By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
"Each time I do an LP, I get closer to dying... And probably there will be a point where I make an ultimate statement like that artistically, just finish mixing it, and the next day--die."
-Jim Thirwell in Tape Delay, 1987
When I was but a callow and Jello-haired Eighties punk, Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel seemed like the perfect sort of ipecac for anyone hungover on Reagan's "new morning in America." Little did I know that the man behind the drum-machine stomp of "(The Only Good Christian Is a) Dead Christian" was singing about his own death wish. Jim Thirwell, a.k.a. Foetus, was puking his life away, and he knew it: "Six Hail Margaritas, I'm paying for the price of sin," bellowed a choir of electronically manipulated Thirwell voices on "Dead Christian." It was a frightening sound: an army of orcs playing the devil's gospel.
Like punk rock (or Christianity), Foetus found himself neither good nor dead in the Eighties and Nineties. So he lived the kind of life Joe Strummer once called a "deathstyle," and recorded every album as if it were The End. Along the way, he helped create a genre of music that he never quite identified with: industrial.
"I don't even listen to a lot of the stuff that I'm supposed to be godfather to," says Thirwell, speaking on the phone from a hotel in the California desert. "I just think it's laziness to put me into the nasty I-word."
Perhaps so, and yet his echo throughout rock history has been unmistakable. Around the same time as "Dead Christian" (a well-circulated compilation track), Thirwell released the seminal Hole, five years before Trent Reznor's "Head Like a Hole." The red, white,and black totalitarian cover art predated KMFDM; and the big-band punk-jazz anticipated, um, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. If this wacky version of Einstürzende Neubauten sounds contemporary now (Beck for Goths?), that might be because pop music is just catching up with Thirwell.
Even so, Foetus has entered the mass-alt consciousness only as a respected remixer of bands he inspired: Marilyn Manson, the Melvins, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So it's fitting that after a six-year absence, Thirwell now returns with not only an adventurous new Foetus album, Flow (Thirsty Ear), but a forthcoming collection of Foetus remixes by the likes of Pan Sonic, Kid 606, and DJ Food. He's also playing live for the first time in years, bringing his confrontational persona to the 7th Street Entry on Wednesday, June 20.
"A lot of demons turned around and bit me on the ass," he explains of his recent hiatus. "I had to crawl out of a lot of chemical battles and reassess my life--like whether I wanted to live or not."
This from a guy who once signed an autograph, "Help us in our crusade to encourage G.G. [Allin]'s suicide." But his decision to clean up was typical of his life of all-or-nothing choices. In 1978 he moved to London from his native Melbourne, Australia--"to the other side of the world," he remembers--with only a couple of bags packed. He immersed himself in the postpunk scene that formed around Throbbing Gristle, then moved to New York after opening for punk poets Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, and Marc Almond in 1983. Launching his own studio, called Self Immolation, Thirwell made music primarily to please himself. While re-teaming with Lunch as Clint Ruin--writhing with her on the sleeve of Stinkfist and cutting a straight-faced cover of Blue Öyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"--he maintained Foetus as a one-man band.
Thirwell plays nearly every instrument on the furious orchestral bossa novas and cracked breakbeat seizures of Flow. One morning, he says, he ran to his Brooklyn studio to transpose the jazz finger-snapper "Grace of God" after waking up with the arrangement in his head. He's still "inexorably drawn to wanting to touch on the entire history of recorded music within any one album." Which makes sense: You never know which album will be your last.