“If I were a magician, I’d be the kind that would have the lady cut into two pieces, and that would be the end of the show.”
William Bennett is best known as founder and sole constant member of Whitehouse, whose acrid, compelling cocktail of extreme electronic music and subversive subject matter has seen them earn easily as many foes as friends over the decades.
Whitehouse, which was put on indefinite hiatus in 2008, is a nebulous and substantial subject in itself, and the below interview, a transcript of a live conversation which took place at the Unsound festival in Krakow last week, only skirts its edges. The focus instead is on Cut Hands, Bennett’s current solo project, one which combines his customary caustic electronics with a battery of African and Haitian vaudou percussion (Cut Hands’ debut album, Afro Noise Vol I, is out now). He also talks about his interest in linguistics and the unconscious, which culminated in the Tate-premiered mass hypnosis project Extralinguistic Sequencing, as well as his theory of ‘the transparent concession’, magic, method acting and his refusal to justify his art.
“To see club girls flailing around the dancefloor virtually frothing at the mouth to this music was very, very inspirational.”
“It all happened by accident. For a long time I’ve been fascinated with African percussion music, but as far as Cut Hands is concerned – I had the opportunity to play the big club in Glasgow, Optimo. They’d already invited to Whitehouse to play a couple of times, but this time they invited me to DJ at their 10th anniversary. I asked them what kind of music they wanted me to play and they said I could play absolutely anything I like, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to inflict some of this Haitian vaudou music and ritual drumming music from Africa on a live club audience at industrial-strength volume. It was absolutely incredible – there were ordinary club girls who were expecting happy house music there, and the impact it had on these people, the emotional response, was extraordinary. I’d already seen lots of films about vaudou in Haiti, for example you see these incredible Jean Rouch films from Africa, the Congo, where people for one reason or another would be frothing at the mouth and engaging in all sorts of extraordinary emotional and physical responses to the ritual, to the music. And it was almost happening in the same way in this club.”
It is Glasgow we’re talking about.
“I think it would’ve happened anywhere…To see club girls whose expectation was to simply boogie the night away, to see them flailing around the dancefloor virtually frothing at the mouth to this music was very, very inspirational. And I thought, this is what I really want to do right now.”
“If I make a song and I like it, then I’ll literally destroy the hardware and the notes that enabled it in the first place.”
You’d been collecting the instruments for a while before that, right?
“Well, I’d already been collecting art objects. I don’t mean the kind of things people get when they go on holiday to Kenya, the masks and so on that are made for the tourist industry, but the actual things you’d find in villages in the Congo region, a lot of which they’re not supposed to be exporting – you know, the nail fetishes, Nigerian antique metal artwork and so forth. I sourced a lot of the art stuff from this guy, this Cuban guy, in Madrid who I became a very good friend of, who was a Santeria priest. He spent two years in the Congo working in the villages as part of the UN project, and he learned a lot about the language and so on. He was one of those people you just really wanted to spend time with and listen to, so I’d say, Raoul, look, here’s a drink, just talk to me, and I would just listen. And he would tell me these incredible stories about the Congo, absolutely amazing stuff. He brought back, again semi-legally, a lot of these amazing artworks. It was actually later on that I realised I needed all the musical instruments, and that’s when I started collecting them, mostly Ghanaian instruments.
Obviously electronics figure prominently in Cut Hands’ music, but are all the percussion sounds we hear made using those instruments?
“It’s a range of techniques. My view of making music is that there are no rules or limitations to how any kind of music can be created. I’m not dogmatic about how things should be made. But more than that, this is a project that’s taken four years to finish. It’s very easy, when making music, to make something that you deem as being successful and that you like, and then using that as a formula for your future output. One of the ways that I avoid that trap is by destroying everything that I’ve used in the past. So if I make a song and I like it, then I’ll literally destroy the hardware and the notes that enabled it in the first place, and so that when it comes to making something else, at first it feels frustrating – you know, if only I’d kept that piece of paper with the notes on how I got that sound – but you get much better results from starting from scratch each time.”
“The song ‘Cut Hands Has The Solution’ had become the Whitehouse equivalent of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.”
Later Whitehouse albums, Bird Seed for example, featured recognisable African drums. Up to that point, the sound of Whitehouse had been a very pure, very ascetic electronic music – how did you reconcile this with the introduction of acoustic elements?
“Yeah, my use of djembes for example, experimenting with these instruments, pre-dates Cut Hands. I know it’s slightly pedantic, but I prefer the term asceticist rather than ascetic; I don’t see Whitehouse or its music as being ascetic so much as asceticist. Most of the time when we make music or art of films or whatever, we think about what we need to add, in order it to make it a worthwhile piece of art. I prefer to see things in terms of what I need to take from the work in order to make it worthwhile. It’s comparable to, for example, the Dogme movement in films – you’re creating your own obstructions. So that’s what I mean when I use the term asceticist.
“The Whitehouse song ‘Cut Hands Has The Solution’, which is the origin of the project name, was originally so multi-layered with instruments that it had become the Whitehouse equivalent of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and I kept taking things away from it, so that it eventually it was basically just one djembe drum on it, and I thought, yes, it sounds perfect like this. I’ve deleted the original mix, but if you heard it I’m sure you’d agree it sounds much better the way we ended up doing it…”
“I don’t think it’s the job of an artist to rationalise.”
Do ethical considerations – the ethics of appropriation – come into Cut Hands?
“I think it’s an interesting question. There are two sides it. Firstly, and this is going right back to beginning, I’ve never believe in rationalising, I don’t think it’s the job of an artist to rationalise, and I don’t think the question ‘Why are you doing this?’ is a good one. Because every ‘why?’ question leads to another ‘why?’ question. If you’ve got two ice creams, a chocolate one and a strawberry one, and I say take which one you like, and you take the strawberry one, and I say why did you choose the strawberry one? As justification, the rationale, for it, you would probably say that you like strawberry. But then that leads to the question: well, why do you like strawberry? You can go on and on, and every why question leads to another why question. It seems to me quite pointless. ‘How?’ is an interesting question buy ‘Why?’ much less so. Think of the way children will respond to questions with just the word ‘because’. Why did you choose the strawberry ice cream? Because. That’s all you need to know. Why are these things are? Because they are.
“To look at it another way…if you go into, for example, any Starbucks, you’re likely to hear all sorts of so-called ‘world music’. And I have a problem with the term ‘world music’. I don’t see that there’s this Western form of music and that there’s this separate thing called ‘world music’. It’s like in the Oscars – they have the best Film, and the Best Foreign Language Film. Now how is that a different category? I don’t see things that way. There’s music and there’s music. I would go as far as to suggest that by attempting to make something ‘ethical’, you end up making it unethical, or at the very worst it becomes condescending and patronising. There’s this inverted colonialism to all things. So I think it’s respectful, but I wouldn’t go any further than that.”
“By attempting to make something ‘ethical’, you end up making it unethical, or at the very worst it becomes condescending and patronising.”
The theme of the Unsound festival is ‘Future Shock!’. I wondered whether, in your youth, you thought much about the future and your role in shaping it, either positively or negatively?
“There’s a natural inclination when you’re a teenager – we were really young, seventeen or eighteen; Phil, when he joined, was 14 – to have a polarity response to what has gone before. At the same time it’s natural when you’re young to be excited about tomorrow. So you have at the same time a kind of idealism for what is coming next. I think it’s an illusion, it’s almost a simple biological response that one has at that time. A lot of kids will rebel against their parents and what their parents represent – at least when they’re teenagers they will, they may later in life come back – but I didn’t have that issue, because my father saw Throbbing Gristle before I did. Which might explain a lot [laughs].
“At the time I had no interest in mainstream music, and no interest in rebelling against mainstream usic, so the funny thing was I was almost rebelling against industrial music. Saying that this so-called industrial music isn’t how I want it to be, and that this is how I want it to be.”
“My father saw Throbbing Gristle before I did. Which might explain a lot.”
Tell us about Extralinguistic Sequencing.
“Extralinguistic Sequencing is a kind of dark experiment in mass hypnosis. And people say where I can get the CD for it, but it doesn’t really work like that. Though I have made a domestic version of it. I’ve always been interested in the messages you hear typically in an airport on the tannoi. You know, will such-and-such a passenger report to such-and-such a gate. What would be the effect of having all sorts of sophisticated meta-language in there, commands to have people do things that they wouldn’t want to do, or perhaps that they would want to do, but that they don’t give themselves permission to do. We tried it out at the Tate in London, throughout the whole building, about 1500 people in the building, and they were exposed to these messages through the tannoi system that would come up at random intervals.”
Was it possible to observe, even measure, the effect your messages had on people?
“I did wander around and have look, but it’s not the kind of thing where people are going to drop what they’re doing and stand with their arms outstretched and head tilted at an awkward angle – it doesn’t really work on that level. Hypnosis is a very misunderstood phenomenon. One of the most important but commonly forgotten principles of unconscious communication is that it is, by its very definition, unconscious. When people use the word ‘weird’, the difference between ‘weird’ and a form of unconscious communication is that weird is conscious communication. So for example if people are listening to it and thinking, ‘What are these weird messages playing every 10 minutes?’ then it’s failing the test of unconscious communication. It’s actually important to the success of the thing to keep these messages out of people’s conscious minds.”
“My own definition of magic is simply: being able to do what you previously thought was impossible.”
Can you tell us more about the role language has played in Whitehouse and Cut Hands over the years?
“Linguistics is one of my biggest passions, but it all goes back to this fascination with unconscious communication. With this too, if I start giving examples and explaining things, then it no longer becomes unconscious communication and it no longer works, so I use this term ‘the transparent concession’ or ‘the invisible compromise’, if you like. Without giving away examples of my own, I can give some examples in other contexts, so you can see what kind of processes are taking place. One of the first times I became aware of this was through Stanislavski’s theories of Method Acting. When an actor is between scenes, and is off the stage, he can do one of two things: he can go and have a cigarette or a Mars Bar, or he can stay in his role, he can be the same. So if he was Hamlet, he could keep in character, keep his voice, or he could go out and have a cigarette – Hamlet wouldn’t be smoking cigarettes. Now as far as the audience is concerned, they don’t know what he’s doing behind the scenes during the break and the question is: would the audience feel the difference if he did go out and have a cigarette? And Stanislavski’s argument is that yes, they would. It would be more real if he didn’t have a cigarette and he stayed in character. He’s invisible to the audience and yet it’s perceived by the audience in a different way, and that’s an example of a transparent concession.
“Another obvious example of a transparent concession is what magicians do all the time – where through misdirection, they have you looking at one thing while they’re doing something else, which is part of the magic. Magic in general I find is a very interesting term, and my own definition of magic is simply: being able to do what you previously thought was impossible. That’s magic. And in order to achieve that, in order to do what you previously thought was impossible, then that’s where you begin to design your transparent concessions. So in terms of Extralinguistic Sequencing for example, if these unconscious communications are going to work, we have to design transparent concessions and invisible compromises in order for that to happen.
“I do find magic interesting in the theatrical sense too. If I were a magician, I’d be the kind that would have the lady cut into two pieces, and that would be the end of the show. That would be a much more interesting resolution, because traditional magic has her coming back together again. As I said, I have this personal definition of the word as not having doves come out of my top hat, but this notion of being able to achieve what you previously thought is impossible. Which I think is a very powerful concept in which to live life, let alone make music or create art.”
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no authority to whom I have to explain myself.”
A magician shouldn’t explain his tricks…
“A lot of artists fall into the trap of justification and rationalisation, for the simple reason that they are quite uneasy with what they’re doing, they’re not entirely comfortable with where they’re going with things, and therefore it needs to be explained, it needs to be justified. It’s similar to children’s relationship with authority – as far as I’m concerned, there is no authority to whom I have to explain myself. We grow up feeling the need to explain ourselves to teachers, to the police, to parents, and I don’t believe in that system.
“If you take this position of never justifying yourself, it’s a very difficult. Because people will come to their own conclusions about what you’re doing, and a lot of them will be completely at odds with what you feel your reasons are for doing it. You need to be fairly brave to allow people to think what they like about what you’re doing. I take personal responsibility for people not liking things that I do, so if they don’t like it, or they say terrible things about me, then I take responsibility for that, I’m not going to blame them for it. If I don’t rationalise things and then people respond badly to it, I’m really not going to blame them. I have to accept that people can respond in all kinds of ways. I have to expect it.”
Edited transcript of a live Q&A with Kiran Sande at Unsound Festival 2011, Krakow