[boston blackout] William Bennett of Cut Hands + Whitehouse on inspiration, African percussion, and power electronics

Since the late-'70s, WILLIAM BENNETT has released and performed extreme noise and industrial music. He played guitar for sax-driven post-punkers ESSENTIAL LOGIC in their early days and formed an industrial group named Come, who are now remembered for their alumni (including J. G. Thirwell a.k.a. Foetus and Mute label head Daniel Miller) rather than their output. In 1980, Bennett’s project WHITEHOUSE released their first two, Birthdeath Experience and Total Sex, LPs that marked the end of industrial’s first wave and heralded a new genre -- extreme noise -- built with shuddering, arrhythmic bass-rumbles and probing feedback assaults.

As Whitehouse’s sound developed and the group began to incorporate vocal harangues devoted to sexual sadism and mass killings, a new substrain of noise coalesced -– power electronics, named and sonically defined by Bennett and his cohort on the group’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which served as the blueprint for an entire genre. After a hiatus in the late '80s, Bennett worked with producer Steve Albini and provocateur Peter Sotos to shape a new stance for the '90s, one apparently informed by the misery and brutality of everyday life in the modern West rather than the excesses of serial murder. In the early 2000’s, their music caught up with their thematic interests when Bennett, working with longtime collaborator Philip Best, revamped and re-revolutionized the power electronics sound with digital and rhythmic elements they’d long forsworn. It seemed astonishing that a group already celebrated for their seminal achievements was producing their best work two decades in, and fans felt chagrined by Best’s sudden departure following Whitehouse’s most recent, 2007’s Racket.

It wasn’t long before Whitehouse’s sole constant member returned under the name CUT HANDS. Bennett hadn’t disguised his interest in African and Haitian music and culture, and the rhythms on the last several Whitehouse records were often composed on African doundouns and djembes. With Cut Hands, Bennett seeks to inaugurate a new genre, “Afro Noise,” an exhilarating concoction of African drums and percussion instruments alongside experimental noise music. In 2011, Bennett released the project’s debut LP, Afro Noise I, an intoxicating potion -– he might call it muti -– that delivers on the nascent genre’s promise. Critics’ ears are pricking up, and the onetime power electronics enfant terrible finds himself enjoying near universally positive -– albeit nervous -– press.

On the eve of Bennett’s first US tour as Cut Hands, he kindly agreed to an email exchange. I interrogated him about sounds, aesthetics, and even ethics, seeking to discover the connections between Whitehouse and Cut Hands, projects seemingly disparate in their expression. Cut Hands plays live in Allston on February 25 at What We Talk About When We Talk About Noise.

Latter-day Whitehouse tracks including “Wriggle Like a Fucking Eel” and “Cut Hands Has the Solution” inaugurated this artistic trajectory. You’ve also proposed that the polyrhythms used in Cut Hands achieve the same result as Whitehouse’s psychologically-interrogative vocal rants –- overwhelming and overloading the listener. Some fans perceive a positive or even joyful atmosphere on Afro Noise I, although, as you’ve observed, Whitehouse’s abusive hour-long sets left audiences grinning as well. The human voice appears on the record, but rarely. At what point in the project’s gestation did you decide that Cut Hands, like some of your earliest power electronics, would be primarily “instrumental?” If vocals were to accompany these compositions, what form would they take?

The presence or absence of language within music clearly presents us with an entirely different listening type of experience; most obviously, because language (at least given that it is a language we are conversant with) contains a notable layer of conscious communication -– and this is the part that is most visible with tracks like the ones you cite; that said, there is much invisible and unconscious communication within Whitehouse whose effects are ultimately the same as those achieved with Cut Hands' predominantly “instrumental” approach.

Afro Noise I’s sequencing is quite brilliant and really brings out the best in the material. The oasis of “Impassion” between the electronic sputtering of “Munkisi Munkondi” and the insistent “Ezili Freda” exemplifies how you’ve combined distinct atmospheres into a coherent whole. On “Ezili Freda” and other tracks, it’s not that harsh noise shatters the enchantment –- rather, the drums drop out and suddenly we realize we’ve been listening to harsh noise! A lot of your work aims to access basic human states. Are you finding that it’s more exciting to present a flurry of shifting emotions rather than a looming, impenetrable power electronics sound that evokes fewer moods?

Thank you, I'm thrilled you appreciate the sequencing, it's something that means a lot and much thought goes into that aspect; the live experience also represents this approach; to obliquely answer your question, I prefer to use the metaphor of the whole Conrad-esque Heart Of Darkness, one where you're taken on a journey and you don't know what's going to happen during that journey; initially it seems to suggest that there's the world in which we inhabit, then there's another dark corner of the world. I see it the other way around: the dark part is the self-created prison we don't even realize we inhabit; the real heart of darkness is actually everything outside us, while we're contained within the prison of our own illusions of identity.

African traditions partner percussion with dance. At the risk of generalizing, it’s sometimes important to replicate the moves and rhythms strictly and sometimes appropriate for dancers and drummers to interact through improvisation. You’re very interested in the way that people dance to Cut Hands in a live setting, and you apparently conjure a visceral response by bludgeoning the audience with more rhythms than they have shakable appendages. Live, is Cut Hands a one-way inducement rather than mutual engagement between performer and audience? Are you invoking the traditional union between percussionists and dancers, or willfully altering the terrain by playing master of ceremonies?

Having this music play hot, hard, and loud in a venue is such a pleasure and too irresistible for me not to move to, like it or not; it's a magic that, when it works, just takes over from any cerebral prior intent I or anyone might have – and that's live music at its most potent, of course!

Live clips show you lurking in the shadows and letting the music and visuals speak, a departure from Whitehouse’s bellicose theatrics. What else have you tweaked besides the obvious? Have you learned anything new about working a crowd since donning the Cut Hands mantle, and have performances evolved since the project’s early outings? Will there ever be room for live djembes and doundouns alongside your laptop, given that you present acoustic instruments as an antidote to an obsession with gear and technology in experimental and noise circles? Do you plan on reconfiguring your approach at all for the upcoming US dates, where you’ll play venues more modest than you’re used to in Europe?

A lot of time has been spent rehearsing the sounds in different live configurations and it's definitely something being considered for the future; additionally, and excitingly, there are going to be some special surprises for the US dates. Trust me, it's not to be missed.

Regarding audiovisual aesthetics, you’ve discussed paring down everything extraneous to expose the essential. You’ve frankly divulged influences and compositional techniques, opening yourself to glib criticism. Some term your appropriation of African percussion uncreative, while other critics take or feign offense. It’s possible you wouldn’t face the same jabs if you’d released the music on an LP entitled Noise I with a monochrome sleeve, and if you’d taken down your site’s reading list, including titles like Gourevitch’s account of the Rwandan genocide. Personally, I suspect you delight in the friction of a straight-faced record against your past artistic transgressions. By including three tracks originally published on Whitehouse records, you subtly invoke thematic baggage; each note and lyric from those releases becomes part of the associative experience, just as Trevor Brown’s memorably crass, dubious paintings from the 1997 Extreme Music From Africa compilation that you curated might influence a reading of Cut Hands’ vévé-aping illustrations. Perhaps this fits with your theory that unconscious or absent elements produce the art effect. Regardless, is it necessary to self-impose the “Afro” tag? Should you be scrutinized for your previous trespasses rather than your present efforts? Instead, I could ask why some fans and critics enjoy the material enough to listen to or write about it, yet feel compelled to list their reservations regarding the thematic content and the artist himself. Do you relish that reluctant enjoyment, or would you prefer it if your fans weren’t so fretful?

I get that people have all sorts of differing opinions about my music or my art (or Trevor's, for that matter), that's their absolute prerogative -– as for people's “taking offense,” what does that actually mean? Isn't it just a rationalized way of saying someone doesn't like something? “Previous trespasses” brings to mind a disapproving tone towards moral transgression, and I really don't do transgression; I'm proud of all my work and accept and take responsibility for all types of responses to it without recourse to a need for rationalization or justification: what is, is -– what isn't, isn't.

You’ve discussed negative and primary influences in the past. The former, predecessors an artist reviles and wishes to break from, exert palpable influence upon the artist’s direction. The primary influence, on the other hand, is one whose work uncomfortably resembles the artist’s own. She names her lesser influences in order to conceal the connection, or she fails to acknowledge the influence even to herself. You’re unusually forthright about your inspirations. For instance, you’ve explicitly stated that Yoko Ono became the main motivation for Whitehouse’s early years. I can also guess at a negative influence from that period – namely, Throbbing Gristle, whose increasingly commercial direction galvanized you towards an extreme take on the industrial genre. At face value, African and Haitian music serves as the primary inspiration for Cut Hands, while the conformity of noise and the glossy condescension of so-called world music are your negative influences. But that seems too straightforward. Is this talk of Africa a ruse designed to hide a more primary influence from either your fans or yourself?

So if the theory is true, then I couldn't possibly say, could I? ;-) It certainly isn't a ruse, it's something I'm devoutly passionate about in fact, and further it's worth reiterating that I've never made any claims that this music is “African” or indeed anything other than my own (albeit with African instruments); the whole condescending “world music” racket is depressing -– I've derived huge musical inspiration from Haiti and Africa for at least 15 years, and I think that it's fairly evident in the music in all that time.

You’re dismissive of the direction the power electronics genre has taken; particularly, you appear to find it irritating when your musical epigones conflate influence with imitation. Have some artists or artistic movements (not necessarily musical) succeeded in taking Whitehouse’s vision in an unforeseen direction?

Almost certainly, yes –- that said, I don't think I'm qualified to comment specifically.

Whitehouse toyed with and perverted the language of self-help. Based on your blog posts, I have a hunch this interest didn’t go on hiatus when Whitehouse did. Some might wonder how you’ve found the inspiration and energy to keep going after three decades of outlandishly negative responses and outright indifference. The last words are yours. Would you mind heaping ruthless advice upon budding artists?

Artists, budding or otherwise, can certainly do without Uncle William's unsolicited advice, I'm confident ...rather than the self-help industry in particular, I have specialist interest in unconscious communication in general (along with all its related, often esoteric, realms); you're right, the interest has never gone on hiatus. There have been a lot of negative responses and indifference and of course outlandishly positive responses, just like for anyone else; music is still and has been my only career in 25 years of this time and, in truth, continues to be very kind to me.

CUT HANDS + VEILED + SHAWN GREENLEE + KARLHEINZ + SHARPWAIST + DJ TESCO JAME | What We Talk About When We Talk About Noise | Allston, MA | Saturday February 25 @ 7 pm | all-ages | $10 | BYOB | Venue and ticket info

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