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Nocturnal Emissions TM

Interview by WAR ARROW

in the SOLD-OUT


Published April 2000


Over a period of nine months, I exchanged letters with Nigel Ayers, the principal player of the band. The 'dialogue' passed backwards and forwards on bits of paper, edited and re-edited into a whole which flows at least as easily as any NE release. My initial intention was to discover the elusive undercurrent which informs the early overdriven onslaught of 'Smear Campaign' through the carpet-bombing funk of 'Body Count' to the pseudo-hypnotic soundscapes of more recent times. I'm not sure If I actually got an answer, but it was an illuminating and entertaining journey.

In what follows, Nigel's occasional claims to have originated every new musical advance of the last two decades, should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. But on the other hand, whether by coincidence or not, a number of his records do seem to hint at what others would popularise about five years down the line. On several occasions Nocturnal Emissions seem to have been in the right place but a few years ahead of the right time. Anyway, I started at the beginning.

WA What initially inspired you to start making music?

NIGEL Most probably pragmatism. Music is easy to replicate and its packaging allows opportunity to circulate text and Images. I found it an accessible and effective form of publishing.

WA So, what were you doing before?

NIGEL I did a BA degree in sculpture when I was 18 to 21. Which meant that after I left, they put me on the 'executive register' - on the dole - and said I was effectively unemployable. I then did a series of crap jobs. labouring and factory work. I always wanted to put out records - and books too - just affordable things that people can handle and play around with. I suppose this is why I've never wholeheartedly pursued gallery art that just ends up on one person's wall for no-one else to see. So anyway, together with Caroline K who was my partner at the time, we saved up and put out our own tapes and records, Then later the strange thing happened that I made some no-budget videos for Nocturnal Emissions and places like the Tate Gallery and the ICA started screening them, so I ended up doing what was called 'art.' while trying to do something different!

WA I presume this would be the Bleeding Images video? I remember someone at art college going on about it at the time. I never saw it but I can't really imagine a band in an open top cadillac miming to 'Model Control Organism', so I assume you took a similar approach to your visuals, as to the music'?

NIGEL We were called the pioneers of 'scratch video', or 'video scratching' - whatever. We used Super 8mm for years - I made experimental films when I was 13 or 14 that are every bit as good as Channel 4 - which is not a great boast. So the videos were pretty painstakingly assembled on Super 8 - partly documentation of live performances and re-enactments of classic exploitation film scenarios, I was well into plagiarising broadcast TV, taking the piss out of adverts and then putting the whole lot through wonky colour TVs and filming it again. The videos were all crash edited on domestic VHS I borrowed off SPK. Grungey early 80s VHS. So what you get is the 'authenticity' of The Blair Witch Project with the look and feel of a lot of TV title sequences you get these days. I played those vids back recently. They could have been made yesterday, but of course this was all done in the early 80s when that kind of presentation was seen as shocking, interesting and new, People were really drawn into those pieces. I remember audiences suddenly going quiet, and this was in 'art installations' where people normally just chat and socialise and drink wine and that. I stopped working on video when the video recording censorship bill came in - seeing as how the vids included shots of sex, animals being tortured, and all that recycled footage. I wasn't interested in pushing deliberate crudeness for year after year and then getting locked up for it. Or perhaps just because it was so successful, I lost interest in it. Well, the basic ideas are all there in Burroughs' Electronic Revolution, which is probably on the national curriculum these days.

WA You mentioned that you've always wanted to put out books too.

NIGEL I'm a bibliophile, they love me at the library, those sexy hardbacked temptresses. When I get older I'll finish the various novels I'm writing and start collecting rejection letters, My favourite authors are Flann O'Brien, Stewart Home, John Michell, and P G Wodehouse - or do I mean Raymond Roussell?

WA Sorry to go on about ancient history, but who or what were Pump? Was NE a direct continuation?

NIGEL That was me and my brother Danny and Caroline K and some others, so NE were pretty much a direct continuation of them. The difference is NE were always a lot tighter.

WA You seem to have made at least two quite dramatic changes of direction over the years, notably with Viral Shedding and then The World Is My Womb.

NIGEL I was sent to a right cow of a piano teacher when I was a kid - and this put me right off conventional ways of making music, but I loved to mess with sound. I was exploring elaborate tape loop and FX processes to make bad-trip psychedelia that some people called 'Industrial' music and 'noise' ... then I realised I could use the exact same processes to make something approximating pop music, and wouldn't it be funny to do so - wrapping those paranoiac themes up with compulsive beats and proper tunes. I first tried it on Drowning in a Sea of Bliss. Both sides of that record use the same processes, but different elements - one side noisy, the other side groovy ... this was done on 4-track reel to reel tape loops. Then I got the 8-track to do Viral Shedding. Basically I liked what was happening in dance music at that time - what they call 'old skool' now - Whodini, Grandmaster Flash and the daftness of Malcolm McLaren's Duck Rock. I wanted to dip into that kind of unifying celebratory sound, but give it the edge of the industrial noise.

The records I did then were very influential. Scruffy little squatters Nocturnal Emissions started appearing on compilations with New Order and a load of other famous early techno people. We even got some airplay and big crowds coming to gigs, we headlined at one of the first WOMADs. Up to this point I was collaborating very closely with Caroline K - but she really didn't like performing at all and would pull out of gigs at the last moment and quite frankly, was bonkers. I got some more people in, but I was pretty crap at the logistics of running a band and I paid the ungrateful bastards too much and ended up skint myself. By this time I was also running my own record label and my life was getting very business-oriented and I wasn't really prepared for the kinds of pressure I was under. I'm not very good at being a capitalist. The decisions I made were more to do with what interested me creatively, so I took the more arcane route into The World Is My Womb, which was really looking at what you'd now call 'pre-Millennial tension' from the perspective of the first Millennium. So that was really an exploration of medieval music and religion, but done on a Greengate sampler - because this was the 80s after all.

As well as this 'serious art', I was also trying to get an acid house project off the ground (check the 'Da Dum' single that came out with Spiritflesh) - this was 86 or 87, and I had my mutant hip-hop Spanner Thru Ma Beatbox project going. I remember my label manager at Red Rhino distribution saying acid house would never catch on in the North of England. Ho ho ho. Anyway, later that year Red Rhino went bust and I ended up back on the dole again. Caroline had hung onto most of the NE studio stuff, which she sold off as she retired from music making. So I was left with minimal equipment, and for quite a few years I made minimalist music. Then of course that whole 'ambient' scene grew from the kind of music I was doing. In fact, every major musical movement in the past 20 years was all my fault. I am to blame for it all.

If there is an underlying theme through all my work it is to do with communicating with and exploring 'other' and more 'real' worlds, rather than the confection that is 'consensus reality'. If I have a role therefore, it is as a pioneer and explorer, rather than a cash-inner. To explore, you have to move around, not simply follow the first path you happen upon and then stay on it because it is familiar, or to do things because they win you riches, favour and followers, I leave it to others to convert the diamonds I share back to base material.

WA Was there any specific attempt to distance yourself from previous work?

NIGEL More of an attempt to distance myself from the scene my previous work attracted. Some of my work with carefully structured environmental sound ('noise') and satirical visual pieces using 'shock' imagery to parody consumer society - found favour with people in the so-called 'industrial' underground. They had - and continue to have - a tendency to fetishise such imagery in their own miniature consumer society - and largely missed the point of what I was doing. I think I made it clear at the time what I was on about. To this end I put out various press releases which were in Tract 002.

WA I take it then you'd grown weary of being asked about the usual 'apocalypse culture' clichés. The first Earthly Delights press release suggested to me a desire to focus on less depressing subjects, and to discourage people from sending you tapes with death camps on the cover.

NIGEL Yup. I'd rather people used their brains a bit, instead of buying off-the-peg-identities from the Amok catalogue, It all smacks of fascism. WA Which paints a fairly clear picture of who you don't listen to. I find it difficult to detect any specific musical influences on your records, and only very general ones on the more dance friendly offerings.

WA So what do you listen to, or have you listened to in the past? There must surely be some artist that influenced your direction when everyone else and their milkman was trying to become the new Sex Pistols?

NIGEL The Sex Pistols eh? They could rock. I liked them despite their impoliteness and lack of courtesy. I missed their Bill Grundy TV thing when they did it. in '76, but I remember this Lou Reed lookalike general studies lecturer going on about punk rock, and me wondering what the fuck it was, Then I heard the Pistols and thought 'Oh, it's what I listen to anyway'. I'd been tormenting people with the MC5 since way back.

WA Influences. You were saying. . .

NIGEL If you look at the whole of that so-called 'Industrial' scene from Cabaret Voltaire to Marilyn Manson. the band with the most far reaching influence wouldn't be Throbbing Gristle, but... Hawkwind!

This is something that they rarely mention in the press, as Hawkwind have this reputation as a British 'hippie band' who do 'science fiction' and theatrics, and therefore must be naff. Whereas if they were a German hippie band... Zoviet France have told me they were very keen on Hawkwind. SPK were well into Hawkwind back in Australia. And what are Graeme Revell (SPK) and Brian Williams (SPK, Lustmord) doing nowadays? Making soundtracks for science fiction films - 1 rest my case! I think it's about time Hawkwind were reassessed. I have long been tired of those outfits who cite influences no-one has heard of, or can stand listening to. Back in the early 70s, Hawkwind were the first band I was aware of to popularise the idea of sonic attack - infra and ultra sound as a weapon. Listen to 'Sonic Attack' on Space Ritual. That of course has long since been taken up by that whole noise scene, but. Hawkwind were rarely acknowledged.

If you look at the 'information war' thing, you'll notice that Hawkwind had the post-modern writers, Michael Moorcock and Bob Calvert working with them. Though Moorcock is best known for his very popular science fiction and fantasy genre work, it's more accurate to call him a postmodernist or at least a modernist. Moorcock pointed many in the direction of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard and - stone me, he even wrote for Re/Search. When Hawkwind's In Search of Space came out in the early 70s, it came with a booklet of very similar material to what the London Psychogeographical Society, The Association of Autonomous Astronauts, lan Sinclair, and Tom Vague have been doing more recently. Whenever I used to see Psychic TV, I thought 'Hawkwind'. Whenever I saw Throbbing Gristle I thought 'Hawkwind without the lights...and without the tunes'. That combat clothing thing - Hawkwind!

Which brings me to the point that I would definitely question the history of punk rock and weirdy music that overlaps It - that media hacks have tended to spout. I remember that, apart from media darlings the Sex Pistols, the DIY punk scene in early 70s Britain seemed to be much inspired by the efforts of Hawkwind, the Edgar Broughton Band, the Pink Fairies and even Gong - and the context of the free festivals, Free festival - a self-organising proletarian cultural gathering often involving a bit of a knees up and maybe a punch up with the coppers. See also 'rave'. Brian Eno, for example used to hang out with the Pink Fairies. The whole set-up and costuming of Roxy Music was a direct crib off Hawkwind. AMM - my arse! Eno's a popularist, otherwise why's he working with U2? In 1972 Hawkwind followed up 'Silver Machine' - a million selling hit about a time travel machine built by the pataphysicist Alfred Jarry - with the single 'Urban Guerrilla'. It was pulled by the record company because of fears about an IRA bombing campaign in London at the time. They later re-recorded it with Johnny Rotten. Joe Strummer's IOIers and The Stranglers used to play on the same bill as Hawkwind in the free festival days, pre 1976. In interviews at the time, Strummer cited Hawkwind as an influence on The Clash's first album. Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks admitted he spent a lot of his youth listening to Space Ritual and derived a lot of his musical direction from it. And of course Lemmy of Motorhead used to play bass in Hawkwind. I went to see Sun Ra and his Arkestra once, and I got bored after 20 minutes of that jazz shite and went home. I've seen Hawkwind loads of times and they rock!

WA As I've probably banged on about in reviews, a lot of your stuff has for me a disembodied quality, almost as though it's channelled through to rather than created by you. Does this notion have any relevance to your actual working methods?

NIGEL It has a great deal. My working method have a bit of the alchemist and a bit of the shaman about them. It's communicating with the spirit world and abandoning the concept of 'individual personality'.

WA Which could make for appalling soporific audio toilet water of the kind that most artists labelled 'ambient' seem to churn out, but happily you are generally able to avoid the common pitfalls of producing subtle and atmospheric music, for want of a better word. Is this a conscious thing, or just plain luck? Would you even consider your record in terms of being 'ambient'?

NIGEL I should point out that even though I channel messages from the spirit world, I don't necessarily believe the bullshit the spirits tell me. It's all very tightly edited and I tend to use my intellectual faculties a lot more than the 'amby-pamby' crowd do. 'Ambient' means background music. My music shifts from background to foreground, so I wouldn't consider it ambient. I consider what I do to be a subversive music, because it messes with people's heads in unexpected ways.

WA Which brings me to a subject I expect you're heartily sick of. I understand you've dabbled in the use of subliminals on record.

NIGEL What I've been reading lately on brain/mind research makes the concept of subliminals questionable indeed. Do you think The Exorcist is scary? Is that because of the use of the sound of pigs being slaughtered, bees swarming in the background, or the single frame of a white death mask? Or is it the background context - hysterical religious groups suckered into protesting against it in the '70s? I went to see it recently and found it boring, except that there was almost a fight between two or three members of the audience and the manager. That's Penzance for you. I've used about every sound recordable on record, at both a liminal and subliminal level, I'm not fussed.

WA How do they work?

NIGEL The theory is that the mind processes, absorbs and remembers everything that the eyes and ears are exposed to, no matter how heavily disguised the message may be. If you read Wilson Bryan Key's books - Subliminal Seduction for example - he suggests that the words 'sex' and 'death' are airbrushed very very faintly into the ice cubes in Martini adverts, and that these very subtle, so subtle as to be undetectable messages, influence you to go and buy Martini, because everyone has a death wish. The books are fascinating, and quite potty. It's on the level of the backwards messages Christian groups found on Judas Priest, and surprisingly, Venom records. Gullible fool record collectors will go on about how there's subliminals on it, how there's ultrasound. It's all a load of bollocks to anyone who understands the science, because despite what Freud said, the brain doesn't process and remember every little detail of everything. Wilson Bryan Key is just doing the equivalent of staring at a fire and seeing elephants. That's what my grandma, a woman not noted for her grasp on reality, used to do. WA So they don't actually work?

NIGEL What works more is the context. But when you work in music you're dealing with loads of different audience expectations. Mood is affected by all sorts of triggers. So, the theory of subliminals is similar to the theory of homeopathy, the smaller a dose of something, the mere powerful it's supposed to become. Now I know plenty of people who swear by homeopathy, but I don't think that works either, and they ain't too pleased when I tell them! Music is a complex business though and most people don't sit down and analyse it, so perhaps to them it has a subliminal effect.

WA Going back to ultrasound, a subject I'm contractually obliged to mention in anything that appears in The Sound Projector, is it true that you once used big naughty speakers in a live setting of the kind that are reputed to cause tummy trouble?

NIGEL More than once, quite a lot, and they also make you go deaf. Always use hearing protection, then you get all the fun of pooing your pants without the damage to your hearing.

WA So what is Practical Time Travel, the latest CD, all about? Ed Pinsent reckons he's seen a book with that title which is something to do with achieving time travel through staring at the stars for a while. It sounds a little rum to me.

NIGEL I've been experiencing a lot of deja vu and wanted to look into what time was all about. All music is to do with control over time in some way, it's a time based art. I wanted to explore where I could take it and it could take me. Like I say, I make music of the future. This is strictly to do with my experience of time. Time isn't an absolute. It's a human-made construct. I don't know what Ed's been reading, but if you look at the stars, you're looking back in time, cause they're so far away and light takes so long to travel that what you're seeing happened quite some time ago. The next issue of NEtwork NEws will be a time travel issue, where the practicalities will be sorted.

WA How did Oedipus Brain Foil come about?

NIGEL I got on the phone to Robin Storey who I knew from his Soviet France days (spelling it with an 'S' is better I think, don't you?) - I'd done a live improvisation with him once and suggested we could do a CD by swapping DATs backwards and forwards. So we did that. And then it turned out that Randy Greif was doing a similar sort of thing with Robin. They'd met in California. Then Charles Powne of Soleilmoon suggested we made it a threesome and I did one with Randy, whom I've never met. Then it turns out that Randy works as a 'real estate agent' and he's selling Graeme Revell's luxury Hollywood mansion with 46 bathrooms and a two-headed-baby-shaped swimming pool, which tickled me because in the old days Graeme - then known as 'Operator' of Surgikal Penis Klinik - used to kip on my settee in a squat in South London. Then Robin decided he was Napoleon and came up with the CD title Perfidious Albion. Then Randy got some scrabble letters and rearranged the letters to come up with Oedipus Brain Foil and Build A Poison Fire. Then Soleilmoon rearranged the letters of Randy's name for the artwork by 'mistake' and it all had to be printed again. It was Soleilmoon's top-selling CD.

WA I take it this was a slightly different approach to how you've worked with Caroline K and Charlotte Bill in the past?

NIGEL I worked with them differently. When I worked with Caroline we'd swap over tasks a lot - in who did what compositionally. I tended to do the final edits. Charlotte's contribution to Nocturnal Emissions music was she did two or three short 'raw material' improvisations on the flute and oboe which I sampled, mutated and recycled in umpteen hundred different ways, over several albums. Apart from that, she concentrated exclusively on her film work, which she seems to be doing quite well with.

WA What would you define as consensus reality?

NIGEL The fuzzy belief system promoted and exploited by most media organisations and politicians. Noam Chomsky has an angle on it in his book Manufacturing Consent. It's a call for sceptical enquiry really. I also enjoy things that are on the fringe of believability and I play with notions of 'truth' and 'fiction' in Network News. Remind readers that I'm not Christian Militia, a Third Positionist, an anarchist or a UFO nut. I'm just plain Nigel out of the Emissions.

WA When you played live at. the Garage. I was quite surprised that. you were doing the vocal stuff, as I was expecting a fairly droney instrumental set.

NIGEL Oh that. Oh yes, it was a bit like when Dylan went electric and they all shouted 'Judas' at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in that book by C.P. Lee, formerly of Alberta Y Los Trios Paranoias.

WA I haven't heard anything by you since ooh... The World Is My Womb, that has had any lyrical contribution... which is a bit of a shame in some ways. Obviously you're never going to be competing with Placido Domingo or Barry White in vocal terms, but you still-manage to 'vocalise' with utmost conviction if not technical prowess, notably on the improvised addition of '... and don't call me a wanker, you wanker' to the live version of 'No Sacrifice!' I just wondered if the set at the Garage might be an indication of an impending return to the microphone?

NIGEL That improvisation was me dealing with a heckler. I've been back on the mic. for nearly 2 years now, for live shows, just none of it has surfaced in recordings yet. l'm doing more of it. What you saw at The Garage was a remix of the old songs, mostly. But I've umpteen DATs full of new stuff to work on. I've just laid down some vocals on an avant-garde country and western album that I'm working on with Robin Storey. Perhaps the first of a new genre.

WA Who and where do you think your audience is? I gather from what you've said that the UK in general hasn't been especially supportive.

NIGEL I'm signed to Soleilmoon, a small but very good American record label. I used to have reasonable circulation in the UK many years ago, but I think the network of independent shops isn't what it used to be. But then, it's only a little island that we're living on, and the kids all want Playstations these days. When I went to New York, people knew who I was, which was nice. They all love me in Germany too. As you can imagine, whenever I'm there it's a non-stop shagathon.


Thanks to Nigel Ayers for his correspondence, patience and persistence in following extended trains of thought in directions which provided many entertaining and illuminating answers to questions I hadn't actually asked. The bulk of the Nocturnal Emissions back catalogue is available for the monetary equivalent of your first born child from collector's record shops.

Recent albums at more reasonable prices are available from Earthly Delights, who also sporadically produce NEtwork NEws magazine which collects further esoteric and eccentric thoughts of Mr Ayers. Send an SAE or IRC to: Earthly Delights, PO BOX 2. Lostwithiel, Cornwall, PL23 OYY, UK.

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