By Louis Pattison
As a founding member of industrial giants Throbbing Gristle and Coil, Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson is one of the most influential figures in British Experimental music. Born in Leeds in 1955, he began his career as part of the Hipgnosis design team, making early sleeves for the likes of Pink Floyd. It was Christopherson's paycheques that funded some of the early Throbbing Gristle LPs, but his work as an artist and graphic designer should not be overlooked: his art, which includes everything from carefully-cast mutilated body-parts to homoerotic and S&M-related photographic pieces, would set the tone for much of the British industrial movement in the 1970's. After Throbbing Gristle split in 1981, Christopherson formed Coil with his partner John Balance. However, last year, Throbbing Gristle announced they had returned to the studio, and were planning a one-off reformation. They are due to curate an All Tomorrow's Parties weekend at Camber Sands in 2005.
Louis: Where are you at the moment?
Peter Christopherson: I'm commuting between Bangkok, Tokyo, and London. Geography seems to matter less and less these days. I think flexibility of location and flexibility of mind are very useful assets to have. For a long time, I lived with John Balance, my partner in Coil, in London - and we got stuck in a rut of behaviour, a rut of thinking, a rut of lifestyle. when we moved out of London in 1998, it was a big change - things became a lot more flexible. And for the last few years I've been doing much more in the far east, and I've become more flexible still - more questioning of English values. English culture seems very parochial to me - very up it's own arse.
Louis: Does this reflect a change in you, do you think, or a change in the UK?
PC: If you could have played today's Top of the Pops to a TV viewer twenty years ago, i think they would have been completely horrified. Actually, i think that's possibly true every twenty years. but more so now than usual. The entire collective music business seems to be standing on the beach facing away from the tsunami, saying that everything's fine.
Louis: Are you still making music videos?
PC: Around the turn of the century, I had a moment of epiphany when the head of a large American label was insisting that I stay and re-edit a stupid video for a stupid version, even though I had a show at the Royal Festival Hall in eight days time. And I just said fuck it. It's a ridiculous business that does not respect people or careers. It doesn't even respect good business. It's just ego wrapped up in politics. I enjoyed the opportunities to do good things - I did some good Nine Inch Nails videos, I did some pretty good videos for Rage Against The Machine. There's an occasional opportunity that you can get enough trust from the artist that you can do what you want.
Louis: Was it a disappointment that RE:TG didn't take place?
PC: Financially, I was disappointed! In some ways, I think we bit off more than we could chew, in that it was a lot to organise. As it transpired, although we weren't responsible for the financial fuck-ups that took place, it probably would have been a nightmare that would have taken six months to recover from. We invested quite a lot of money on equipment and rehearsals, and that's stuff we can't really get back. It's still due to go ahead next year, but it won't be a RE:TG - it'll be an All Tomorrow's Parties weekend, curated by us. The bill will have a slightly wider base. There's a few people we wanted to play at RE:TG who couldn't. Autechre, but Rob's wife was having a baby that week. And Kraftwerk would have been nice, but they always insist on having a day's bicycling between shows, and they were playing in vienna the night before. I think one has to be philosophical about these things.
Louis: Did you enjoy the recent show Throbbing Gristle played at London Astoria?
PC: Yeah, we liked it. It's amazing to find that if the chemistry's there between four people, no matter how much bad blood there's been - because we did have plenty of bad blood, between Chris and Cosey on one side, and myself and Genesis on the other - it can still work. There were several hatchets to bury, but we managed to bury them in the ground, rather than each other's heads.
Louis: It's noticeable that there's more of a laptop set-up to TG now....
PC: Yeah, definitely. But the technical make-up has only changed in the details, not the fundamentals. The line-up of TG now is still pretty much the same, in that everyone brings the same sort of thing to the table: Chris basically does the rhythms, I add textural and ambient sounds, Gen plays violin, and Cosey plays guitar and trumpet. But it's considerably easier to juggle twenty sounds and play them spontaneously from a Powerbook than it was when i had a rack of cassette machines.
Louis: Has anyone expressed disappointment that TG are using more digital technology?
PC: No-one's said that to me. One of the things about regrouping, we didn't want it to be nostalgic. To me, it was very important that we should not be seen to be wallowing in the past. The '70s were a shit time, and lots of people had no money. The government weren't paying any attention to young people whatsoever, there was nothing to talk about - and one of the things we were so outraged about was that you could switch on Top of the Pops, and what you'd see was so completely irrelevant. I have no desire to be nostalgic. What is important to me is the approach, and as a consequence, the new material we have recorded is about different things. But at least it's not about Madonna singing about pilates and yoga classes and all that.
Louis: Are you surprised to see that many of the first wave industrial acts, from Throbbing Gristle and Coil to acts like Nurse With Wound are still making worthwhile music, while so many of the punk bands have fallen by the wayside?
PC: I'm surprised chiefly because I thought no-one would be interested in the first place, so the fact that people are still listening now is flattering. I'm not surprised because what Throbbing Gristle did - and Nurse With Wound, and Coil - was much more about a process of thought....the process of how you put the music together, rather than the need to have a particular hit, or make a particular statement. Punk bands were, by and large, about making one particular statement - having an image or a lifestyle. But with TG and other bands of that ilk, it was much more about an attitude and the way music rose out of our personal lives, out of our subconscious feelings. In a way you'd expect that wouldn't dry up. Unless you were dead. And I would imagine that as long as it remains interesting, as long as new technologies continue to appear, we will continue to do so. It's surprising that people are still interested, but it's not surprising because we didn't have the same aims or objectives as any other movement. Any other music that came later - Trance, Hip-hop, Electronica, whatever - they are genres, in the true sense of the word. While industrial, I think, is not really a sound - it's more of an approach - and I don't think it's a very helpful term in that respect.
Louis: Whitehouse, one of the early acts to explicitly draw influence from TG, appear to have undergone a bit of a critical renaissance recently. Any thoughts about what they do?
PC: In the beginning, I appreciated what they were doing - making outspoken statements in a very noisy way - and I respected them for that, because it was original. But we played with them in Amsterdam a couple of months ago, and I was a bit disappointed to see they were doing exactly the same thing they did twenty-five years ago. Still making the same statements that were outspoken - singing about rape, assaults on women - it doesn't interest me in the slightest. And similarly, the actual sounds didn't interest me anymore. There were some bands that became famous on the basis of having outrageous imagery, like Death In June, for example.... but I really find that quite boring. I don't think there is any mileage in coming onstage in a Hitler uniform.
Louis: The Mego label were well-represented on the RE:TG line-up. Do you feel like there's any common ground between your work and artists like Hecker, Kevin Drumm, Fennesz?
PC: I hope so. I'm scandalously ill informed about the full range of what those artists are doing. But some of them are mates, and we hang out - often in Thailand, strangely enough. One of the things about the way the world is now, it's sometimes much more difficult to come across new artists. While once you could go into Rough Trade and go to Nigel or Pete "What's really good this week?" and buy it, you can't go into Rough Trade now and just buy everything, because there's just too much. It's easy to miss things now. we have to be on our toes.
Louis: Finally, how do you feel about the fire at the Saatchi warehouse?
PC: (laughs) This is the most difficult question you've asked me. In terms of art...I like art that I can put on my wall that turns me on and excites me. Recently, the sort of trend in the art world has erred towards larger and more expensive works, many of which actually don't excite me because the idea or execution doesn't seem to be very interesting, and I never, ever would have been able to afford. I'm certainly not loosing sleep over someone's bed getting burnt, because it never came into my life. Having said that, some of the artists that lost things, Gary Hume for example, I really like. But with TG, Coil, etc - it seems to me that it is more important for all humanity, for society to sell 10,000 rather than one. A lot of these artists, all they want to do is secure their livelihood, but they do that by selling one piece of work to Deutsche Bank for £100,000 and it goes off to sit in a vault. To me, that's boring. I'd much rather make a painting of a swan with a naked man and woman on its wing - I'm sure you've seen that one - and sell a million, and actually bring a bit of pleasure to a million people. and with Coil and Throbbing Gristle, we intend to make artistic works and statements, and bring them to as many people as we can.
We get lots of mail that says things like "I'm dying of AIDS and your records changed five years of my life". And of course, there's nothing you can say. "Thank you very much, you're welcome"...nothing. I think there is a place for institutional art - the sun at the Tate (Olafur Elliason's Weather Project) was amazing. But you know, when somebody's bed gets burnt, that's not really a problem.