Music From The Empty Quarter : 1992

Interviewed by NAKED

The following interview took place in 1983 and appeared in the booklet of the first 100 copies of The Last Supper compilation tape. Graeme Revell is in conversation at his London flat just at the point when SPK were moving away from the percussive ambience of Leichenschrei and Dekompositiones towards the metal-disco of Metal Dance and finally onto the out-and-out commerciality of Machine Age Voodoo. A turning point for SPK and with the imminent reissue of the entire SPK back catalogue to CD by The Grey Area of Mute Records, a topical one.

NAKED: Firstly, who is SPK at the moment ?
GRAEME: Well, it's me - I do all the general policy things more or less write the music, issue statements and live I do the vocals, percussion and electronics. There's Sinan, who does vocals and percussion, ethnic instruments (moroccan pipes, etc) and Derek, who's just joined the band. He's the guitarist and bass player, percussion too We sometimes have Brian Lustmord on stage with us as well, doing pretty much whatever he feels like doing. That is likely to be SPK for a while, we've more or less consolidated around that line-up, whereas we've changed quite a bit in the past.

N: We won't bother with all the boring past history as that's been well documented, suffice to say, you've been around a bit...
G: Paid our dues...

NG: ... do you ever feel that you've achieved what you originally set out to do ?
G: Not really, I don't think...

N: ... what I mean is, do you ever feel satisfied ?
G: No, no, not really. I think we've been misunderstood. We started off with something interesting ideas an a pretty well worked out strategy. I think we've always had a well worked strategy. We set out to find out how far you could go in the music industry and how much you could say without pandering to any of the ideas of what a band should be like. Without doing any of the things expected of a band, like get press, go to a record company, things like that. We tried to work out how much you could do just by contacting people and seeing how the grapevine worked intentionally, without having an image or anything that was possible to imitate.

N: Which was that ?
G: Well, we've got a certain amount of notoriety In that sense you ARE in the press a lot, making statements, explaining what you are doing. You are open to a lot of misinterpretations and misunderstanding. That's partly our fault and partly the fault of people for not really thinking very much.

N: So, do you see SPK as a band as all ?
G: No, not really. We never set out as such. It's just a medium for ideas. In art terms I suppose we are expressionistic, there is supposed to be a much wider meaning to what we do than just music, otherwise we wouldn't produce the sounds we do. I don't consider it music as such. In some senses SPK has succeeded. It's remained one of the purest efforts at that kind of thing. It's not made any compromises where other bands have. On the other hand I would have liked it to reach a lot more people and be understood for what it was. (Note: This is particularly interesting with the benefit of hindsight, coming as it did just before they signed to a major label.) It's been misunderstood a lot as a shock value band, which it was not really supposed to be.

N: Do you still think it's being misunderstood ?
G: Yes, that's why we are starting to come out in the major press and actually make clear statements because people won't take the time to sit down and actually think about something...

N: Surely that's not surprising though ?
G: Maybe we were naive to think that they would, although some do and I'm really impressed by that.

N: But, how many people do you think really sit down and think about SPK and the effect it has on them ? What sort of person listens to SPK in that depth ?
G: I've no idea. What sort of person likes SPK ? Well, it used to be pale young youths, mostly male. Which was the kind of person who used to gather around Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and so on. Then we noticed that, first in Australia, then the USA last time, that 50% of the audience was female, which we thought was a good thing. We have finally got a female in the band. It took a long time to persuade one to actually come into it, but finally we've done it ! I was always concerned that there was something kind of macho and therefore pathetic, about what we were doing because we couldn't quite access it to females. Now I'm pleased that we do.

N: Do you think the music may have sexual appeal ?
G: No, I don't think it works like that. I have had letters from people that it did, but in general, no. We try to avoid the sexuality thing really. I don't find sexuality very important really. I'm much more interested in death and destruction! Not in the romanticising sense - we try to be as real as possible. If we show something we try and show it in its reality, instead of an artistic variant of it. I think that's really important. Someone came up to us after a show and said, 'That was fuckin' great man, but too much reality.', which is really good. The sort of image we deal in are violent, but it's reflecting a violence that's already there. We are not perpetrating it, it's already been perpetrated. We are just showing it as a raw event, not hyping it up like "Apocalypse Now", which I think is on the wrong track as a film about violence goes, or something like "Bladerunner" which makes violence seem attractive, it makes it kind of sexual. Even though they purport to be anti-violence, it actually enhances the violence and makes it interesting to people. Whereas, if you watch a documentary about Vietnam and you see bodies with flies all over them, there's no way anyone can get excited about that. It's just a lump of meat. Violence in reality, is a shocking thing.

N: Why do you think you've picked up on the death aspect, with autopsy clips in the video you've just shown me? It seems to be something that you've focused on and has become identifiable with SPK for quite a while now.
G: It's because death is generally hidden. Death is either shown in a corny B Grade movie way, or it's hidden from us. Most people don't really know what it's like to experience death or see death. Western society in particular likes to give out an image of pure, organised, guiltless society as exemplified by the blank face of a computer. It's a really sanitised society. What really does go on out there is an excuse for the same old carnage that there always was. The armament industry, rape, things like that. What we're trying to do is bring home death to people.

N: Do you think people are afraid of death?
G: Not people in general, but the 'system', which sounds silly, but you know what I mean.

NG: Do you think society tries to cover up death, pretend it doesn't happen?
G: Yes it does. It tries to cover it up and give it a different face in some way. Either to glamorise it or to individualise it. The way they individualise it is the medicalisation. What they do when a person has a mental illness, is that it becomes an individual phenomena. In fact they run around looking for a physical cause. Schizophrenia is ridiculous really as it didn't exist as an illness until the industrial revolution, it's obviously a social phenomenon. What society tries to do is medicalise deviants and say, 'This is a sick individual.", therefore, it's his fault in some way. Society is blameless - "We didn't do it, he became like that because he is ill.". So the whole thing is individualised instead of a collective thing.
Interestingly enough, in primitive society everything is social. Sacrifice was a social act, circumcision was a social act. Any death in a society was a shared death, that's why people didn't really worry about being sacrificed because they didn't perceive of it as being themselves being sacrificed. It was something which had to be done for the good of society in general. This is what we have lost in the west. When we show death it's humorous because we see it all the time on B Grade movies, or it's in some way bizarre, when in fact, it's perfectly normal. It happens all the time, we just don't see it anymore.

N: In the video I must admit that I just laughed off some of the dead images, they didn't seem real. An ingrained reaction I suppose...
G: It's an obvious reaction. In a sense it's stupid because a lot of the things we are showing are things that science does. Science tends to have some claims of truth, science claims 'this is fact', whereas rituals are now looked upon as some sort of quaint thing that people did when they really didn't know what they were doing. A lot of the images in the video, like heads in bottles with bits carved off and names signed on babies foreheads, collecting bizarre things and hacking up bodies in autopsy when there's no reason to do so is patently stupid. In five years time we'll look back and say "My god, what a stupid thing to do.", but now society will defend these practices and it's no different from a ritual state of society. In fact, society has taken a backward step. There used to be no definition between a physical occurrence and a psychological one and magic. Imagine if I was a witchdoctor and you're the person I'm trying to put the cure on. YOu'll believe me and the cure will really happen to you physically.

N: Like the witchdoctor's who say people will die on a certain date and they really do believe it, so they die, they just give up.
G: Yes exactly, there isn't a distinction between the psychological and the physical. It's a thing we are now incapable of doing because we have that distinction. Our psychologies are disjointed from the facts, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. In terms of ritual it's no more than magic. What I'm trying to say is science claims to be true and says that magic isn't, whereas magic doesn't make any claim to truth.
It's quite a frightening thing if a society comes to believe truth is on its side - 3God is on our side.". It becomes such a belief that you are in the right and evryone else is in the wrong that you will kill for it. The trouble is that in 100 years time they'll no longer believe that and so somebody has got to stop the killing now.

N: Like in "1984" where the facts are changed to fit the beliefs of the time. Facts and history keep changing but they are always right at the point they reach and regardless of what has gone on in the past everyone's told to forget what they once believed, because the new revised facts have always been true.
G: Well, 1984's only next year anyway, so how's that for concrete thinking!

N: Do you feel part of any movement?
G: No, not at all. There's no movement in terms of a spirit or way of working. I think some of the best bands that people associate with our area of music, the bands that Dave Henderson has written about share the same sort of spirit, some of them don't. The things I'd count as that 'way of working' are co-operation for a start, rather than competition. Most of them are anti-plagiaristic to as high a degree as possible, given that there's nothing new under the sun. If they see somebody doing something that they are doing, they will try and do something different. That's not the way it works in the pop world. If somebody sees someone else doing something worthwhile they'll start doing it as well and jump up on the bandwaggon (Note: When SPK appeared on the same edition of the TV programme The Tube as Depeche Mode, shortly afterwards Depeche Mode started using SPK type metal percussion. Although Graeme didn't name names I think this is what he was referring to). A lot of the groups who don't work in this way cut their own throats commercially. SPK has cut its own throat really, as when we heard someone doing something similar, like some of the English bands, we'd just have to forget about it because someone else was doing it and start again. A lot of groups work like SPK, although there are 'clone' bands about.

N: Do you feel annoyed that people use your ideas and maybe become more succesful?
G: Yes, some of the bands do quite well, I just prefer people to think about that themselves. It doesn't worry me if the bands start making a lot of money - well, slightly perhaps! I just hope people will see through it - but of course, they won't. Ther's always trendy people who pick up on these things two years later.

N: Do you think that anyone has got that discerning a palate to be able to seek out the genuine innovators and see through all the second-rate plagiarists?
G: There's two different sorts of audience always. The first one is the people that seem to be able to find out about anything. I used to be like that when I was young. When I lived in New Zealand I used to have all the Neu, Can, Kraftwerk, Faust-stuff like that. I think I was the only person in the whole country that had these. I did meet one guy later who reckoned he had a couple of them!
There's people around everywhere who are always looking out for something interesting and new. They tend to be so bloody poverty stricken that they don't but any records though, they just tape them all.
then there's the type that come along later and if someone's got the right haircut then they'll but it. Those are the people that make the money.

N: Are SPK trying to become popular in that wider sense? What effect do you think it would have if it happened?
G: The situation we're in at the moment is that we are in a little microcosm here in England and Europe in that there are a couple of other bands that are working in similar areas to us. If we played our cards right and played all the tricks like releasing singles and getting major press at the same time, playing the gig circuit and all the trendy places, we could do quite well and become quite popular really (Note: This actually happened shortly afterwards with "Metal Dance" and "Machine Age Voodoo".). It's not really our style and we're taking steps to avoid that at all costs (Oh really?!). What we are looking for is something different.
We should be respected by the people who already know about us. The main thing with SPK is that we always try to do something different to what everyone else is doing.

N: Don't you feel your very percussive style is in danger of becoming too easily identifiable, too much the SPK 'sound'?
G: Oh indeed. It's a good idea the metal percussion and I think we got the jump on everyone, but we don't do it terribly stylistically. We couldn't care less about that either, we do it in a very anarchistic way. Ther's only so much mileage you can milk out of a good idea like that though and I think it's basically been done now, so it's time to move on.

N: Yes, there's only so many things you can hit really.
G: So, we're changing from that now, we're going to develop the whole thing, electronify it all again. We're still going to be very rythmic - which we've always been - but it's not going to be that obvious, hitting lumps of metal, etc. We might do a bit of it, but not centering around it. Hopefully, we'll come up with a new sort of idea that people haven't latched onto yet.
Basically what we are going to be doing is digitalising interesting sounds and building up rhythms from that with the new digital rhythm machines that are coming out. We've got sounds taped that we know people haven't got, so we're in the lead there anyway, so we don't have to hurry.
The next single that comes out will have some elements of that. It'll be August/September, a twelve-inch called "Crime Of Passion" as far as I know.

N: Do you feel you're moving towards something more subtle and implied rather than literal?
G: Yes, partly because I feel we have been misunderstood for the things we've done in the past and partly because I think SPK has done as much as it could on a completely independant footing, which is how we've operated until now, with this 'no press' and no identifiable image idea. It's like a totally new experiment for SPK in that the music is going to be more musical, more accessible. But the experiment is different, we're trying for a different audience. For example, on July 30th we're supporting The Cure at the Elephant Fayre in Cornwall. There's probably going to be about 15000 people there instead of playing dingy clubs to the hardy few.

N: Do you think the 'hardy few' will stick by you? Will there still be enough of what they liked before still retained?
G: I have general faith in the people that like SPK. They are not people who like a certain style of music, they are people who like a certain effort and idea and a certain attitude towards what people are doing. Perhaps they won't like the music, that doesn't worry me, as long as they understand that we are trying to take the music to an audience who wouldn't normally hear it. the Cure's audiences never going to know about SPK unless we get out and attempt to do something like this. It's quite a dangerous step really, because we could stay in the safe, little indie scene, kick about the place, but it has to be done eventually. If you've got a certain image and you stay within that image people will no hear of you.

N Is this a determined effort to aim at wider audiences?
G: Much wider audiences and I think we'll get them as well. We've got a lot of faith in people who are interested in helping us promotionally and things like that.

N: A breakthrough?
G: I wouldn't call it a breakthrough. That implies you've not made it in the past. It's a change in tactics.

N: Wanting to make yourselves more available then?
G: We've always been fairly accessible for people to come and see us and write us, as we've always left our address around the place. What we want to do now is make a crossover without too obvious a move to be acceptable to a crossover audience. We are trying to keep SPK as faithful to the original conception as possible, but to be able to make statements like I'm making to you now, or something like The Tube - to be able to say something like that in the daily paper.

N: Does this mean the anonymous part of SPK is gone and you'll be promoting your personalities more now?
G: That's right we will be using our real names from now on and have our photo's about the place, so people know who's involved. It's just a necessity really, if you're in an industry you have to work within the framework of that industry.

N: Doesn't that contradict what you were saying earlier about not compromising and doing it on your own terms?
G: There's no other way of doing it. I suppose The Residents are the perfect example of how far you can go with just an image. I've never really liked their music, but I liked their videos and the idea of it, but people are not really convinced by them are they? It's always the same, the more you say, the more you leave yourself open to attack. The less you say, the more likely you are to be successful, because people have nothing to attack you on.

On that rather pensive note the interview finished. The often contradictory nature of Graeme's statements were, I think, a clue to what was going on behind the scenes. SPK's signing to a major label, with a consequential commercialisation of the music and a stab at the 'big-time' that didn't quite work out (I could never see SPK as a pop band anyway). SPK may have disappeared of late, but with the Mute reissues of their old material and rare works I think we'll see an acknowledgement of their influence that extends into the sampling craze that just about everyone has got into now. They were probably the first to pioneer a Western form of tribalism, still kept alive by the likes of Test Department and Neubauten and the records of that era do deserve a second hearing in a modern context. I'm sure Grame Revell will re-surface at some point soon - hopefully with radical new ideas, as he has a modest articulacy that was greatly misunerstood owing to the confrontational nature of the music and images employed at the time.

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