‘Music is very different now. Back when Throbbing Gristle started, we had to break down the barriers in some way,’ says Cosey Fanni Tutti, a creative powerhouse who’s been a leading voice in dissident electronica almost since the dawn of synthesised music itself.
‘It was tough out there because no one had heard anything like that before. What people tend to forget is that there is an acceptance of the industrial music genre or noise or electronic music. Back then, it was completely unheard of. We had some quite violent gigs where we had to fight our way in and out of places.’
Cosey is referring to sonic experiments and challenging performance art shows that began in Hull in the late sixties and gave rise to a creative habit she hasn’t kicked in five decades.
Her body of work, along with her Throbbing Gristle cohorts Chris Carter, Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson, sits at the very heart of British avant-garde electronica, modern dance music and leftfield noise and drone genres.
Besides her longstanding projects Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey, and Carter Tutti – which pioneered the early techno, acid house and industrial genres – she’s also been known to reach outside her close circle.
Recent notable collaborations have included the Carter Tutti Void project, a culture clash between herself, her partner Chris Carter and Factory Floor’s Nik Void. She also recently popped up on The Epic of Everest soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner to play cornet.
Over the years, Cosey has built a reputation for propelling modern music into increasingly bizarre and thrilling places by distorting accepted notions of gender boundaries and social homogeneity.
We spent some time with Cosey for our Women & Machines feature to learn how she was able to create so many new genres and bust numerous artistic boundaries.
She talks about her upbringing and her fight against the musical mainstream, and reveals what’s kept her going over the years…
I understand you’re recording at the moment?
We’ve just finished. We’ve been doing some Chris & Cosey shows and we decided to release an album of Carter Tutti playing Chris & Cosey, with the numbers we do within the gig. We’re just mastering that, then production, then that’s it. We’ll release later in the year.
So it’s an interpretation of your live set rather than a live album?
It’s a hybrid. It’s a strange thing with live albums – you get a good recording or you get a rubbish one… So we decided to do a bit of both, to keep the energy of the live shows in there somehow. It’s quite different some a studio album.
How did your Chris & Cosey shows go down, considering it was such a long time since you last played in that capacity?
We were playing as Chris & Cosey in January this year and we had to add an extra show because they’d all sold out. It was fantastic. But it’s a strange thing to do – even though everyone seems to be doing it now, like New Order and other people… There’s a call for it.
We resisted it for a long time. But we did a show for a friend of ours, who had been asking us to do a Chris & Cosey gig for about eight years. We agreed to do one and then we got inundated with requests to take it elsewhere. When we did it the first time, we really enjoyed the reconnection. I think it had been long enough for us – nearly 25 years – before we revisited it live. We’ve been enjoying it.
You’ve been performing on and off for a long time now. What is it about playing live that keeps you going back to it?
It’s the unpredictability of it. You never get that physical feeling in the studio like you do through a PA. The whole ambiance and vibe of the audience is very different wherever you go. No two gigs are the same.
It’s harder to control…
And that’s what’s appealing about it, to be honest. But it’s hard slog.
So how did you first arrive at electronic music?
I was drawn to electronics more than anything else, just because of what I heard around the house. My father used to make radios and things, so I’d hear lots of bleeps and blops and strange noises coming from him as he made them. He also bought me a tape recorder – rather than a record player – when I was 10, so that I could record things and listen back rather than put it on the deck and play it. My introduction to music, and the use and playback of it, was hands-on right from the beginning. That had a huge effect on me.
We also had my uncle living with us as well, who used to play guitar and mouth organ. So there was music all around me, with my mum singing and all the rest of it. By the time I got to my teens it was the sixties and music was the language of revolution and the whole breaking from rock ‘n’ roll into psychedelic music and protest songs. Music to me was a fantastic communicator, so I used that medium for my work – that’s how it all began.
COUM Transmissions was your first project back in 1969 – how did that influence subsequent projects?
When we did art pieces as COUM, we often used contact mics to make them sound pieces. They were very abstract sounds and they fed into what became Throbbing Gristle (TG). We weren’t dependent on doing songs with verses and melodic choruses. We were more into using literal sounds to represent our thoughts and feelings. That’s how it all began.
I don’t want to be pre-programmed into expressing myself.
Also, we were very broke, and it was that kind of climate where people would build their own gear, or knew someone who did, and everyone would help each other out. We’d return favours to people for building us bass bins and amps. That’s how we met Chris – through a guy who used to make the PA systems for us.
The whole music thing was all quite organic for me, in terms of how it emerged. But I did have a guitar. We all decided to choose an instrument for each other that none of us had used before. I took lead guitar, but I processed it immediately because I didn’t know how to play it conventionally and I was interested in playing it that way either. It was just a sound-making machine to me – like the piano, which I learned when I was 11. As soon as I got home I’d take the lid off and use it that way because it was more exciting to me than having to learn to play songs. Right from a young age, I was never interested in making music that other people could then do cover versions of.
Do you feel there are fewer restrictions in electronic music?
Yes, I think there is. There’s much more freedom. If you learn how to play an instrument and you learn it well – the chords and the key changes and so on – it means that when you’re actually creating a new work and you get stuck not knowing what else it needs, you have a fall-back that kicks in where you’ve been trained. I don’t want that. No thanks. I don’t want to be pre-programmed into expressing myself.
These days, people use software packages like Pro Tools and Ableton – do you think they’re just like learning a musical instrument, with their own set parameters and rules?
Yes they are, but it depends what you do with them. If you approach them in the same way, and use them in the way they are supposed to be used, then you’re falling into the same problem area, as far as I’m concerned.
I do hear some electronic music and I know exactly what they’ve done, from using Ableton and so on. I really try to avoid all that. When I use Ableton I use it for my own means, not for what they want you to use it for. It’s a means to an end for me – it’s not an instrument, like a guitar. It’s that whole attitude of using something to express how you feel rather than using the way someone has expressed something to represent your feelings. It doesn’t work for me.
Years ago in TG, we were screaming to get software like Ableton and now we have that. But we don’t use it in a recognisable way, necessarily.
How did the creating and recording process work in TG?
We had the gear set up are Martello Street [in Hackney, London] more or less all the time, unless we had a gig somewhere. When we recorded anything we’d hire in a tape deck and we’d plug ourselves in and just go. Quite often we did it live and then saw what happened. That’s what we were really interested in – recreating a gig situation in a studio. A lot of the time we just jammed together to see what happened. Or Chris would’ve made some new pedals or whatever, and we’d try them out. Because it was handmade stuff it was fragile. Whenever we did gigs we’d always go first so we could set it all up and get it running. That’s the trouble with analogue equipment, its unpredictable and you never get the same noise twice – but that’s a good thing.
Are you nostalgic? Do you look back to those early days of COUM and TG at all, and if so, what do you make of it all?
I don’t think back an awful lot because it’s part of my life. I don’t analyse it. One thing leads to another and I just get on. When we’ve had to listen to it, when we regrouped again, we were sat listening to it saying, ‘Oh, it was quite good really, I don’t remember doing that.’
We were ad hoc; we had a different kind of energy then and different things to say. We were all quite angry at the situation, but the way you express anger in your 20s and 30s is very different. You do acquire a different kind skill base when you’ve been doing it 30 years.
How has your musical impetus changed since then?
It’s very different now. Back then, people had to scream and that’s what TG did. We had to break down the barriers in some way. It was tough out there because no one had heard anything like that before. What people tend to forget is that there is an acceptance of the industrial music genre or just noise and electronic music. Back then, it was completely unheard of. We had some quite violent gigs where we had to fight our way in and out of places.
These days you can hear all sorts of electronic music and noise any night of the week in cities across Britain and it’s not considered weird or confrontational. Why do you think that is?
It’s assimilation, acceptability. I’m still waiting for someone to come up with something that provokes a reaction like it again.
You’re known for developing a new kind of music – do you think you might have to do it again?
We didn’t set out to create a new genre of music, we just made sounds that we couldn’t hear anywhere else. When you’re looking for something and can’t find it – that’s when you create something new. There’s nothing you can do to contrive that situation, it just happens.
That’s why when you have academic musicians doing electronic or improvised music, it never sounds right to me – because of that default thing. If you’re a trained musician and you try to loosen up, it’s never going to work. I don’t understand it. There’s no soul there. All they’re proving is that they can write a piece of music using maths.
You couldn’t hear the sounds you wanted to, and that’s what pushed you on. Is there anyone around today who’s pushing those boundaries and barriers, and making noises that you haven’t heard before?
No! Bad isn’t it? It’s a strange one. The only person I’ll listen to, who will break away from what you expect, is Carsten Nicolai. He’s the only one I keep mentioning because he’s the only one that keeps surprising me, and I want to be surprised. I can access a nice bit of pop music anytime, and there’s some really good stuff out, but because I’ve been making music so long myself, I want to be surprised. It’s a bit like filmmakers who can see how things are done – it must spoil the experience somewhat. And that’s what I’m like with music.
A lot of people are making music very cheaply in their bedrooms. Do you see any echoes back to when you were doing it all yourselves?
It’s similar, but it’s miniaturised now. You could stand inside our bass bins. Everything has moved on, and that’s fantastic. I love the culture of everyone making music, but not everyone has a creative streak. There’s a quality control that people don’t think needs to exist – but not everything out there is fantastic. You can have as much software as you like but you need to have the ideas.
Do you and Chris still make your own gear?
Yes, Chris does. When news of new gear comes through, he’ll read what it does and wonder why they didn’t do it differently. So he’s always pushing. He’s so into that and tends to miss some very basic things that I come in with. And then that’s really good because it adds different elements to it.
Do you still find it easy to make music and generate ideas, or do you have patches where you just don’t feel like it?
I think everybody gets to the point where they’re either on a roll or they’re waiting for that roll to come. That’s what happens, you just can’t help that. No one’s in creative mode 100 percent of the time, you’d just burn yourself out and probably produce a load of crap anyway!
We’re playing live and we’re in the zone at the moment so, while we’re there, we’ll get our ideas down and then we can come back and tweak them if we like. Those initial impulses are priceless little gems and they don’t wait for anyone.
Is there anyone musically that you’ve been influenced by?
When I think of that question I think, ‘Who did I listen to and think that I want to be like that?’ When I think back to the way I play my guitar, the only person I can put that down to and blame is Jimi Hendrix. His relationship and the physicality of him with his guitar I get now. I didn’t before, the guitar was quite abstract for me and I used to punish it. These days I have a bond with it, it’s quite strange. But influence-wise – god forbid, my father, with all his blips and blops.
Sometimes you hear something and think, ‘Wow’. Even on a film, in the background, there’s a moment we look at each other and think, ‘that’d make a really nice rhythm.’ And that’ll be a starting point for something, that’s how things work.
What do you think the future holds for electronic music?
I have no idea, and if I did, it would be boring. Part of it is the discovery aspect. I’d just like someone to come along and break through with a completely different new genre. That would be fantastic, I’d love that.
Carter Tutti Void have just announced their second burst of activity after 2011’s successful inaugural London performance and the resultant 2012 Transverse album released on Mute Records. They will be performing on 15 and 16 September at Oslo Club, Hackney, London.