There's an archaic belief that if you know a demon's name, you can summon, bind and control it.
Good luck trying that cheap trick on Jim Thirlwell.
For 20-plus years now, Thirlwell has labored under more names than a mob informant: Clint Ruin, Frank Want, Phillip Toss, Flank Blank, Carl Satan. Most people, however, know him best when he slaves under the vivid sobriquet Foetus. Or, as the mood strikes, Foetus Under Glass, Foetus Art Terrorism, Foetus All-Nude Revue, Foetus Über Frisco, You've Got Foetus on Your Breath and, perhaps most memorably, Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel. And that's not including side projects like Wiseblood, Steroid Maximus and the Garage Monsters.
So just forget about trying to pin this slippery bastard down to one identity.
But now you wanna know about the songs, slim? Filing Thirlwell albums by music style is a similar logistical nightmare. This Melbourne-born New Yorker can spit out everything from industrial stomps, abstract noise romps and paranoid instro panoramas to lurching big-band noir, depraved gospel parodies and lascivious cocktail-lounge come-ons. With his growling-chainsmoker vocals and acridly witty lyrics ("I'm makin' a list, checkin' it twice, decidin' on just who's deservin' to die--and you just made it, baby"), Thirlwell loads the sound of a mad schizophrenia into his shotgun and blasts gaping holes in preconceived genre limitations. Oh yeah, murder can be fun, all right.
So that's his modus operandi--but what about motive?
He could plead insanity, of course. It drives him to create history-plundering epics as an antidote to the anemia of most popular music. As Thirlwell, his voice ragged as the Stars & Stripes over Iwo Jima, confesses over the telephone, "There's some need that I can't quite escape to touch on the entire history of recorded music within any one album. Sometimes within any one song."
Incredibly, he does all this solo--sampling, multitracking, overdubbing, cutting, pasting and pissing blood all by his lonesome in the studio. He's a goddamn one-man orchestra. But live, Foetus wreaks a completely different havoc. Calling in hired guns to bring his records to life, the fire-haired, whip-thin Thirlwell alternately prowls the stage like a caged tiger or a homicidal Vegas showman with a belly fulla booze and bile. "Possessed" doesn't begin to describe the look in his eye.
Yet two decades of obsessive studio work and obscene live shows with his (self-described) "mammoth bludgeoning rock machine" can take their toll on a man. Which is why it's been seven years since Thirlwell released what he describes as "the last album you'd hear before they dropped the Big One," 1994's radioactive industro-blast Gash. Arguing with the voices in your head is tough enough; fighting your body's addictions is even harder.
"A lot of the demons that I've been trying to exorcise over the years ended up turning around and biting me in the ass, kind of like The Picture of Dorian Gray in reverse," he says. "It turned into a kind of life-death scenario."
So what d'you do when you sing songs like "A Prayer for My Death," then suddenly find you're not quite ready to die? And now you, at 41, have to face the beasts in your brain without chemical distraction? If you're an overachiever like J.G. Thirlwell, naturally you invent a new side project through which to channel your demons: In between recording Flow, his latest trip through the black amusement park that is Foetusland, and trying to deal with personal and business torments, Thirlwell also found time to record an "all-instrumental monsterpiece" album under the name Manorexia.
"[It's] kind of dark, has a different spatial quality to it. It's also possibly a bit more classical-leaning," he says, noting with no small pride that it will be performed as part of a composers' series in Los Angeles.
But that's not all. There's a new album's worth of Steroid Maximus material, a sonic travelogue that, if past releases are any indication, will range from cheeky cocktail exotica to creepy haunted-house gloomscapes. Oh, and let's not forget about Blow, the forthcoming remix album to accompany Flow, in which Thirlwell's jazz-damaged industrial vaudeville will be summarily shredded by electronic maestros such as Kid 606, Pan Sonic, Amon Tobin, Panacea and Phylr.
All these are just "different frames to put around Foetus," he says, "especially with the remix album. That to me is very exciting, to hear what other people have done with it. I just finished assembling it, and it sounds totally amazing."
So is this their chance to pay back Thirlwell--who's hacked up tracks for everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Pantera--for years of his own notorious remixing viciousness?
Thirlwell chortles roughly. "I wouldn't say payback. More homage, I hope. A respectful homage."
Time for you to pay your respects, Mac.
Foetus, Brooklyn Solipsist Society
Cobalt Lounge, 32 NW 3rd Ave., 225-1003 9:30 pm Friday, June 15 $12.50 advance (Fastixx)
For a review of Foetus' new album, see Sonic Reducer in Music.
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Jim Thirlwell also spins records under the name DJ Otefsu.
Conflict of Interest Update: Brooklyn Solipsist Society is John Graham's one-man band. A raving Thirlwell addict, he's more excited about opening for Foetus than a pyromaniacal necrophile at a funeral pyre.