Hot On The Heels: An Interview With Cosey Fanni Tutti

Cosey Fanni Tutti is a seismic force in cultural terms. Whether delivering confrontational performances in radical Dadaist art group COUM Transmissions, shaping the mould for industrial music as one-quarter of Throbbing Gristle or constructing a prototype for techno and acid house with her partner Chris Carter in Chris & Cosey and Carter Tutti, her work has frequently been years ahead of its time while influencing artists across the creative spectrum. Cosey has collaborated with artists including Coil, Current 93, Eurythmics and Boyd Rice, always with a distinctly original and genuine approach. We revisit her lecture at our 2010 London Academy with host Emma Warren.


RBMA: You are still making music and art now when lots of your peers aren’t. Why do you think that is?

COSEY: I think the [difference between the] reason I started making music and the reason they started making music is probably why. I suppose it really began way back in 1969 when I was doing art actions and performance pieces. They were more like ‘happenings’ left over from the 60s, where we set up these weird environments with anything we could collect. We would take instruments along and play amongst all this debris; people couldn’t necessarily see us, and we would leave instruments around for people to pick up and join in. The looseness of the approach to music goes back that far. I have never been orthodox in my approach to music. I have never seen a reason to be. I’ve found very little interest in doing ‘proper’ music. It is more a way of life for me, commentating on this or that and my assimilation of events. Things I wanted to communicate to people, I did through music. Other people did it as a career, as a way of making a place for them in the culture and earning a living and being famous.

RBMA: Have you always been more interested in sound than ‘proper’ music?

COSEY: As a teenager, I came in and hit a scene of more experimental music. So, I grew up having the attitude that music stirred feelings within you – it wasn’t just a means of dancing the night away, getting out of your head, then going home and working through the week, then next weekend doing the same thing. In fact, when a lot of the drugs were going around in the 60s, I looked at a lot of my peers and saw them as basically the same as people in the discotheques getting drunk. My peers were getting stoned or tripping out but they weren’t doing anything with what they learned from that experience, just criticising people that got drunk instead of stoned like there was some big difference. There wasn’t.

“When you are doing music that addresses really hard issues, there is a kind of ecstasy at some point where it suddenly clicks and there is beauty in it.”

RBMA: Is it easier for you to make beautiful music, or hard and disturbing music… or is there no difference to you?

COSEY: When you are doing music that addresses really hard issues, there is a kind of ecstasy at some point where it suddenly clicks and there is beauty in it – you have located that feeling deep down inside and made sense of something that is really hard to face. This is what we started doing with Throbbing Gristle, and I went on to do in Chris & Cosey and Carter Tutti. I am not interested in music that sings about love on a certain level: that everyone can fall in love and have a family and live happily ever after and go through the fields of corn with the children and all that crap. I am interested in what society, culture and human beings are capable of doing to one another, good and bad. And the bad has to be spoken about. There has to be discussion, there has to be assimilation, and sound is a fantastic medium for that because it tweaks little nerve endings in you that bypass any kind of conditioning you have had. A lot of music we do is more about sounds triggering those kinds of emotions than about the lyrics or the chord changes or the choruses.

RBMA: Do you think we’re kind of limited in our vocabulary to talk about bad things, in a way?

COSEY: Certain sounds speak to you in your gut and those are the ones that really evoke emotions that I am interested in when making music. The original concept of [Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady”] was based on a friend of ours who was in Vietnam and was a nurse out there. When he came home, he went to work in hospitals. There was a lady there who had been severely burnt and she was known by the nurses as “Hamburger Lady” because she looked like a charred hamburger. He had quite an attachment to her and cared for her. I think he felt more for her than the other nurses, who just abandoned her, really. He wrote us quite a touching letter about it and some of the lyrics Gen[esis P-Orridge] is singing were from his letter. He described the scene as he nursed her… and the ‘woo’ sound was about people going around cleaning the hospital—all that she had was what she heard and this was meant to represent her perspective of life, basically. But it was also trying to get across the feelings of the people that also had to deal with [her] on a daily basis.

People should address these things in music. There’s escapism and there is also reality. We also dealt with the Zyklon B zombies from the gas chambers at Auschwitz and also the Moors murders because those were the issues that people were trying to forget about. The context of the day is built from everything that has come before. Our thinking was that you build up a sort of culture and then society starts to flounder at some point because their reference points have been missed completely as to what they should engage on certain levels of different emotions.

RBMA: Can you talk to us a bit about the Throbbing Gristle track “Hit By A Rock”?

COSEY: There were a lot of tracks like this that were very visceral, especially live. We did a lot of tracks like this that really punched out at the audience – almost in anger, really. Not to evoke some response from them, but because Gen responded to whatever he felt at the time: the music that we created that he was singing and everything else. But these tracks are the ones that people really remember most of all. They’re really powerful. Chris [Carter] built speakers and our own equipment so that we could really tweak the frequencies on the people that were there, so they couldn’t ignore us and they had to face whatever we were presenting them with. Whatever their response was created the music, so you got this loop going. We started something, it got a reaction, and then it came to us again and we built it through the people who were there.

RBMA: You made the seminal 20 Jazz Funk Greats album in 1978. Can you talk us through what you used?

COSEY: So much has happened since then, equipment-wise and everything else! 20 Jazz Funk Greats in itself was a bit of a spoof album for us. By the time we did it, we’d had two albums out and we had started to get a following of people that seemed to think they knew what we were going to do. We never wanted that. We had to always be confounding expectations.

We did the cover so it was a pastiche of something you would find in Woolworth’s bargain bin. We took the photograph at the most famous suicide spot in England, called Beachy Head. So, the picture is not what it seems, it is not so nicey nicey at all, and neither is the music once you take it home and buy it. We had this idea in mind that someone quite innocently would come along to a record store and see [the record] and think they would be getting 20 really good jazz/funk greats, and then they would put it on at home and they would just get decimated. Not to play around with the people that followed us, but just to let them understand that this is a work in progress, please come with us and enjoy it.

From the beginning, all of us being interested in lounge music and Martin Denny and those kind of people, we introduced vibes on some of these tracks, which was really good fun for us. This album is where “Hot On The Heels Of Love” came in. That was a bit of a spoof on the Donna Summer single, “I Feel Love”, because disco was very big then in the 70s. You had all the usual Saturday Night Fever and that kind of thing going on, so that will give you an idea of how different TG was at the time.

As I said, we used vibes, Space Echo, the Roland CR-78, drum machines and my cornet. I started playing cornet at the time, putting it through anything and everything I could, played in any way but normal. The cornet became quite important hugely quite by accident. Sleazy [Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson] brought it into Martello Street, and he couldn’t pucker up properly and get a note out of it. So, he just handed it to me and said, “How do you do it?” I just happened to do it first blast, so I took over cornet from that day on and he went back to his little sample keyboard.

RBMA: Do you think it is easier to be irreverent musically if you are not classically trained?

COSEY: If there are no rules, then you are not aware of breaking any rules, are you? Sleazy had been trained. I think he was taught to play the piano, like I was. He’s the one out of all four of us that every now and again will say, “That’s not in tune,” as if it matters. I’ve always been of the mind that if you are not taught how to do something and you come in with a free mind, then anything is open to you and anything is possible. When I’ve worked with trained musicians, they seem to have a fallback formula to go on when they suddenly can’t think of what to do. Whereas if you have not been trained, you have no fallback and your imagination is endless.

RBMA: That’s quite a scary place creatively for most people, though.

COSEY: When you don’t know what to do next? I think that is the best place to be.

“If there are no rules, then you are not aware of breaking any rules... If you have not been trained, you have no fallback and your imagination is endless.”

RBMA: How much do you personally enjoy getting involved in a piece of equipment and learning to use it?

COSEY: I’m a very physical musician, so even if I work with laptops now (I work on Ableton), I have to have physical contact with things and feel things moving. When I get a piece of equipment, I don’t typically want to know the back-end story of it. I usually have a notion of what I want to use it for. Chris will say, “This will be really good for you because of the way you work.” And I’ll say, “In what way?” And then he’ll show me how it works roughly and I start using it. One of the good things about that is that if you don’t know what something is supposed to do, you can come across something new.

RBMA: What gear have you enjoyed getting involved with recently?

COSEY: The Faderfox on Ableton has been my biggest shift ever – doing samples, stretching and squeezing live, I really enjoy that. Also, getting Guitar Rig so that I can change my guitar even more. While we’re on stage with TG it’s used. I’ve seen reviews afterwards saying, “Sleazy was great on that.” And I was thinking, “Actually, he was drinking his wine at that point and it was my guitar, but nevermind.” That is the kind of thing that happens with TG, you don’t know who does what and that’s the way we like it.

RBMA: After Throbbing Gristle finished you and Chris continued making music together as Chris & Cosey…

COSEY: I was still doing striptease then, so I heard a lot of different music going on in the clubs. Chris was really interested in sequencing, and we just fancied doing something a little more lightweight but with an edge to it. That is why Chris & Cosey started off the way it did. There was a sort of crossover period with Heartbeat and Trance but then came Songs Of Love & Lust and that was the Chris & Cosey sound, really.

RBMA: The music was directly related to the strip clubs and the art exhibitions you were doing with yourself as the artwork.

COSEY: The guys in the pubs could not figure out what was going on. I danced to United. I danced to “Love Lies Limp” by Alternative TV. Funnily enough, I used “Hard Working Man” by Pere Ubu solidly throughout doing striptease. It was a fantastic rhythm – it was heavy and it was dirty and it works really well. Very rarely did I dance to my own music. I was there incognito, if you like, because that’s when you get an honest response from people.

RBMA: Throbbing Gristle stuff is very different live than it is on record. How did you find performing the Chris & Cosey stuff?

COSEY: Chris & Cosey tracks were specific and had a structure. Live, we had to get over the way that we were used to playing, which was very loose. You just have a very basic rhythm that you played on top of, but it would morph into something else at any given time. With Chris & Cosey, we didn’t want to do that. But… I can’t play guitar the same way twice, I can’t play anything the same way twice, and that’s a built-in thing – I treasure it and it doesn’t bother me.

RBMA: A lot of synth pop that came out roughly at the same time as Throbbing Gristle was about trying to be modern and futuristic. Were you thinking about that at all?

COSEY: It was post-war and people were trying to get away from that, and some got away from it. It’s a weird thing to say – wanting to be futuristic, that’s really bizarre – but I know what you mean, they would bypass everything between. Throbbing Gristle wanted to be something new. We wanted to bring all the knowledge and experience and emotions that preceded that [time] into that little melting pot and see what came out of it in the present day, the sounds around the studio and everything else. Whereas the Human League and people like that were totally different. I suppose theirs was a crisp, clean look towards the future, whereas we wanted a dirty look at the past and a hands-getting-dirty feel to the present, moving onwards to the future.

RBMA: Which other artists were you particularly interested in at the time?

COSEY: Les Baxter. Chris had a penchant for John Barry. Sleazy particularly liked [Martin] Denny and so did Gen. But at this period one of the biggest shifts in our sound was that we got the Akai S900 and we had access to our own samples. That was a huge shift for us – it was really exciting to start doing rhythms and sequences out of just anything. We would take the Walkman out with us and if we heard something, we would record it. We did a song called “Arcade” on Exotica that was made out of all the machines at an amusement arcade.

RBMA: Moving forwards, what was happening for you musically in the early 90s? What was pushing the music forward?

COSEY: We had gone from Rough Trade to Play It Again Sam and Wax Trax. We played a lot of gigs when we were with those two labels and we played a lot in America. It did affect our studio work, to be honest. It is so visceral when you play live and you want to get that energy in the records, but at the same time the studio gives you that control to get it just how you want it. In the 90s we started thinking about live work and studio work as two separate things. There is no way we could reproduce what we did in the studio on stage and we accepted that as part of our approach.

RBMA: And there were technological shifts as well?

COSEY: We got a computer! It was like, “Oh wow, we don’t need that huge mixing desk anymore.” That was a huge turning point for us, ditching the samplers, all those floppy disks and all that crap. That was a revolution and a revelation for us. When you work with some equipment, you fall into a kind of a rut and there is an end to certain equipment at some point. Although the S900 and 950, and the 1000 we got after that, were important to us, it was a sampler – you only get out what you put in it. Just the physical action of doing and the way you do that repeatedly starts to dictate the experience. You want some other way of putting in and getting out. The whole world opened up for us with software. We could tweak to our hearts content and we didn’t have the cost of tape, which was a big factor. We weren’t in a position where we had a big record deal or had an advance or someone paying us to do this. We had a child to bring up as well and those mundane things do impact your creative life. You have to start thinking, ‘school uniform or tape?’

RBMA: What is the single thing you think you can do to remain creatively interesting or creatively interested?

COSEY: That’s a difficult one. I think to do it for yourself. That’s a contradiction in terms, because you are doing it for other people to share, but what I’m talking about is knowing yourself – you know whether you are expressing who you are. The minute you start expressing something for someone else, there is a kind of betrayal there and you have left yourself behind somewhere. It is a long road back. I have known a lot of people that started off doing great music, and were seduced by Hollywood and everything else and they just can’t get back. They are rather unhappy but very rich, which seems to go hand-in-hand. But if that’s the lifestyle you want, then that’s fine.

By Emma Warren on November 5, 2012

On a different note