THE OUTER LIMITS
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,
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
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).