Interview with David Thrussell
By Dan Cameron
A leading figure in the heavily collaborative world of electronic music, David Thrussell is also a self-confessed recluse with an overwhelming distaste for the trappings of consumerist culture.
â€œI live in the hills. I’m the anti-networking guy,â€ he admits, happily, from his home â€œon a dark slope of a forgotten mountainâ€ some 100 kilometres outside of Melbourne. Here, he’ free from the elevator music and bombardment of ad-noise that cramps public space and “lodges something in your head that displaces the area that might otherwise be taken up with thinkingâ€. Hermit or not, Thrussell remains one of Australia’ most prolific electronic producers and performers, an increasingly sought after soundtrack composer and, in his spare time, the curator of a label dedicated to unearthing neglected radical country music.
Thrussell’ flagship project, the ominous industrial dance act Snog, emerged when he â€œran screaming out of art schoolâ€. In music he found the spark that had been missing from the â€œpublic service drudgeryâ€ of art school. â€œEven if you’re doing dark or intense stuff, there should be some joy about it, because you’re grasping the innate, important stuff of life.â€
The group combined the timbre of European EBM (electronic body music) artists like Front 242 with the more prosaic songwriting approach of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Swans. â€œI think the only way you can get excited about art is to feel, rightly or wrongly, that you’re doing something that no one else is doing.â€ Snog’ 1992 debut album Lies Inc was an alternately beat-driven and ambient synth-heavy excursion with a lead single, underground club anthem ‘Corporate Slave’, that resounded with audiences around the world. Snog’ evolving lineup included composer/audio engineer Pieter Bourke until 2000, and an increasing number of collaborators have contributed to more recent albums such as Beyond the Valley of the Proles and Vs The Faecal Juggernaut of Mass Culture.
Simultaneously anti-capitalist and concerned with the minutiae of daily life, Snog was in part a reaction to the mass produced music that had little relevance to Thrussell’s, or anyone else’, existence. â€œIt’s astounding how much so-called pop music avoids reality. If we’re going to write pop songs, they should be honest and address day-to-day things that are a big part of my life.â€
Thrussell’ other main vehicle, Black Lung, emerged not long after Snog. A solo techno act, it took influence from sonic magicians Coil, Sydney industrialists SPK and dark ambient pioneer Lustmord, all acts with varied but strong philosophies behind their sounds. Black Lung evolved from haunting ambience to encompass vicious techno and scattershot electronica that, despite its lack of vocals, packed an even more explicit political charge than Snog.
With references to the Illuminati and secret government manifestos, the early work of these two key projects seemed to draw on the extravagant conspiratorial musings of Robert Anton Wilson and Milton Cooper. Fast forward fifteen years, and nothing about Snog and Black Lung is particularly far fetched. In a world where chart-topping artists are openly manufactured through reality telvision and the media industry crusades to keep a dubious value on its increasingly vapid output, Snog’ 2006 album Vs The Faecal Juggernaut of Mass Culture is a valid take on the state of the arts. Meanwhile, Black Lung’ suitably industrial dance-floor wrecking epic, The Coming Dark Age envisaged the effects of an oil famine on economies dependent on cheap petrol. It’s hardly the stuff of a deluded conspiracy nut.
Anyway, the politics of his music are not as alienating to some audiences as might be expected. â€œThere are areas that I cannot go into, but we have fans in strange places. In strange positions in society.â€ No amount of cajoling will pry from Thrussell who these fans are, or what their positions are, but he is adamant that he’ not making it up. â€œWe have hardcore Snog fans who are in quite powerful situations.â€ Does this suggest, perhaps, that some of his subject matter rings true for the corporate slave masters? â€œI don’ want to get too excited about myself, but the thought has crossed my mind. If I told you, you wouldn’ believe me. It’s astounding.â€
While Thrussell’s anti-capitalist sentiment is strong, he’ no reflex left wing reactionary. He had to dispel an interpretation of Snog’ recent song ‘De-evolutionaries’ as a paean against intelligent design theory, insisting that he doesn’ buy the obvious alternative either. â€œI’m highly suspicious of evolution, because there’ too much of an ideological fit with capitalism – “survival of the fittest, the fittest have the right to dominate, we’re on this linear path of progress, so everything gets better all the time’. The universe is just too incredible for that scientific, rational explanation. Do I have a reasonable alternative to suggest? I’m comfortable with acknowledging that I am too limited to understand. In fact, it’s one of the things that gives me hope, that the universe is enormous and unfathomable.â€
One of the cornerstone ideas behind Faecal Juggernaut was the intrinsic problem of trying to be an honest cog in a corrupt machine. For Thrussell, this contradiction is most blatant in his reliance on technology to convey his message. â€œI can stand up and yell at the top of my lungs, “I’m a hypocrite’. They were the tools available. They’re the only ones I can use.â€ Naturally, the dilemma extends to his position of respect in an industry he openly scorns. â€œIt’s caused me to lay awake at night. As much as you think you’re honest, you’re part of the machine. Our motives are sincere but it’s difficult not to reflect on the fact that we’re involved in this.â€
So, how does he sleep? â€œI’ve nearly thrown in the towel many times, but a pragmatic voice pipes up and asks “what the hell else are you going to do?’ The only things that really interest me are these artistic pursuits. If you’re making art, you clearly feel that it has something important to say. (If) you don’ share it publicly and are completely sitting in a cave, and I’m half way there, you can never really make things better or different.â€
Thrussell insists his relationships with labels have been amicable for the most part – with a notable exception. â€œBlack Lung was on a real scallywag label that didn’ pay me properly. In 1997, I was playing a whole lot of Black Lung shows in Europe. I thought “has anyone ever bought a Black Lung record in Italy?’ Then I go to Italy and I’m headlining these outdoor festivals. I’m doing interviews on the TV with my own translator! Every interview, they’d ask me â€œWhat’s it like having a rave hit all across Europe?â€ And I’d go “I don’ know. What’s it like?’â€
As it turned out, Black Lung single ‘The More Confusionâ€¦ The More Profit’s had become a minor rave hit across the continent. â€œIn retrospect, a highly ironic title, but not for the reasons I was thinking at the time.â€
At the same time as he was exploring techno with Black Lung, Thrussell formed Soma with Snog collaborator Pieter Bourke as an outlet for stylings influenced by one of his other loves – films and their soundtracks. A renowned devotee of Ennio Morricone, it was natural that this would lead, despite his anti-networking tendencies, to work on film scores.
â€œI’m really not very good at selling myself,â€ he mentions, referring to his first meeting with the producers for the Scott Roberts’ crime thriller The Hard Word.
â€œI got a message while I was on tour that the film people wanted to have a chat with me. So I got back, got straight off the plane from the States and I was jet-lagged out of my mind. I went into the meeting not thinking that I’m supposed to go tell them how great I am.â€ The producers screened a chase scene that ended on a familiar train. â€œ(It) was the train that takes me up to Hepburn Springs where I live. So I jump out of my seat, and say “Fuck me, that’s my fucking train!’ I’ve caught that train hundreds of times. The producer swears to this day that it was the moment when I got the job. What I didn’ know was that they’d had other musicians in before me, and they’d got all crawly and gone “the editing’ fantastic’ and “blah, blah, blah.’ I don’ blah very well. Normally,â€ he acknowledges, â€œbeing a real person doesn’ work in my favour.â€
Thrussell’ love for heartfelt songwriting by real people, seeded in childhood exposure to Johnny Cash and Lee Hazelwood, has manifested in another way. He’ tackled an astounding excavation of forgotten country music through his Omni Recording Corporation label and has overseen the re-release of the work of a dozen artists who are a world away from the established clichÃ©s of the genre.
â€œThey’re quite challenging. People have this bias that country music is about intolerance.â€ The work unearthed through Omni is far from conservative, and highlights what Thrussell sees as an important lost tradition. â€œBefore the age of now, when people just watch television, poor white people had a culture. You could get a strong sense of it. Some of it is quite radical. For example, Jimmy Driftwood has a song called “My Church’ which is a nature worshipping ode dressed in flimsy Christian garb. He’ singing about how nature is his temple.â€
The Omni release schedule yields some tantalising titles and lavish cover art. Porter Wagoner was the first to champion a young Dolly Parton and is still active as a recording artist, but had a stash of gems that were languishing as deleted vinyl titles. The lyrics of Wagoner’ ‘Rubber Room’ would not be out of place on a Snog album. A padded cell is depicted as a happy panacea to the ills of the modern world. When they come to take Porter away, they find him â€œscreaming pretty words, trying to make them rhyme.â€ Other highlights include The Open Mind of John D. Loudermilk, a Nashville psych-pop opus from a man whose songs insinuated themselves into the catalogues of Johnny Cash, Laibach and Jewel, and a collection of genuine country hits and zen moments from Henson Cargill on A Very Well Travelled Man.
To bridge the gap between Thrussell’ world and the country curios, Omni is testing the waters with a series of early electronic records. The first release collected Gil Trythall’ Country Moog and its sequel Nashville Gold, but a particular treat for aficionados of proto-electronica is Bruce Haack’ Electric Lucifer. Mountain-born in an isolated Canadian mining camp, Haack was a Juilliard dropout who found his greatest success with children’ music, which he composed on homemade electronic instruments. He performed Electric Lucifer on a synthesiser he crafted from parts purchased for $50 on Canal Street in New York, and the results were a psychedelic anti-war odyssey unlike anything else of its time. It would go on to influence Thrussell as well as contemporaries like Luke Vibert, but, until now, has never been released on CD.
Not content with two active projects and a thriving re-issue imprint, Thrussell’ latest project takes Snog’ caustic attack on over-hyped consumer culture a step further. ‘The Enemy’ spins into diabolical pop music (sample lyric – â€œIt takes a special kind of psychosis to bomb the living fuck out of Iraqâ€), for which Thrussell has proposed his label hire good looking teenagers to mime in the videos while he relaxes, Svengalian, behind the curtain. â€œIt’ll work much better than having grumpy old me in there. We’ll see if they take it on.â€ Meanwhile, he stays bunkered in his hillside cave, recording new Snog material in preparation for a performance in August at a most unlikely venue: Disneyland, California. Friends in high places? Maybe he wasn’ exaggerating.
Snog’ Vs The Faecal Juggernaut of Mass Culture and Black Lung’ The Coming Dark Age are out now on Psy-Harmonics. A release from The Enemy is forthcoming on Negative3. Bruce Haack’ Electric Lucifer is available through the Omni Recording Corporation.