Interview to Jennifer Wallis – Fight Your Own War

Published by Alessandro Violante on October 23, 2016

fight-your-own-war-power-electronics-noise-cultureJennifer Wallis, here interviewed, is the writer of a new and interesting book focused on power electronics music and the so-called “noise culture”. Fight Your Own War is written as a fanzine, and contains several articles (but also well-written and detailed reviews) written by several people, often artists of the scene, that cover much different topics: the mere music aspect, that cultural and that social, without trying to be exhaustive. The writing style is straight, clear, sometimes also using slang-like style, requiring for us some time to be understood. That of Wallis is an attempt that has fully convinced us, and we hope that this extensive interview will generate your interest about the book and that you’ll buy it, although you’ll necessarily have to order it.

Hi Jennifer! It’s a great pleasure for us to interview you here. One day, one of my contacts on social networks shared the cover of your book, and I’ve decided to buy it because, as sometimes already happened, FLUX isn’t only interested in music per se, but also in its social and subcultural dimension. Congratulations for your book, we’ll talk in-depth about it in the further questions. How have you thought to write it?

It seems like this book has been going on (in my head, at least) for years now! Initially the idea that I pitched to the publishers, Headpress, was a book with me as sole author, but I quickly discarded that idea. For one thing, it was way too much work, but more importantly it wouldn’t have reflected power electronics and noise in putting forward a multiplicity of views. Very quickly, I switched to the idea of acting as editor – something I’m able to do relatively easily – and getting people on board to write their personal takes on the genre. I didn’t want to end up with something purely descriptive – I hate books on film that simply end up narrating the plot of every film and not actually analysing it – but to think more about the ‘stuff’ surrounding the music than the bones of the music itself. I’d read S. Alexander Reed’s Assimilate not long before getting to work proper on Fight Your Own War, and it spent a lot of time breaking down song structure, in a hugely technical way, that I just couldn’t engage with (it also included a catty footnote about Philip Best that made me think, “Yep, about time we had a book that takes power electronics seriously, instead of just dismissing it as Nazis and knuckleheads”…).

While reading it, the meaning of “Fight your own war” emerges. I especially think about Genocide Organ’s words. Would you like to explain it to our readers?

It’s a pretty basic message, but one that I think PE does very well and very effectively. There aren’t many music scenes where you can put across your personal, often very subjective (and sometimes potentially offensive) views and remain, nevertheless, part of a relatively unified group of people. That doesn’t make sense to everyone – people can find it unfathomable that as someone left-leaning I can have friends via PE who are very much on the opposite end of the political spectrum to me, for example. I see that as one of its major plus points; I do not think PE should be somehow sanitised, ‘cleaned up’, or ‘fixed’ (or, as some would like, suppressed). It’s a valuable space where I’ve met some of my oldest friends (some of whom I disagree with wildly on certain issues) and where I’ve heard some of the most honest discussions. ‘Fight Your Own War’ was already in my head as a potential title for the book, and then Richard Stevenson noted it in his chapter on Genocide Organ, which made my mind up. It’s a perfect way of encapsulating PE for me: using noise to make very personal points, to fight personal demons, or to further your own social/political agenda. And, crucially, none of those agendas are held above the others as some kind of ‘party line’.

In the introduction of the book, you write about a very important topic, something that sometimes this music seems to forget. If in the early phase the use of some topics and some sounds can shock the listener, in time this strength decreases until it ends. If you want to avoid this, you have to modify its rules. Does this process happen? Is there some kind of evolution of the genre? In the book you make some interesting examples. 

My point in regard to this was that it’s getting a bit tired to describe PE as this ‘shocking’, ‘sadistic’, or purposefully ‘transgressive’ genre, because in many ways it isn’t that basic. No one at a PE show is particularly ‘shocked’ by a video backdrop of genital mutilation playing behind the artist, and in all honesty I don’t think that ‘shock’ is even the motivation behind such things in the first place. We’re talking to people with similar interests to us, in a small group whose gigs or releases you generally won’t find unless you know where to look: whereas early artists might have been about ‘shock’, now it seems much more like an almost comfortable place where you can openly indulge the interests that others find ‘weird’ or that aren’t polite dinner table conversation. That said, making people think (not necessarily ‘shocking’ them) is a valid motivation, and I welcome it, as I mention in my own chapter on visual imagery and packaging. Clearly there are still areas in PE that provoke debate: I know people who refuse, for example, to buy any Nicole 12 because of the thematic content, or who will not buy PE that engages with right-wing themes. It’s often difficult to make those personal moral or political choices on solid ground in PE: you could argue in circles about whether some artists ‘really’ believe in the politics they theme their releases around (there are several artists whose political positions are entirely opposite to what the average looker-on would assume, for example).

RJF – Greater Success And Apprehension & Convictions – New Terror Now (1983)

Ulex Xane (Streicher, a tribute to German politician Julius Streicher) talks about freedom of speech, that have its limits. The fact that power electronics focuses on this topic too is interesting as, listening to some records, it seems that the genre is mainly focused on serial killer stories and sexual taboos.

There’s more nuance in PE than a lot of people give it credit for (although there are also a fair amount of lazy artists who use the same old tropes just ‘because it’s power electronics’). Obviously there are traditional themes that have ‘stuck’ – SM, serial killers, medical horror – but I think underlying many artists’ use of these is a genuine interest in the topic they’re working with. Mikko Aspa’s Clinic of Torture, for example – he’s very clear that that’s a reflection of a long-standing interest in and knowledge of pornography. As listeners, I guess we also gravitate towards the things that we most identify with: the medical themes of Steel Hook Prostheses and the neurological/psychiatric focus of are things I find personally particularly engaging, clearly because I work with those subjects anyway as part of my professional life as a historian.

I like a lot this thought, approximately written with these words: “The future is in hybrid music. I’m waiting for the moment in which I’ll listen to a Top 40 in which there will be songs with power electronics elements […]. When talking about how this music could influence more mainstream, talking with other passionate people, I always say that mainstream electronic music could learn more than something by being in contact with post-industrial music. Anyway, there are some boundaries to be erased. What do you think about it? Do you agree with that thought?

I’m sceptical (see question 10 below) about the likelihood or indeed the need to ‘widen’ PE’s appeal, although there are several acts now who meld elements of noise with doom or rock really successfully, like Sly & The Family Drone. The thing with ‘adding’ PE into some other genre is that it’s not just sound: PE is defined by its visual and thematic content as much as its sound, so it’s not something – to my eyes anyway – that you can simply pluck bits out of and rearrange them into something else. It would dilute it. You might say you’d end up with something ‘informed by’ PE, but I don’t think it would be PE in any real form.

One paragraph of your book is entitled “The negative aspects of Internet age”. It seems to me that the author only considers the negative effects of Internet. Do you think there’s also something positive about it? For example, I wouldn’t have discovered your book! More than joking, it’s a fact that Internet has hit the world of fanzines, as well as it’s also a fact that it has given to all the chance to discover music that cannot be found in music stores. What do you think about it?

I think that chapter (by Richard Stevenson, editor of Noise Receptor journal) makes some very valid points about how the internet has changed how we process information: scanning rather than properly reading material, and having a kind of ‘surface level’ engagement with something. Richard mentions, for example, that there will be far more people ‘liking’ noise receptor on Facebook than ever actually buy a physical copy of the zine. But, as you say, you can’t deny the positive impact: that I can browse through hundreds of releases on the Cold Spring website, possibly sample some via Bandcamp or Youtube before buying, etc. I love the convenience of it, but at the same time it does take some of the ‘romance’ out of finding new music, and of broadening your horizons. In the days of printed catalogues coming through the post, you might get a brief description of what kind of genre a release fitted into, or its theme, and nothing else: you bought it on the strength of something unknown, and so actually getting it and listening to it was a more involved experience (and could be a really nice surprise or a massive disappointment!).

Consumer Electronics – Estuary English – Dirter Productions (2014)

I’m very interested about the part focused on audience response. Each musician has his own thought, but I’m very interested in how people experience the live dimension of noise music. For example, when I see people standing still and quiet in front of the stage and make an applause at the end, it seems to me something similar to a classical music concert. Sometimes, on the contrary, as written on your book, you can see even episodes of violence strongly linked to a punk attitude. Different people react in different ways in front of the same music. How do you explain this?  

Yes, Nathan Clemence’s chapter talks in detail about audience response – how some artists want to see a definite reaction from people watching, and how others are more content for them to be a bit subdued. Your comparison to a classical concert is interesting; when I explain PE to people who aren’t familiar with it, they assume that it’s like metal, with a mosh pit and shouting and head-banging. Though I have seen something like a mosh pit at PE gigs occasionally, it tends to surprise people when I say that, usually, people will be stood silently and listening pretty carefully. In Nathan’s chapter, Joke Lanz (Sudden Infant) is interviewed, saying that he’s really annoyed by people who come to shows and then talk throughout a set. Generally, I agree with that: PE sets are short and intense, and more ambient shows need quiet to be appreciated. I don’t know why people can’t shut up for that short time to listen to a gig they’ve paid to see.

Like the different reactions to PE’s themes or content that are described in the book, responses to it being performed live are very personal – so some people won’t be able to stand still (Gaya Donadio mentions she finds it essential to move when listening to a set) while others won’t move a muscle. Usually when you’ve watched a set with everyone standing deadly silent and still, they’ll go absolutely mental when the set’s ended – I find that much more honest and respectful than metal: listening with your whole attention and then expressing its effect on you afterwards.

Likewise, it’s interesting when, in particular in the Japanoise chapter, it’s being said that noise music has its own power and identity detached from the performer that generates it through his gear. Can you explain these philosophical idea to our readers?

Daniel Wilson’s chapter on performance in Japanoise really works with the idea of the ‘cyborg’ – that is, the performer being connected to, or a channel for, a machine. So Daniel writes that although many performers will behave on stage in a way that suggests their ‘power’ over their equipment, they could also be seen as being in a kind of ‘circuit’ with it: they’re dependent upon it and their bodily movements often make it seem like they’re ‘one’ with it and the two work really closely together.

Some listeners don’t seem to catch the humour hidden inside power electronics, as said by Mike Dando (Con-Dom). I’ve never thought about this. How much this emerges from this music? And, according to you, in what extent this is caught?

I was quite surprised at how many people mentioned this in their chapters, or in conversations surrounding the book. Philip Taylor notes it in his introductory chapter to the growth of PE in the UK, and there is a whole chapter dedicated to the ‘slapstick’ element of PE as perceived by Spencer Grady. Obviously there’s humour in it – some of it right there in your face, although I think that’s more evident from the ‘noise’ rather than ‘power electronics’ side: that experimental kind of bracket that acts like Smell & Quim or The Bongoleeros work in, where the point is as much (or perhaps more) an absurdist stage show as the sounds they’re making. More subtly, I guess you can see humorous aspects in PE where someone’s added so many effects to their vocals that it sounds like Dr. Who and the Daleks being sampled. It is there – and many people do catch it; I love Spencer’s chapter for its sheer unadulterated vitriol about comedy in PE (in character an approach rather like PE itself), but I’m less able to see quite as much comedy in it as he does! That said, he has made it more difficult for me to listen to Sutcliffe Jugend now without ‘assessing’ it for humour…

When talking about how power electronics could change in some way the way of thinking of people, Trev Ward of The Grey Wolves says that “When I understood that if power electronics / extreme electronic music is played only for who knows it, it’s nothing more than entertainment […]”, saying that society can’t be changed if music is delivered only to who already knows it, and we know that it’s a small slice of people. It’s also true that power electronics wants to be an underground kind of music, so how this change could be made?

I’m conflicted about this: by all means, yes, if you have a point or cause you’re passionate about then the natural inclination is to spread that message, but at the same time I don’t think many of us in PE ever want to see it becoming the next hipster trend or the subject of a BBC documentary special. It’s a question of scale: I know no one who wants to bring their noise to a mass record-buying audience because they generally do it for very personal reasons, with the music being an outlet that they don’t have elsewhere in life. People find PE via various routes – other music genres or, in my own case, being a fan of the so-called ‘alternative publishing’ world of Feral House, Headpress, and RE/Search – and so you could say that you’re ‘changing society’ for those people, just on a smaller scale. Everyone who’s involved in PE has another life outside it, and what you do in one may well be informed or affected by the other.

It’s very interesting that, after having bought the book, a digital cd had been delivered via email, containing some very interesting and different songs. It seems a bit to live once again a certain epoch in which it was made, but by mail. I haven’t lived those years, as I became passionate about this music only some years ago. How have you thought about this idea?

The digital release was a result of asking all those contributors who also made music if they’d like to contribute an exclusive/new track; some took this up and others didn’t (partly because of time constraints, so I’m hugely grateful to all those who managed to produce something so quickly for it). I would have liked to have more PE on the release – it ended up rather heavily weighted more towards the ‘noise’ side – but nevertheless I think it’s a good way to give some coverage to people less well known, as well as established artists like Streicher and Gruntsplatter. That’s a really interesting point that you make about the digital release/print book, and I hadn’t really thought too much about the contradiction between the two. Ultimately, the digital release came about due to practical capabilities – it was going to be a nightmare to produce and insert CDs into the books due to the way the books are printed and distributed. I also didn’t really want a CD stuck into the back of book – personally I find that a bit tacky, it reminds me of those ‘Teach yourself guitar’ or ‘Teach yourself German’ audio/book courses! But then the mixture of print and digital is very much how a lot of us approach PE and noise now: forums like Special Interests are vital as an online presence, but wouldn’t be the same, I think, if they weren’t also grounded in a print version (as Richard Stevenson points out in his chapter on zines and print culture).

As I said in the introduction to this interview, this book is particular for some aspects. The first one is that it’s a product of articles written by several people, that probably have different thoughts about what they write about, and this is also important to have multiple kind of views. The second is that it’s written as if a fanzine, or a webzine. There are articles with their own personality, not necessarily strictly linked among them. Were you inspired by fanzines when writing it?

Yes, it was absolutely inspired by the fanzine model, which was obviously so pivotal to the growth of power electronics and noise in the first place. I was really keen to include multiple and conflicting views – some of which challenge each other and the reader (so very much in character with PE’s rationale). Nothing would have been more boring to read than if every author had been asked to do a ‘I like noise because…’ kind of chapter. I think most people into this music, myself included, are partly attracted by the challenging nature of it, so it’s an audience that are going to be more receptive than most to a book that doesn’t provide an ‘answer’ or a straight viewpoint, something that doesn’t provide a neat manifesto. It was really important to me, as editor, that I didn’t alter people’s own voices and I hope that’s been successful: there are pieces that have a more academic tone, pieces that – as you say – read like a more casual fanzine piece, and pieces that read as very personal takes on the topic, almost rants, and that convey some very personal opinions.

Schloss Tegal – Black static transmission – Cold Spring (1999)

I like a lot the reviews in the book. According to me, they succeed in making feel you inside the music context they talk about. But I ask myself if these reviews could be published on the web. According to me, who reads on the web expects fast reading. We try to be in the middle. What do you think about it?

I tried to pair up reviews with relevant chapters, partly so that we identified ‘classic’ releases like The Grey Wolves’ Blood and Sand, but also so that – if you’re reading it as someone without a very deep knowledge of PE and noise – you could go away with some recommended listening that illustrated the longer chapters. So Scott Candey’s chapter on the US scene is paired up with a review by Grant Hobson of Werewolf Jerusalem, and Clive Henry’s chapter on Harsh Noise Walls (which talks about almost spiritual experiences involved in listening to it) is paired up with a review by Stephen Sennitt of Schloss Tegal’s Black Static Transmission, exploring occult/spiritual elements in more specific detail. Absolutely these are things that would work reading on the web too – I think they function in the book as a way of breaking it up a bit (so you’re not reading one long chapter after another). And of course, including reviews makes it really echo a zine that bit more.

In the Cut Hands chapter, noise makes a sort of evolution by means of strong rhythms. What do you think about rhythmic noise music? How do you consider it, and do you think that the same considerations made on your book could also be made for that music?

I have to confess I’m not a big fan of Cut Hands, although Whitehouse were – as they were for many people, I imagine – the act that introduced PE to me. I guess rhythmic stuff (I hesitate to actually label it ‘noise’, personally) like Cut Hands has much more of a widespread appeal, bringing in the dance crowd. But I don’t see being ‘rhythmic’ as confined to, or pioneered by, acts like Cut Hands. Listen to a lot of G/O – that’s very rhythmic in places – and Blackhouse; the idea that PE is this chaotic mish-mash of disconnected sounds is really contradicted by both of them. Recently I’ve been listening to Primitive Knot, who meld electronics, rhythmic beats, and space rock elements – it could absolutely fit into the ‘noise’ genre, but at the same time I’m not sure every person who likes them would automatically be a fan of Whitehouse!

Thanks a lot for the time you have dedicated us. I hope that you liked our answers. If you want to do it, greet our readers and invite them to read and to buy your book!

Thank you so much for such interesting and insightful questions! It’s nice to see that the book’s generated so many thoughts, which is exactly what I wanted it to do. FLUX is beautifully put-together, and I hope readers have enjoyed reading this. If they want to buy the book, there is both a hardback and a paperback available from Headpress (the hardback is exclusive to Headpress and comes with the bonus tracks). Thanks for having me!