Brian Williams of Lustmord on how you have to be a little bit crazy to be creative
Lustmord (due Saturday, April 28, at the ATLAS Institute during the Communikey Festival) is the long-running project of Brian Williams. In the late '70s and early '80s, Williams was at the forefront of experimental music and the avant-garde in England and beyond. Early on, he became friends with the members of Throbbing Gristle, and that friendship led to his becoming a member of pioneering noise band SPK, as well as some involvement with Clock DVA and one of the future members of Coil.
When Williams moved to America, he continued to work with SPK's Graeme Revell on sound work for films; you may have seen Revell's name attached to more than a few pictures over the years. In the last two decades, Williams became known for his high-profile collaborations with the likes of the Melvins, Chris & Cosey, Robert Rich, Monte Cazazza and Puscifer.
On June 6, 2006, William performed in public for the first time in 25 years under the name Lustmord, at a high mass for the Church of Satan. Not a Satanist himself, Lustmord clearly found the opportunity interesting and wryly amusing. But since then, he has performed semi-regularly around the world. We recently spoke with the lively and sharp Williams about his career in music and his ideas on the role of the creative person in society.
Westword: You were, and still are, friends with the people from Throbbing Gristle and SPK and that loose affiliation of artists -- not to say a "scene," because that's not what it was. How did you first encounter that music, and how did you become involved in that world?
Brian Williams: I can't tell you specifically when I became aware of that music, but about '76, '77. There's the whole punk thing. It sounds weird talking about this stuff now, out of context, because so many things have come since. It's become a style, you know. When that stuff was going on, it was very, very different.
You write and you cover music and know musicians through that, and most people who write about music or do music, they're really into music. And they don't just work on their own stuff, they're very aware of what's going on. They have radar that's picking up the cool stuff. So you're always looking out for not just music, but film and a whole bunch of other stuff. You leave your eyes and ears open for something interesting.
I remember reading some reviews or articles about Throbbing Gristle and it piquing my interest, because it sounded like something I could relate to and that I would probably like. Through that, I made an effort to actually track it down and hear it, and lo and behold, I did get it, and I did relate to it. I don't know about you, but when I come across something I get and really respect, I'll drop a line and say, "Hey, I like what you're doing, I get what you're doing."
The respect kind of thing. That's what I did with them, and that started a [correspondence] over a couple of years or whatever. And I went to see Throbbing Gristle quite a few times. It was more of a social thing than anything else, just like many people. Through that process I became somewhat friends with them, and over the years became really good friends with them.
I think it was Cosey [Fanni Tutti], specifically, really early on...I can't remember when Industrial Records released the SPK single. It would have been just before that. I remember Cosey telling me that they were releasing this single EP from this band, and she thought I would probably get on well with those guys, and she put us in touch. We got in touch and became friends, and thirty years later [here we are]. That's the gist of it. Like most things in life, it's simple.
It's more organic than pre-meditated.
Yeah, I think all the interesting things in life, on the whole, the organic stuff is interesting. The pre-meditated stuff usually ends up being a disappointment.
How did you come to join SPK, and what did you do in that band other than break stuff?
That's an old quote. You've been looking up old things online; that's kind of funny. We were friends and we corresponded by real mail proper for quite a while. We were on the same page and enjoyed each other's humor. They invited me down to London to stay with them for a week. There was a gig that was quite famous, I suppose, that they recorded, Live at the Crypt. They actually put the gig on because they knew I was coming down and they wanted me to check out one of their shows.
We really hit it off, and we became friends, even before they asked me to contribute some texts to the albums or some lyrics. The second album, Leichenschrei, I did some texts for and did some voice for. It was like with most of these things, some people are really [excited] about being in a band and other people are about ideas and stuff. When you're involved or in the background, you're in the circle of friends, or whatever you want to call it.
Your ideas get absorbed in the continuing process of just throwing ideas around, and some of them get used up. You kind of slipped in that way, really. In a year or two, they went back to Australia. When they came back, they were doing some gigs, and they asked me to play at the shows. I did two or three tours and we wrote material together. An album's worth of material that we played during that period that we never released.
I did mostly percussion early on. And yes, I broke stuff, too. Early SPK was on the run for a few years. Later on, they were just really horrible. Early on, they were really radical and really on the top and their live show was something else. One of the things I would do would just be fucking break everything, man. The stage, the venue. It wasn't always planned. It was part of the show, destroying things and quite often oneself. I went to the hospital a few times. We were young, and it was fun. It's funny you ask me these things, because it was a long time ago and you kind of forget about this stuff, but now I'm answering, and it's all coming to the surface again.
Anyway, you'd do something and it would be pretty dangerous or stupid, and it was really cool. So you'd do it again the next night. But after a couple of nights of doing it, you realize it's not spontaneous anymore. We were actually planning to do stuff, and it was getting a bit silly, so we stopped doing all that stuff. It was all right when it was just carefree and you're going with the spur of the moment. But when it became pre-meditated and planned, it was just silly. It was very rock-and-roll.
You've worked with Graeme Revell since. How would you characterize the nature of your creative partnership over the years?
Well, I haven't worked with him in well over ten years. I moved to L.A. and he became a film composer and I worked with him for eight to nine years. He was a composer and did the sounds and textures and all the weird cool sounds you hear in movies that you don't hear anywhere else because someone created them. That's the kind of stuff I was doing. But we fell out a long time ago. The less said the better about that one. Suffice to say different versions of SPK had different people, and not a single one would work with Graeme again, that's all I can say.
You toured with Clock DVA. What was the nature of your involvement with the group, and what enduring lessons did you learn from your experiences with them?
I think I did an American tour with them and two or three dates in Germany. I remember one specific German date and four or five dates in Canada in the late '80s and early '90s. I used to have a record label years ago. I don't know how familiar you are with Clock DVA, but I think the very first thing they released, officially, was on cassette on Industrial Records, and they released their first album, Thirst. During that early period before the Industrial release, they released four or five, maybe six, cassettes that had some really interesting music on them. Very evocative and very different from what they did later.
I had a label, and I was very aware of them, and no one had released it, and I was trying to track them down with the view of releasing that material. Clock DVA had split up for quite a few years, and Clock DVA didn't exist anymore. So I tracked down Adi [Newton] and a couple of the other guys and asked if they'd be interested in releasing that material. During the course of the conversation, it turned out they were much more interested in releasing more recent material which was this band the Anti-Group -- which I went on to release.
But in the process of talking about these things, we hung out and became really good friends. During this time they also re-formed Clock DVA. We were just really good friends, and we hung out all the time. I'd go up to Sheffield where they live, and they'd come to London. I gave them advice and stuff, and I'm nothing if opinionated. I'm very honest with what I like. If I say I like something, it's because I really do like it, not just because I'm being polite. So if I don't like something I'll offer some constructive criticism.
They asked me to manage them, and we went on tour, and they asked me to come along to take care of the sound mix. I was on the mixing desk making sure they sounded half good. [As for what I took away from the experience], they were really good friends of mine for many years, but going back to the early SPK days, nothing really beats being around a bunch of really creative people and just drinking coffee or having beer or just sitting in the studio and throwing ideas around.
The whole creative process, when you're with other people, ideas get thrown around, some get picked up or someone takes one of your ideas and shoots it down, because it's shit, which is fine. Or, even better, take one of your ideas and make it even better. It's all about hanging out with people you empathize with and you're on the same page. It was quite a few years that we spent a lot of time together, and I have very fond memories of those times. The only reason it came to an end is that we all ended up living in different parts of the world.
Going back to that and to all the industrial stuff, as you said yourself, which I appreciate, that it wasn't a scene, though lots of people seem to think it was. But it was a bunch of like-minded individuals -- very much individuals, they weren't, incidentally aiming for the same thing or doing the same thing -- they did have common ideas and common goals.
Everybody was on the same side, so people did help each other out with technical advice or phone numbers or renting or loaning equipment or a hundred and one other things that people do to help each other. That was main thing about all that stuff, people actually helped each other. Later on things became more cynical. Those people are still the same but what became to be a scene became more about being a rock star and all that kind of stuff.
But all those people I'm referring to and the people I work with, even though we may have a drastic difference in our approach or our style or our aesthetic, we're pretty much on the same side doing our own thing. The main thing that unites us is the fact that we are on the same side.
How did you meet John Balance?
That was about 31 or 33 years ago. I don't remember. I'm pretty sure he wrote to me. He was sixteen or something. He was in school at the time. He wrote some really interesting and intelligent letters. He was a few years younger than me. He was this kid from school how had this fanzine called Stabmental. I remember it had interviews with Throbbing Gristle and SPK. He was just a kid with really cool ideas.
We corresponded really regularly by mail and met up. He's actually on my very first album. [He did eight or nine issues], and then he went on to form this band I can't quite remember. There's a bunch of outsiders out there and a bunch of people who don't quite fit in in general, and they're doing their own thing. Over the years you find each other. That's basically what it's about.
What is it about the ideas and sounds of dub that you find interesting and inspiring?
One thing, when I listen to music, I have eclectic taste -- a lot of stuff I listen to tends to be slower beats and grooves. I just like a slower tempo in the beat. You can listen to the groove or you can daydream, too. It's kind of hard to describe. The drumbeats are always really simple. It's just the kind of bass lines. I'm a bass guy. What can I say? Dub production, as opposed to many other forms of music, has a lot of bass. I just like the aesthetic.
As much as I love the notes in those bass melodies, what is just as important in dub is that there's a space between the notes. There's a lot of bad dub, too, but there's some great classic dub with a great sense of space. I might be wrong, but there's something also quite timeless about a lot of that stuff, too. I really like music that you can't quite place exactly when it's from.
Of course dub [production] has become quite trendy, but I like things where you can listen to them now or ten years ago or ten years in the future, and it doesn't sound like it's something trying to be trendy like now; it's just being pure music. It's mainly the space around the sound. The kind of dub I like, particularly the late '70s, early '80s stuff has way more wild sound stuff going on. I just like the way they use sound. When people use it creatively, I really get a kick out of that.
Why does Kraftwerk remain a seemingly enduring inspiration or influence, not only on what you do in music but in terms of live performance?
I personally like what they do. What they do sounds simple, but, of course, a lot of people have tried to emulate them and then they find out clever they are and how good they are with their sound. They've spent a lot of time tweaking what they're doing. It's the same thing as the dub thing. I like the way they put the sounds together, and I like they things they leave out. It's so minimal. I also like music that isn't minimal.
But, to me, Kraftwerk is such a perfect band. Everything is in just the right place. Just the right sound and just the right time. I'm inspired by creativity and quality things, and when I was young, I used to buy the Kraftwerk albums the day they came out. Even to this day seeing Kraftwerk -- even the last show I saw, which was about four or five years ago -- was one of the best shows I've ever seen. Just four old guys with laptops and cheesy graphics, but I thought it was a great show. Great bass.
People tell me that with my music they don't hear a direct influence. Of course in a musical sense there is no clearly direct influence. But I'm inspired by that kind of thing. If you listen to my music, there's a bit of that in there -- it's my own version of it. Even if I could sound like Kraftwerk, why would I do that? We already have Kraftwerk.
How did you come to work with Robert Rich on Stalker?
I read a magazine interview with him, I forget which, but he was asked who he would like to work with. He mentioned four or five people, and my name was up there. I thought, "That could be quite interesting." I called him up and suggest we do just that. Don't ask me how I got his number. But that's what you do. That's how I do things anyway. Most people don't do that. A few months later we did.
What do you feel you were able to express on that album that resonates with what Andrei Takovsky achieved with his film?
I'm not too sure, to be honest. I'm too close to the album. A lot of people are under the mistaken impression that it was some kind of alternative [soundtrack], which it was not. It was very much inspired by the feel and the mood of the movie. It was trying to capture the essence of [the film]. It's a favorite movie of mine. To many people, it's a really boring movie, but to me, it's great.
I just like the feel of the movie. It's hard to describe. It's one of those things where you're trying to use spoken language to describe quite abstract concepts. There is great sense of place and time. It's just a few shots of grass in the wind but to me it captures an essence of alien-ness and somewhere else. So it was very inspiring in that sense.
When we were talking about doing the album, we talked about common themes we might want to work with or interested us. Somehow or other, Tarkovsky's movies came up and that one in particular. We both thought it would be nice idea to try and do musically what the movie did with imagery. With all my albums, I try to create an actual space you can actually visit, but only when the music is playing. I haven't listened to the album for a long time, at least ten years, probably more. I think we succeeded. I remember being really pleased with it but I've always been more pleased with collaborative projects than I am with my own stuff.
When you work with somebody, it's really nice because you can actually listen to and enjoy their part. Sometimes you don't even remember who did what, and it frees you from being too close to the project. I don't think any normal person is not going to be pleased with what they do but when you collaborate with someone there is a whole different ingredient that is quite enjoyable.
Why did you want to work with Steve Roach on Metavoid, and how did that collaboration come about?
I haven't actually collaborated with him. I think I used some sounds he supplied on that. We didn't actually work together. He did supply some sounds for a couple of the tracks. That was indirectly from working on a movie thing.
What interested you in working with Hecate on Law of the Battle of Conquest and what do you think you brought out in each other for that collaboration?
I don't really know, to be honest with you. I think she wrote to me on MySpace or whatever. Over time there was a lot of going back and forth. I just like her. She's a lot of fun. She's got a lot of energy and she's really sincere, sometimes to her own detriment. She's reminded me of the early SPK days and she's very much into that period and she's influenced by that time, amongst many other things.
For me, seeing her work and hearing her talk, she's one of the few younger people I come across that actually got it. It wasn't fashion, she was trying to do something new. It was enjoyable working with her because I liked her energy. One of the main things you get out of this is a friendship.
You often say in interviews that you're crazy. Which may be a bit of a joke. Why do you feel that you're crazy, and how do you think being crazy benefits in making the kind of music the you do?
Oh, that's quite interesting. I wasn't aware that I've often called myself crazy. I think I often allude to the fact that you have to be crazy to do what I do. I really hate calling myself an artist because it sounds so pretentious, but if you create something...this is kind of a long involved conversation. The gist of it is for me is a two part answer:
For me, among people that do things like music or anything creative, there are two groups of people. There's people who want to be famous, which usually they will be, people say rich and famous, but rich is a side product of being famous, and they will just do what needs to be done to be famous. They'll screw the right people, sexually or otherwise. They'll be at the right place, they'll do all the right things to fit their image. They'll do whatever it takes to be successful and usually they'll be successful -- not always, because there is a bit of luck to do with it and some degree of talent. If you don't have talent, you'll get talent and you'll steal from other people etc.
There's another group of people who create stuff because that's what they do. They can't not do it. It doesn't matter if they're incredibly successful or they're incredibly destitute, they will still do it because that's what they do. It's not just expression, that's just what they do. I kind of fall into that second camp. It's great that people will come to my shows or buy my records, but at the end of the day, if they don't, I'm still going to do it.
I'm not doing it for them, I'm doing it for me. I've had a great life. I haven't had a real job for at least three decades. I know some really good people. I've just been to Moscow to perform, and I've traveled ,and it's great. But, of course, it's really hard to actually make a living. It can be really stressful because you never know when the money's going to flow.
To choose to do this for a "living," even though most of the time you're barely making a living, is kind of crazy because the sensible thing to do would be to get a regular job and settle down and stuff. Even though those things have their own stresses and uncertainties but at least you have a regular paycheck or some stability.
But when you choose to do something like this, you do have to be a little bit crazy. But it's not a choice, and that's the fucking problem. And that ties on to another part that deals with the whole question of creativity and madness. I'm kind of half kidding. But you have to be a little bit crazy to be creative. To be creative, you have to think outside the box.
So creative people, some of them are a little bit crazy or "characters" with little quirks and it goes all the way to a little deranged to completely psycho. I think that's the price you pay with creativity. I am joking about it but at the same time but people who come up with these crazy ideas, or that sound crazy, do these great things that are great artifacts or great pieces of music often die penniless. In many ways that could be seen as crazy but what the hell are you going to do anyway?
What purpose do you think creative people serve in society and why does society need them?
For me, what's the point of a great poem or a great symphony or a rock album or a movie? I enjoy all those things? What's the purpose as far as the species is concerned? Does it make us any better as a species? I don't think so, not directly. I think genetically we have these people that are kind of wired a bit wrong. They're mutants I guess. They're outsiders, they don't fit in. They do this weird thing other people don't get. They appreciate what they do but they don't quite get the why.
Why do we go in masses to see an opera or a rock concert or a movie? I think the role of these outsiders is that, basically speaking, there isn't much use for most of those things in terms of evolving the species. But out of that pool of people is the one crazy person that comes up with fire, or the wheel or the theory of revolution or thermodynamics.
It's people who think a bit differently or look at the world differently. Some of them create paintings, some of them create symphonies and some of them think about abstract math and stuff like that. Out of that group of people every now and again, not very often, this big idea comes which changes everything. I think that's what they're for. The byproduct of all of that is we have artists. But that's just my opinion.
Your music seems to, in part, explore and convey a sense of space and depth in sound. What first opened you up to the possibility of creating that feeling in music and is that something you have continued to develop up to this time?
That's a good question. All I know and remember is that in the punk and industrial days there was a lot of cool music going on, not just in those scenes. A whole bunch going on in Europe and the rest of the world. But there was a certain type of music that I wasn't really hearing that I wished existed. I knew what it was, but it didn't exist, so I had to go out and do it myself. That's how the whole thing started. I started creating it because I wanted to hear it. It's as simple as that, basically.
I refer to myself as an outspoken atheist, but if people want to be religious, I have no problem with that. I think fundamentalist religions I have a problem with because they're just plain stupid, and they believe in things like the world was created in six days. They might be right, for all I know, but it seems sort of silly. But if people want to have faith in things they believe in, it's not my place to criticize.
But anyway, as an atheist, and also liking music, there's all this great music around the world, historically, not just now, which is religion-based -- buddhist music, Middle Eastern stuff -- there's all this focus on majesty and there were all these great buildings to house this music. That was a huge factor, but another factor, too, was that it would be kind of nice to have music that had that kind of resonance and a little bit of depth to it and had some higher calling but without all the dogma and the bullshit of religion. It was a feeling I liked in music.
When you talk about space, the universe is amazing. If you believe in god or you don't believe in god. Whether you believe it was created completely randomly or steered by somebody's hand -- either way, it's fucking amazing. I also like the sense of scale, and I try to be very aware of perspective. As self-important as we are, not just as individuals but also as a species, it's kind of irrelevant given the size of things.
When you think about the whole scale of things, we're beyond irrelevant. I kind of like that. It's good to be reminded about those things sometimes and have your feet firmly on the ground instead of thinking too highly of ourselves. I think we're great. I think mankind is amazing for all its terrible faults.
In a 2001 interview for Ambientrance you cited Apocalypse Now Redux as a movie you were looking forward to seeing. What are your impressions of that film in general, and that version specifically?
I thought the whole movie was very trippy -- not that I've taken drugs or anything; I wouldn't know for a fact, obviously. No, it was obviously based on Conrad's book. I watch all kinds of movies. I have a ridiculous amount of movies here and a really good home theater system. I'm very picky about them, but sometimes it's fun just to be like a zombie and have a couple of beers and be stupid kind of thing. There's movies in the cinema but there's not much cinema.
Apocalypse Now, for me, was cinema. Although it's based on a book, the story was told and portrayed in a way that worked because it was a movie and not anything else. It was kind of about the Vietnam War, but that was more of a backdrop, but not having been there myself, it conveyed some feeling how surreal all aspects of war sometimes are. Especially in the modern day and we have all the technology. As surreal as it was, it seemed very real, and I liked that about it. As a movie, it had great cinematography and directing.
Sometimes you go see movies on the big screen but a movie like that opens on the big screen and the very first few shots -- that was one of the very first surround sound movies and one of the first movies I noticed had a lot of sound design -- when it started, you just knew it was going to be special. It raises the bar and you're on a whole different level now.
It was like seeing Alien for the first time in the theater: When the titles came up, you just knew it was going to be good. Apocalypse Now is one of those groundbreaking movies where everything after it has been in the shadow of it compared to it. It's always nice that we have things that do show things can be better and can be done differently.
Is sound design an element of how you create music? Obviously you have a good deal of experience in that realm.
That's kind of interesting but yes, that's what it is. It's what I do, basically. It's my instrument. I ended up doing sound design in movies. It's hard to describe to people I was working with. It blurred the line between music and sound design. So my credit would be "music/sound design" because they couldn't say exactly what it is.
When I get commissions to do music on projects, it'll be various sound design components and when I do sound design it tends to have a large musical component. It's funny how I have my own style. I do what I do but I leave it up to other people to give it names.
With your recent spate of live shows, you've involved some very evocative visuals. Did you do them yourself or did you have someone else working with you on that sort of thing?
I did a bunch of them myself. When you do these things, you want to put on a big show and do visuals and stuff, that stuff costs money. I don't know if you know, but the kind of music I do isn't exactly commercial so there's not exactly an easy way to make money. So I don't really have a budget, as much as I'd like to, to pay some great video people so I ended up having to learn to do most of it myself.
A few friends chipped in, too. This guy called Meats Meier, who is this amazing 3D guy, he did a twenty or thirty second segment. There's a really good producer guy called Dominic Hailstone who did really cool stuff. He gave me a few minutes. A Liquid Dynamics guy in London generated some footage for me. I asked for specific stuff. I put it all together in Aftereffects. I had a blast doing it. It's very time consuming, unfortunately, because I'd like to do more for the shows.
I took about four or five months off to learn how to do it and another two or three to actually do it. It's all in high definition too. When I do these shows I want it to be good. All these people tell me I don't need to do it in high definition because nobody else does. I want it to be really, really good visually.
Just rendering high definition video melted my memory [in my] Mac twice, which is quite interesting. I was really pushing it but at the end of the day, when the projector is on a really good screen, the difference is substantial. That's what I do, come up with these ideas, go, "Oh cool," and figure out how the hell you do it. But you figure it out.
Is the video production process similar, creatively, to how you work with other musicians?
The people I mentioned, Meats Meier and Dominic Hailstone, I really like their style and I asked them if they wouldn't mind doing something for me, I knew whatever they were going to do was going to be cool. I didn't direct or ask for anything specific. I just knew that whatever they would do would be perfect. But which it was. We've talked about working more but these video projects are time consuming and none of us can afford to spend many months on a project and not actually make an incoming while you're working on it.
All of us have mundane things to worry about like paying our bills and stuff. As much as we want to work together, on these kind of projects, you can't go without money for that long. That's one of those harsh realities of life. Hopefully someday someone will come along to fund something like that but in the meantime we just have to hope.
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