Saturday, January 24, 2009
A Conversation With William Bennett
Interview by Richo
Photo by Melissa Musser
NOTE: This interview took place with William Bennett during October and November 2008. In hindsight, I feel several points raised could have been pushed further, plus more questions to a few of his responses could have been drawn. But it's at least good to leave something for another time, though. Outside of this, the interview will be posted on the main Adverse Effect website in due course, but since this may take another month or more its being posted here in the interim makes perfect sense.
William Bennett, of course, needs little introduction, really. Since 1980, he has courted controversy via his group, Whitehouse, who themselves have sometimes been responsible for the most aggressive and hostile electronic music imaginable and have thrown all manner of different ideas together to create something way beyond the realms explored by the vast majority of their peers. Perhaps meaning different things over the years to their many listeners as to William himself, Whitehouse have primarily concerned themselves with the very basic premise of engaging with their audience and in turn evoking a response, whether necessarily willed into view or otherwise. A response that can be every bit as much about itself in its purest, most natural and raw form as much as being about it leading to an equally interesting array of interpretations open to discourse, debate and even different ways of thinking. At least, this is how I have always seen the group, anyway. To dismiss them as merely clever bastards fucking about with electronics to create a din with obscenities glueing sometimes fantastic wordplay together would, to me, undermine precisely how much the group have succeeded with getting the listener to think, although it’s absolutely clear William would deny this as being part of the group’s agenda and would doubtlessly be just as content, or carefree, if you did just dismiss Whitehouse so or, indeed, not think about anything whatsoever. What I have personally always enjoyed about Whitehouse is not only how their sound and ideas have progressed, especially in more recent years (Phase Two of the group, as it has become known by many) and documented perfectly on 2007’s Racket CD, but how wide-ranging people’s opinions about them are and how this equally matches an audience’s reaction to any one of their live performances.
The very fact that I’ve heard strangers and good friends alike suggest Whitehouse as being everything from intellectual noise-mongers or post-modern purveyors of the avant-garde at its angriest to a one-trick act whose supposed ‘joke’ had worn thin by their second album certainly hints at the spectrum of responses I speak of. And, again, it is something galvanised by a live audience; performances being a medium where Whitehouse have always especially thrived and where, indeed, one can witness any number of people screaming (joining in?), thrashing about, attempting to rip ex-member Philip Best’s clothes off (or even the almost skeletal William’s, come to that), laughing uncontrollably or simply looking nonchalant as though waiting for a big event beyond a live music concert to somehow consume them. Without doubt, it’s a great display and I’m sure I’m not alone in gleaning so much pleasure from a band and audience alike. Rarely do groups with a captive audience transcend the usual trappings of simple adulation from them.
However, there is far more to William Bennett than simply Whitehouse. Whilst the group are presently in limbo following Best’s departure in early summer 2008, he has been busy overseeing a vinyl reissue campaign on Very Friendly Records which commenced the previous year, has taken his interest in what he calls ‘Afro Noise’ to new heights via his Cut Hands DJ performances, still has plans for his long-running Susan Lawly imprint, and can be found occasionally indulging in other activities widely documented on his frequent posts on his page at Blogspot or at least via the links there. For a man now steadily creeping towards the valley of his middle years, he appears to possess as much energy as somebody around half his age.
On top of this, and having been afforded opportunities to get to know him a little (with the emphasis on little, as I strongly feel William will forever remain rather guarded and never fully reveal himself) better during the last two or three years, he’s proved to be a deeply fascinating individual who is every bit as charming, personable, generous, caring and witty as one could hope for from anybody. Not bad going for somebody who’ll readily declare himself a misanthrope and whose perhaps not completely unfounded mistrust of other people never belies his abject friendliness and warmth.
Whitehouse are possibly only part of the story behind William, but the worlds they inhabit, expose or even dash back against the walls they came from certainly shine a torch towards one of the most genuinely interesting people presently operating in music still. Let’s hope it remains that way for a considerable while yet…
AE: Firstly, since Philip left Whitehouse, you have gone from abandoning the group altogether to a short while later announcing that it will continue. What prompted this decision?
WB: Less a case of abandoning it altogether than a case of being in a quandary as to what, if anything, to do next – after much soul-searching and messages of encouragement decided to carry on (even though it’s still not clear in what form that’s going to take).
AE: Are you going to work with anybody else in Whitehouse, following Philip’s departure? Since Philip is clearly a close friend who has likewise worked alongside you and contributed much to Whitehouse, won’t he prove a tough act to follow?
WB: A very tough act to follow indeed – and that’s why it’ll require a different approach, a major rethink. Not necessarily a bad thing of course to be shaken up a bit – it’s always easy to get comfortable and stuck.
AE: Do you think Whitehouse were becoming comfortable before his departure, though? I would say that, certainly live, you’d had everything down perfectly for a considerable while…
WB: That’s true and is ironically part of the problem, which is why circumstances (whether or not by design) that force a shake-up can generally be embraced; another related factor was the role played by the stupid accident that I had in Belfast which meant that Philip found himself having to do several solo shows in our stead which had unwelcome effects upon his performance dynamic, and therefore ours, upon later resumption.
AE: Clearly, Whitehouse is at a point of change once again. Do you think you will utilise this to your advantage and try exploring something new? Of course, your sound was changing anyway, as especially proven on Racket, but I’m not specifically referring to the sound. Rather, besides perhaps pushing your interest in African percussion even further, I mean new strategies, concepts, or even ways of performing live…
WB: Yes, exactly – of course that’s way easier said than done, I think there needs to be a period of reflection or contemplation on how things could evolve. There are a couple of half-baked ideas I have but nothing too electrifying yet.
AE: Can you elaborate?
WB: Let me bake them a bit more, then I’ll get back to you on that...
AE: When do you think Whitehouse will be ready to emerge again, either live or on record?
WB: Hard to say because a lot will depend on the outcomes of the aforementioned period of reflection - I’m confident that something will come of it however, but it’s just too early to be too specific. There’s also the unreleased track ‘Pains Part Of The Dilemma’ which is like the third part to ‘Cut Hands Has The Solution’ and ‘Killing Hurts Give You The Secrets’, it also has that rather stripped down bare sound – so one would imagine that will form a part of the next releases.
AE: How is the reissue campaign of the Whitehouse back catalogue going in the meantime?
WB: The first 3 releases came out very well, and then things stalled a bit before the summer with the Bird Seed 2LP – issues with the test pressing and side 3 which were then followed by issues with the manufacturer themselves. Now we’ve changed manufacturer and by the time you’re probably reading this, Asceticists 2006 and Erector will both be out which will hopefully lead to a resumption in the series’ momentum.
AE: You’re also in the throes of making the back catalogue available for download. I can appreciate the advantages of this in respect of it possibly making your work available to a market otherwise not interested in buying CDs or vinyl, but I know you wanted to avoid it, ideally. Where did the change of heart arrive from?
WB: It’s not really a change of heart, I still have serious misgivings about it, but was persuaded by the distributor to at least try it out through iTunes with the understanding that I could change my mind about it at any time. In one sense, it seems churlish to deny anyone who might be interested access to the songs in this format, and in another it certainly goes against my strong belief that music is to be experienced and not merely listened to.
AE: Where do you personally stand on the debate between vinyl/CDs and downloads?
WB: Personally? Vinyl is by far the best in terms of the music experience – the visual (the large format artwork; the grooves; the turntable), the kinaesthetic (through the ritual of purchasing, examining of the grooves, the turning over, the anticipation of dropping the needle down), even the smell – and then the sheer warmth of the sound, and the format’s increased longevity over the alternatives. To go back to your previous question, the point is really one of whether it’s any of my business to impose that bias upon anyone. Almost certainly it isn’t.
AE: So, can we expect to see the more recent albums reissued on vinyl in due course, then?
WB: For sure, everything’s getting reissued on vinyl – Asceticists 2006 (and Erector) are already now here.
AE: Forgetting the last album, which must surely represent the one you’re most proud of, what are your personal favourites?
WB: I don’t know, which is your favourite son or daughter? All the albums mean a lot for differing reasons, they represent moments in life as much as the music itself, and all the fond and not so fond associations and memories that come with them.
AE: Do you believe the Whitehouse audience has changed much during more recent years? I’ve personally witnessed much less in the way of abuse hurling, spitting, beer bottle throwing and suchlike at your shows. Do you think this is due to your shift towards playing the ‘art’ card more heavily?
WB: Yes, I’m sure we still have a lot of the same fans, along with many new ones and the dynamic in the live context has shifted considerably, just as you point out. Around about the time of the Batofar show in Paris, we decided to make several subtle alterations in order to challenge previously held expectations, and it paid off and things changed pretty quickly for the better. I’m not sure we’ve ever really consciously played the ‘art’ card, though I do much like that turn of phrase!
AE: I have aways suggested that Whitehouse are somewhat ‘misunderstood’. An opinion you’ve steadfastly denied. However, do you feel that, in a sense, misinterpretation has been integral to Whitehouse?
WB: This is always going to be a danger whenever you challenge or provoke – people are pretty fixed in their ideas and if something comes along that questions that, you’re going to see a wide range of responses. Really, I think the problem I have is with the term ‘misunderstand’ which implies some kind of message that requires specific interpretation – my preference is for the term ‘get it’ – and it’s one of the expressions that can’t be deconstructed but can be felt. My artistic definition with regards to the music is that if you hear it then you get it, if you don't understand it then you get it, if you understand it then you get it, if you misinterpret it then you get it, but if you want not to understand or interpret or hear then you don't get it. But you can't have the arrogance to experience it as if there wasn't something not to know, the knowing of which would make a difference, absolutely.
AE: Okay. I would then contend that many of your listeners/’fans’ (I hate this term, but…) do not ‘get it’. Agree?
WB: It depends what exactly you mean by ‘many’ or ‘listeners’ but, to put it another way, I’d tend to think that, based on my own particular artistic definition, that most do in fact get it.
AE: Fair enough. Would I be correct in stating that, given how much Whitehouse seem to be concerned with eliciting or provoking a response of any kind, the biggest insult would be to fail in this?
WB: Failure to ‘respond’ isn’t seen as being an insult. Then again, exposure to anything will elicit some kind of response, even a perceived lack of a response is a type of response. So to go back to the original point, it’s not really what I’m saying - I know it’s rather tortuously worded but I refer you to ‘but if you want not to understand or interpret or hear then you don't get it’ from my original definition... (which isn’t the same as failure to respond).
AE: How do you feel about most of the electronic noise groups who cite Whitehouse as an inspiration? Have any of them made you sit up? Do you pay attention to any of them?
WB: Not really, to be perfectly honest. One of the difficulties with that is that all the new ideas I get are coming from a domain far removed from that genre – and beyond that, I see such little desire in most music to take much of a risk. Depressingly, it either seems to come down to a safe way of paying the bills, or in the case of so many new acts, scratching around looking for some kind of gateway into the scene, to live the life, to buy into the fantasy.
AE: It has been contended that your Extreme Music from Africa compilation CD on Susan Lawly is purely your own creation and, as such, isn’t an authentic document. What would you say to this accusation?
WB: Of course, I would say the accusation is incorrect.
AE: But it is only this particular entry in the series which garners this immense wagging of the accusatory finger. Any idea why?
WB: Because the names of the artists are less known perhaps?
AE: Can you tell us which of the artists have other releases out, then, and give us some pointers as to what they are and where they can be found?
WB: The album came out over 10 years ago and sadly little in Africa is widely available and easily googled and packaged; I can tell you the original contact for coordinating the project has not been in touch for a long time...
AE: Considering how wide your own music tastes are and that, indeed, you can play a handful of instruments outside the electronic realm, don’t you ever feel compelled to use any of them (again) in a non-electronic noise-orientated context?
WB: Hey, maybe I already do!? In all seriousness, I’m not really too into specific technology or instruments – for me, it’s much more about having great ideas and notions and how they can be best realised. That’s why calling oneself a guitarist, or a djembe player, or even a laptop musician or whatever, wouldn’t be useful because it limits you to such a very narrow range of outcomes.
AE: I guess, more specifically, I mean do you ever harbour the desire to pick up a guitar, or whatever, again in a live context?
WB: It would only be an exercise in lazy indulgent self-gratification. Most guitar playing has the same intent as karaoke - it’s what a game like Rock Band is for.
AE: Using laptops can be considered lazy as well, though, can’t it?
WB: I certainly don’t wish to defend the laptop or anything else as a superior type of instrument, can be lazy, yes, by all means (as with everything) - but not as a means of performance self-indulgence in the way that guitars are typically utilised. It’s why they’re such a popular instrument with guys.
AE: Have you been involved in any non-Whitehouse collaborations? If so, what? And please explain why you would choose one such offer over another (presuming, of course, you receive offers?!).
WB: I recently did a mix for Colt on their recently released EP, and there’s probably other stuff over the years that I can’t think of right now. There have been some nice offers which I mostly turn down either because I might not have the time, or else more often, I can’t bear not having things my own way...
AE: What does ‘extreme music’ actually mean to you?
WB: To be frank, absolutely nothing!
AE: So why use the term on the compilation series? For me, it’s such a broad term, anyway, and certainly has nothing to do with, once more, these stupid and infantile little bedroom-‘noise’ outfits playing around with same tired ideas first explored around 28 years ago…
WB: Extreme is merely a quantifier but is not intended to be genre specific – that’s why I believe it’s a good term for the compilation series. It opens up possibilities, rather than to limit them. As with all language, words end up getting co-opted just as ‘noise’ has in the way you point out.
AE: But there’s no escaping how language is reduced to its most convenient level, no matter how our own subjectivity may interpret it in certain contexts, don’t you think?
WB: Yes, absolutely - and it’s an inexorable process, and part of the way languages, any language, evolves – from the moment a word or an utterance is originally created as an abstract noise it has to go through stages of greater common understanding and dilution to replicate itself. So when expressions such as noise began to be used in a music context, in order for them to be ever more widely understood, it adopts rules and boundaries which get increasingly narrow – this is then, ironically to us as early adopters, seen to be manifested in how greater numbers of people then make this music abiding by these adopted limitations because the linguistic value has become a part of their very identity and worldview. I saw a performance by ‘noise’ musician John Wiese in Cologne a year or so back and wrote at my blog about how generic an example of music it was, and although it will be to him an invisible compromise (in other words, not something he would notice), it was this - the phenomenon - that I was referring to rather than any personal criticism.
AE: Every band or artist makes mistakes. What are Whitehouse’s?
WB: If you’re referring specifically to the music, I’ll be coy and say I don’t accept the metaphor of making mistakes within the domain of music, or art for that matter. Of course, beyond that, there’s stuff outside that aesthetic domain: routine stuff like at live shows for example where you’re in a scenario sometimes where all bets are off and you just have to do your best with a good intent – and that sometimes isn’t enough with so many variables and factors at play. You take the risk and hope it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t.
AE: You started the group during what I would personally deem an extremely vibrant period in music, having arrived from the post-punk landscape. Are you interested in the work of any of your peers? I mean, do you even keep a wry eye open towards a handful of them?
WB: A wry eye open for sure; I know I probably come across as pretty disparaging a lot of the time, but I do love the whole field of popular music (good, bad and indifferent) and try and stay pretty well read.
AE: Wouldn’t you like to work alongside some actual African musicians? Or is that too close to concepts explored by Peter Gabriel, Jah Wobble and the especially ghastly Sting…?!
WB: Now there’s a horrible thought! It’d be a great learning experience to have, yes, but ultimately not especially meaningful, simply because the use of the African instruments isn’t in order to try and make African music – while it can be inspiring to listen to, the super-objective is to create something different and new.
AE: Any stories concerning Whitehouse you’d like to impart that may either shock, illuminate or even be amusing for us? (And, no, not the rib-breaking incident, please!)
WB: If we’d accepted the extraordinary offer we had a couple of years ago to play in Angola then I’d be undoubtedly be able to deliver on all three of your criteria – and certainly all three as far as my dear cousin was concerned as he foresaw our inevitable return home in 2 white caskets.
AE: Along with a mere handful of groups, Sex Pistols, TG and Crass being the most pronounced (and I must confess I think the early Punk/Industrial generation groups achieved much more than those before them in the western world), I have always seen Whitehouse as being far more than purely about music. It has been a whirlwind of ideas caught up in something that, similar to these other groups, could only be too readily dismissed for all manner of stupid reasons, plus has simultaneously always served as some kind of portal to them. To look at Whitehouse at face value and deem you a mere ‘noise’ group has always cheapened your worth, in my opinion. Rather, I have always considered you amongst those few who can truly help stimulate thinking (which of course can likewise lead to inspiring myriad copyists…). Do you agree? Has this ever been part of your own agenda?
WB: I like to think what you’re saying is true, yes – and if so, it’s heartening to know though I couldn’t claim it be a part of any specific agenda. Going back to your point of the legions of copyists, for me the really curious thing is that they seem only fond of that very early sound of ours from the early 80s, and I can’t think of a single example of anyone even attempting to imitate any of our stuff from after that era.
AE: Is modern culture presently nose-diving towards a dead-end? Or is there still some hope?
WB: An interesting question that would probably merit book treatment. In a word, I don’t know.
AE: Who do you respect (in culture or otherwise)?
WB: What I respect more than anything is a person who has a sincerity of intent and whose fire is still burning. (You can see some of my lists for examples.)
AE: Your interest in merging African music/instrumentation with electronic ‘noise’ (I personally think the best noise music falls nearer psychedelia, but…) has recently culminated in some DJ slots under the Cut Hands moniker. What does this entail exactly?
WB: Cut Hands is a bit unusual in the sense that it’s being used as a loose umbrella term for a number of activities and notions (a bit like its origin...). So it’s the clubnight, it’ll be the name for the afro noise LPs, for the DJing, for the live visuals (done by Nick Herd) – and anything else related for that matter. Likewise the format for the club nights is an unusual one comprising just one live band that we consider very special (such as Skullflower, who played at Cut Hands II in November), a DJ set, a short demonstration/talk by my good self to get everyone in the mood, and of course the live visuals. It certainly makes a change from the usual diet of one band after another, or else some band stopping off on some horrendously long tour.
AE: Certainly sounds interesting. What are the talks about, though?
WB: It’s a secret part of the Cut Hands experience. I can’t say more.
AE: That sounds like a good way to cultivate interest or a selling point, to me!
WB: Maybe indirectly, yes - better to say it’d be like telling you what presents you’re getting for your next Christmas, you might want to know but it’d ruin the experience!
AE: Do you prefer performing on stage or Djing? What’s more important for you?
WB: It’s kind of similar, both fun to do, though you’d have to say the former has more resonance and I’ll find more memorable.
AE: How do you see Cut Hands progressing?
WB: Difficult to say, I really have an abundance of preposterous ideas to try out that’ll probably destroy any of my remaining street cred, not sure how good they’ll all be but it’s fun to be operating within this new territory. It’s genuine experimental music in that sense.
AE: You’re a huge film fan, but you seem to spend a lot of this time watching complete and utter rubbish or releases you know will ultimately only lead to disappointment. Why?! Do you have too much spare time on your hands?!
WB: Oh yes, way too much time on my hands – and clearly you do too for reading all those ‘reviews’. Some of the obvious rubbish I watch is also because I think it’s a good thing to keep up with all sorts of culture even the mainstream, and occasionally you can be surprised – receptive absorption is an integral part of inspiration.
AE: Fair enough. Leaving your lists aside, what has struck you as being particularly memorable or surprising lately, though?
WB: I’ve been on a bad run lately, much has been memorable and surprising for negative reasons only. I did very much enjoy Tarsem Singh’s The Fall – Catinca Untaru’s performance is truly magical, it’s so very rare to have a child role that doesn’t depend upon stereotyping of children by adults.
AE: Any more plans for Susan Lawly? If so, what?
WB: Well, we’ll continue with all the vinyl reissues – plus the afro noise vinyl, and any other Whitehouse stuff that gets released, so the label will pretty much continue as before.
AE: Why do you continue to make every Whitehouse live recording available?
WB: Actually, there are several recent shows without recordings – but I think it’s nice for anyone to know where they can get an archive recording of any show should they want it. I’m not one for doing live albums, but the archiving seems worthwhile.
AE: What are the most important things for you in life?
WB: Wow. How about appreciating the moment on my own terms?
AE: Is that always possible?
WB: Not at all, it’s a good super-objective to have.
AE: Do you have a generally positive or negative worldview? Why?
WB: It’s the internal conflict of being an unreformed misanthrope that has got to know a few people that I really like a lot.
AE: Don’t you think the notion of being an, in your words, ‘unreformed misanthrope’ goes against your engaging with people through the highly communicative medium of music? I’d contend that true misanthropes would want to avoid people as best as possible rather than attempt to engage with them. And they certainly wouldn’t join ‘social networking’ sites…!
WB: Therein lies the conflict – especially when you consider the difference between being misanthropic and antisocial.
AE: I would still suggest that the idea of a true misanthrope wouldn’t want to socialise or engage with those he finds abhorrent on any level whatsover. And, again, that involvement with music is completely paradoxical. Should a real misanthrope even be able to look at himself or herself in the metaphorical mirror…?
WB: What you’re suggesting there is different from being antisocial by nature – misanthropy suggests a universal aversion to mankind, not a targeted one. And social interaction, indeed forms of narcissism, will confer all sorts of benefits to a person, even a misanthropic person... no, I see the two as belonging to separate domains.
AE: Would you feel lonely without the world you have created for yourself?
WB: Can we really take the credit for that creation?
AE: Are you saying that you’re not wholly responsible for that creation? Surely, this goes against your idea of placing so much importance on being in control of your own life?
WB: Again, there’s a critical difference. I’ll take responsibility for things but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am responsible for them, or indeed am in control of them. And I offer these notions as questions of personal philosophy, not about what’s true and false, or right and wrong.
AE: Are there answers to all questions?
WB: OK, we’re getting really philosophical now... I would challenge whether questions are indeed questions in the way we commonly understand them. So what is a question, and, more interestingly, isn’t? There’s something to make your head spin.
AE: Okay, we’re going towards the realms of asking whether grass is truly green now…!
WB: Not at all! We can both have a shared perception of the colour of grass, but the abstract notion of what a question is and isn’t is extremely difficult to define. The more you try and think about it, the more elusive it becomes.
AE: I see this as corresponding perfectly with Whitehouse. For me, a group that has raised as many questions as (possible) answers without a fixed agenda or any dogma attached, whilst allowing for interpretation and, again, subjectivity. Agree?
WB: I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that.
AE: Is change important, both to yourself and in the more general sense?
WB: Well, change is inevitable whether you like it or not, we’re changing (dying?) from the day we’re born – and our environment is also constantly shifting and evolving around us. To word this in a slightly different way, what’s important (to me), is not being stuck – and that’s all too easy for all of us. We get stuck in our beliefs and our behaviour patterns even when they’re clearly unuseful.
AE: I think it’s incredibly difficult to avoid the comfort zone furnished by being stuck, however. Some of us try hard to break away, even momentarily, but it’s always there, ready to lull us back and mostly succeeds, don’t you think?
WB: Yes, very much so.
AE: And how successful do you consider yourself to be in evading its clutches?
WB: If - and it’s a big if because most people wouldn’t even see it as a threat - you’re aware of the process, then you can establish circumstances which will allow the possibility of subverting its clutches. So for example, in the artistic context – after every album or recording has been released I typically destroy all the notes, settings, templates, and sometimes the equipment that have been used - that creates an artificial obstruction for any subsequent recording of course which could potentially be subverted by reversion to how things were done before. In other words, the comfort zone. Originally I did that in order to experience the music as if it was done by someone else but then I learnt how effective it was for these reasons too.
AE: Finally, you have lots of different and contrasting interests outside of what you do with Whitehouse, Susan Lawly and Cut Hands. And, despite the many different accusations I’ve seen thrown at what I’d call your main concerns, I’d argue everything you do is borne of an incredible passion for life and the many things it throws our way. What do you think about that?
WB: I’d like to think so, yes – the underlying intent I’ve tried to adopt is one of taking personal responsibility for what you get. That’s not to say bad stuff doesn’t happen but it really helps you play with what’s thrown your way.
For more information on William Bennett’s activities, visit: www.susanlawly.com And, indeed, either follow the links there or find him at Blogspot or on MySpace