Interview: Sutcliffe Jugend (noise/power electronics) (UK)

Sutcliffe Jugend

We are extremely pleased and honored to bring this interview to you today.  Of course, Sutcliffe Jugend needs no introduction.  This interview has been a few months in the making so we hope you enjoy.

At the time we fielded the questions to them, it was a few months after the review of the monumental 6-CD set SLAVES.  So there’s a bit of a focus on that album.  They’ve released material since then which of course has continued to bend genres and defy artistic laws.  But that’s just a given for Sutcliffe Le-gend.

Kevin Tomkins was very kind to take some time to answer some of our questions and we thank him very much for that.

SLAVES is a huge achievement with 6 discs.  Each track is distinctly different from the next most of which have fairly complex layers and textures.  Can you give us first of all an idea of the different kinds of equipment used and the process for creating and mixing?  It took quite a bit of time, right?

Kevin: S L A V E S  was recorded over several years, we’d get together every two weeks and spend a day working on the album, rehearsing for live shows or working on other albums. Once we had a basic idea, usually involving one of us creating something we could hang everything else on, we’d then improvise around it and work it as far as it would go. We’d build up layers live, trying different things, no more than four or five tracks in total. I remember sometimes one of us would call out instructions something like “change”, “build” or “more intense” things like that. After the session, the next day usually, I’d mix the material, again quickly, with no additional effects or overdubs, pretty much as it sounded in the room. Finally I’d edit, splice and structure each track in a wave editing programme, so a twenty minute piece might end up lasting five or ten minutes, pretty much the same technique the likes of Can or Miles Davies would use, but thanks to modern technology, not having to splice tape.

Paul’s basic set up essentially includes guitar and two or three synthesizers, I tended to use guitar, a sample keyboard or an Autoharp as a sound box with a couple of contact mics attached. I’d then attach different things and hit, pluck, scrape or bow, with other found objects. Plus I’ll play any other instruments that would work on the track, a synth a violin or whatever. Both of us have a set of effect pedals we use live, and we used those for this project as we do with most albums. 

Unlike the other discs, I edited ‘Theatre of Innocence’ into one long continuous whole. The working methods were the same though. ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ is the exception in that respect, I think pretty much all tracks on that disc we both worked on ideas that didn’t necessarily go together, then start playing and try and make them work in some way. Fun to do and fucked up, although difficult to listen to at times, that’s for sure. No bad thing. 

On the 4ib site it states “SLAVES” was intended to remind us about how we are all passive slaves to our slowly evolving tastes and ultimately doomed to fail in our struggle with life and ultimately death.”  How was this intended to be translated through a predominantly instrumental set?

Kevin: Through the way it was recorded. Improvisation meant we gave ourselves completely to the music, slaves to the music if you prefer. The quote from the album sleeve you mention, reflected our passivity at the time to personal events we could not control as well as our wider understanding of the world. Free will or our lack of it was a subject I wanted to explore at the time, that and how we are affected by different ‘theatres’ of life experience. Lyrically, I think a lot of what I write about is everyday life, essentially mine in most ways, or at least something I can relate to either positively or negatively, personal thoughts, events or obsessions. I realise there’s a lot of aggression, anger, violence and fucked up shit that comes through. I’m more than comfortable with that. It’s fucking life. Violence is a necessary thing and is virtually taboo in music. Life is so repressed and frustrating any outlet is not only good, but essential. It’s both cathartic and an absolute joy. 

I guess the big deal is the mental struggle, trying to get my head around it all, personal shit, of which there’s been too much lately. Usually we deal with difficult or even taboo subjects, including repressed sex and violence in a sanitised shame filled society. I can’t pretend some things bother to me like most people do. I’m not necessarily a complete outsider, but someone who feels like one for sure, but is actually living a relatively normal life most of the time, at least on the surface. There are very few outlets for that tension that builds up, fortunately we have SJ. The instrumental tracks deal with all the same subjects, as elsewhere and can be just as an effective release as the lyric based songs. I listen to us more than any other band. I know that’s not cool, but I don’t give a fuck. It’s pretty obvious our music speaks for and to me. Why else would I make it. I’d struggle to exist without it, if I’m honest. I think nearly everyone in this genre or into it is fucked up or damaged in some way. 

Similarly, many noise artists claim that some albums revolve around or are inspired by themes.  How can this be translated through the creation of noise without intentionally trying to mimic the sound of this “theme?” (ex. the “Animal Rights” split that Merzbow did with Dao de Noise and Raven where some of the sounds actually sound like animals.)

Kevin: I’m not aware of that release and it wouldn’t interest me. On this album we don’t just play noise, in fact I’d argue, it’s virtually absent on S L A V E S. The title of a track or album or the sound of the music itself can give the feel of a theme. It’s the same as classical or soundtrack music, which can be very evocative. We take great care over everything we do, obviously. Others like Scott Walker, Ben Frost and Michael Gira are working very successfully at the limits, but still incorporating composition as part of what they do and that’s something I’m more interested in. I think, for me lyrics are also incredibly important, so the music complementing or enhancing the lyrics is paramount.

A lot of noise is obviously free form, I guess by definition and hence is more visceral. It’s more about aesthetics and violent expression. This album is further from that than our normal work and even borders on ambient at times and is  in complete contrast to our earlier material.

It’s been quite a journey for you since the Campaign cassette where the noise took a more prominent role.  At what point did you decide to expand and give the harsh noise more of a back seat so to speak?

When we started recording the album ‘This Is The Truth’, although that’s still a pretty harsh album. The difference was, we felt we had separated from our history, at least in our own minds, sufficiently to evolve and grow into more than slaves to the genre. The self reflective period we are just coming out of demanded less noise than previously, although it’s still there. Now we’re out that difficult phase and beginning to enjoy ourselves again. It’s been a tough few years and that has been reflected in the music. It’s more about our obsessions, interests and what we enjoy to hear in the music. It’s getting very noisy again, but with more going on, more dynamics. Relentless violent tension and overwhelming power, mixed with explosive chaos do the job for me.

Regarding equipment…how has your set-up evolved over the years? Perhaps more analog in the beginning and more digital/soft synth now?

Synths are a small part of what I do to be honest. We use analogue and digital synths in equal measure. Where it was just a Wasp synth and microphone when I started SJ. Soft synths we use rarely, but when necessary, we’re not adverse to anything. We also use guitars, autoharp keyboards, organ, piano, violin, cello, whatever it takes. I particularly enjoy using the voice in different ways. Either as a sound source through effects, or just fucking up the vocal delivery. Our selection of instruments continues to grow. I’d never throw anything away or sell it. 

I’m definitely one of those people who’s not happy unless they’re being creative, so to just regurgitate the same music, or using the same instrument over and over would drive me crazy.

What does Sutcliffe Jugend help you accomplish that you haven’t Whitehouse or Bodychoke or even as a solo artist?

Sutcliffe Jugend is where I can express myself freely and without restraint. Also working with my best mate has been a joy. With Whitehouse, it was always William Bennett’s vision, as was early SJ to some degree. I had to break free of that and find my own identity if you like. I don’t think that came until ‘This Is The Truth’. Bodychoke was limited, or diluted by a larger group setting.

I’m not saying anything goes now without boundaries, but anything goes within our gamut of tastes and what we want to present to a wider audience. Any other projects, are supporting someone else’s vision, a larger group vision, purely aesthetic, experimentation or for want of a better word, fun. SJ is where everything is on our terms, where we express ourselves most clearly and purely. Hopefully on rare occasions, it also becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Everything else we have done, was always secondary. Sutcliffe Jugend is what defines us as artists. 

Your work has been referred to as disturbing, unsettling and abrasive.  Is it more of a goal for you to leave the listener with a feeling of getting a sonic punch to the gut, a warped mind or attack on any other senses?  Perhaps a synesthetic effect?

They’re great descriptions, I would add the ecstatic as an important factor. The effect I’m after is upon myself only, if I’m honest, then by default upon the like minded listener. It’s necessary for me to do it in so many ways. It needs to be abrasive, to challenge, to make the myself or the listener uncomfortable, otherwise it’s not doing the job. It needs to excite the senses and the mind.  I fucking love the sound of this band, I love what we represent and I get a tremendous thrill from performing and creating new music and albums. Even if it can be difficult and hard work at times.

The lyrics have changed dramatically. They’re very important and guide the music a great deal. Once they were pure violent expressionism, I never wrote anything down, just lost myself in the music and let it all out.

With us now, things are more considered, lyrics can take a long period to complete. The same with the music. The sonic punch is to my own gut and consciousness. I used to be like a two year old, testing the limits of what’s acceptable, morally as well as sonically, now it’s more complex. That complexity, layered meaning and musical variation is what I need now. Who knows where it will lead next.

Between 1982 and 1994 there was a 12 year hiatus.  Why was this the case?

First I stopped to join a touring version of the other PE band at the time Whitehouse, which lasted about two years, then I moved out of London and left once commitments had run out. They became a great band for me during the Peter Sotos lyric writing era. Much better than when I was involved that’s for sure. I then started loop work on my own around this time, using a primitive sample keyboard. Some of the recordings I’ve since used on various SJ albums, notably VAB. We formed the early version of Bodychoke around 1990, although it was a couple of years before we started to play live. That was okay, but it was too frustrating or limiting in the end. I still stand by the album’s, but we were a tiny band in the scheme of things. We sold fuck all and virtually nobody showed for the gigs.

In recent years especially with the last album, Shame we see an incredible emphasis on vocals and lyrics.  Why the decision and was this a conscious attempt to illustrate an intense picture not just through sound?  In other words, are the lyrics more important to you or are they more of a tool to add to the over-all effect of the sound?

Kevin: The lyrics are definitely more important now. They are no longer the easy tool they once were. I remember I found my lyric writing voice on the track ‘White Goods’, something we did for a release for our first Japanese tour. Lyrics before that and ‘This Is The Truth’ were basic and secondary to the overall feeling and effect of the track or album, now they’re central. I was never confident or comfortable with lyric writing up to that point. I always found them impossibly difficult, because I hadn’t found a way to articulate my thoughts and feelings with words instead of music. To this day, I ‘m still happiest writing words to be used in the music format. I have a friend who has tried to encourage me to just write for a book, but I haven’t been ready to do that yet. I’d always thought the two we’re inseparable. Although after compiling my writings and lyrics recently, and then reading them again cold, has made me less sure. Paul and I discussed the whole “are we holding a mirror up to society” question, that most artists come across at some point. And although I guess we are to some degree, it’s a two way mirror. As with other writers or artists, if you look hard enough you can see some of the artist coming through. That’s important, and it’s not always easy to see clearly, because ultimately you’re listening through a filter of you’re own prejudices. The artist also disguises things, with with language, twists and turns, changing points of view, metaphor and other slights of hand. All of which makes things more interesting for the writer and listener, providing one doesn’t become too oblique or difficult. Conversely so many deal in lazy clichés and metaphors or safe genre related aesthetic lyrics. Shallow and ultimately meaningless in my view. The usual art crowd pseudos who claim some kind of weight behind their tired mutterings. I struggle to tolerate even a moment of their insulting vomit. 

In 2011 as a solo artist you did a live piece called “Piano Waves” which was pretty reminiscent of Charlamange Palestine, at least in regard to the consistent pounding of notes seemingly creating their own together.  Are you a fan of his minimalist style?  Can you tell us more of this performance and the sound installation “One Hundred Player Piano” you contributed to?

Sure, yes I’m familiar with Palestines work. It’s beautiful isn’t it? The harmonies overtones he gets from the Bosendofer are incredible. Not a million miles from what we try and achieve with the long sections at the end of some of our live tracks, or the microtonal music we’ve used on albums. It’s as much a nod to the Twentieth Century European composers, such as Ligeti, Penderecki and Scelsi as anything else. I love Palestines ‘Strumming Music’ and live piano performances. When I was a teenager long before I’d heard of him, I’d go to a friends house, and we’d sit in front of the piano. I’d sit on the left and he on the right put the pedals to the floor and we’d do something akin to the strumming style. Whenever I’d sit in front of a piano from then on, I would at some point adopt that style of playing. Even when playing single notes or chords. The piano waves thing grew from the improvisations I’d do at home, rather than sustained strumming, I would build up waves and they would build and fall away, with subtle variations on the theme. When I first heard Palestine play, I was blown away, I thought he was doing something more complex to get the effect. He was quicker, more intense and refined than anything I’d attempted. I do like minimalism, in many forms. Especially the classic era of Palestine, Glass, Reich, La Monte Young, Bryars, Monk, etc.. David Lang writes well for voices now, and I’d also have to mention Arvo Part who is astonishing. I like music from pretty much every genre actually. If you saw my collection, you’d be hard pushed to guess what kind of music I played. Even shocked. I think that comes from my dad exposing me to a wide range of music as a child. Again, I think it would drive me crazy to listen to just one or two kinds of music all the time. I think it all filters through what we do as a band and the music I’ve done on my own. Some of the influences more transparent than others.

The Piano Waves performance, part of which I believe is on YouTube or Vimeo, was at an art festival in a town near where I live. I also contributed two other pieces. The first was a track called ‘Last Breaths of a Dying Building’. This was a forty minute classical piece. Long slow string breaths in and out, gradually fading out and slowing to nothing, to depict a building once filled with life now dead, like the very place it was performed in. There are synths and samples added to represent the activity in the building during the middle of the piece, it’s a track I’m really pleased with. It turned up on the limited box set ‘Folding Sound’. The ‘One Hundred Player Piano’ piece was a keyboard set up in the gallery, with a loop station hidden under the display. People were encouraged to play the piano, and anything they played added to the loop over the period of the day. I think it ran for three days and I recorded sections of it when I could on video. It was on display four days in total and went down pretty well. Sounded interesting, at least. Even if it was arty bollocks, haha. 

It’s said that in 2005 you did your first live show as Sutcliffe Jugend.  Why the decision to do it at that time and how did you plan what you were going to play?

Gaya at Hagshadow and singer with Anti Child League basically kept hassling me for us to do a gig. Eventually we thought we’d give it a go, it’s as simple as that. Before that I never thought we could give Sutcliffe Jugend a fair representation live. Never seen anyone since come close to what was in my head either for that matter. So we decided to do a kind of live improvisation thing, loosely based around a basic premise and we’ve never looked back. Live shows are an essential part of what we do now. 

Going back into Sutcliffe Jugend history (and even going back to Whitehouse), there have been moments where it was said that the band was involved with some very controversial subjects.  Some examples are as follows: It’s been said Whitehouse had basically promoted racism and pro-Nazism, even pedophilia.  Also, it’s said that some of the tracks on We Spit on Our Graves dealt with misogynist crime, Nazism, and some tracks being named after women victimized by serial killers.  So, how do you respond to these claims?  Why do you think such controversial themes are so prevalent in harsh noise music?

I can’t speak for Whitehouse obviously and SJ haven’t dealt with any of those subjects in twenty years, so they’re no longer relevant to what we do. We were never in to politics, I don’t even vote, I have a complete mistrust of authority and politicians, always have. 

I know when we dealt with the subjects you mention it was tied into the music and the influence of TG and Whitehouse. I then became interested in reading about those subjects, the extremes of human cruelty. It’s something we eventually outgrew artistically, but shadows still remain. Having said that I think the extreme subject matter goes well with the music and I’m not adverse to it at all. The same with books and films. It needs addressing in art. It’s the world we live in. If all music, art and film just dealt with love it would be very dull indeed. Just because you address it doesn’t make you a Misogynist of Nazi. On the contrary. You’d have to be a fucking retard to jump to that conclusion.

Anyone who knows the genre or art understands what’s going on. The passing idiot with an agenda will always twist what you do. So I guess what I’m saying is, it doesn’t really need defending. It works because the music is fucking brutal, so the words need to be. No excuses. It’s Fucking exciting to listen too. No other music can fill that void. That need. Also it’s something that interested me and is a great form of expression. For us now the words have taken us somewhere else. We’re only the same band by name, Just as I’m only the same person in name compared to who I was thirty years ago. We’re all complex evolving people. 

I’ve argued that many of the reasons which people listen to noise/power electronics are the dynamics between abrasive vs. delicate, harsh wall vs. cut-up,  high vs. low frequencies etc.  Would you agree and would you add to this list by what you feel people listen for in noise?

I agree with everything you say, plus sheer visceral excitement and with PE, specifically Sotos era Whitehouse and hopefully what we’re doing with SJ, good lyrics and delivery are also important. I think it’s the perfect for a lot of what we do, but not everything. Hence the variety in what we do.

Sound wise the broad scope of noise can’t be matched for all the above reasons, but like punk before it, it opened the floodgates to a lot of truly appalling music. I like very little. But when it’s good, it’s incredible. I also happen to like a lot of experimental music, so the range of what we can do is pretty much limitless. Imagination and quality control are the only limits. 

What’s next for Sutcliffe Jugend in the coming months/year that you see? What boundaries do you hope to destroy?

Haha, only the boundaries of my own consciousness and ability to convey thought into sound. Push the levels of what we can do. To make better albums and do better live shows. Write better lyrics. Not by any standards other than our own. To affect ourselves more profoundly. To enjoy it more, to express clearer, to get more out of it in order to find an equilibrium. I want to cover more ground lyrically, musically and in a live setting. It’s the only area in life where I want more than I’ll ever get. 

We have a double album ‘The Hunger’ coming out around December or January time. It deals a lot with personal issues ageing and the fading hunger it brings. I had to do this one on my own so it’s the most varied and possibly the album I’m most pleased with. Also we’ve started recording new material. It’s really abrasive, noisy and relentless.

Live we have gigs in the pipeline for Europe, we also have a show confirmed in LA February. 

Sutcliffe Jugend are playing LA on 9th February 2018 at Resident DTLA.

Many, many years from now in an old abandoned home, someone – perhaps a distant relative locates a box in the attic.  The box is labeled Sutcliffe Jugend and inside they find a number of your albums and something to play them on.  What do you want them to know about the Sutcliffe Jugend legacy you’ve left simply by listening to your work?

Great question, and I don’t want you to think this is a lazy answer because it isn’t, I really don’t care what they think. I guess it will show them that life is more complex than just falling in love and not all of us think the same way, we have troubled minds and different tastes. Also that music doesn’t have to be nice to be enjoyed. In fact, I would argue that the opposite applies if you really want to get the maximum out of it. Having said all that, I really don’t worry about what others think. I do the music for myself only. I have to be happy with the words and music at the time I make it and be sure it’s something I can live with and I’ve expressed everything articulately. After that I like to get it released so that it exists. That it isn’t just a thought. That I said it out loud. It helps. So I won’t complicate the answer anymore than I already have, the answer to you’re question is     ….nothing. 

9 February 2018
Venue: Resident DTLA

Here’s a review we did of the SLAVES album a few months ago:

Kevin Tomkins FB:

image4   (Released Nude And Full Of Wounds -2017 and The Muse-2016)*Also will be releasing more SJ material in the coming months.   (Released Shame-2017)   (Released SLAVES-2016)   (Released Masks-2016)   (Released Offal-2016)

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