THE OUTER LIM­ITS

Prog - - Contents -

He started off cre­at­ing light shows for the likes of Yes and Hawk­wind, and helped form the ground­break­ing in­dus­trial band Throb­bing Gris­tle. Which begs the ques­tion: how prog is Chris Carter?

He was the synth player in in­dus­trial pi­o­neers Throb­bing Gris­tle, has pro­duced light shows for bands such as Hawk­wind, started his own la­bel with his part­ner and has just re­leased a new solo al­bum. So now we have to ask: how prog is Chris Carter? Words: Rob Hughes

At face value, there doesn’t seem to be much in com­mon be­tween prog and in­dus­trial rock. Yet peel back the skin and the sim­i­lar­i­ties start to re­veal them­selves: the love of ex­per­i­men­tal forms, fluid time sig­na­tures, weird in­stru­men­ta­tion, provoca­tive vi­su­als, the con­cept of per­for­mance art. And, of course, great song ti­tles.

Step for­ward Throb­bing Gris­tle, the in­sur­gents of noise who un­packed such in­dus­tro-prog ter­rors as Mag­got Death, Zyk­lon B Zom­bie, Per­cep­tion Is The Only Re­al­ity, His Arm Was Her Leg and Ham­burger Lady. The band’s rise may have co­in­cided with the on­set of punk, but the cre­ative lib­er­ties of prog pro­vided their fuel.

“I was a ter­ri­ble proghead grow­ing up,” states synth player and elec­tron­ics pioneer Chris Carter, who co-founded Throb­bing Gris­tle with Gen­e­sis P-Or­ridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christo­pher­son in late 1975. “It was my pas­sion. I used to go to gigs ev­ery week­end – Gen­e­sis, Van der Graaf Gen­er­a­tor, King Crim­son, Pink Floyd, Yes, any­thing. You men­tion it and I’d be at all those big shows.”

Carter’s im­mer­sion in prog fed di­rectly into his ear­li­est work: pro­duc­ing light shows for some of his favourite bands, such as Hawk­wind. “I had a lit­tle van and would travel around the coun­try do­ing work for all sorts of prog rock bands,” he re­calls. “You could be ex­per­i­men­tal be­cause they were quite open to what you were try­ing to do. Hawk­wind ac­tu­ally had their own light show as well, with Liq­uid Len [Jonathan Smee­ton], who I met a cou­ple of times. The big­gest one I ever did was Yes, at a uni­ver­sity up north some­where. It was my first in­ter­ac­tion with a re­ally large au­di­ence and was def­i­nitely a seed for me go­ing on to do my own mul­ti­me­dia thing.”

Prior to Throb­bing Gris­tle, Carter would play col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties as Wave­forms, a solo act that com­bined art films with light ef­fects and avant­garde drones, cour­tesy of a hand­ful of be­spoke synths and key­boards.

“My friend John Lacey, son of the artist Bruce Lacey, used to give me cir­cuits and we would swap ideas,” Carter ex­plains. “He showed me how to build some of these synth cir­cuits that were com­ing onto the mar­ket.

“I was lucky with Wave­forms be­cause I had a cou­ple of friends who were helping out – one do­ing quad sound and the other do­ing the lights. It was just me on stage, do­ing this weird am­bi­ent set. There was a lot of head-scratch­ing and chin-rub­bing in the au­di­ence. I could see peo­ple think­ing, ‘Do we like this?’”

It was through Lacey that Carter met his fu­ture band­mates in Throb­bing Gris­tle in the mid-70s. At that point they were in­volved in COUM Trans­mis­sions, a per­for­mance art col­lec­tive out to sub­vert the tenets of ac­cept­able British so­ci­ety.

The en­sem­ble’s no­to­ri­ous fi­nal show, Pros­ti­tu­tion, took place at Lon­don’s ICA in Oc­to­ber 1976 and in­cluded pornog­ra­phy, strip­pers, chains, bot­tles of blood and used Tam­pax in glass cases. It was scan­dalous enough to elicit ques­tions in the House of Com­mons, where

Tory MP Sir Ni­cholas Fair­bairn lam­basted P-Or­ridge and Tutti as “wreck­ers of civil­i­sa­tion”.

I WAS A TER­RI­BLE PROGHEAD GROW­ING UP. IT WAS MY PAS­SION. I USED TO GO TO GIGS EV­ERY WEEK­END – GEN­E­SIS,

VAN DER GRAAF GEN­ER­A­TOR,

KING CRIM­SON, PINK FLOYD,

YES, ANY­THING.

The same spirit of anar­chy drove Throb­bing Gris­tle – motto: “In­dus­trial Mu­sic For In­dus­trial Peo­ple” – cre­at­ing work that re­lied heav­ily on sam­ples, dis­tor­tion, spo­ken-word pas­sages and elec­tron­ica for full ef­fect. No sub­ject was off lim­its, how­ever grotesque. Live gigs of­fered a sen­sory jolt of dis­turb­ing im­agery in a self-styled quest to con­front na­tional de­cay, big­otry and in­tol­er­ance in all its forms.

“The es­tab­lish­ment was rail­ing against us at the time,” Carter says. “It was a very in­tense pe­riod of my life. I’d also fallen madly in love with Cosey, so there was that whole thing go­ing on, as well as keep­ing TG run­ning and build­ing all these things for the band.

“I was just com­pletely en­thralled by the whole thing – it was as if I’d found my place. There seemed to be no bound­aries for TG: we could just in­vent all this new sound. And peo­ple would quite hap­pily lis­ten to it. I found it such an ex­cit­ing time, lis­ten­ing to new ex­per­i­men­tal and elec­tronic mu­sic. But then it’s also that cliché about be­ing the best of times, the worst of times. It could get pretty scary.”

Carter also re­veals that he de­spised the name Throb­bing Gris­tle. He still feels the same to­day: “I just hate it! It re­ally rubs me up the wrong way. Wher­ever I can, I’ll ab­bre­vi­ate it to TG and I love the fact that a lot of peo­ple do. But they [the oth­ers in TG] wouldn’t change it for any­thing.”

By the time in­ter­nal ten­sions led to TG split­ting in 1981 – leav­ing be­hind three es­sen­tial al­bums and sign­ing off with the bald dec­la­ra­tion: “the mis­sion is ter­mi­nated” – Carter was al­ready un­der­way with his solo ca­reer. The Space Be­tween had been re­leased a year ear­lier on TG’s own In­dus­trial la­bel.

He may well have gone on to make more, but his per­sonal and pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship with Cosey re­sulted in the pair of them form­ing the Con­spir­acy In­ter­na­tional la­bel (CTI) and pool­ing their tal­ents as Chris & Cosey. It was a pro­lific union that grew to en­com­pass video work and sound­tracks, plus col­lab­o­ra­tions with the likes of Robert Wy­att, Coil and Monte Cazazza.

Carter also found room for mu­sic jour­nal­ism, graphic de­sign and photography, with he and Cosey branch­ing out into al­bum cover art­work dur­ing the 90s. Fac­tor in var­i­ous remix projects and a cou­ple of lat­ter-day TG re­unions and it’s easy to see how Carter’s solo out­put has taken a back seat over the decades.

Now he’s re­turned with Chris Carter’s Chem­istry Lessons Vol­ume One, whose roots, fit­tingly enough, are tan­gled up in the last days of TG. Shortly af­ter Gen­e­sis P-Or­ridge quit the band for good at the back end of 2010, ‘Sleazy’ Christo­pher­son died in his sleep, aged 55. The al­bum he was plan­ning, a reimag­in­ing of Nico’s 1970 opus Desertshore, had been ear­marked as a Throb­bing Gris­tle re­lease.

Chris and Cosey then took it on to its con­clu­sion, us­ing Sleazy’s record­ings and new ones of their own. Desertshore/The Fi­nal Re­port fi­nally landed in Novem­ber 2012, with an

EVEN IF I HADN’T MET COSEY AND JOINED TG, I THINK I WOULD’VE GONE ON TO DO SOME­THING PAR­AL­LEL TO WHAT THEY WERE DO­ING, OR SOME­THING

MORE EX­PER­I­MEN­TAL OF

MY OWN.

ar­ray of guest vo­cal­ists. “The day af­ter Sleazy died, Cosey and I were still get­ting emails com­ing in from him, as if he was alive, talk­ing about the al­bum,” Carter says. “So we had to fin­ish it be­cause he’d taken all those things we’d done here in our stu­dio back to Bangkok with him. And he was work­ing on it when he died.”

The up­shot of all this was that Chem­istry Lessons… has taken longer to ar­rive than it oth­er­wise would have. “I started it at the end of the last time TG was to­gether,” ex­plains Carter. “I needed some­thing else to do be­cause TG was so in­tense. And then Sleazy died around the same pe­riod, so I sort of shelved it for about a year. I just couldn’t face it be­cause it was quite an emo­tional time.”

The al­bum is a daz­zling syn­the­sis of tones and tex­tures, a rich panorama of pat­terns and se­quencers, dot­ted with treated vo­cal sam­ples and drum ma­chines. There are traces of TG-ish in­dus­trial noise, though tem­pered by glid­ing melodies and am­bi­ent rhythms. Its moods are var­ied too, rang­ing from play­ful to sin­is­ter to sombre.

The more melan­choly tracks date from the time of Sleazy’s death: “They’re prob­a­bly re­flec­tions of how I was feel­ing when I did them, be­cause some of them are five or six years old. And I guess they do re­flect the emo­tions I was go­ing through then.”

For a record so steeped in elec­tron­ica, it’s sur­pris­ing to dis­cover that one of its ma­jor in­flu­ences is an­tique folk mu­sic. “I found a load of re­ally old files – reg­u­lar English folk – that I’d been lis­ten­ing to years and years ago,” Carter says. “Then I found this other stuff that was like me­dieval folk mu­sic, al­most primeval. It hit me some­where and I re­ally con­nected with it, espe­cially some of the melodies and time sig­na­tures. In a way I was try­ing to in­cor­po­rate that into all the elec­tron­ics, which I can’t imag­ine peo­ple usu­ally do.”

The bridge from there to the present came cour­tesy of Carter’s long­stand­ing fix­a­tion with the Ra­dio­phonic Work­shop. “I’ve al­ways lis­tened to them, from the 60s on­wards. It’s one of my favourite things to do. Their mu­sic cov­ers such a broad spec­trum and en­com­passes all sorts of things – pop songs, sound­tracks, sound ef­fects. I like the idea of hav­ing a play­ful, melodic tune with these weird, un­set­tling noises in the back­ground.”

In many ways, Chem­istry Lessons… is the sound of Carter com­ing full cir­cle. The DIY aes­thetic of the Ra­dio­phonic Work­shop in­formed his at­ti­tude to mu­sic from the start. When he was 11 or 12, his par­ents bought him a home ra­dio kit to build, af­ter which he be­gan mak­ing his own cir­cuits.

“I used to buy elec­tron­ics mag­a­zines and see all these big synths and think, ‘There’s no way I’m go­ing to be able to af­ford that,’” he re­calls. “But in my own lit­tle way I could build an os­cil­la­tor and a fil­ter and make small steps to­wards that. So I got into it slowly, grad­u­ally build­ing up my knowl­edge.”

Like his con­tem­po­rary Brian Eno, Carter in­sists he’s no mu­si­cian, which he says can be an ad­van­tage. “I’ve had con­ver­sa­tions with Cosey about this, be­cause she had pi­ano lessons and learned how to play re­ally well. Of the two of us, she’s by far the bet­ter key­board player and I’m slightly mu­si­cally dyslexic – I still have the notes writ­ten on my key­board be­cause I con­stantly for­get them. In some ways, though, I think it gives me greater scope to try dif­fer­ent things out.

“Even if I hadn’t met Cosey and joined TG, I think I would’ve gone on to do some­thing par­al­lel to what they were do­ing, or some­thing more ex­per­i­men­tal of my own,” he adds. “I was head­ing down that path al­ready.

“Mak­ing mu­sic is more like a way of re­lax­ing to me. I can do my solo stuff and not be be­holden to any­body else. I don’t care whether peo­ple like it or not, I just do what I do.”

Chris Carter’s Chem­istry Lessons Vol­ume One is out now via Mute. For more in­for­ma­tion, see www.chriscarter.co.uk.

TG, L-R: CHRIS CARTER, COSEY FANNI TUTTI, PETER ‘SLEAZY’ CHRISTO­PHER­SON, GEN­E­SIS P-OR­RIDGE.

CARTER’S NEW AL­BUM, CHRIS CARTER’S CHEM­ISTRY LESSONS VOL­UME ONE.

TG PART­NERS CHRIS CARTER AND COSEY FANNI TUTTI.

IN­DUS­TRIAL IN­TRO­DUC­TION: ONE BAND AND ITS DOG IN HACK­NEY, 1981.

CHRIS CARTER AT TG’S IN­DUS­TRIAL RECORDS STU­DIO IN HACK­NEY, LON­DON, 1981.

THE THREE ES­SEN­TIAL TG AL­BUMS, FROM TOP: THE SEC­OND AN­NUAL RE­PORT (1977), D.O.A. THE THIRD AND FI­NAL RE­PORT (1978) AND 20 JAZZ FUNK GREATS (1979).

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