Interview by Jason Gross (March 1997)
It's hard to say where to start with Chris Cutler since any one of his projects make him eligible for sainthood. Maybe you could start with saying that he was a driving force behind one of the most innovative bands in rock, Henry Cow. You might also want to say that he is responsible for ReR/Recommended, unleashing a slew of impressive, uncomprising releases on the world. Somewhere in there, you ought to add that he is an equally impressive writer, whose work has been in magazines and collected into FILE UNDER POPULAR. This isn't even mentioning his years of solo and coloborative work. Now that's an impressive resume.
A huge thanks goes out to MR. PHIL ZAMPINO who runs a great site on ReR/Recommended.
PSF: Before Henry Cow or Cambridge, were you studying music or in any bands or have any active interest in music?
No. I never studied music, but like so many I was in bands at school from the age of about 14. I messed about with the Banjo, Guitar, Trumpet, Flute and finally settled for the drums (because I wanted to be in a band and everyone else played the guitar). So I did a lot of Shadows/Ventures style instrumental music, then standard 'dance' stuff (a lot of Chuck Berry, hit parade & party music!). I was in a soul band for a while and then an R & B group. Round '65, I was in a group that slowly became stranger and stranger and ended up sounding like Soft machine/Barrett Floyd at the same time that these groups emerged (similar history), so then we played at the psychedelic clubs. After that I formed the Ottawa Music Co. (a rock composers orchestra) with Dave Stewart (Egg) and finally joined Henry Cow.
PSF: What was the original idea behind Henry Cow?
That's a question for an orginal member - I joined later, but I understand there was a mixture of stuff - a lot of Bonzo Dog type humour and experimental music combined. But ask Fred (Frith) or Tim (Hogkinson). I think usually the main idea is to be in a band...
PSF: Did anyone in Henry Cow have experience with the record industry?
PSF: Why did you decide straight away to oppose traditional ways of working as a band?
I'm not sure we did, although just being in a band was soon not really the point - we wanted to do something INTERESTING. I think that was the point for us - all. The going against was in order to get somewhere we felt worth getting to - and I think we worked very much as a group all along, sometimes to the point where it strained our personal relations. We had regular minuted meetings, delegated responsibilities, ran the whole machine of the group on a no majority (unanimity only) rule on decision making - including musical decision making. Even compositions brought to the group were provisional; anyone could propose changes, cuts and so on, so that the eventual shape of a piece would be what we ALL agreed about. This can be hard on the composer, and on the equilibrium of the group. It can even be counter productive. Going against the industry structures on the other hand, was simple self-preservation.
PSF: How did this manifest itself?
We had our own PA system, lights and a bus for us (with kitchen equipment and bunks for sleeping) and a Lorry for all the equipment. So we were completely self contained. Then we organised all our own administrative affairs, tours and finances and acted as our own management and agency. All the money that came to the group we spent according to unanimous decisions made at meetings - on necessities (like repairs). We didn’t pay ourselves until the last two years, and then the amounts were symbolic. Eventually we even released our own records, becoming to all intents and purposes completely dislocated from the usual support networks and exploitation machines.
PSF: Where there any repercussions for Cow's political stance? Town councils, promoters, distributors?
Only positive ones - we toured Italy regularly at a time no other groups could get there, organised by the PCI and the Partito Radicale. They liked our politics. I can't remember a time we were refused anything because of them.
PSF: From the Rock In Oppostion (RIO) declaration, 'Henry Cow, virtual exiles from their own country for 5 years drew the bulk of their rapport & sustenance from Europe where audiences & organisers alike showed interest & generosity' Could you expand on this?
Not really - we toured continually on the mainland of Europe where there were people willing to promote concerts for us, and to attend them. No one in England could be bothered, so we more or less never played here. We toured around, effectively living on the mainland for months at a time, just visiting England now and then between times - usually to rehearse new material.
PSF: Did you feel distant from your own country then, like exiles?
I don't think we felt like exiles (as if we MISSED something) but rather we felt like EUROPEANS. But you'd have to ask the others too. I don't remember having negative feelings, or thinking that England was specially important. We were glad to travel and to be where we were wanted.
PSF: Also from RIO... 'The music industry makes all its decisions on the basis of Profit & Prestiege... they have ears only for the rustling of money, hearts which only pump with the blood of murdered.' Do you think the climate within the industry is any different today? If not, what's needed to better the situation?
If not the same, worse - big companies don't take anyone on for musical reasons; music is an investment which has to pay back with interest. Nothing is needed to better the situation - who WANTS the industry to have anything to do with our work? Better they keep their sticky hands off. I think we can look after ourselves best. In the satellite economy we are able more or less to control without too much compromise.
PSF: What about independent labels? A number of them start small, expand and then get bought out by major labels.
Some independents follow the money because they can, some never have the chance, a few might refuse. I don't think there's a rule but power tends to corrupt. That's a rule. The safest way not to be swallowed is to be unpalatable I guess.
PSF: From RIO Requirements: "That of musical excellence. This depending on their collective evaluation of the same."
Well, who thinks they're bad?
PSF: "That of working actively outside the establishment of music business."
Mostly that's forced on you anyway.
PSF: "That of having a social commitment to Rock."
That's important still, but qualified and transformed as time has passed. Rock has another meaning now; something to do with electrification, rhythm, physical projection and reference to the improvisational and performative values of music learned. through R & B, soul rock and all the stages beyond. This doesn't preclude a, however, a commitment to aspects of any other musics inasmuch as they enrich and expand the language of what was formerly known as 'rock'. So our commitment to Rock was informed by our commitment to improvisation, electronic music, contemporary composition and so on. And Vice Versa.
PSF: Do you still maintain these ideals? Can you think of other bands/labels that do this?
Essentially yes. I think an awful lot of people would recognise what they do under these headings - though they are rather formally expressed, in the manner of the times. Motive is one thing, qualitative self-assessment another and historical evaluation something else again.
PSF: When the punk movement sprang up, did you feel that they were suitably anti-establishment (as Cow and RIO) or were they just co-opted?
There was something real happening on the ground, but what surfaced and the way it surfaced was almost wholly and immediately coopted by a failing record industry looking for new blood to suck and new markets to create and exploit. Most 'punk' bands turned out to be middle class art students. ‘Oi’ bands - who stayed 'punk' after the fashion faded- were political fascists -that was too grim for the fresh out of college guys in the music press who ‘discovered’ and hyped up Punk to contemplate by. In other words: confusion. One the punks had kicked the door in the ‘New Wave’ rapidly colonised the opened space. Underneath it all was a great revolution of independent production and a head clearing attitude to music - although not so much of this saw the commercial light of day. Its good effects however are still with us, and this is it’s important legacy: the moves toward independence, sexual equality and stylistic diversity. The Sex Pistols and other money hoovers had nothing at all to do with this.
PSF: Devil's advocate question: Why is music your focus instead of politics? Sometimes do you think it would make more sense to work with a political party?
I'm a musician - it's what I do. I'm afraid all the career political party people I have ever met are more or less philistines. Can there be a decent society without Art? It is a dimension party people seem always to miss or marginalise. I put it down to lack of vision and lack of culture - and that's a bad model in my book. So I stick to making things that speak to aesthetic and imaginative questions, as well as political ones, where relevant. Concentrating on the political is too one dimensional for me.
PSF: ReR Records has had low price packaging, high production, high royalties, higher CD price. Has this been effective?
I'm not sure about that word. Effective in marketing terms? I didn't really ever consider that. I just made the work as well as possible, so that it would last. I don't quite see that our packaging is much different from anyone else's - certainly not cheaper. And the CD's are pretty average in price (except as exports of course but that's someone else adding too much profit). We sell to distributors at a normal price, same as any other CD. We sell our CD's direct for £11, which is decidedly cheap. It's effective in the sense that I still like and can stand by the work I have produced. In the end that is the only reason I produce it.
PSF: With ReR artists, is there a common thread (Plastic People, John Oswald, Slapp Happy, Faust, Cow, David Thomas, Univers Zero) other than the fact that you worked with them? Agit-pop aesthetic idea perhaps?
I didn't work with all these people, although I appreciate their work. The thread, i suppose, is that none of us works in a vacuum - we are contributing to a body of work, as if we constituted a loose community of ideas. This means that we not only position ourselves within an active community, identified by a musical tendency, but also help to create that community and define that tendency. Artists on ReR are selected by me, according to my personal assessment of how they contribute to the vocabulary of music in general and to our area of musical experiment in particular. I am not pretending to be right or fair - I am just saying , well I like this, or I think it’s important in some way. It’s my opinion and on the strength of that I recommend this work. If I had to say more it would be that I think quality and imagination are the most important qualities they all share.
PSF: Could you talk about your recent works with Zeena, and the Bach trios you did with Rene Lussier and Jean Derome- it's interesting as you seem to be taking on more classical approaches or sounds lately.
The Bach material is now about 10 years old and I'm not sure where the classical approaches come with zeena (with whom I began working in the late 70's) but I think you are right. Until recently my main concern was with extending rock through complexity and new sonic resources, and with introducing elements from other fields, as well as continuing to experiment with song form and ex-nihil improvisation. Maybe because of the rise of sampling and turntable-playing, the introduction of mediated chunks of other material has become musically more interesting - because it is now possible to 'play' them and not just run them in. Certainly with my p53 project I had this aspect of realtime montaging in mind, with both pianists using 'classical' pieces, and Marie acting essentially as a human Sampler (with a flexibility and sensitivity that a real Sdampler can’t deploy) What fascinates me is how memory now acquires a compositional power. To use recogniseable material because of it's associations and recognisabilty is new to my practice, athough Cassiber did quite a lot of this, though in a very different context. I think thework of people like Christian Marclay and Otomo Yoshihide has been quietly important in developing this blatantly referential language in way infinitely more subltle than simple pastiche. They play their quotations.
PSF: What happened with the loss of money with RéR and the reformation of RéR Megacorp?
This is a long story. In brief, Recommended was always a touch and go project financially, and as we grew we lurched through various crises . Also, as I'm a full-time musician, it means that i have to leave ReR ‘s affairs in other people's hands a lot. For a long time this didn't make for stability. At a certain point, I decided I had to stop trying to run the label and the distribution and just concentrate on the label. The people then working with Recommended took the distribution on as an independent enterprise, with exclusive links to the label. This worked fine for a couple of years until there came a point where distribution had sold vast quantities of label records, spent the money and couldn't pay for it. This left me thousands of pounds down and the label in serious jeopardy. In order to save the label I had to set up a new distribution - this is ReR. I guess something was learned from all these mistakes, at least things run a little more steadily now.
PSF: What about distribution in the US, current and future? You've been working with Pink Bob at Ponk to put the ReR catalog online, and there's a prototype page in the UK.
Our distribution partner in the USA is Cuneiform, with whom we've worked for a very long time. It’s been a good association. The ReR label is effectively run in the USA by Bill Sharp of Biota, and without he and Steve between them we’d have little presence in the US. We have licensed one or two titles are to other companies but essentially we are happy to stick with Cuneiform. Reliability is worth a lot. As to the website, Bob started setting it up before ReR had it’s own and it seemed foolish for us to replicate all that work - it's also against the whole structure of the net, the point of which is hypertext linking. So we maintain the site together. We'll see how it goes - it's still very new. So comments and suggestions for improvements please.
PSF: RIO- why didn't it last long?
I think this is pretty well covered in my book? I guess RIO was essentially a moment of consolidation and once it had made it's mark it didn't need to exist any more. There wasn't any agreed long term programme, and the groups involved were all very different. It's hard to know what it could have done except become a kind of monolith, which would really have been against the spirit that informed it in the first place. So it slipped easily into the public domain, which I think was pretty fine. A lot of good things grew out of it.
PSF: How did Henry Cow's relationship sour with Virgin?
Virgin got a sniff of money (a lot of it) through the runaway success of (Mike Oldfield's) TUBULAR BELLS and like any business, money was what they wanted out of life, so they followed it. It meant they didn't have much time or interest for groups like Henry Cow who didn't shift a lot of units. So they pretty much gave up on us. We had to get our own concerts (the Virgin agency was useless) but we did just fine. Then our CD wasn't available in any of the countries we were touring in, because the people who wanted Mike Oldfield didn't want Henry Cow and Virgin couldn't be bothered to look elsewhere (why should they; no money in it).
After a few years of being completely self contained, we were ready to make a new record and to get away fromVirgin (their contract with us was really very disgusting - we never got any money and at the end they said we owed them a huge amount and told the tax authorities that we had had huge advances - in the form of recording time at The Manor - their own studio - repayable in full out of our miserable royalty - plus all our publishing earnings). We got out by insisting they honour the contract they wrote. We said OK, time for the next LP and we want 4 weeks at the Manor (as they wrote in their contract). They didn't want to pay so we were able to get out.
PSF: Why did Henry Cow end? Is a reunion possible?
It's a long story and every member of the group probably has a different version. I suppose we found ourselves in a position where our raison d’etre didn't seem so clear any more and we could no longer agree about what we were doing anymore, and why. At a meeting after recording what later became HOPES AND FEARS (released as the Art Bears), we decided we should stop while we were ahead. Then we organised last tours of all the places we had always played, wrote a whole new set of music, set up RIO and recorded WESTERN CULTURE. Eight months later we 'retired' as a group though we never got to play at our last concert.
Subsequently, most of us have worked together in various combinations. I still work with Fred, Tim, Dagmar, John - though I haven't done anything with Lindsay since Oh Moscow (but we made 2 CD's as News From Babel, and I played on 'Rags' and in her film music group). Fred and Tim work together still. Tim has a new project with Dagmar. And so on.
A reunion? Who can say? If we ever did (and I think there'd have to be a very good reason or a very serious invitation) then I'm certain we'd write a lot of completely new music. I can't ever see Henry Cow doing it's old material gain. Nostalgia is not on our map - we have none of us stopped since hose days and we all of us work forwards, not backwards. It’s something to look at our current CV’s and discographies. This was and still is a hyper productive group of individuals.
Also see our 2017 Cutler interview
and his article on indie downloads
And see our interview with Geoff Leigh
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