'Nearly everyone was from a rich or aristocratic family'
Interview Hunter Hunt-Hendrix and Pieter Schoolwerth
Photography Jason Nocito
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is most famous for her musical projects Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. But her musical output can’t be separated from her numerous writings on the occult, pandrogeny, and the development of human potential, nor from her work at social organization – most notably as the (non-)leader of the Temple of Psychic Youth (TOPY), an international countercultural communications network and quasi-(or anti-)cult especially active during the ’80s. There are few pop musicians in history who have worked in such a thoroughly visionary and ambitious way. Her attitudes, activities and ideas have been an inspiration to me. We sat in her apartment to discuss the relationship between ideas and music, utopia, networks, existential development and the changing potentialities of counterculture since the ’60s. I invited Pieter Schoolwerth along to moderate the discussion, and to address his own concerns as a visual artist, which resonate with my own as a musician. Also, he contributed his perspective as someone involved in TOPY during its heyday.
Genesis: So tell me what I’m doing here.
Hunter: ’SUP asked me to interview someone I admire. [Laughter] I chose you because I’m interested in your ideas and your status as a musician who insists on articulating and working towards a utopian vision.
Maybe that’s why we’ve lasted so long – because there are actually ideas. It’s not just entertainment. It’s not just the desire to be in a rock band and become successful and have people pat you on the back and limos meet you to go to an interview instead of sitting around at home (laughs).
Hunter: A lot of musicians these days are not so concerned with the ethical dimension and don’t tend to have a framework of ideas organizing what they do.
There was a point somewhere, the early ’80s, probably, where the most common refrain you’d get from young people who wanted to be in bands was, ‘I want to be rich and famous.’ That’s a huge shift from what was going through people’s minds when we began in the ’60s. In the ’60s it was all about being different. It was punk that changed things, though that might seem counterintuitive. All those punk bands we were meeting when they were just starting out, they all wanted to get record deals. Despite the posturing and the angry lyrics, they all wanted to be on Top of the Pops.
Pieter: Why do you think within popular music there’s never been as much of an arena for intellectual debate or talking about ideas as there has been in the art community or the philosophy world? Why have pop music artists not wanted to do that?
Well, we have to go back a long way. There’s always been a split in the west with music. Music began when we were prehistoric beings without language. It started to make things happen, if you like. The shaman or the wise people would be in the clan, and they wouldn’t know that the sun was going to come back again. No one had any idea why it came up, what it was, or why it disappeared.
Hunter: We can still never be sure that the sun’s going to come up.
Well of course, but that’s later on in the discussion. So people invented rituals and chanting and signs in order to try to encourage nature to have a pattern that could be read. That’s the source of all poetry, of what became religion, of magic, which is the source of alchemy, which is the source of science and chemistry, which is the source of technology. So the roots of music are actually the roots of all culture on every level. Around the Renaissance there’s a split between function and patronage. Suddenly people are painting for the rich to please them and painting for the church so they don’t get executed as heretics. And in music it’s all about the same thing – supporting the system, the status quo, the people in power. But then you get jazz, which is really where the experimental music was before the ’60s. My father was into jazz, so I had access to that music. It didn’t seem, at the beginning of the ’60s, that popular music, as it was known, had any possible way of speaking beyond mundanity. It was like a baby squawking. doo-wop, Elvis – it was something with no weight, just squawking. I’m not being told a story, not being told that the world isn’t as it seems, not being educated in any useful way. But then the Stones appeared. We liked the Stones because they appeared to represent an attitude as well, it looked like there was more there. And it wasn’t just what they were playing – they were also dressing differently.
Hunter: What was it about the attitude that attracted you?
They were beatniks, they were bohemians, they grew out of the blues, so they were influenced by American blacks, which was outrageous.
Hunter: Though the Stones weren’t writing manifestos or talking about cosmology and philosophy.
No, it wasn’t about that. But what we did was – we wrote a manifesto on what we thought they meant (laughs)! We saw these rebellious scruffy people upsetting our parents, the politicians, the cultural status quo, so we thought that implied rebellion and change. We went to one of those horrible English schools where we were being trained to be the leaders of tomorrow. Nearly everyone was from a rich or aristocratic family. Anything that was different from the grey suits and the short haircuts and seemed to be undermining, that was exciting.
Hunter: What made you want to write and not just explore new sounds, ways of living and appearing? I think that’s something that really distinguishes you from other musicians.
That comes from being sick (laughs). When we were really young we had bad asthma, so we were off school an awful lot. And my father had an amazing library of books. So we would spend months of each year reading books. I read a hell of a lot. Seven Years in Tibet, Nausea by Sartre, other books.
Pieter: Did you have a community of friends at this time? Were there people you could talk to about ideas, or was it just you?
Nobody. My parents kept moving. We never had a group of friends that were consistent up to the age of 18.
Hunter: Sometimes not having a community can help you to grow along a unique path.
Lady Jaye also was sick and developed her own interest in things by being alone. A lot of artists and writers are the same – they’ll tell you they were sickly or isolated.
Pieter: It seems like, coming out of the ’40s and ’50s, in the ’60s in pop music there was this originary moment where people said, ‘No, we are resistant’ and there was a dialectic between commerce and counterculture. But in the last 40 or 50 years, particularly the past 15 years, perhaps the dialectic has become more complex. The way I see it, subculture has perhaps become a model for commerce. The language of making money is now equated with mental, spiritual, and musical freedom, the language of iconoclastic creativity and rebellion. As someone who has been a part of so many successful subcultures and resistance movements, how do you feel looking back on the way counterculture felt at the time versus how it feels today?
Well what happened with my experience was that around ’65, we discovered Oz magazine, which featured all these stories about Malcolm X and gay rights, all sorts of concepts that had never been presented to me before. And we felt immediately a kinship with these people. There were philosophers and agitprop figures and serious scientists. There were all these people having radical new ideas and it was just this fabulous melting pot. You could propose anything, no matter how ludicrous, and people would throw it back and forth.
Hunter: My sense is that people who were really involved with those things in that era imagined that a major change would happen as a result of their activity.
Some of that is propaganda from the powers that be. The powers that be have deliberately painted the era as naïve and idealistic.
Hunter: That’s not what I was trying to say, though! On the contrary, really.
Pieter: When was the first time in this time period that you could see that some kind of economic or commercial entity realized this counter-culture was something they could get involved with?
It happened in America first. Someone got very clever with strategies and tactics, and realized that if you fight rebellion, you tend to make it last, and even make it seem sympathetic to the public. Like the students who were killed in the public. So they decided to do two things, first of all not reporting it, as much as possible, and secondly saying, ‘Oh, it’s great! Let me give you some money to do some more of that.’ And it worked marvelously, because people fell for it. They were so quick to let go of their so-called principles when they were offered these little carrots, especially punk bands. And ever since it’s gotten more and more like that.
Hunter: It seems to me that today it’s gotten to a point where subculture identification, along with valorization of being whatever you want, is essentially a delusion. The system extracts attention, energy, and money from young people and distracts them from truly radical possibilities, all the while congratulating them for some kind of imagined transgression. In this environment, do you think there’s still a viable way of doing counter-culture?
Yes, there’s always a way to cause trouble for those people. Which is why we’re always in trouble (laughs)! Originally the music wasn’t the point. It was a gathering place. At the early psychedelic clubs in Britain, because the music was extended, spontaneous, improvisatory, people would also be organizing demonstrations and making magazines. The music wasn’t really that important. It was just there as a sort of background tapestry to the network. But then – fucking Woodstock. Then someone came up with Woodstock, probably the CIA, or the mafia, or both, and they destroyed it in one fell swoop. All you have to do is wear denim and stupid t-shirts and sit in the mud and you’re a rebel!
Hunter: That sounds about right – but so has counter-culture been destroyed or not?
No. It happens every time – it’s just gotten faster and faster. There’s always something bubbling. But the powers that be would never knowingly allow anything with true power to become very popular. And they’ve gotten more and more smart about it. Look at my life. They’ve attacked me, very directly. And we take it as a compliment, as a sign that there’s some content there. It all started by writing sleeve notes on the back of the records. One day we’re thinking, ‘There’s this 12-inch square of cardboard there, what if we actually make it say something useful? Talk to people?’ So we just started writing these texts, provocations. And then people wanted to know more about it.
Pieter: That brings me to another question. I’ve come to see the Temple of Psychic Youth international network system you set up as a sort of proto-Internet of human relations in the way it aimed to connect people abstractly by communicating through a series of access points they could write to and exchange information through the post, which I see as very similar to our websites today, like Facebook.
Well, I don’t know if it was like Facebook.
Pieter: I was very active in TOPY at the time. The way I saw it was that your bodily presence as an artist was dispersed throughout the world through these networks through this private language or lexicon of symbols, texts and other esoteric information, in addition to your musical output, that fans could come to identify with. For the first time – and this is how I see it related to the Internet – it was an output for you as a pop musician that I was interacting with that had nothing to do with seeing you at a concert or buying your records. It was a whole new venue for expression. Where did the initial impulse come from to disperse yourself and set up a network of social relations that was divorced from your physical presence?
You didn’t even need to know we made music. That was part of the idea. We’ve always just seen communicating with writing as a way of networking, meeting people and being inspired by their commentaries on what you’re saying. A real dialogue. For me that was the whole point of the group. It wasn’t to sell more records – it was to share information. Doing this outside the usual structure that exists in the traditional pop musician/fan relationship that simply consists of releasing music.
Hunter: You guys are talking about the structural aspect of TOPY as a network, but the occult aspect, the doctrines and the rituals – this also stands out to me as very important.
That was just based upon my own personal explorations and readings. For example we went and looked at churches and we realized something – that they’re really beautifully designed to brainwash people. The size is made to cow people and make them feel overwhelmed. Then you have the high-pitched notes of the choir, which release certain endorphins in the brain. Then the organs and the bass sounds reverberate the stones and affect the physical body. Then someone comes to the pulpit and they release incense so you’re also overwhelmed with smell, and then they start their propaganda.
Pieter: That’s certainly analogous to the concert arena.
Exactly. It is very similar. So we thought we’d have a look at this. What’s going on? How functional is it? What if you don’t have an oppressive message? What if you say, ‘We’re not trying to tell you anything. What do you think?’ We thought we could perhaps make use of it.
Pieter: But did you see this network as a kind of saying no to that? Another way to communicate with fans through a network, as opposed to just needing to be a rockstar on stage? I think this idea of dispersing yourself through a network as opposed to a traditional concert situation is analogous to how popular musicians work today. They have their Twitter, Facebook presence, YouTube channel, they have other platforms of expression that exist entirely separate from their musical output. In a way, for a musician today, your identity as an artist is the amalgam of all your presences on screens in the digital realm. You have music, what you see, feeds, various things you say, and what you write. How do you feel about this situation today with multiple platforms across which the self is disseminated?
As far as the Internet goes, for us what’s important is that someone goes, ‘Why isn’t there an archive of all your stuff online?’ and we say, ‘We don’t have time’ and they say, ‘Well there ought to be one’ and we say, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ Then they become producers instead of just consumers. And now they’re also doing other things.
Hunter: I guess transforming listeners from being consumers into being producers is pretty valuable. Maybe it’s the most one can ask for.
Pieter: The writings and interviews you have disseminated through the TOPY network have often been very provocative in nature, and this is a very different manner of ‘provoking’ than that used by punk for example where the rhetoric is openly available in the lyrics. Hunter, you have certainly worked within this arena opened up by artists like Genesis to use other digital platforms to express your ideas outside Liturgy’s music and that has led to provocation as well. How do you see your writings and interviews dispersed online working in relationship to your musical output as an artist?
Hunter: From the start I had a desire to write in connection with my music, both to articulate aims and to connect it to an ethics. That’s not so uncommon in so-called serious music or fine art, and I was pretty absorbed in that stuff. I wasn’t thinking much about the Internet until my interviews began appearing online and they stirred so much controversy, especially within the metal community. I think it is valuable and important to connect contemporary philosophy with contemporary rock or independent music, or whatever. I don’t like modern society’s tendency towards specialization, which affects music and the arts as much as other areas. It closes people off from empathy and from awareness of their potential. Also I think music is a really powerful force in the world, but that it requires a degree of articulateness for its power to be meaningful. So the writing and the Internet presence go along with the music, creating a space for it, while at the same time ideally the music makes people curious about the writings.
Pieter: Do you think that some artists abuse the Internet to the detriment of their music, with the music being put on the back burner?
Presumably they just need a lot of reassurance. They have low self-esteem and want to be stroked a lot. Why would anyone want to use Twitter?
Hunter: There are a lot of artists using Twitter in interesting ways.
That’s nice to know.
Hunter: Are you familiar with Lil B?
(Laughing) I’m not familiar with anything!
Hunter: I had to ask.
I’m familiar with Lil Wayne, though. A clothing designer asked us, ‘Can we do some of your old T-shirt designs?’ We say, ‘Sure why not?’ And so Lil Wayne buys the stuff. And next time he’s on stage, he’s got a Psychic Cross baseball hat on, and I’m like, ‘That’s great! He doesn’t even know what it is. Or maybe he does!?’ And they had us read Thee Psychick Bible at the shop. So we told them about communities and networks, and how everything is going to collapse and what’s going to work. There will be small units of people who share their resources. You see how it works? It’s not that network on the Internet. It’s a direct one-to-one relationship between people.
Pieter: Okay, but it seems like there are different ways of using networks, and the way that you are interested in using them differs from the way that people abuse them today. I wonder what exactly the difference is.
Ours is about setting up alternative societies in the future, pure and simple. Changing the human species, both mentally and physically, so that it has the option of survival. That’s really what it’s all about. Having a band is just a way of talking to people.
Hunter: That brings me to a passage from a text of yours that I wanted to ask you about. You write, ‘Permanent change towards a radical positive and liberating evolutionary mutation of the human species is the core motivation of every aspect of my creativity.’
Hunter: I’d like to hear you talk more about this evolutionary mutation. You seem to have a specific concept of freedom and a desire to spread this freedom by means of your musical output, writings and social organization. What does that word mean to you and can you describe the evolutionary mutation you wish to bring about?
With TOPY the questions we always had were, what can we do to make our relationship to the world more magical, how can we be less affected by society and bureaucracy, how can we be more bonded as a group, as a tribe?
Pieter: My relationship to it was as a kid in a small suburban town. I was getting these things every month in the mail. I had no friends, I was the only one who knew about TOPY, and I was in a way experiencing this on my own. But the community that I felt a part of was more like the Internet. You guys were in England, so it was very far away, very mysterious. So when I understood tribe, I thought you were talking about a global tribe, a network, as opposed to a tribe, like ‘Here’s a few people.’
Oh, it was both.
Pieter: So it was an abstract relationship system at the time already, because you had two different ways people could be communal; in person with each other and through the network. That’s one of the many reasons I thought it was so radical. And unlike the pseudo-communities that exist online today in social media sites, forums and the like, in which the sad truth is that the ‘community’ functions essentially to just keep everyone separated, alone and home, gratuitously typing exhibitionistic blabber into the glowing box, the end goal of TOPY really was to ultimately bring people of like minds and feelings together, in the flesh.
Yes, this is all true. There were always people who were out there, who were alone, who were bright, who felt like there was no one else like them. One of the only reasons we still make records is to be able to touch those people. That’s why we do interviews, too.
Hunter: Do you think that human society can change fundamentally at a global level?
Yes, but let me get another glass of water before we start on that one. So. I was in a commune at the beginning, in ’69—
Hunter: Was that the Process Church?
No, no this was the Exploding Galaxy. The commune was really, really rigorous. When you arrived, all your clothes went into a box in the middle of the basement, and any money you had was handed over. Really, a lot of it was classic cult deprogramming, or programming, depending on how you look at it. You could have a sleeping bag or a blanket, but you could never sleep in the same place twice. And you had to, on and on, keep trying to shed every kind of habit you might have. So, if someone was always talking in the same way, for instance, one of my habits was fiddling with my fingernails, which we still do with excess energy—
Hunter:—you’d have to break it.
You could go, ‘Stop!’ They’d all start haranguing you like, ‘Why the hell are you doing that? What’s wrong with you? Can’t you stop? What’s wrong with you? Why’s your hair the same as it was yesterday? You’ve got no imagination? What’s your fucking problem?’ Anyway, from being in the Exploding Galaxy, we realized what they were doing was basically a psychotherapeutic thing. They were trying to basically reduce down one’s behavior to an empty plate, you know, erase all inherited, conditioned ways of behaving and responding to things so that theoretically you could build the self that you wish to be.
Hunter: The body without organs.
Yes, so that’s what they were teaching me, and it really had a lifelong effect on me. Can you change behavior?
So much is predetermined by genes, habits, social pressure. Is it possible for human beings to free themselves and choose, genuinely choose how to be? And then after that there was COUM [Ed. note: a music and performance art collective from the UK that was active between 1969 and 1976]. COUM was my way of giving a deadline to my body and mind to try and break my normal reactions to things. To try and break my behavior loops. And so we’d sit and think, ‘Now, why is it okay to masturbate in bed at home, but it’s not okay to masturbate on the bus to school? Who decides? Because the action is exactly the same. It’s only the location. Who controls the location?’ Constantly questioning like that, just like at the commune. But now it got deeper. ‘Why do I have to wear things this way? Why do I have to use this hand to do something? Or that?’ Everything. Questioning every single thing. If you’re going to have a community – and that’s what we’ve always wanted – you’re going to have to have people who’ve gotten rid of all that baggage and aren’t reactive over the most banal stuff.
Hunter: So you have to destroy these internalized social norms and overcome passively acquired habits, and then a deeper, true self, or something like that, becomes actualized.
Yes, or there’s a potential to create a true self, yes. And yet that isn’t enough. It also has to be able to be shared, because the species – it’s one of those weird things that we discovered through TOPY, because TOPY was all about empowering and building the self-created individual – we found that when you get to that point, it’s not enough. You suddenly feel, ‘Well what about everyone else?’ So it becomes about the community again, which was a surprise to all of us.
Hunter: A community of free individuals that isn’t bound by the norms of a society.
And then the community grows, and then you have to think about what kind of community it can be for all these people who are individuals and spending their time breaking down every form of habit. Can you still have a community?
Pieter: You break down your individual ego and self in favor of building a new body that’s a social body.
Exactly. That’s the conclusion we came to.
Pieter: Dismantling individual egos, particularly the overtly virile image of the ‘male’ performer that exists in traditional rock, is certainly an interest you both have – occupying a more feminine presence to destabilize the genre. Yet this emasculation is not as simple as to feminize the image through clothes, make-up, and androgyny as routinely occurred in glam rock, new wave, or hair metal. Rather, I think a female self also emerges by your ‘intellectual’ presence dispersed in your writings, and this goes back to my earlier question of why thinking and writing by musicians outside their music has long been considered taboo. Hunter, I was curious of your thoughts on this. In your case this emasculation is rather complicated, as the male hysteria that has ensued from the metal world’s reaction to both your image and presence as an intellectual has come inversely from you ‘removing the corpse paint’ both literally and figuratively, and by your occupying the musically ‘female’ position as an intellectual in a non-intellectual environment – and exposing the inherent conservatism that has congealed within black metal over the last 20 years for what it is.
Hunter: That’s interesting to think of it in terms of emasculation. That might be right. I try to create with total honesty and authenticity. I try to just kind of close my eyes and not imagine how it appears from the point of view of any given subculture. And the product of that attitude freaks people out. The issue these days I think is that subcultures aren’t fundamentally different from what we’re calling society. It is the same mechanism at work. In spite of rhetoric about being different and accepting of difference and so on, the group identification depends on shared revulsion towards a pariah. Maybe there’s still meaning in occupying that space, of the woman, the black, the fag, the monster – but you have to consider its presence in subcultures as well as in so-called society. I’d hope that for some people, taking on that role, pushing that button – it could be an example of living a free, authentic life. Emasculation would in that case amount to acting in a daring and honest way. And this is an important starting point for any ethics or politics. Maybe viral hate online carries with it a message that people don’t recognize immediately. Hopefully some people might be alienated from their identities just a little bit, which is a step towards freedom.
Our new project is the One True TOPI Tribe. Our premise is that the world is about to collapse as it is. The economic system is based on a fallacy. You can’t have infinite growth with limited resources, it just goes against nature. You can’t have infinite consumption and you can’t have infinite population growth either. We are all just turning our heads blindly away from the fact that the whole system is flawed.
Hunter: You’re suggesting that there will be an apocalyptic point.
There will be a collapse of the economy, a really serious one. And that’s why everyone is moving towards totalitarian capitalism, which is what we already have in China. They’re the big example of how and try to survive this anomaly. But it won’t work. That will collapse too. So what happens then? Who’s gonna be best prepared when you can’t go out and shop at the corner shop? Hell’s Angels and all the motorcycle clubs. They’re mobile, they’re loyal, they’re prepared to use violence to survive. The Bloods and Crips will probably be okay, because they’ll take over some tower blocks and that’ll be their little territory.
Pieter: Then you’re gonna have the Crips fighting the bikers and you’re gonna go right back to Medieval times.
Well, the bikers will leave town if they’ve got any common sense. You know, they’ll get some gasoline, stash it somewhere and then they’ll be mobile.
Pieter: It sounds like you’re describing almost a medievalism.
Well, it will be.
Hunter: Maybe that’s an answer to the main question I have for you. I agree with what you’re talking about in terms of breaking through internalized social norms and passive habits, creating this new self that is unique and individual, that can judge for itself, that no one else needs to understand. There’s something real there, you could call it freedom. But to return to an earlier stage of this conversation: we were talking about the way that the economic system, the capitalist machine feeds off of this idea of freedom. You know, forget about norms, be yourself, break the rules. It’s as though this profound transformation that can happen in the individual has a lazy, complacent, doppelgänger. And in music especially it—
Peiter: —It could be mistaken for subculture.
Hunter: Yeah, or people who are making subculture don’t have the energy to actually undergo this transformation you’re talking about, because it takes work. It takes linking up with others and undergoing pain, and lots of patience—
Pieter: It takes a real sacrifice to the community. I think that’s what people cannot do.
Hunter: It’s like there’s this exhortation to just go, ‘Well I’m just gonna be myself, whatever’ and valorize that attitude, which is something totally different from activating a higher state of consciousness.
Pieter: Right, Lady Gaga. “Born This Way”. Just sit there in front of your computer and shut the fuck up and be your little passive, submissive self, keep being ‘different’ like everyone else…and buy my shit. You know?
Hunter: So my question is, do you find it disheartening or disappointing that things have ended up this way?
Well, it is inevitable.
Hunter: Okay, though also, from what you’ve said, I’m guessing maybe your answer would be that, well, this system is about to fall apart. (Laughing) There will be an apocalypse, and we’ll just start from square one after that happens.
Not really, not really. It doesn’t matter to me either way whether it staggers on or it falls apart. To me it is still important and necessary for people who are like-minded to gather together and share their resources. Because there’s always going to be extreme fear of otherness and difference, you know? That’s always been there, it’s never really gone away. Hippies got killed for having long hair. Human beings are innately
tribal and vicious.
Hunter: But isn’t that complicated by Lady Gaga? Everyone loves her precisely for representing herself as being ‘different’. What if difference doesn’t play the same role it used to?
If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. She’ll be gone in three years and nobody will be listening to her in 20.
Pieter: What can you say to somebody who—
Don’t worry about them! Just worry about the few people who make up your community and make yourselves strong.