Secret Thirteen interview - Severed Heads

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Tom Ellard of Severed Heads performing Live at Unsound Festival

Stewart Lawler (left) and Tom Ellard (right) at Unsound Festival 2016

Tom Ellard of Severed Heads shares some forward thinking ideas on sound design possibilities, the regressive cultural environment, Australia and other things.

Severed Heads emerged back in 1979 as Mr. and Mrs. No Smoking Sign and soon became one of the most interesting phenomena in underground experimental circles. Coming from remote Australia and detached from all continental influences Severed Heads managed to craft their own world of sound infused with chilling Ballardian dread, dystopian moods, surreal sound collages and haunted urban futurism. Severed Heads has always balanced between industrial rawness and groovy synth dynamics. Their sound has this combination of uncontrolled synergy of rough textures and intense melodic twists. All this is reflected in various stylistic forms in project’s vast discography.

I met project’s mastermind and the only permanent member Tom Ellard in a cozy cafe in the middle of rainy Krakow. The same evening Severed Heads performed at Unsound and proved that after constant break-ups the project is still in a good shape. It was a pleasant conversation during which Tom elaborated on his most recent activities, such as computer game development, the recent 10” acetate release, the regressive nature of the current cultural environment, nostalgia, reissue culture as well as future possibilities of sound design. Rather than focusing on past achievements, Tom (unsurprisingly) emerges as a forward-thinking artist.

Paulius Ilius: Your last release, “Beautiful Arabic Surface”, reminds me of early Severed Heads material, all these tape-looping experiments. Why does the record sound like that and are you going to pursue this direction further?

Tom Ellard: The thing that motivates all of this is that the band ceased to exist in 2008 and that we have got to the point where we had followers, but the followers were the sort of followers you did not want. They were people who were difficult and complaining and the whole thing had stopped being fun. And if you are not making enormous sums of money out of it, then you should be doing it for fun, but it was no fun at the moment. In 2008 we had a vinyl box-set released by Vinyl-on-Demand called “Adenoids”, and that was really the compilation of where we started. It was a good moment to stop, because the thing had started in 1979 and it is an awfully long time to be working on one project. There was this decadence and decay, so we stopped. And, of course, the moment you stop, everyone loves you. The moment they can’t have what they wanted and the moment you say you won’t do it, they insist that you do. So after 2008 we had an increasing number of offers for performances, so we played at festivals here and there. We refused to play live in Sydney. We actually had a thing where we toured with Gary Numan in Australia and Gary Numan’s crew wanted to do us a farewell gift. So we got this signature on this card from Gary, saying that we are not allowed to play live in Australia ever again. It was signed by Gary Numan, which is pretty funny.

Ok, we made this decision and then something magical happened. At the same time a friend of mine said that he could cut acetate records. 10-inch acetate records with 10 minutes on each side. At the same time a radio station in Sydney said, that they want us to do 20-minute long live set on air. These two things came at exactly the same time. Now when a magical thing like that occurs, it’s almost like a foresaying, it tells you a message: You will be making this thing, two people simultaneously told you to do this 20-minute long thing. So, I agreed, but said that we will do a radio broadcast and then we will make the whole thing out of 78rpm acetates and then we will cut it onto an acetate. So we performed again. It was a kind of magical event, which was asking us to reemerge out of the darkness. And that was 2016, so we are talking of about 8 years of silence. I mean, we were playing live in America and so on, but we were not doing any new material. Are we going to do something like that again? The answer is, if a magical kind of message comes, we will do whatever it says. Are we going to start up again as we were before? No, I don’t think that would be a good idea. I think things like the computer game and the acetate are showing new directions and we do not want to go back to do just what we were doing before. That would be silly.

Could you elaborate on the story behind that Gary Numan signature? It sounds interesting.

It was simple, because we did not want to perform live anymore. What was happening is that we were being offered more and more money to play live. And when we said, that we are dead, then all of a sudden everybody wants us to play live. Even though the money that they offered was great, but we said, that we cannot keep doing this. So it just turned out, that we were touring with Gary Numan and they made us a farewell card. And we turned that into a thing, that said, that we are not allowed to play live in Australia and made it like a signed contract thing. Poor man did not know anything about it. It was just a great excuse. Someone would say, would you like to play live in such and such an event. And we said, sorry we can’t, Gary Numan said that. It was just a good excuse. You know, mythologies are sometimes a great form of entertainment.

We were speaking about these several reunions that you had and having in mind that your career was long, what do you think are the main differences in the way that people perceive your music, especially live shows, in the 80’s and nowadays?

That’s a really complicated question, so I will have to expand a bit. There was a time when everything was about progress, when things were new, when you were doing new things. So, for example, there was a time, when the very first synthesiser was used in a rock record by The Silver Apples. There would be the first time when somebody would do a purely electronic album. So things at one stage were new and progressive. And there was always this feeling that there would be something better coming on. We lived in the world at the moment, which is the exact opposite of that. It’s in fact a regressive world. It’s a fearful world, where people say I’m going to do my thing on vinyl, on tape, I’m going to use old analog equipment. It’s basically fear. So you will have people, who come to see the show, who really just want to be reminded of an earlier period. It’s nostalgia. That’s really sad. And I’m not really pleased or interested in nostalgia. Nostalgia was not what we looked about. But then you’ve got the problem - if your favourite band is playing live and they do not do the music that you knew, you would be very disappointed. So it is kind of arrogant to say, that we will not do anything that you know. At the same time it is kind of terrible to say, we are only going to do what you know. So there is this real problem at the moment of how do you progress in a very regressive environment. So the live show for this evening will be material that you will know, but it has been remade from scratch, it has been made new. It is not just the old music, it is actually reprogrammed, but with a great deal of dedication. Everything there is very carefully chosen from whatever was originally there. I think that we don’t have to keep on living in the past, but it seems to be where we are at the moment.

So how do you see this whole reissue thing with lots of synth music from the 80’s being rediscovered? There are lots of labels which keep repackaging and reissuing stuff. It has been happening in the past few years quite intensively. Do you see it a positive phenomenon? Do you see any value in it?

I don’t think I should be saying that it is positive or negative. I can only give my own response to it. And my response to it would have to be cultural and political. Let’s talk about the political part at first. The people who were once alternatives, who were once the underground are now powerful people in their fifties. And they want to hear their childhood music again and they are prepared to spend a lot of money. The “Adenoids” box costed 80 euros or something, in Australia it was 200 dollars. This is not underground, this is not alternative. This is basically mainstream hanging-on-your-wall kind of art. So the young alternative people are now powerful. The cultural thing is that basically the progress bid itself. For example, all this brutalist architecture in Krakow is not liveable and friendly. So people want the comfort they think existed before progress started and so they are quite prepared to go back in time to find this thing. Maybe it’s a kind of consolidation, maybe it’s like when people have a sleep and they sleep on things that they have been doing during the day. And maybe we are all asleep at the moment and we will wake up together at some point.

As you are the only permanent member of Severed Heads, what are the main challenges in maintaining this creative-mindedness for such a long time and constantly reinventing yourself?

Well, time is not measured by a clock, time is measured by what you do. So if you do something very quickly, then times moves quickly, if you do slowly, then it moves slowly. Obviously when the band gets older we do things more slowly. I mean, a computer game, for example, takes a lot of time to develop. We might not do any new things for 8 years. And what I am finding is the slower we work, the better things seem to please everybody. They do not want anything too fast. So when you first start out, you do an album-every-year kind of thing. Now we do an album every five years or something. And that is perfectly fine. So you make the longevity from not thinking, that there is a clock that you have to catch up with. You just do things, when it’s the right time. Also there’s many other things that you can do. I was a university lecturer for eight years. While I was doing that, I did not have much time to do any band stuff. I had to quit my job, so I am just taking a large paycut. But now I can be here. Maybe I will be here for a while, then get another job and disappear again. It does not really matter, there is no time limit on this thing. Not anymore. I mean, you can be any of these bands and 30 years ago people were interested in you and now suddenly somebody else is interested in you again.

Speaking about your work with computer games, how did you start doing that? What was the initial point when you became interested in it?

Well, I think sound design in computer games is much more interesting than sound design in music. It just is. Anyone who is really thinking about sound, just sound itself, is working with films or games. It might be a harsh statement, but I will do it for simplicity. A lot of film work has excellent sound. When you are in the cinema and you hear things in surround, it is much better than in little headphones. Now, in computer gaming you have all this cinematic sound design, sound as an actual feature. But the thing about a game is that every person who plays it will get a different experience. You go slow or fast, you win or lose, you refuse to play or you play hard. Every single time a person gets a different soundtrack. So that means that all of the dreams we had about interaction with sound, and sound being a playful thing, is happening. Sound designers were trying very hard to come up with ways of doing popular experimental sound and quite honestly no one was interested in it. And then gaming came along and became a bigger industry than the film industry. There are millions of people who are fascinated by game sound and that’s what is happening.

What is your favourite computer game soundtrack?

There are lots of really good things in a lot of games. One of them is Amanita Design, a design company from the Czech Republic. That’s an example of a small design company that do very beautiful puzzle games. They also release soundtrack albums that go along with the games, so you buy the game, but you also get a soundtrack as a CD or download, and that’s a really impressive way of doing it. There is also a very nice sound design in all kinds of commercial games, for example the Bioshock series. You are not noticing that there is so much work going on in terms of creating the room ambience: when you are in a very large room or in a small room, you are underground or up in the air. All these things are really well done. I haven’t really said that this is my favourite developer, but there are some games which I like. I am not into games where you kill people, so I don’t know too much about them.

Going back to music, there was a brief period when your track “Dead Eyes Opened” and some others were in the charts. So you were exposed a bit to mainstream popularity. How did it feel at that time? Were you experiencing some inner controversies or were you enjoying this success?

When you do the music and when the music is good and successful, then it feels good and fine. For example, “Greater Reward” was a very popular track in the United States. It was well made and everything was good. Sometimes a record label would want us to do 12”. Like “Dead Eyes Opened” came out about three or four times. In Australia it came out as a remix in 1994, which did very well and reached top 20. But I did not really do anything for this, it was just “here is the material”. I did not do any rework. And sometimes I just wonder why some music has got my name on it at all, as I had absolutely nothing to do with this. But then you meet somebody and they say “I really loved that”. And who am I to say to people, “No, you shouldn’t love that, because it’s not what I wanted”. They loved it and that’s it. Once you let go, somebody picks it up. But the main problem with popularity is that you should keep up with that level. For example, we had an album which did well in America, “Greater Award” was very popular there and basically then they want one work after the other. And then you’re chasing this need to come up with a perfect hit. You cannot do it, it just won’t work. Everyone gets angry and you feel like you are caged and it just goes wrong at that point. Success is not always success.

There were a bunch of reissues recently on Dark Entries and Medical Records labels. Why did you choose to reissue these particular albums?

Well, Dark Entries contacted me a long time ago and said they wanted to work on this. I looked at what they had at the time and it seemed to me that it was kind of all goth/industrial stuff and I said “No, that’s not what I do, that’s not where I am coming from”. I just don’t want to be trapped in all this goth/industrial scene. And then Medical Records came along and they seemed at the time to have a lot of disco records and pop stuff. And I said that’s more where I am at, I am a happy person. Dark Entries were really pissed off because of me going to that other label and said “Well, we’ve got happy music as well, look look…..”. Anyway, we had to do this thing and we were working with both labels. Why did we do it? Well, I resisted for about five years and eventually it has got to the point when I could not remember why I was resisting and really had lost track of it. I just said, “Okay, let’s just do this”. And once I did it, then we had to sit down and make sure that they were very excellent reproductions. We’ve just done an album called “Stretcher”, which came out on Medical and the artwork that I had was from 1985, and it was all a bit faded and messed up. So we had to redo it by hand, repaint all the artwork on the cover exactly right. Otherwise why would you do it? Everything should be perfect, you should take pride in it.

Speaking more generally, what do you think is the future of music and format judging from what you see now? Do you think we will face some huge revolution in terms of producing and distributing music?

I think there is always going to be people, who are interested in albums. But the idea of an album is something which is in itself a dead thing. Recorded music was something which came in the middle of the 20th century. If it lasts a hundred years, that’s a pretty good going. But it has not been here forever and it is not going to be here forever. I cannot really tell you what’s going to come next. I think it’s going to be a more experiential thing, like the ambience of a room. You might come into the room of your house and someone could have designed the ambience for that room. It may bring you the same happiness and pleasure that you get while listening to an album. Now people will still make music, but I don’t think it will be sold by the music industry the way it is now. But the whole resurgence of vinyl shows that people are very afraid of all this change. While people make albums, vinyl is wearing out, the machinery is breaking down and there will be no one to repair it. So at some point it will have to stop. We will have to find something else which would have the same physical profile.

Speaking about all these technical possibilities, that people have nowadays, all this unlimited accessibility to gear and software, do you think it stimulates or spoils creativity? Do you agree with the statement that limitation is better than unrestricted accessibility?

It depends on your talent. Most people don’t like the word “talent”, which means that some people can do things, while other people can’t. That is something that people avoid talking about. Let’s just bring it up. If you are talented, you will produce good art, if you are not talented, you won’t. All the crutches, stick-together kits or prefabricated drumbeats are not going to help anybody that hasn’t got a talent. The whole discussion about mediums and production systems misses the point that some people are just not talented. It’s easy to say in ballet, for example. If somebody is a wonderful dancer or a trained ballet dancer, it does not matter what dress they have on. If you are a really talented musician, then you would do the great work anyway. All the technology thing is just the way of avoiding the dirty work.

But don’t you feel that the webspace is getting more and more overfilled with mediocre stuff? Maybe more than it was in the 80’s.

Interestingly enough, there are a couple of websites that find old cassettes, digitize them and put them online. They also put some of my stuff there and I then asked them not to do that. What amazed me is that when I looked on these sites, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people pumping out music of the 80’s that you’ve never heard of. And it was the sheer fact that you didn’t hear about them that made the difference. Now you hear about them, but there are just as many people making bad music in the 80’s as were in the 90’s and as there are now. But this music is more visible now. Well, we used to have gatekeepers, which were record labels, for example. Musicians would chase a record label. Now the record labels chase the musicians. So I usually don’t try to find a record label, they are all writing to me. In the last couple of weeks there was one from Poland, one from England, one from America. They asked for records, but I said “No, I don’t wanna do it, there’s no point.” I think, there is a myth, that there are more barriers now than there have ever been and that it comes from technology. The fact is, that there has always been really bad music. You just did not hear it before.

I think, there is also this obscurity moment, which comes into play. Let’s say, you have some obscure tape from the 80’s rediscovered, uploaded and recorded by some band, which nobody has ever knew about. This aspect adds some additional charm.

In Australia there seems to be this belief in very obscure music which comes from Tasmania in cassettes. Tasmania is a state in the south of Australia. Allegedly in some parts of Europe people are really obsessed with noise music, which comes from Tasmania, because it comes from so far away. Now if you are from Tasmania, all you do is just make all of this noise, stick it into cassette, send it to Europe and everybody gets excited about it. And of course, some of it is from the 80’s, but there are also people doing it now. Rub a little bit of dirt on it and you can say that this is from the 80’s. It’s like fabricating this folk art. People who collect things, they collect them not because of the content. If you subscribe to Vinyl-on-Demand, you get absolutely everything that they put out. They do have very good quality, they try very hard to produce a good product, but they just pump it out endlessly. And I got to the point now when I keep on saying to people that we don’t have any more hidden bits to put out. There is nothing there. It’s all out. And they say “I’m sure that you have some other thing.” And I say “No, it’s all gone, you have to come up with something new now”.

What do you think is the main differentiating aspect of the Australian scene? What makes it special?

Well, at one point it was the remote location. There was a time, when if you wanted the music magazine, it would come by ship and it might take three months. So you would be reading about gigs and other things happening in Europe that happened three months ago. That meant that you had to make your own stuff, people had to make their own music. Everything that was from overseas was wonderful, because they said it was wonderful. Like, the band called “Blah blah” just played in Paris and it was fantastic. And all thought that it would be so wonderful to be in Paris to hear this. So Australian bands would make their own music, and they tried to make it as good as this alleged stuff that happened overseas. No one knew that any of us will get to go overseas. We went to England first time in 1985 and played live. We realised that all these wonderful things happening in Europe were just the same as anywhere else, people were just better at talking about them. So Australia had this feeling of having to compete with something magical. And we were also very very isolated. We were very far away. Even for me to come here took 48 hours. So when you are that far away, you have to be your own entertainer and things develop in a different way. Now I have people talking to me on video links from Australia. Culturally it has been wiped. We are our own little enclave, we are not the same as France, England or anywhere like that. One of the interesting dilemmas we have a the moment is related to rap music, which is not something that I know too much about. But the issue is whether to rap in an Australian or American accent? If you are a commercial rap artist, you tend to use the American accent, but the alternative rappers use a strong Australian accent. So such dilemmas we have in a country like Australia, which is bombarded by overseas input like most countries are. So what do you do? Do you double down on your own culture or just accept other cultures? It’s very hard to know.

Having in mind that you deal a lot with interdisciplinary forms, what art forms do you find the most fascinating at the moment?

There are a lot of things going on at the moment. I have the goggles and helmet at home and I made a few videos which are surround. I think the thing that is interesting is not the art itself. What is really interesting is coming from teaching films, which I did at university. At the moment, if I am doing a film and I want to have a conversation between people, you do reversals, which are over-the-shoulder shots. We see one person talk to the other over the shoulder and we do the reversal thing. So there is a whole cutting mechanism. If I want so have a scene of a boy meeting a girl at a party - so I show a boy, then a girl, then a party, then a boy looking at a girl and so on. Gone, all gone. Now if virtual reality starts to happen, the camera sees everywhere and the audience can be looking anywhere. You can’t cut. You might be showing a girl and a boy over there, but the person with the goggles on might be looking at the legs. Then if you cut, there is no context for the cut. Terrible. So how do you make audience members look in the right place? There are three things that you can work with. Lighting is very important. Think about a stage - if I shine a spotlight on a stage, it illuminates the place where people are going to look. There is also a set design, so if I put a chair there, obviously people are going to look at the chair. But the other thing is sound. Sound is the only surround format. Even with surround vision, you still have to turn your head. Sound instantly attracts attention. Suddenly the sound designer becomes the director. The sound designer and the director are now the people who are going to determine the flow. So the fundamental change in film making is taking place at the moment, which may or may not have permanent effect on mainstream films. But if you are really interested in sound, you are probably thinking that the sound design is going to become really prominent in terms of directing audience’s goals and giving clues. The sound design becomes a furnishing of a set. What I’m interested in at the moment is how do you stage a narrative in a soundscape. Because the piece of art can’t work if you don’t know how to do that. People are beginning to realise this is where we are going in the next few years. Well, do I know how to do this yet? No. Am I getting there? Yes. And the game is part of that thinking of how you do that, because you turn your head around and the sounds are moving around you. There is no front, no back, no up or down. It is just where you are looking at that time.

About Author

Paulius Ilevicius is a Secret Thirteen journalist, editor and occasional DJ focusing on more dreamy and melancholic soundscapes. Born in post-industrial town of Pavevezys, currently he lives and works in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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