Interview: Throbbing Gristle - Back to work as pioneers of industrial music make a return two decades on
Having separated in 1981 after five influential years together, the quartet of musicians-as-artists and instigators of the musical movement known as Industrial reformed in 2004. This month they play their first gig in Scotland, where they will live-score a new film collaboration entitled The Sky is Paper Thin Here with Welsh artist and sometime Derek Jarman collaborator Cerith Wyn Evans. They'll then provide what might very loosely be described as a "greatest hits" set.
"It's never the same show twice," says founder member Cosey Fanni Tutti, "even though the tracks might have the same titles. We never wanted to just write music and then recite it later, you see, so each live track is more a version of itself. There's no practising beforehand."
Throbbing Gristle were never a band to do things the traditional way. Their first incarnation was as Hull-based Dadaist art collective COUM Transmissions, of which Tutti (born Christine Newby) and TG's Genesis P-Orridge (Neil Megson) were members. Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson and Chris Carter – the other half of the group – were collaborators.
A band from 1976 onwards, TG's sound was characterised by dark, looping effects and samples. Their shows strayed into the bounds of performance art, and the imagery they used was often deliberately disturbing or pornographic. Tutti herself worked in pornography and as a stripper at Paul Raymond's Soho Revuebar during this period, which she regarded as an artistic endeavour that played upon her own representation of identity.
Perhaps even more critically, the sounds which TG made at the time were like none that had been heard before, a gloomy dystopian soundtrack which would combine to make their back catalogue – particularly 1979's misleadingly named 20 Jazz Funk Greats album – set listening texts for every experimental musician who followed in their wake.
Even now, as Tutti notes, there aren't many bands who sound like Throbbing Gristle, and the sense of artistic liberation they embodied still resonates.
"We were nothing to do with the spirit of the punk era as most people know it," she recalls. "Sleazy took the Sex Pistols' first promo pictures and we were at the auditions for Generation X, watching them trying to sell clothes with the band, so punk always seemed like just a business thing to us. Punk was rock 'n' roll, and TG were absolutely anti-rock 'n' roll. You needed to learn at least three chords to start a punk band, but we wanted to dismiss even that attitude. You don't have to learn anything to make music. Just go and do it in your own right.
"The political climate was also in as much of a mess then as it is now, so a lot of the motivation for what we were doing was an anger, a need to instigate some kind of action on other people's behalf. I don't think the same message would be lost now, to be honest. People feel that frustration again, where you can see everything that's going wrong and wonder why no-one is doing anything about it. Also, people have more basic individual problems in connecting with themselves now, because consumerism and the internet only allow for a superficial relationship with others. It's a hiding to feeling lost, really."
Although they weren't the kind of band to indulge in sweeping political sloganeering, this sense of disaffection with the era of the Winter of Discontent, the three-day week and the escalation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland pervaded Throbbing Gristle's musical aesthetic. "I don't remember any other artist or musician who articulated how I was feeling at the time," says Tutti. "People weren't feeling good about themselves, the country was falling apart and everyone was still dancing to Saturday Night Fever at the weekend. I was thinking, so when do we wake up then? The sounds we made expressed this, and also represented the soundtrack of our everyday life."
In the heavily unionised north of England, that meant the churn of industrialism. "The factories had a great grinding strength in their sound," says Tutti. "It felt like there was this real undercurrent of power that people just weren't tapping into. That's what they needed, that's where their resilience lay. That's what we're about, really."
The 23-year gap between each iteration of Throbbing Gristle was caused entirely by the separation of Tutti and her then-partner, P-Orridge.
"There was a time I would have said we'd never play as a band again," says Tutti, "but when Mute brought out the TG24 box-set in 2004, it was suggested we come together to launch it with an exhibition at the Cabinet Gallery in London. We had a good heart-to-heart after that show and realised that a lot of the antagonism which was there had been resolved to some degree.
"That happens when you grow up, though," she laughs. "We're older and I suppose wiser now, and not full of that youthful angst about what should and shouldn't be. That doesn't mean we're old people and we're sensible now. It just means we have so much more experience to bring to the music than we ever have."
Apparition Foretold: An Evening with Throbbing Gristle is at the Tramway, Glasgow, 17 June.