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JG Thirlwell: From Foetus To The Venture Bros

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JG Thirlwell is best known by the general public for his work on The Venture Bros. Like many of the animated features on Adult Swim, it is marvelously subversive – much like Thirlwell’s music. From the very beginning, the producers understood this.

When Blogcritics spoke to JG Thirlwell recently, we asked how the association came about. JG replied that he had been approached to score the pilot, but had declined – to concentrate on other projects. This did not deter program creator Jackson Publick, who simply used previously recorded material for the episode. When the artist saw how well the music and action complimented each other, he signed on.

The Venture Bros may have brought a whole new audience to JG Thirlwell, but his career stretches back to 1978. He started out in a London post-punk outfit who called themselves pragVEC. When that group ended, Thirlwell released the first recording using the Foetus moniker – the single “OKFM” b/w “Spite Your Face.” (1981), credited to Foetus Under Glass.

He has recorded in so many variations under the Foetus brand since, the man may hold a Guinness World Record. They include: Foetus Art Terrorism; Foetus Über Frisco; Foetus Corruptus; Foetus In Excelsis Corruptus Deluxe; Foetus Inc.; Foetus Interruptus; Foetus Over Frisco; Philip and His Foetus Vibrations; Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel; The Foetus All-Nude Revue; The Foetus Of Excellence; The Foetus Symphony Orchestra; and You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath.

Thirlwell has been nothing if not prolific, and has collaborated with a multitude of artists – each with their own designations. A few examples: Wiseblood – with Roli Mosimann (Swans); Flesh Volcano – with Marc Almond (Soft Cell); Baby Zizanie – with Jim Coleman (Cop Shoot Cop).

He has also appeared on, or remixed recordings with such a wide variety of artists, a full listing would likely fill this page. Here are a few: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Orange Juice, Voivod, EMF, Sonic Youth, The The, Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, Coil, and Nurse With Wound.

It is with Nurse With Wound that much of the JG Thirlwell legend begins. At the tender age of 18, after briefly studying fine art at the University Of Melbourne, JG emigrated to London. This was in 1978, as the post-punk genre began.

He got a job in a record store, and had a customer who would come in every now and again to inquire about the sales of a record titled Chance Meeting On A Dissecting Table Of A Sewing Machine And An Umbrella, by Nurse With Wound. When Thirlwell mentioned that the consignment item had not sold many copies, but how much he personally liked the LP, the gentleman introduced himself.

The customer turned out to be Steven Stapleton, who basically is NWW. The two became friends, and (later) musical associates, after Stapleton encouraged the young clerk to begin recording himself. Shortly afterward, JG joined the local post-punk outfit who called themselves pragVEC. Stapleton’s and Thirlwell’s musical association remains active to this day.

In 1983, JG relocated to Brooklyn – where he has resided ever since. Having listened to a great deal of his music over the past thirty years, I think New York City itself informs a great deal of it. His early forays into the No Wave scene remain extremely powerful, even dangerous – much like the city itself did in the early eighties. There is no better example of his early works than Limb (2009) – credited simply to Foetus. This CD/DVD plus 48-page book is a remarkable set.

The twelve tracks contained on the CD are excellent examples of what he calls “minimal compositions, instrumentals and experiments.” In the book, Thirlwell explains the origins of each piece in detail. The information is appreciated, but what makes it so striking is his artwork. He is an incredibly gifted artist, and his distinctive designs adorn his album covers. JG’s graphic style is very much of a piece, and he has a simple yet extremely effective palette of red, white, grey, and black.

NYC: Foetus (2005) is a 75 minute documentary DVD I found to be enormously revealing. The quotes from associates such as Alex Hacke (Einsturzende Neubauten), Lydia Lunch, and Michael Gira (Swans) are insightful, show a high degree of respect, and are often flat-out hilarious. I loved Gira’s line when asked to describe his friend, “He’s a good entertainer, a combination of Tom Jones and Attila The Hun.“ The DVD contains an additional 45 minutes of excerpted live performances from Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, and the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR) as bonus material.

Director Richard Kern made a number of Super 8 films in the eighties with Lydia Lunch, Thirlwell’s girlfriend at the time. His comment is telling, “I look back on it now, and he would form the movie. I would give him this silent film that had some sort of rhythm maybe, but he would make the rhythm with his music.“ These efforts were an obvious precursor to The Venture Bros., although the process is much different these days. The Limb set is exclusively available at the Foetus website.

In the post-Nirvana music business of the early nineties, Foetus was signed to Columbia Records for two records – Gash and Null (both 1995). It is hard to imagine the company expecting platinum sales out of an artist this uncompromising, but apparently they did. When the discs did not light up the Billboard charts, Foetus was unceremoniously dropped.

Thirlwell may have been back on his own, but his music was continuing to evolve at a rapid pace. He was incorporating large percentages of purely instrumental pieces on Foetus albums – and decided to diversify. Steroid Maximus became the outlet for his instrumental activity, and Foetus would be devoted to songs with lead vocals. The multi-textured Quilombo (1991) was the first Steroid Maximus effort. Gondwanaland (1992) followed, and their third was titled Ectopia (2002).

The composer was also bringing a more pronounced classical influence into play. Branching out again, he chose the moniker Manorexia for his solo instrumentals, to differentiate from the group framework of Steroid Maximus. Volvox Turbo (2001) was the first Manorexia recording. The Radiolarion Ooze (2002) is so far the only other. Both of these titles are exclusive to the Foetus site.

One of the more interesting releases of 2010 was credited to JG Thirlwell – yet was titled Manorexia: The Mesopelagic Waters. The disc contains selected tracks from the two Manorexia albums, performed by a six-piece chamber ensemble, plus JG himself. The eight tracks are all remarkable reinterpretations of the originals, and sound glorious with the acoustic chamber instrumentation. The recording was issued on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

The years 2000 – 2010 have been incredibly prolific for Thirlwell. Besides the Manorexia and Steroid Maximus projects, his soundtrack work with The Venture Bros. continues. Add to these the six albums delivered by the flagship Foetus, and you find one busy man. Three of the Foetus discs are full-length studio recordings: Flow (2001), Love (2005), and Hide (2010). Two of these have received the full remix treatment, with Blow (2001) for Flow, and Vein (2007) reworking the songs on Love.

The sixth, titled Damp (2006), contains previously unreleased material, all written since 2003 – mostly by Thirlwell. There is one track on it, co-written by JG and Buzz Osborn of The Melvins titled “Mine Is No Disgrace,“ which is 8:23 of pure anarchic fun. Damp is exclusive to the Foetus site.

Speaking of the website, it is one of the more impressive and thorough ones I have seen. Among the highlights are an incredibly detailed discography, archived press and interviews dating back to 1982, an images section with examples of his artwork and various photos, and (of course) a one-stop shop filled with all things Thirlwell on CD, and/or downloads. There are also some very cool T-shirts.

A great deal of tribute has been paid to JG Thirlwell over the years – from a variety of sources. In 2000, station WHRB FM broadcast 33 consecutive hours of Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, and recordings he has appeared and collaborated on.

There is also his involvement as one of 12 performers of the freq-out sound installations which began in 2003. Twelve different frequency ranges are assigned to the individual artists, and they utilize them at will. The resulting overall sound becomes the piece. Very John and Yoko.

There have been commissions for Bang On A Can, and the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, or LEMUR. The LEMUR material on Limb is particularly fascinating, as the instruments performing Thirlwell’s composition are robots.

The world-renowned Kronos Quartet have commissioned two pieces from the composer. The first was performed at Carnegie Hall in 2006. There was a JG Thirlwell Composer Spotlight concert at Whitney Museum NYC in 2007. A month of concerts at The Stone in New York were curated by him in 2008. Most recently, JG was awarded 2010 fellowship by the New York Foundation for the Arts, in the music & sound category.

We asked JG what we could look forward to in the near future, and here is what he told us:

“I have just about finished the third Manorexia album, fourth if you include the Tzadik album. It’s entitled Dinoflagellate Blooms. It will be released as a stereo CD and a 5:1 surround sound album (the surround version will be on a DVD that comes with the album). It’s cinematic and quite dark, monstrous at times. It leans perhaps more than ever to the contemporary classical side of my work. I didn’t make it in time for my projected 2010 release date – it should be out in the first part of 2011,” Thirlwell explains.

“After that I will be scoring a feature in January called The Blue Eyes, directed by Eva Aridjis, which is a psychological thriller,” he continues. “Another installment of freq_out will happen in Moscow in April. In 2011. I’ll also be working on my third Kronos Quartet commission and the companion album to HIDE, as well as other things I cannot yet disclose!”

So there you have it, from possibly the busiest man in music today, and still one of the most mysterious. A major talent with such a wide body of work it is difficult to describe.

Except perhaps, as endlessly fascinating.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Very well researched article Mr. Barbrick. Nice work.

    -Glen

  • El Bicho

    impressive. you should do more overviews like this

  • Greg Barbrick

    Thanks guys! Thirlwell deserves a lot of attention, I’m glad he is finally receiving some.

  • J. Rader

    Long-time fan; I love that he is as talented as ever.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Wow…check out all the facebook action this article is getting. Nicely done, Greg.

    -Glen

  • http://paradoxo42.blogspot.com/ Rodrigo L.

    A work of genius.