Foetus biography 1995

In an age when terms like "alternative" and "independent" get bandied about corporate boardrooms as mere mass-market packaging slogans, it takes an artist as rare as Jim Thirlwell to inject some meaning into what is so casually labeled "the underground." With his history of relentless aesthetic terrorism and committed cultural subversion, Thirlwell is one of the most independent thinkers on the music scene today, a much-needed alternative to "alternative rock" itself.

Perhaps Thirlwell's idiosyncratic demonology and relationship to our end-of-the-millennium societal dysfunction was fostered during his childhood in Melbourne, Australia. Maybe it festered and flowered when he moved to London in the late Seventies and became involved in the seminal no wave/noise scene, where he and others (like Throbbing Gristle and SPK) pushed the extremes of aural confrontation with a visceral intensity and conceptual intelligence that would define and inspire endless generations of what is now tagged "Industrial" music. Certainly his sensibility came to fruition when he moved to New York in the early Eighties to persistently dwell in neighborhoods best described as "the belly of the beast"; here, working ceaselessly in the isolation and madness of his studio, Thirlwell became a key creative and entrepreneurial force on an emerging New York rock music scene that has only recently found national prominence. But no matter how, when, or wherever Jim Thirlwell mutated into that notorious purveyor of sublime sonic synesthesia known as "Foetus," who he is and what he represents--to cult legions of fans and musicians--goes well beyond mere geographic determinism.

Anyone who's followed Thirlwell's eccentric career since he first donned the ubiquitous title of "Foetus" and began issuing his own obscure, but extremely influential, records in 1981, has to be impressed by his iconoclastic genius as well as his stubbornly steadfast commitment to do everything on his own terms. These are terms so consistently personal, so commercially uncompromising, and so musically complex that it's no wonder the mainstream of popular taste has taken so long to come around to appreciating and accepting his warped and bizarre perspective. His signature alias of "Foetus" was never the kind of catchy band name that trips easily off the tongue of your local radio DJ. "Foetus" was, and still is (particularly in this era of anti-abortion fanaticism) a very loaded word. As used in Thirlwell's various incarnations--in shifting nomenclature like "You've Got Foetus On Your Breath," "Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel," and "The Foetus All Nude Review"--its impact is, at once, horrific, outrageous, provocative and comic. The fact that the artist constantly changes his name makes it even harder to nail down his work.

Not content with these assorted fetal permutations, Thirlwell's recorded a major body of groundbreaking work under even more aliases: he played with fellow studio production master Roli Mosiman as Wiseblood; teamed up with a crazy cast of subcultural musical luminaries as Steroid Maximus; collaborated for years with punk sex siren Lydia Lunch under the a/k/a Clint Ruin; and even recorded with L.A. tattoo/skate artist The Pizz as Garage Monsters. All told, Thirlwell has released some 32 recordings in 14 years under 19 different group identities. Despite this myriad of group names, most of these ventures were solo projects, a fact further obscured by Thirlwell's habit of adopting multiple personalities within the same interview. Jim's always been his own worst J.G. Thirlwell, he'd gleefully stab Clint Ruin in the back, viciously slagging his own work. More than merely his particular brand of anarchistic punk pranksterism, Thirlwell's elastic collection of multiple identities has been an ongoing strategy of undermining and deconstructing the authority of the Pop Persona.

All things considered, one doesn't wonder so much why Jim has eluded mass recognition for so long, but rather how he's managed to pervert and shred the sensibilities of Rock's vanguard cognoscenti to the extent that mainstream tastes have actually shifted to the point of incorporating and appreciating Thirlwell's elusive, ever-evolving, and intricate imagination.

One avenue into mass consciousness has been Thirlwell's extensive work remixing music by other artists. He's been much sought after by a wide variety of musical acts--including EMF, Cult, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pantera, Prong, Megadeth, Fight, The The, Jarboe, Nine Inch Nails, Front 242 and Ethyl Meatplow--who, once "Foetusized," have never been the same. As a composer of tremendous scope, a musician of multiple virtuosity, a graphic artist of disturbing persuasiveness, and a studio engineer of wild and woolly wizardry, when Thirlwell doesn't know what he's doing (which is often enough to keep him experimental) he figures out a whole new way of doing it. By this method, he's set a standard by which whole movements in popular music (including the one that counts Ministry and Nine Inch Nails among its adherents) cop their cues but never quite match.

Jim Thirlwell's association with Columbia Records takes the form of a formidable three-prong attack on the collective consciousness of today's pop consumer: an album GASH, and two successive EPs, Null and Void. The first full-length studio album from Foetus since 1988's Thaw, GASH--an intensive project some two-and-a-half years in the making--is, by far, his most musically ambitious and impressive project to date. An emotional roller-coaster hurtling through an avalanche of contrasting psychological and pathological states, GASH is, at once totally draining, upsetting, mesmerizing and beautiful.

On tracks like "Mortgage," "Downfall" and "Mutapump," Thirlwell bares regions of such profound pain, trauma and distress that you might want to keep these depressing anthems from your more suggestible and unstable friends. "Take It Outside Godboy" (an appropriated quote from Homer Simpson to Ned Flanders, infused with the voice of convicted killer Daniel Rakowitz) is Jim's adamantly pissed-off response to abortion clinic bombings. "Steal Your Life Away" is the kind of total threat that's liable to be literally carried out. On this apt soundtrack for sociopathic mayhem, Foetus delineates the thin red line between frustration and vengeance as he chants "I'm feeling suicidal, I'm feeling homicidal." Having dished out a steady stream of musical atrocities that helped launch some of contemporary Rock's most nihilistic cultural antagonists (from Germany's legendary Einstürzende Neubauten to N.Y.'s newest bad boys, Cop Shoot Cop), one expects to hear howls of societal rage from Foetus. GASH, however, is an extremely eclectic opus, where pure anger is diffused into far more seductive musical expressions.

While "Friend Or Foe" has the yee-haw feel of a down-home stomper (Jim jokingly refers to it as "Foetus Clearwater Revival"), "Hammer Falls" is a captivating hybrid of musical styles culled from the world over, a tacklebox of hooks that's totally rockin' to boot. Straight outta Thirlwell's current urban environs, "Mighty Whity" (sic) was triggered by a real-life incident. Seems a prison bus drove by Jim one day and one of the cons screamed at him "Yo! John Lennon! Yo mighty whitey!"; Thirlwell's artistic response was to pen a track tackling the evils of racism while mounting an attack on politically correct speech codes . "They Are Not So True," with its despondent and seductive minor key string arrangements is a haunted examination of intimidation, as Thirlwell himself has experienced it in his violent, dangerous neighborhood near a housing project in Brooklyn.

"Verklemmt," the first single planned for release off this album, riffs on the multiple connotations of the word: from "emotionally choked up" in Yiddish, to being "tensed up" and "clenched" in German, to a type of Swiss sandwich that's "squished" and "tightly compressed"; here, Thirlwell blends different cultures in a virtual global village meeting predicated on hypothetically shared meanings-- a verbal analog to Thirlwell's musical agenda. GASH ends on a wry and comic note with "See Ya Later," in which Foetus bids us farewell in ten different languages, the ultimate fitting good-bye from his global ghetto.

An uncanny scavenger of sounds, Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell continues to anthropologically excavate the rich poetics buried in the arbitrary, the over-mediated and the mundane; but, on GASH, he adds to this process of meta-organic transformation the noteworthy talents of the Lounge Lizard's Steven Bernstein (who co-arranged the horn sections with Jim), veteran trombone great Art Barron, Frank London, and Pablo Callogero. Filling out the line-up is an all-star cast of downtown rockers including Marc Ribot, Railroad Jerk's Marcellus Hall, Todd Ashley from Cop Shoot Cop, and erstwhile Swans--now Unsane--drummer Vinny Signorelli. If you ask Jim to describe the record he's liken it to something approximating "Henry Mancini on PCP." If only describing his complex and convoluted vision were half so easy.

"COLUMBIA" Reg. U.S. Patent & Trademark Office

Copyright Sony Music Entertainment Inc.

Last updated 23 Jun '01.