Genesis Breyer P-Orridge – industrial pioneer, gender-erasing pandrogyne, gleeful wrecker of civilisation – is not an artist who has thought little about speaking to journalists.
The Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and PTV3 singer has spent a lifetime at the vanguard of art and the limits of taste, rubbing shoulders with the great and the grotty (letters from William Burroughs; wisdom from Timothy Leary; desperate, harrowing late-night phone calls from Ian Curtis) and hungrily ingesting mind-altering culture from psychedelic drugs to Eastern religion. Absorbed in one sitting, P-Orridge’s life story reads as a potted history of the late 20th century avant-garde, situating the artist as a kind of Forrest Gump of the counter-culture.
As a member of performance art collective COUM Transmissions, whose notorious sex-ridden and tampon-trimmed ‘Prostitution’ show had buttoned-up ’70s Britain foaming at the mouth, P-Orridge staked a claim as one of the most daring artists of the punk generation. The provocateur went on to deliver a handful of essential records with Throbbing Gristle that defined the concept of “industrial”, paving the way for extremists like Whitehouse and Nurse With Wound and later the more accessible stylings of Nine Inch Nails. The sound was even an influence on this year’s most talked-about record, Yeezus, if we’re to take Kanye West’s word for it.
In the ’90s, the artist embarked on a startlingly extreme project to erase gender boundaries and reach a state of ‘pandrogeny’ with h/er (to use the preferred pronoun) wife Jacqueline Breyer, known as Lady Jaye. Together they became Breyer P-Orridge, a single unit that dressed alike, acted alike and, thanks to a series of cosmetic procedures including twin sets of breast implants and nose jobs, eventually looked alike, as documented in Marie Losier’s 2011 film The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.
Lady Jaye passed away (or “dropped her body”, in P-Orridge’s Buddhist-leaning words) in 2007, but the pandrogeny project lives on in the remaining half of the unit, as s/he told me in no uncertain terms on the phone from h/er home in New York. “Are we ranting?”, s/he joked halfway through the interview (using the adopted plural pronoun), as the conversation turned from DNA to Sufi sayings to Chinese capitalism. P-Orridge’s absolute dedication to erasing the boundaries between life and art, and between man and woman, is palpable in the freestanding soliloquys that seem to tumble out of h/er mouth at will, reaffirming the self-directed narrative; a legacy of many years of public speaking, shouting and acting up.
The latest transmission from P-Orridge’s distant star is a book of photographs documenting the artist’s physical and psychic evolution since h/er birth in 1950. Published by First Third Books, the monograph includes over 350 photos from h/er personal archives (including shots by punk photographer Sheila Rock), some of which can be seen in these pages, alongside a personal commentary and a foreword by rock journalist Mark Paytress. A deluxe edition of the book, housed in a Psychic TV-inspired box, will also include “intimate” Breyer P-Orridge Polaroids, an art catalogue and three original 7” singles.
P-Orridge introduced the book to FACT in a lengthy, uncensored conversation, talking pandrogeny, life, art, consciousness and fending off PTV3-mania in Russia.
Looking through your new book of photographs, which span from your childhood to the present day, it seems you’ve always been very sure of how you want to present yourself.
Ha ha, yes… that’s the first time anyone’s said that to me. But yes, we’ve tended to work in one project stage at a time, and each one has a look, and usually a logo or symbol of some kind, a slogan, and some kind of basic attitude towards culture. That’s very deliberate.
We remember holding my mother’s hand when we were only about five or six, and she’d be talking to adults and we’d be stood there thinking, god, they’re boring. Then if they asked me something, we’d answer and they’d tend to say, [puts on high, posh voice], ‘oh, he’s so articulate for his age’. It made me feel really uncomfortable, so we decided that the camouflage would be to be very reserved and hide what I was really thinking.
We were already planning a life of the avant-garde and bohemianism from the moment we heard about it, around the age of 10 or 11 – but we thought, if we tell anyone, they’ll be really suspicious. But we always knew that if we could get out of home, that would be it. And that’s what happened, we used university as an excuse to leave home. Then we began to experiment with different phases, for instance in the commune at Ho-Ho Fun House, but having far more cynical ideas than the people around me. It was a way of being visible, but so visible that people assumed they knew what you were thinking. We’ve always used that strategy of planning a project and the way it looks, but leaving people lots of space to interpret it later.
So from a fairly young age, you saw your own body as a site for your art as well as making objects and music?
Actually we got very lucky. We came across press cuttings mentioning Andy Warhol and the Factory and cut them out and put them in my scrapbook. We were very fortunate too that at 14 my English teacher gave me a piece of paper at the end of a class and said, ‘I think you’d like this book.’ And he’d written Jack Kerouac, On The Road – who at that time we’d never heard of, but of course, that was the final nail in the coffin. When we read that we just thought, that’s it – people can live lives outside the norm, they can make creativity and life be integrated, and they can take control of the narrative of their existence from then on. Everything is mutable. Names can be changed, bodies can be adjusted, imagery can be adjusted to tell a story or to hide a story.
And you’ve taken that idea of your body being integrated with your art to an even more extreme level in the last decade or so with your pandrogeny project. Am I right in saying that it was inspired in part by William Burroughs’ cut-up technique?
Well, it was inspired originally by Lady Jaye. We met in a dungeon, and it really was love at first sight. We’d always had this dream that there was this ultimate woman in the world somewhere that was meant to be my other half, and we even assumed once or twice that we’d found her, which with hindsight was somewhat unfair on my previous partners, because we were trying to mould them to fit the dream. And then we found the dream and didn’t have to anything, except just go along for the ride.
One of Lady Jaye’s favourite expressions was, ‘See a cliff, jump off.’ And, ‘When in doubt, be extreme.’ On the first day we met she dressed me in her clothes. She had an intuition that was the way it would go. So we started thinking, why are we doing this? What’s working here? What have we started? And we thought about Burroughs and [Brion] Gysin and The Third Mind, where they said the results of their cut-ups didn’t belong to either of them but had somehow formed this ‘third mind’ that was separate from them but essential for their presence.
When we were 21, Burroughs said to me, ‘Your task is to find out how to short circuit control.’ At the time we said, ‘Oh, that’s nice’, and thought not much more of it, but it was after meeting Lady Jaye that we came up with the idea that DNA is a recording, and that it can be cut up. By changing the body DNA would give us, we say we deny your recording, your control programme. And that was another place we found relevance in terms of how to liberate the self from its projected conditions and expected lifespan, and give people freedom to maximise their potential and to be the authors of their own narrative.
“By changing the body DNA would give us, we say we deny your recording, your control programme”
How successful was the project, in terms of you wanting to absorb each other and become the same body – has it given you satisfaction?
Oh, we’ve had amazing satisfaction. One of the records that comes with the deluxe version of the book has me talking to [rock journalist] Mark Paytress on one side, and the other side is him talking to Lady Jaye on the phone, which we didn’t even know he’d done. She’s explaining that she’d always felt trapped in a body, and that the body was holding back her consciousness from being free to develop, ‘to become everyone’, as she puts it.
Anyone who’s taken psychedelics will know that what looks real and solid and normal when you’re straight can melt away, and you can be on another planet or universe. If that’s temporarily possible, that means it’s always possible, and there must be ways to find that. So our ultimate aim became, when we dropped our bodies, to try and find each other again as consciousness. And that’s why we got so into talking to Tibetans and going to the Himalayas every year, because of reincarnation and meeting rinpoches and karmapa that have been reincarnated, and the evidence is very strong that that’s the case. Timothy Leary said to us, the body’s just there to give the brain mobility, and we agree that consciousness is who we are. That’s therefore the conflict with the state of the body.
Would you be pleased to see other people adopting the more extreme end of pandrogeny into their own lives and relationships? Would it work for other people?
In America there are some already, and strangely it’s nearly always heterosexual male and female couples. We decided, because we felt so strongly as we investigated the ideas, that we were showing how serious we were by doing things like both getting matching breast implants. So it wasn’t so much to try to become twins, or even to look exactly like each other – although we did want that to be the case – but it’s saying, please listen, we think this is important. Towards the end you can see we really were beginning to match each other, and that’s something that still sometimes stun me when we look at the photos – the shape of the faces is almost identical. That and dressing the same, and being together 24/7 for years on end, we really did reflect each other and become one unit.
How important has the concept of improvisation been to your art and music over the years?
That’s kind of how we began. Once we got sick of university and realised it was a terrible mistake, we stopped going to lectures after three weeks and then this street theatre group came through called the Exploding Galaxy. They were short of people, some of them had gone off on the hippy trail to India, so we joined in with them. There would be no real script, and so my introduction to becoming an artist was always including the body and always including improvisers. And the music we listened to as a kid was jazz, because my father played drums in a jazz band, so we saw Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich and all these people live in Manchester. Still have some of the programmes!
And you’ve applied that approach to your music.
Oh yeah, half the songs at least are written on stage. It’s almost like the beatniks doing improvised poetry with jazz. Then we listen to it afterwards, and if it seems to work we’ll transcribe it and make a more considered structure, but leaving lots of space to still improvise.
How regularly do you make music at the moment? What’s the current status of PTV3?
Luckily our lead guitarist Jeff Burner, or as we like to say, Jeff Bunsen Burner, is the co-owner of a studio, so we go there and jam. We mainly play abroad. At the end of October we play in Chicago, a one-off, and then next year we’re touring Russia and Europe, and Japan probably. We don’t want to tour eight weeks, three months, two years or whatever anymore.
What kind of music do you listen to around the house?
The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Kaleidoscope – basically ’60s and early ’70s. And we started getting into Hawkwind again. We’ve been doing a series of 12″ singles where the A-side is a cover of a ’60s or ’70s song that we all really like, and the first one we did was ‘Maggot Brain’ by Funkadelic. We recorded it with no rehearsals and made up vocals on the spot based on a poem we were working on, so it had a vocal then which it never had before. Then the next one was ‘Mother Sky’ by Can, and we do a B-side that has to include the word ‘alien’, so ‘Maggot Brain’ had ‘Alien Brain’, which was an original, and ‘Mother Sky’ had ‘Alien Sky’.
Then we did Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’ and ‘Hurry On Sundown’ and the B-side was ‘Alien Lightning Leap Machine’, which was a song about Nikola Tesla. We’ve just discovered a new song none of us remember playing, ‘cos we do it ’60s style, we all play at once, we don’t rehearse and we just do one take. It’s called ‘Greyhounds of the Future’ and it’s basically about quantum physics, but it sounds really interesting. They’re all about 16 minutes long, and when we play live they’re usually about 20 or 30 minutes long, so we’re on stage two or three hours, non-stop.
We still do occasional Thee Majesty gigs of poetry and music and video, primarily about pandrogeny and art, and our creative view of how to live life – and the ultimate point has to be to create new kinds of communities. Not communes, communities. We envisage them more like a village where everybody is like-minded enough to trigger each other to be inspired and creative.
“The day Ian Curtis committed suicide he rang me up and sang my song ‘Weeping’, which was about my attempted suicide”
Over the years you’ve played so many shows, and many of them, particularly in the early days of Throbbing Gristle, were seen to be deeply provocative and confrontational. Is there one particular gig from your past that sticks in your memory?
Actually it would be when we played in St Petersburg the last time, nearly two years ago. It was a Stalinist theatre, all grey concrete, and of course Stalin is out of favour so it was just there, empty and rotting, so they gave it to a bunch of young people who formed an arts collective and now use it for all kinds of shows and exhibitions. They brought us over and it was unbelievable. The energy of the audience – two or three thousand Russians chanting the lyrics, in English! And going nuts.
So Russia is a really baffling homeland for us, we’ve been five times at least now. And the first time we went, we were in the van coming from the airport to the hotel and there were banners across the street, big banners that said, ‘Moscow welcomes Psychic TV’, and then a picture of me that said ‘She is here’. Big thirty-foot banners!
Sounds like Beatlemania…
It was a bit like that, believe me! All these little girls at the front screaming [laughs].
How do you feel about playing Russia in the future, with the current situation over the new anti-gay law? Some artists have said they would boycott the country, but perhaps you feel that wouldn’t be helpful?
Oh no, we’re going to go and confront it, that’s our job, that’s the nature of what we do. We have to take a stand on behalf of all proclivities, all various forms of sexual preference or social preference, basically freedom. It’s always under attack, has been for thousands of years, and it’s time our species woke up and spoke for itself. If everybody turned their backs on the cops and ignored them, and laughed at all the politicians and didn’t bother voting, it would collapse. But that would mean we would all have the responsibility of sharing, of being generous to each other, being kind, lending each other resources to make things work. We’d have to completely rethink how we related to our own species. It would be very, very chaotic for a while, but ultimately it’s the job of every species to maximise its non-damaging impact on the universe.
It’s clear from this entire conversation that your life has been so full of documentation, whether it’s making objects or making music or taking photos. I wonder if you ever feel worried about people being privy to the details your private life, especially some of the really, erm, intimate photos in the new book.
Heh, no. We’ve always truly, fanatically believed that life and art are indivisible. And that’s how it should be. Spirituality to me is art. Life is art. That means that we can’t censor ourselves – to censor ourselves would be to do exactly what society tries to do to us. So that’s a conscious choice we’ve made, that we would like everything to be available if people were interested.
Final question. You were probably the last person to speak to Ian Curtis before he died, and I wondered what you made of the Anton Corbijn film Control and if you’d ever want a film to be made about you after you’ve died?
It was pretty accurate. Someone told me that Hooky had done a book and he mentions that he never really knew what Ian was thinking about, that Ian would tend to talk to me more about ideas. And the day that he committed suicide he rang me up and sang my song from [Throbbing Gristle’s second album] D.o.A , ‘Weeping’, which was about my attempted suicide.
He sang it word perfect, and something just clicked in my head – oh shit, he’s singing goodbye, he’s gonna try and kill himself. But it was in the days before cellphones, and hardly anybody had answer machines, so we were ringing numbers in Manchester and the one or two people we managed to get just said, ‘oh, he’s always being dramatic, he won’t do anything’, and we were saying ‘no, we really think Ian’s gonna kill himself, someone go round there – and no one did. And we just felt so hopeless and helpless, because we were 300 miles away. For some reason we never called the cops. I guess that’s just a natural aversion to the police.
So would you ever want a film to be made about your life?
Well, there’s that one documentary that came out, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye…
Yeah, but you’re in that one!
So someone pretending to be me? Oh gosh. That’s not my concern. I mean, people have asked many times, are you going to write an autobiography? And my answer is, we’re so busy! We would like to attempt it, but it would require me having enough money stashed to have one or two years to do nothing else, and we just don’t have that luxury right now.
But if we were going to do it we would go to Kathmandu, partly because it’s really cheap, partly because whenever we go there it’s a place we immediately feel at peace. All the stresses and concerns and pains and pleasures just drop away and we just become an ordinary being amongst amazing people whose lives are very devotional. And for some reason that’s where we feel at home. Jaye felt the same when we took her there. We’ve taken several friends and they’ve all come back saying it’s changed them forever. It’s an amazingly magical place, even with tourism and change. So that would be a perfect place to go, disappear and just write.