An interview with
Chris Cutler (2004)
Feb. 8, 2004
In the short time they existed, between 1978 and 1980, the Art Bears -
Chris Cutler, Fred Frith and Dagmar Krause, with the invaluable assistance
of engineer Etienne Conod - produced three very fine LPs: Hopes And
Fears, Winter Songs and The World As It Is Today. Three albums of songs
full of innovations. Featuring the three original LPs freshly remastered,
a double CD of remixes, an extra CD of rarities and an extensive booklet,
The Art Box is the box set that marks their 25th anniversary.
the first week of February I had an e-mail conversation with Chris Cutler
about the group.
As a first question, I'd like to ask you about the transition
from Henry Cow to Art Bears. When I bought the albums, I noticed that though
it was released first Henry Cow's Western Culture had been recorded after
Hopes And Fears, the Art Bears' first LP. You talked briefly about this in
the liner notes to the CD re-release of Western Culture. Would you mind elaborating
What became Hopes And Fears started life as a Henry Cow LP; our first
independent release after leaving Virgin. The whole story is in the booklet
and it will be easier to copy it from there I'm sure, but yes, I suspect that
if it had come out under the name of Henry Cow, it would have surprised a
lot of people - although the LP would not have been the same because Henry
Cow removed tracks recorded for it (instrumental, mostly) and Fred and I then
wrote four more songs to complete it. It was work on the extra material that
originated our unusual work method - and without that the Art Bears would
never have evolved and Winter Songs and The World As It Is Today would never
have been made.
In January, days before we left, there were serious disagreements about the
material, leaving us with a studio booking and too little music. I was deputised
to try to produce new texts for a piece of Tim's (...) - an impossible task
in the time available. So I wrote some short texts and proposed we make a
song LP instead. In the absence of anything else, this is what we did, working
on the material en route to Switzerland, in a rehearsal room when we arrived
and throughout the recording itself. On our return to London, Henry Cow decided
that this work was not what 'Henry Cow' should be doing and that therefore
we should not release the record. Fred and I offered to pay the studio costs,
took the songs, added another four and released the result as the first Art
Bears LP: Hopes And Fears.")
I have to say that had the Hopes And Fears album been released
under the Henry Cow name - and right after In Praise Of Learning and the Concerts
live double LP - I would have been quite surprised. Sure, there had been the
Desperate Straights album - but that was a joint project with Slapp Happy.
Where did this interest in "short songs" come from? What were your
general points of reference? Did a certain "spirit of the times"
influence the new project at all?
Desperate Straights was a very important experience, I think, because
it put us all directly back in touch with the song form and with what was
essential about pop. And Pop was what we all grew up with in those days, one
way or another. Moreover, Fred and I at least had both come from rock backgrounds
and had spent years in bands playing songs. So they were in our blood. Suddenly
we found we were keen to explore them again, but from a more evolved, less
commercially motivated perspective: from having been away and learned a lot
of other things in the interim in fact.
When I attended one of your seminars - it was in 1987, at the
MIMI Festival in St. Remy - you were asked whether the Art Bears song In Two
Minds, off the Hopes And Fears LP, was in any way intended as an homage to
The Who. If I remember correctly, you seemed to accept the idea. Would you
elaborate? Henry Cow and The Who not being considered two groups one would
mention in the same sentence...
It would be hard to deny the connection. It is so obviously a reference.
I was certainly directly influenced in my youth by The Who - and in particular
by Keith Moon. The Who was also one of the earliest bands I can remember who
welcomed abstract noise into their songs. In the context of the early '60s
they were provocatively radical and experimental; a fact easily missed in
retrospect because, at the time, popularity and experiments in rock were closer
together than they were ten years later. Useful too to read the RIO statement
from 1978: Henry Cow always considered itself a rock group, and the music
we played rock.
Where did the group's name come from? (It sounds like Heart Bares...)
I took the name from a sentence in Jane Harrison's Art And Ritual.
Even today, when individualism is rampant, Art Bears traces of its collective,
social origin‚ but not too much should be read into this; it just sounds
intriguing, has an animal in it, plays with ambiguity and is mildly ridiculous.
The two Art Bears albums that followed - Winter Songs and The
World As It Is Today - were recorded as a trio. What kind of studio procedure
did you use - I mean, there was a certain amount of overdubbing...
There was only overdubbing. We never played a note of music together.
That was the method we adopted to complete Hopes And Fears as a trio. No rehearsal,
no actual playing of the material together, no discussion. I wrote the texts
and sent them to Fred and he set them. Then we all met at the studio, decided
on a structure for the first song and immediately laid down a click track
alongside the vocal melody for Dagmar to take upstairs to learn. Then Fred
and I built up the tracks one by one, getting the sounds and deriving the
parts as we went. So we were really able to use the studio in a fully compositional
way: with no pre-existing ideas about instrumentation and no influence from
actual collective playing - just the arrangement of sounds and performances
on tape, including effects directly derived from the qualities of tape itself:
making it run at different speeds, backwards, cut up and looped. So we constructed
the pieces rather than performing them. On the other hand, we constructed
them, for the most part, from performances. And that is something
also unique to the recording process.
About your lyric writing: the lyrics for the Winter Songs LP were
related to some stylobate of a cathedral, while the ones for The World As
It Is Today had a bitter, at times almost desperate tone. Would you mind talking
I think the question needs to be more specific. I can say that Winter
Songs was undertaken as a coherent song cycle, pursuing a single topic: an
attempt to put the contemporary world into a different perspective and to
show that our way of perceiving wasn't inevitable or true, while The World
As It Is Today was about what it said on the label, and was undertaken in
a dark time. But for my own part, I don't find any of it desperate. It certainly
wasn't intended that way. Angry maybe. Very angry. But not desperate.
How did the group work live? If I'm not mistaken, Peter Blegvad
did some live work with you...
Since all the songs were generated in the studio and never performed,
a lot of them were literally unperformable. Preparing for concerts meant involving
more people as you said, Peter Blegvad, and Marc Hollander, and finding solutions
to performance problems. We also used some material on tape, which was cued
in by the sound engineer at the required places.
How did the group come to an end?
The making of The World As It Is Today was a fairly traumatic, Dagmar
arrived with a contract, the atmosphere was difficult - reflecting the state
of the world, I suppose: there were riots and teargas in Zurich while we were
recording. Indeed, Dagmar refused to sing the last song because she found
the text too violent. It was a hard time. Though that perhaps helped the record
to be as intense as it needed to be. I remember leaving the studio with Graham
Keatley and instead of going back to London, we just stuck out our thumbs
and headed south. No particular destination in mind. We got to Vienna and
after a while went on down to Rome. It took a couple of weeks to get over
that record. We all knew that that was our last record.
What was that about a contract...
Dagmar arrived at the studio with a recording contract, written by
her husband, Bob Ward, which we had to sign before she would sing. It was
completely unexpected and was, at least for Fred and me, rather shocking,
since it seemed to indicate that we were no longer just friends, following
a shared vision, but employer and client.
What in your opinion is the Art Bears legacy today? Do you hear
any groups that make you think - "ha-ha! I know this".
I've heard a couple of groups who sound like the Bears - Gorilla
Museum and an Italian group: Lingham. But generally, nothing obvious. The
group was so marked by particularities - our studio work method, Etienne's
creativity, our very personal playing styles and techniques, Fred's unique
compositional approach, Dagmar's extraordinary voice and my own rather elliptical
approach to text writing - that it would be hard to reduce to a formula.
The Art Bears box includes Art Bears Revisited, a double CD of
remixes by the likes of The Residents, John Oswald and Otomo Yoshihide/Ground
Zero. What was your intention in commissioning those works?
I thought it would produce interesting results, and I like the idea
of making new work with no new musical information; to discover how different
people hear this material. How much can be made from so little...
© Beppe Colli 2004
| Feb. 8, 2004