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Genesis P-Orridge Talks Psychic TV, Brian Jones, How New York Has Changed, and More

In 2013, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge took ownership of Musty Dagger, a nine-year-old Pekingese, to ease the grief of losing BigBoy, the Jack Russell shared with her late wife Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge. Through some cosmic rock ‘n’ roll twist, Musty turned out to have once belonged to James Iha, guitarist of the Smashing Pumpkins. The moment of kismet represented a broader aspect of Genesis’ life work: a search for the irrationally psychedelic, an exploration of the spirit when it lacks a logical architecture.

More importantly, Musty is just a sweet girl, who constantly flits at Genesis’ golden high tops as we sit in her Lower East Side studio apartment. Because of her dogsitter, Roxy Farman, of the NYC band Wetware, Genesis has been watching to The Avengers, the ’60s spy thriller television show. Emma Peel was “the first real sexual fetish Alpha female on TV,” she says. Wearing the golden Patrick Ewing sneakers, white skinny jeans, and a black T-shirt printed with the cross sigil of Psychic TV, Genesis speaks in a lucid gossamer drawl, in breathless anecdotes of chance encounters and mystic phenomena. “You know, skin-tight leather outfits, kicking and knocking down men whilst Steed, the partner, flounces around with his bowler hat.”

By the time The Avengers ended its six-season run in 1969, P-Orridge had just begun kicking up dust in the art and music world, founding the freak-alley English collective COUM Transmissions that year. P-Orridge and crew, including then-partner Cosey Fanni Tutti, lived in squats and communes in environments reflectingthe brutish, visceral antagonism COUM helped originate. The landmark industrial act Throbbing Gristle would flow out of that in 1976, though by 1981, they’d dissolved into various permutations, from the demure proto-techno of Chris and Cosey, to the world-dominating experimental pop ambitions of Psychic TV, Gen’s most-enduring musical catchall.

Following the sudden death of Lady Jaye in 2007, P-Orridge decamped from Ridgewood, Queens, to the LES co-op with her name on the buzzer. Various sex toys cast in glass, wood, and gold punctuate an entire wall of full bookshelves. Sitting at the desk across the room, Genesis sings the first lines to “Godstar,” the chart-topping 1985 Psychic TV single that launched the psychedelic exploration of Allegory and Self. “Godstar” relays a rock ‘n’ roll fable about the life and death of Brian Jones, founding member of The Rolling Stones, an obvious influence on the early Psychic TV output. It’s also easy to identify the rambling influence of cult leaders such as Jim Jones and Charles Manson on the band’s gratuitous credo.

Though she goes rarely to clubs, concerts, or the cinema (“about twice a year”) Genesis recently rode a wave of canonization among a new generation of noise kids, thanks to continued Psychic TV tours, a noted Rubin Museum solo visual arts show in 2016, and a reinvigoration of the occultist, endlessly goth-adjacent aesthetics of labels like Sacred Bones and Dais. Those two labels are joint-releasing 1988’s Allegory and Self as well as its four-track sketchbook-precursor, 1984’s Pagan Day on July 14. These two records emphasize the most notable output for a particular period of Psychic TV, during which guitarist Alex Fergusson played the foundational foil to Gen’s frontman agitations.

An exception to her gregariousness is when she’s asked about the explosive allegations of violent behavior in Cosey’s 2017 memoir, Art Sex Music, to which Gen will only offer a succinct, “We haven’t read it.” Elsewhere, we spoke about disbanding the cult aspects of Thee Temple of Psychick Youth, the key influences of Alex Fergusson and The Rolling Stones, the origins of “Godstar,” the aura of Brian Jones, and the environment of art-making in 2017. The conversation has been excerpted for length.

Ahead of the reissues, Psychic TV has also released the marimba-and-oboe-driven cut “Cold Steel” from Pagan Day. Stream it below. The reissues are out via Sacred Bones/Dais on July 14.

Tell me more about making Allegory and Self and Pagan Day. Why is it important those are the records being reissued? 

Pagan Day was Alex Fergusson’s idea. It was him that encouraged me to start making music again, and start Psychic TV. People always say Psychic TV was started by me and Sleazy [Throbbing Gristle’s Peter Christopherson], but it wasn’t—it was me and Alex.

Alex came around because he lived next door. He would just keep coming around saying, “You’ve got to write more songs. Write anything and I’ll make it into a song.” Around 1984, we just became re-obsessed with the wonderful simplicity but sort-of brutal use of studio techniques in psychedelic music. Because there were so little effects, people had to do really strange things—build actual plates that were twenty-foot long to get that special sound of the echo. [Ed. note: A plate is a type of reverb that uses actual metal plates to produce reverberations and echoes.] All of that can’t be duplicated with anything else. We became really fascinated with that idea of stripping back to the minimal, and then using it to create really interesting structures and dynamics in songs.

At the time, listening to a lot of old records, we realized how important plate was. If you listen to the end of “Starlit Mire,” the whole last bit, with the strange noises, and violins, is all just plate. Everything else was turned off. It’s just the plate, and there’s nothing else that sounds like that. It’s really tragic that people assume that digital effects can do the same. In fact, they’re beginning to realize it’s not true. The trick is to just struggle with the minimal, and try and find a way to make the very simple fresh again. It’s like, “Baby’s Gone Away” [from Pagan Day]. Alex had given me a couple of riffs on a cassette. We played one, and immediately went, [sings] “Baby’s gone away.” God, that’s corny. Can we make corny “baby’s gone away’” into a song that works?

They’re all really ordinary phrases, but when they’re isolated in that way, they start to have some kind of empathetic response again. They come alive again. That fascinates me—the way that words, no matter how banal they are can actual become potent once more, when you think they couldn’t possibly. There’s something really special about that kind of alchemy of language.

A Pagan Day was done in an afternoon. At the time, we were just thinking about different ways to play games with expectations. We thought, “What about if we just release it on the 23rd of December only?”

And it was only available for an hour.

Yes, for an hour—the 23rd hour. Apparently, it took Rough Trade and everyone ages to figure out time zones and everything, in order for it to be available for one hour in different territories. But they did it, and it sold out within that hour. It’s like digging for treasures—like finding an old 7” from 1963 that no one remembered. Let’s make rarities, and just seed them and find out what happens.

Two or three of the Pagan Day things became Allegory and Self. We were in this magic shop, and the woman there said, “I’ve got this Austin [Osman] Spare book. It’s the first edition. It’s the only known copy to exist.” It was called The Starlit Mire, and it was actually a book of aphorisms, illustrated by Austin Osman Spare. We’d become fascinated by his theories of sex-magic and sigils, so we bought it and took it home. Eventually Temple Press, our book publishing company, reprinted an exact facsimile of it so there would be more copies in existence. The lyrics to “Starlit Mire” are all just taken from the aphorisms in that book, as a kind-of exercise in cutups. After all these years, we played it live last tour in Europe, a few weeks ago, and we had mosh pits to “Starlit Mire.” It’s weird; sometimes a song needs twenty, thirty years to find its place.

To me, they’re all alive, and every song has a voice. We try and find what the voice for that song is, so we don’t sing everything the same way, and we don’t always sing like Mick Jagger. Captain Beefheart always sounds like Captain Beefheart. We try and find a voice that’s that song’s voice, that it’s alive and it has a spirit. If we can only find its voice, it’ll work, and something outside the normal construct of a song will happen. Something psychic, something magical; something that bypasses the usual cultural filters and works like hieroglyphs on the nervous system. Burroughs was fascinated by hieroglyphs because they’re nonlinear. You can’t build sentences with them. You can build approximations of meanings, and in the same way, voices for songs are like a hieroglyph to me. They work directly on the nervous system and consciousness, and so people don’t always understand why they’re feeling the way they do with certain songs. It’s because it’s got a living spirit in it, and it’s not my spirit. We’re just channeling it.

My grandmother was a medium, and we have been possessed in Santeria rituals, and so on, and spoke in different voices. It’s not a wild assumption or wild assertion. How strange it is, when you get taken over by another being. I don’t know if that’s ever happened to you. There’s just a little of you left that’s aware that this is happening, that’s all.

Why did Thee Temple of Psychick Youth [a network of magician-artists comprising members of Psychic TV, Coil, Current 93, amongst others] disband? 

There was an inevitable human desire to try and build a pyramid structure with me at the top as the guru, and that’s not what we wanted at all. The idea was that everybody was equal. We changed people’s names and numbers and did everything we could think of to break down the idea of someone being more important than someone else. But it was one of those problems; being the lead singer of a band inevitably put me into this spotlight. Whilst we were still proselytizing the network, it became too complicated to wear the hat. [Throbbing Gristle contemporary] Z’EV said the most brilliant thing we ever did was when I walked away. But it was obvious we had to stop, and also, we’d done ten years. If they hadn’t figured out what we were trying to say in ten years, then they weren’t listening. So we went to Kathmandu.

Was that around the time Alex Fergusson left the band?

No, he left in ’86, bless him. That was so depressing. We’d been signed to CBS, and that’s where Dreams Less Sweet was released. Muff Winwood was the head of A&R at the time. We were playing at the Hacienda, in Manchester, and Alex did that “Godstar” riff just out of the blue. We’d been reading biographies of Brian Jones, so we started to sing about Brian Jones. Afterwards, our then-manager, this awful man called Terry Maclellan, came running in the dressing room, saying “What was that new song you wrote?” “What new song?” “About Brian Jones!” “I don’t remember, we made it up.” “Oh shit! Do you remember how it went?” “No, only that it was about Brian Jones.”

He found somebody who recorded the gig and got them to give him a cassette. We took it home and played it back and went, you know what? That is a totally natural pop song. So we went to Muff Winwood with a demo of “Godstar” and I played it to him. He [asked] for more experimental stuff like Dreams Less Sweet. I went, “We’ve done it. This is what we want to do now. We want to do hyperdelic pop.” We were into Between the Buttons Rolling Stones, and Satanic Majesty’s and the ‘60s. I want to do all this stuff, and Muff said, ‘no, no, no, no.’ I said, “Muff, I have to say this. You don’t understand my imagination. And you cannot afford my brain. So we’re not on your label anymore. I’m going to do it myself.”

And that’s what we did. We walked out, and we went into the studio at [British record label] DJM. It was about to be demolished. It was where Elton John had made his first hit records. John Lennon had recorded there. David Bowie recorded there. It was this beautiful, old, analog studio, and we got it really, really cheap. We moved in, and my dream record was made: Allegory and Self, including “Godstar.” And, lo and behold, it was number one on the indie chart for weeks, and it got to number 29 in the national chart.

At that point, if any record entered the top 30, Radio 1 had to play it a certain number of times a day. We thought [claps] we’re in! This is going to be a big hit! Because it’s just a really good, catchy pop song. Then we got a phone call from Radio 1, to our manager. He says, “The Rolling Stones’ office rang up Radio 1 and said, if you play that song at all, we will never let you play the Rolling Stones again.” So they wouldn’t play it and it didn’t go any higher. Mick Jagger stopped it in its tracks.

Have you ever been able to confront him about that?

No. I confronted [former Rolling Stones bassist] Bill Wyman before he quit the band, and he was very embarrassed about it. There was some charity race, and we were all celebrities that were supposed to be selling T-shirts to the people who are going to run in this marathon. They put me in the booth with Bill Wyman, and so, after a little while, we got talking. After he got relaxed, we handed him the double-pack 7” EP of “Godstar.” He unfolded it, and there’s Brian Jones looking at him, and he sort of went really quiet. I guess that’s “thank you.” He closed it and put it in his bag. We said, “I’ve got another one for Mick if you could possibly give it to him,” but he said, “I don’t think he’ll take it.”

Why was Brian Jones so captivating to you? 

Brian Jones had this really ethereal atmosphere around him. Still, to this day, you can see it: an aura that just separates from this reality. We felt something of the same experience in contemporary life. My daydreams didn’t lock into mundane, daily life. And then just the sheer, exuberant fashion that came from Anita Pallenberg—if he walked into a club now, people would stop and look and go, “Who the fuck is that?” He was transcendent, visually and creatively. And of course, he was murdered, which really sucks. We were very aware that he’d been murdered. We’d done a lot of research. We actually have managed to get somebody to interview one of the people who did the autopsy, and one of the members of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth was the son of the singer of Manfred Mann. His father was at the house when Brian was murdered, so we had a lot of inside information.

We had one concert, during that era of Allegory and Self. This man came up to the dressing room, and he said, “I’ve got this gift for you. I used to be a roadie for The Rolling Stones and this is one of Brian Jones’ early jackets.” Another guy came up—he used to work for the Daily Mirror, and when they’d moved to a new building he’d raided their files and got every single press cutting about the Rolling Stones, from when they first got mentioned to when Brian Jones died and the funeral. He stole the entire lot and gave them to me. Those are now in the Tate Britain, every single one.

We started doing Brian Jones Memorial Society parties. We usually tried to hold them in places where they’d had parties, or where the old clubs used to be. It was an amazing experience. We met two of his illegitimate sons, both called Julian. And several of his ex-girlfriends, and Donovan and Linda [Lawrence]. Hung out with all of them; got to know everyone. Boy George was actually arrested with heroin, on his way to a Brian Jones Memorial Society party, wearing a Psychic TV T-shirt.

That process of really desiring something and knowing what it is—through that, we ended up meeting all the characters in the story. Me and Lady Jaye hung out with Anita Pallenberg a few times, in the house she lived in with Brian Jones. There’s something to be said for seeing the cliff and jumping off, but it seems like there’s this magnetic thing that happens. The more totally dedicated you are to the idea, and sincerely so, the more that it seems to divulge information. How come we meet all these people, without really making any effort? It can only be the sincerity of the curiosity.

How has New York changed since you moved here?

When we came in the ‘80s, it was fun. We used to go to Jackie 60 whenever we came to New York, and hang out there with Blondie, Lady Jaye and all the House of Domination. That was a very decadent scene. It’s all been sterilized in a way. There’s all these little pockets of activity and this whole noise network that sometimes seems a little self-congratulatory. You wonder how many people are not in bands that go to those gigs.

The main thing we’ve noticed is that the element of selfishness has increased, although it’s possibly starting to change. People have become obsessed with the greed of celebrity and self-branding and wanting to be known and recognized and succeed in some way, and they’re not prepared to share and help each other. When we started TG and Industrial [Records], we found out Cabaret Voltaire were doing music and immediately released a cassette by them. As we met them and Z’EV and so on, we all did everything we could to help each other, and loan equipment, get each other gigs, record deals. Now, it’s a bit more, “This is my bit and I’m going to hold onto my bit.”

The irony is that’s not how it works. It works by generosity, which has happened. The place that burned in Oakland—that was a beautiful example of the change, where people were all supporting each other, and building a sort-of community. That’s one of the reasons it’s such a tragedy. So those are happening, those little pockets, and that is the only way forward for any change, and for the survival of an ongoing equation of evolution in sound, music, and performance. It can only continue when people collaborate and share resources and opportunities and ideas and philosophies. There’s a lot of philosophy missing. We worked with a Native American shaman for a few years, Shine Apache. When he went to an art gallery, he used to say, “So what’s this telling me that I don’t already know? And if it’s telling me something is it improving my life? Is this doing anything for the people around me I care for? Is this doing something for the world?” If it can’t say yes to all three, it’s not art. We tend to go with that version of creativity. It has to be about change for the planet. It has to be about change to the human condition. It has to be about improving how we interact with each other. Otherwise it’s got no value; it’s just numbers.

I’m curious if you have any regrets.

Of course. Any times that you’ve even unwittingly been selfish or mean, or said something bitterly without thinking—the usual stuff. In terms of career, we’ve been blessed. The only person we didn’t work with we would’ve liked to is Captain Beefheart. We did hear through people that mine was the only other voice in rock music that he respected, which was the biggest feather we could ever put in my cap. Iggy Pop just said he’d wished he’d thought about Throbbing Gristle more at the time, but they’re still locked into a business. Bless him for it. He’s survived, and that’s what he does. But he would be the first to admit he’s not trying to change the world. We are. And that’s the most important task, beyond everything else. Can we possibly at least contribute to making this a better place? Right now, that’s a pretty dark future we’re looking at. So there’s time to really reassess how we do things, what we say, and where’s the next bridge. We’re a bridge to my generation and now to the Beats. And where’s the next bridge? What do you see out of there?

It is pretty daunting right now. We started fighting against the status quo in the mid-‘60s. We’ve been fighting inequity and injustice as we saw it; we’ve tried to be thoughtful; we squatted buildings and shared them with people. We’ve done all these different things to incrementally move us all a little bit toward a place of common sense, which is what it really is. Of course everybody’s equal.

Before we survive and deserve to survive as a species, we have to revisualize our place as a species. If you imagine that what we call the humane species is an organism and each one of us is just a piece of the organism, when an organism is damaged or injured, it will martial all of its resources to heal the damage. If it’s suffering lack of nourishment somewhere, it will channel nourishment to that place. If we did that as a species, when there’s suffering somewhere, we automatically fix it. When there’s famine somewhere, we fix it because it’s damaging the whole organism. It will change everything. But everyone wants everyone else to go first, and so as long as there’s that paranoia, we’re just going around in this very slow decreasing spiral.

There are some very evil people out there, waiting opportunistically to exploit us. No matter how hard it is, we have to start taking care of each other. That doesn’t mean becoming social workers. We can all just, thinking through, why am I doing this tonight? Is there a way I can make it relevant to how I’m feeling and share that in a way that touches someone else? That’s a beginning: to be recognized by someone else as being in the same sort of place. But it’s a long, tough road.

It’s interesting, though, because science, and especially quantum science, is so much like Tibetan Buddhism and philosophy of different types and explorations of psychedelic consciousness. It feels as though this right-wing backlash is exactly that. It’s a rearguard action of fear for all the potential that’s just waiting to overwhelm you. If you can hold on until those fuckers are dead, and they’re all in their seventies, then maybe we can then follow opportunities of science and get out of this mess.