed up on a collaboration with former Swans member Roli Mossiman to form the brutal and crushing Wiseblood. Yet Thirlwell, ever the prolific Renaissance man, began to seek new outlets for his indefatigable well-spring of musical muses.

Under the nom de plume Manorexia, Thirlwell began truly honing his soundscape chops. It is among his most classically bent and sonically varied work to date, playing with ambient noise, room tone and drone elements, and classical string-quartet passages. Through Volox Turbo (2001) and The Radiolarian Ooze (2002), Thirlwell showed his adeptness at balancing audio spaciousness with his trademark dense bursts of instrumentation. Manorexia brings to mind the work of Krzysztof Komeda — the Polish composer who created eerie landmark soundtracks for Rosemary’s Baby and The Fearless Vampire Killers for Roman Polanski — as well as newer avant-classical groups such as Bang on A Can and the Kronos Quartet, with which Thirlwell has collaborated, adapting his Manorexia-based work to string quartet.

With such an impressive body of instrumental work, it was only a matter of time before someone sought to employ Thirlwell to apply his music to his or her visuals. Perhaps unexpectedly, this someone was not a horror-movie director, drama writer, or action-adventure producer. It was Christopher McCulloch (also known as Jackson Publick), who had begun adapting a new cartoon for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim called The Venture Bros.

“It was natural that someone would come to me to score something,” Thirlwell says. “It doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. The creators of The Venture Bros. came to me specifically for what I do, wanting me to impart it on the show. I was kind of the matching musical counterpart to what they were doing.”

In the liner notes for Williams Street’s 2009 release, The Venture Bros.: The Music of J.G. Thirlwell (the first record released under his birth name), show creator McCulloch says, “Without J.G. Thirlwell’s music, The Venture Bros. would not move at all. Yes, I have a confession to make: The Venture Bros. wouldn’t exist without J.G.”

Thirlwell was contacted, and the rest is history. Since 2003, he’s been setting the animated exploits of McCulloch’s Venture brothers, Brock Samson, and Sergeant Hatred to music. Though it’s only a slight variation on what Thirlwell had created with Manorexia and Steroid Maximus since the early 1990s, the music holds differences from when Thirlwell is operating from his internal musical muse.

“A really great soundtrack can, potentially, go completely unnoticed by a viewer,” he says. “I try to make the best background music possible. I also make foreground music. The difference between this and my other projects is that you are somewhat at the behest of the script. There are long talkie passages to work around that push you in different directions, anomalous to what’s come before. I don’t intend for my scores to blend. I want the viewer to notice them.

“The script gives me room to exaggerate a bit more here and there,” he continues, “but I don’t find myself feeling the need to make goofy, gag-y cartoon music. I leave the gags to the dialogue. I see my part more as an action-adventure score guiding and highlighting the story.”

Never one to rest on his laurels, Thirlwell has plenty on the horizon. This summer saw a 20-piece live performance of Steroid Maximus’ Ectopia in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and the rest of this year will bring brand-new albums from Foetus and Manorexia (or, for simplicity’s sake, J.G. Thirlwell).

The new Foetus record, titled Hide, features several songs set in a first-person narrative, a song structure that has not surfaced in Foetus’ music for some time. But its reclusive composer has plans to take it to the stage. “This will be kind of a concept record,” Thirlwell says. “I’d like to incorporate a live-performance element, but I’m not sure what form that would take yet. A theatrical form might make the most sense.”

For Manorexia, revered composer John Zorn’s label Tzadik recently released The Mesopelagic Waters, an album featuring versions of previous Manorexia works that were readapted for string quartet. Later this year, yet another Manorexia volume will surface — but like the old days with Foetus, it will be a studio effort, entirely performed by Thirlwell.

“This will be the first studio-based Manorexia album,” he says. “The last was performed with an ensemble. I hope to adapt it to a live setting at a later date, but I’m planning on doing this one in 5:1 surround sound.”

As if that weren’t enough, an anthology of early Foetus singles is in the works, along with aspirations for feature-film work.

“I am always busy, always changing things, and always trying to challenge myself,” Thirlwell says. “I try to follow whatever urge has placed itself in front; one day it might be a string quartet, the next a remix project, and the next after that a piece for The Venture Bros. Sometimes they all happen on the same day. Whatever is in front of me is primary, but I’m capable of working on a lot of different things. The hope is always that one or two of them will be completed and actually work out. The more I do this, the bigger my ambitions get. That’s a problem, because they just get harder and harder to realize.”

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