Subvert Magazine : 1983
'From Science To Ritual'
An Interview with SPK
Interviewer : Gary Levermore Interviewee : Graeme
SPK photos: From the Italian booklet, 'From Science to Ritual'.
Socialist Patients Kollectiv /System Planning Korporation/Surgical
by Gary Levermore of 'Tone Death' Magazine
SPK began in Australia in September 1978, the name originally being derived from a group of Baader-Meinhof inspired mental patients in W. Germany, the Socialist Patients Kollectiv. The line up has been extremely flexible over the years, but has always revolved around one member Graeme Revell (nee Oblivon), who at present resides in South London with fellow member Sinas Leong.
This interview took place on General Election Day, shortly after the most recent vinyl release the 12" Dekompositiones (on their own Side Effects Records) had been issued and had subsequently sold out of its first pressing. Their two previous LP's ('Information Overload Unit' and 'Leichenschrei') had also just been reissued with some help from Rough Trade, who haven't been the only people to show an interest in the growing emergence of the group.
TD - Tone Death G - Graeme
TD First of all, could you explain a little about the
elimination of shock horror visuals in the recent stage set, and
the new covers for the LP's?
G It's all in the strategy of change. There are two main reasons for it. The first is that it's been done and we want to move on. The second, a slight admission I suppose, is that we're trying to tone it down a bit because we kept getting misunderstood. People kept saying it's all sensationalism or shock horror when all we were trying to do was to make a comment on something, that comment being that that it wasn't shock horror, it was just visions of things that were supposedly unacceptable such as mental retards. We were showing things that we felt to be absurd, not shock horror, things such as weaponry, carved up heads, all sorts of crazy scientific things.
TD What about the Japanese imagery you're now
G This is more of a relationship between these absurd images I've just described and historical, ethnic images - things that we can relate together, such as science, alchemy, magic, and so on. So all in all, it does look as if the show has been toned down but on the other hand it does have more variety.
TD Have you actually got a deal going with Rough Trade?
G No, it's not really a deal, they're just handling distribution but they're also taking a special interest, which they do with several other bands who don't have proper deals. We are actually looking for a record company now, as I think we've said everything that could be said and done on our own, and in a sense we're very much banging our heads against a brick wall at the moment. Let's face it, the world demand for the type of thing we're doing is pretty much limited until you can get a record company behind you. It's just the way things are.
TD So if you sign to a bigger company would it still be
on SER through the bigger company?
G No, just on the bigger company.
TD What's your feelings on the whole metal percussion
thing becoming chic?
G I suppose everything becomes chic really, in time. I'm just very glad that SPK has never been JUST a metal percussion band, it was only a phase that we decided to concentrate more on at one time.
TD But you must be annoyed at certain people ripping
off what you started?
G I wouldn't say we started it. I think that honour must go to someone like Z'er, although I also think in in a certain context SPK did something quite important, but I think Einsturzende Neubaten have as well. They're quite good.
TD You don't mind them getting better recognised than
G Personally, I do find that annoying. I don't see anything wrong with EN or Test Dept. for doing it but I do see that those two groups are weak, especially Test Dept., because I don't think they have any real content and they are just stylising something and their whole stylistic ideas are a complete plagiarism of everything that happened in a very poor period of art, which was social realism, the most ridiculously childish idea in art. All that annoys me really is when people can't see the difference between bands and people can't look past the obvious style.
TD None of you sound a bit alike.
G That's right and it annoys me that people can't see the differentiation, and that people can't see past what's pure stylisation and nothing else. To be frank, a group like Test Dept. are typical of England. The idea comes from elsewhere and someone in England commercialises it, sends it into an idiotic pop phenomenon, which lasts for six months, then it's gone. How to destroy an idea in five easy steps.
TD Can you make some comment on all these compilations
you're going on plus the German pop LP you've recorded?
G That's an interesting question, because up until now I've said no to everybody. There's two separate types of reasoning why I've decided to do it this time. One is, for example, the Illuminated compilation, the Rough Trade compilation, it's just to try and reach a wider audience. Something like the Chris & Cosey project, the Third Mind album, are more for personal reasons. I think that everybody involved has got a co-operative spirit about them. The Rough Trade one is a good idea because it should reach a lot of people who would never hear about us otherwise. The German LP contains our original singles from '78-'79 on one side, and the other side has three unreleased poppy tunes hat we did last year, which should be nice to listen to. A bit of a break from the hard dirge! That album will be a limited edition of 1000, and should be out soon.
TD Do you think only good will come out of the recent
'Wild Planet' feature in sounds, or do you think a fashion
element will creep in?
G No, the music is too varied, too different and too intelligent for that to happen. The article isn't a unity at all, it's just an interesting collection as it stands. It had to be done and I'm glad it was. People must realise taht there are a lot of things in there that can't really be described as 'underground'.
TD Why haven't the other papers shown any interest? Can
you offer any explanation why?
G I think because the music isn't commercial enough. It's a well known fact that journalists in general make their careers by discovering artists and if they can reel off a list of artists that they have discovered or been the first to write about, it will greatly benefit them - they'll become permanent staff or sub editors or something. But there aren't many groups written about in that 'Wild Planet' article that can cater for the journalistic need. Certainly not us I don't think, our music is too varied for that.
TD What do you see as personal success in what you're
doing and how far away from it are you at the moment?
G Unfortunately, we're as far away from it now as when we first started. In fact we're worse off, because the costs are higher now. I'll tell you, because it's quite interesting for groups that want to start off at a certain level. Sinas and I get £41-£65 a week between, so that's about £160 a month, and my costs are about £150-£200 a month, and that's without recording. So, we're actually living on a negative sum of money every month, so you have to try and get money from somewhere else. I'll leave the dear reader to try and figure out where we get the money from. It's a crazy situation, unless you have a record company behind you.
TD Do you think someone like RT will offer more
assistance in the near future?
G No. Because they need sales of far more than we can manage at the moment, just for them to make any real money out of it. There's only two ways of operating in the music business. One is somebody like The Nocturnal Emissions who work very hard and are very well meaning in what they do. They release records in limited editions of about 800 and in so doing they double their money. But by doing that, your market is always limited. You'll never sell any more than that. The only other way you can operate is by going the whole way straight to a record company, and getting advances etc.
TD How many copie of your first album 'Information
Overload unit' did you sell, because you financed that yourself,
G That sold just over 2000.
TD So did you make more money out of that than
'Leichenschrei' (the second album which was originally released
G Yes. We only just broke even on that, even though that has sold over 3000 in America alone.
TD How well has the 'Dekompositiones 12' sold so far?
G 2500. That's just in a couple of weks.
TD Don't you think you would have been better off not
going through RT and putting it out yourself? It would have sold
as many wouldn't it, even if it had taken a bit longer?
G Oh yes, that 2500 is really our base sales. That's orders from people who would buy everything we do. They've gone to the usual places - America, Japan, W. Germany, a few to Australia....just the same distribution as before. The thing about doing it with RT is that hopefully it will keep going, whereas through ourselves it would probably stop. Mind you, 'Dekompositiones' is hardly a commercially viable product.
TD Was it a deliverate policy to make that completely
different from 'Leichenschrei'?
G Yes. 'Leichenschrei' seemed to me to investigate a lot of ideas of doing things with metal percussion, loops and so on. I must say I've had SPK releases more or less planned from the beginning. I've known roughly what each release was going to be like and I've got the next two albums planned and written out and semi recorded already. It's just a matter of how and when to do them. Like the live show we did over the last couple of months. The backing tape from that will eventually surface as an LP, but probably not until the one after next. The next one will be more punchy, almost a dance album, hopefully. Completely different again from 'Dekompositiones'. It'll be almost an exercise in incredibly bizarre if you like. I just hope people will be able to pick up on it. To draw a similar parallel, hopefully the reaction will be similar to Kraftwerk when they first started. People thought it was really amazing.
TD Do you think 'Leichenschrei' will pick up again on
its re-release? I've heard that John Peel has been playing it for
G That's right. It's difficult to tell if it will pick up again. There is actually a possibility of doing a Peel session, that might help a great deal.....but as to 'Leichenschrei' selling in any great quantity this time, I don't think it will.
TD What's the main thought behind 'New Dark Age' (from
'Dekompositiones')? Can you expand on the era of the information
overload that comes across?
G I think the era we live in now is really important, I don't know where it dates from. Probably from the beginnings of a real pop culture. It dates from the '30s to start with, when there was under consumption in the economy. The whole idea of consumerism took off then, with Hollywood movies and so on. From there you moved from music, jazz bands and so on, and you got the idea of pop stars and so on. But it really took off in the '50s with rock'n'roll. I now feel that the whole culture is dominated by a lowest common denominator which refers to people under the age of about 25. Historically this period of music will be regarded as shit. Anything that lasts six weeks in the pop charts and then disappears off the face of the earth has to be regarded as drivel. The same with television, the same with movies. One example is the latest Nick Rolf movie The guy is really good, you know he has good ideas....but he's now been caught in the trap as well. Just to cater for the US market, which is after all 50% of the world's film market. What he's had to do is put in all the elements - a bit of B grade violence, a few sex scenes, all really badly done, everyone roaming around in Barbados looking incredibly rich, '20s period style. That kills the rest of the movie. It degenerates the whole film into some film noir plot. Totally wrecks it although some good ideas are there - reference to Alchemy and so on, but this is just drowned completely.
This ties in with the whole idea of 'New Dark Age'.....in this last 25 years we've just been bombarded with all this populist culture nonsense, and the education system up till now, quite topical on election day, is just geared to the finding of jobs and performance of functionalist tasks and consumption. People aren't educated to be producers anymore - not producers in some shit job which doesn't exist, but to be creatively productive for themselves. People just aren't ready for it, because they haven't woken up to it. They will be in 25 years time, but up till the year 2000 it's going to be a miserable time. People roaming around not knowing what to do - there's all this information they can't make head or tail of because they're not educated to think about it. They are just educated to consume to put it simply. They don't know anything about what's going on, and unfortunately it's going to take a long time to sort it out. The political situation doesn't help. I'm politically more left than right but the Labour party idea of more jobs if they win today's election is just ridiculous. Nobody with the intelligence to be in the Labour party could believe there are more jobs.
TD Would you go along with the idea that Michael Foot is too intelligent, that's why nobody likes him?
G Yes, people always go for someone with a TV personality such as the American president. That's what it comes down to, isn't it? The whole media society is run by smooth talking images with nothing behind them. Just someone people can relate to. Content just goes out the window. In fact that awful structuralist period in art, which is only just ending - you know, bricks on the floor, black line on the wall, all that crap with no content behind it, was a sort of comment on it all happening but it just got worse and worse into the trap. Some of these young groups around just don't realise it.
TD Who do you cite as your influences then, amongst all
this consumerist rubbish? Presumably not Warhol?
G God no. I agree with what Robert Hughes said on The Shock Of The New. He actually made the comment 'Warhol is not art.' The things that happen once, that brief flicker are all right, but if they drag on and on and influece people it's just nonsense.
As far as music goes, I've been influenced by all those German groups - Con, Neu, Kraftwerk, Auster, Harmonia. Also a guy called Harry Patch who made all his own instruments, and made some great records. He's dead now. I also read a lot: French philosophy influences me - Deleuve, who wrote the brilliant 'Anti Oedipus' and a book on anti-psychiatry which is probably the best ever written. Michel Foucault is also excellent, if you can get hold of books like 'The Birth of the Clinic', 'Madness in Civilisation' and 'Discipline and Punishment'. His whole philosophy was built in the 25 years either side of the French Revolution when a whole different way of looking at things occurred and the idea of the prison and torture changed to prison and hiding things away and rehabilitation. Social welfare ideas became born. What that shows I think is that if it can happen than it can happen now, a whole different way of thinking can come about in a very short space of time. I think it will happen, before the end of this century. I also like reading Nietsche, Kafka, and also od photographic books - fetishisms, monsters, just to look at. As for films, I like anything by Bunuel, Takovsky, Erazerhead. I don't really like anything in popular culture.
As to personal experience, I was also very much influenced by working in a mental hospital (Graeme was psychiatric nurse). That would be the only job I could ever go back to.
TD Finally, judging from the recent gig with The
Birthday Party, their fans seemed to lap up your performance. So
what do you see an SPK audience as, a few months from now.
G Difficult to say, as we're having trouble getting gigs. We should be playing at Klub Foot in early July with X-Mal Deutschland. Somebody has started that place up again with the idea that maybe it can once again be a seminal club, and give support to up and coming groups in a slightly more intelligent way I hope. Let's face it, everybody's saying why doesn't something happen. Well, the 'Wild Planet' feature showed that it has been happening all along and if people would just take the chance we'll do it for them.
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