It’s not every day one comes across as fascinating a genre-bending alias-filled composer, producer and artist as JG Thirlwell. You’d be hard-pressed to find another who’s expertly delved into post-punk, chamber, opera, jazz and experimental sounds, exploring mythological and anarchistic themes in the same collective body of work. Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, metal remixer, voiceover artist, film and quartet composer, Cartoon Network series scorer- yeah, it’s all unbelievably the same dude. When considering someone this multifaceted, the word “mastermind” inevitably enters the unboxed picture.
Read below as we chatted with JG recently about his latest projects, how he approaches creative blocks, weird things said as a voiceover artist and more! Visit J.G’s site for more project info!
JG Thirlwell photo by Marylene Mey
When did you realize in your childhood that you were artistically inclined?
(Laughing) Well, I’ve gone on record before as saying one of my earliest memories was being in Kindergarten and I sang “Viva Las Vegas” to a girl when I was about three years old. I was always an avid drawer and a music fan. I knew I wanted to do something with music but I didn’t know what. I went to art school and did painting and graphics and things like that, but then I dropped out of there and moved to London in 1978 and knew that I wanted to do something with music…. My first instrument was actually cello, which I didn’t learn for very long. I never really got a chance to grasp sight reading and I still don’t really read music. I’m self-taught in what I do. When I was learning cello, I was thrust prematurely into the school orchestra and that was so intimidating that I stopped playing it. I’d be halfway through the first page, got lost and the orchestra was powering on without me and that was intimidating.
Do you think the concept of the word “genre,” when it comes to your music, is pointless?
Yeah, absolutely. Someone once referred to me as a liminal artist which I think is not a bad term because I do stand on the boundaries of a lot of different styles and I think, in some ways, different projects give me a chance to exercise different elements of what I want to do. Sometimes they don’t bear any relation to each other and in some of the musical communities that I inhabit, there are people that know one thing that I’m doing and have no idea of the other thing that I’m doing. I don’t carry around everything that I do at all times.
You have two new projects out now?
Yes, there are two albums- a Foetus album called Soak and a soundtrack from a film that I scored a couple of years ago called The Blue Eyes.
On the Foetus album Soak, the material was born around the time of the last Foetus album Hide, which came out in 2010. Conceptually, a lot of it comes from that place. It’s an album that deals with the culture of fear and crawled out of the dread from the Bush Administration. Musically, I was spreading my tendrils into things like opera and working with other vocalists, exploring that kind of complexity which I’d never done before. I experimented with structure and layering sound.
The Blue Eyes soundtrack is a score to a film and the instrumentation is a chamber music soundtrack augmented with samples of electronics. The instrumentation has double bass, cello, French horn, viola, violin, bass, trombone and tuba. I now consider myself more of a composer than an instrumentalist.
You’ve done a lot of remixes. Are there any favorites that stand out?
I think the one I did for Prong (“Prove You Wrong”) was really good and that was kind of a breakthrough because no one had really done a metal remix before. They started playing that song live in the remix arrangements, which is interesting. It sort of opened the floodgates, for better or for worse, for offers for me to do metal remixes. At first, I wasn’t really interested in doing metal remixes but I ended up doing remixes for Fight, Megadeth, Nine Inch Nails and Pantera. I also really liked the one I did for Excepter (“Stretch”), as well.
JG Thirlwell photo by Marylene Mey
How did you connect with MTV to become a voiceover artist?
I did voiceovers for MTV Sports for about six seasons. They initially asked me to do the closing theme and incidental music. When I was turning that in, they said “Hey, we also like your voice, do you want to audition for the voiceovers?” So I went in and they gave me the script and I did it. So for the next few years, I said things like, “EARTH SOLO COMPETITION! …GABBY REESE GETS DOWN WITH THE CANADIAN HOCKEY LEAGUE”. (Laughing) I said a lot of strange things where I had no idea what they were talking about and there was a lot of hilarity trying to get through lots of tongue-twisters.
Are there plans to work with Zola Jesus again soon?
We just did an album and a tour last year. She was offered a show at The Guggenheim and she asked me to write the arrangements for a string quartet and that turned into an album we did that came out last August. Then we toured with that doing rearrangements of her older material and new material including an unreleased track of hers called “Fall Back” and we finished in October. She’s been working on another album since then and I’ve been busy working on my own stuff too. I’ve offered my services in the future but we both have our own things going on right now.
Releasing over 40 albums, I trust you’ve never had a creative block for very long. How quickly does it normally take you to complete an album?
There’s no set time of how long it takes and yes, I get creative blocks all the time. I tend to work on several things, like five things at once. Today I got stuck on something and it’s better for me instead of hammering through and spending hours and hours to leave the house and then the solution will come to me immediately or I’ll turn my energy onto something else. Sometimes it’s better to switch modes and go to a different project to clear my head. You go through these moments where you’re like, “That’s it, I’m done, I had a good run” and then you take a moment and you go, “I’m a genius.” (Laughing) Unfortunately, that’s the fire you have to walk through so many times.
Do you have any career regrets?
Yeah, I do, quite a few. I wish I’d continued in the vein of some things I did in the ’90s. I did an EP called Butterfly Potion and I wish I’d turned that into an album and explored that sound further. It was a really good moment in time and I didn’t expand on it. I did this album on Sony called Gash that really should have been split into two albums. You’re not supposed to regret anything but I feel like I just entered my second act. I think I’m going to really start to peak when I’m in my ’70s but I feel like a mid-career artist. There’s a lot in front of me that I want to explore and there’s a lot that I’m excited about and I feel like I’m just beginning.
What’s planned for 2014?
Well, I just finished scoring another film from director Eva Aridjis called “Chuy, The Wolf Man.” It’s a documentary about this family in Mexico that suffers from this condition that makes them extremely hairy. It follows their lives and what it’s like for them there. It was a challenging project because I didn’t want to do something that was too emotionally manipulative.
I’m working on another quartet for The Kronos Quartet. This is my third quartet. My scoring work on the sixth season of “The Venture Brothers” is starting this month. I’ve also got more albums planned this year, including a solo project called The Cholera Nocebo which will be a 5.1 Surround Sound album. I envision it like a Pangea project, where I want to do it once on every continent and then it’s completed. I’m doing it next month in Marrakesh, Morocco. In the long term, I’m working on an opera which is being workshopped a little bit on the latest Foetus album. It’s a taste of what’s to come.