Gravitation Generator: JG Thirlwell Talks Manorexia, John Peel and Analogue Synths

(JG Thirlwell in middle-back with laptop)

JG Thirlwell is seemingly always in motion. He is the mind behind many experimental music and sound projects including Manorexia, Steroid Maximus and Foetus; the composer behind two The Kronos Quartet string quartets and Adult Swim’s Venture Bros. animated tv program; as well as the film score composer to Seeking The Monkey King and The Blue Eyes.

His numerous collaborations and remixes, including with Marc Almond (Flesh Volcano); Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave and Almond (The Immaculate Consumptive), the Freq_out sound collective and most recently with Zola Jesus indicate the complexity of his artistic interests and malleability of his skillset.

Tractor Beam got the chance for an exclusive interview with Thirlwell after Manorexia, his chamber ensemble which recently performed with strings, percussion and laptop during the New York Electronic Art Festival at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. Conceived of in 2000, the project has performed in Russia, New York City and London and released music in stereo and 5.1 Surround Sound audio listening formats.

The June 23rd River to River performance included Dave Broome (piano), Peter Wise (percussion), Elena Moon Park (violin), Leyna Marika Papach (violin), Isabel Castelvi (cello), Karen Waltuch  (viola) and of course, JG Thirlwell (laptop).

Set List: Ten Ton Shadow, Tubercular Bells, Anabiosis, Canaries In The Mineshaft, Sjogrens Syndrome, A Plastic Island In The Pacific, Armadillo Stance, Fluorescent Radiation
Taken from the albums Dinoflagellate Blooms (physical package includes both stereo CD + 5.1 surround sound DVD mixes), The Radiolarian Ooze and Volvox Turbo [Ectopic Ents International].

During the Manorexia performance, you are at the back of the stage working from a laptop. As Tom Waits might ask – what are you building back there?

JG ThirlwellMost of my compositions are on the page (i.e. the score) and I re-voice them for the instrumentation. The pieces have a bedrock of sounds from the laptop and some contain one or two events (e.g. samples). On two of the pieces, we are using the laptop as a keyboard module (e.g. an organ sound), or a bass. On one piece I am using a Max MSP Patch and I have signals from all four strings running into the computer; into four different channels. I am processing the strings live (i.e. adding plug-ins, delays, filters, etc…) as well as triggering samples and changing (sound) levels.

Experimental music – as an identifier – can leave me baffled and frustrated. What is Manorexia?  

Manorexia as a recording project is something unto its own and the pieces take on a different but parallel life when performed by the chamber ensemble. One of the pieces we perform, “Anabiosis,” started life as a commission for Bang On A Can; so it was voiced for clarinet, cello, contrabass, percussion, piano and guitar. A symphonic version ended up on the last Manorexia album, which was then re-voiced again for our live performances. Another one started life as a Foetus piece. There are elements are probably informed by contemporary classical music and soundtrack music.

You have ongoing residence at The EMS Elektronmusikstudion, the center for Swedish electroacoustic music and sound-art. A synthesizer fan’s dream camp?

It’s a facility for recorded arts that has several studios set up in different permutations, and they also have some modular analog synthesizers which I’ve been talking an opportunity to play with and record. I’ve been working with the (Buchla) and the (Serge) modular. One of the appeals in working on modular systems is the ability to patch modules in unusual ways, there’s not a set path, and normally when you find something that sounds good its impossible to get back to it so you’d better be in record (mode).


In your exhaustive discography, there is a Peel Session recorded in 1982. What’s the backstory? Why was it never released?
I knew Peel for a while before I did a session. He used to come into the record store I worked at on Oxford Street around 1980 and he’d buy imports – sometimes I’d recommend things and we’d chat. He was the first person to play me on the radio – he played the Foetus Under Glass single when it came out. I was asked to do a Peel session, which were normally done at the BBC studios but because of the way I worked – alone – I elected to do it at the studio I normally worked at. Peel didn’t normally attend the recordings of his Sessions as far as I know – they were normally organized by his producer John Walters. I didn’t see Peel for years and then some years ago we were both at the wedding of a mutual friend, David Sefton. Peel was the best man, I was a guest and DJ. It happened in a castle in Scotland and we all stayed there for a few days. He was there with his wife, Sheila. Hilarious and self deprecating, as usual.


I loved the live collaboration with Zola Jesus at The Guggenheim.
Zola Jesus was looking for a string arranger for the show at the Guggenheim and out mutual friend Micki Pellerano suggested me. I did one arrangement as a test to see if shed like what I did, and she loved it so we continued from there.

(The Zola Jesus recorded collaboration “Versions” album produced by JG Thirlwell will be released by Sacred Bones later in 2013).

Thirlwell, Jim Sclavunos, Vernon Reid and others on “Here Come The Warm Jets” live tribute.
[youtube][/youtube] [Tractor Beam was honored to have Thirlwell perform at “Here Come The Warm Jets” Brian Eno tribute at Joe’s Pub in 2011. Note: Tractor Beam will be presenting a tribute to the 40th Anniversary of Here Come The Warm Jets in 2014.]