Photo by Chris Carter
Next week, Cosey Fanni Tutti—visual and performance artist, author of Art Sex Music, member of Throbbing Gristle, COUM Transmissions, Chris & Cosey, Carter Tutti, and Carter Tutti Void—will release her first solo album since 1983’s Time to Tell. The erotic undertow and ghostly foreboding of the music on the new LP, Tutti, which originated as the soundtrack to the autobiographical film Harmonic COUMaction, take me to a wonderful place. Cosey kindly spoke with Dangerous Minds by phone on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
What are the sources that you used for this album? How did you record it? The press materials say that it’s mostly based on source material from throughout your life.
Yeah, that’s right. All the audio sources for the album were taken from recordings throughout my life, whether they were audio voices, phone calls, anything like that, which we’ve always recorded and I’ve always recorded for a long, long time now. And because the original music for Tutti was done as a soundtrack for a film that was based on images throughout my life, that’s why I used the audio for the same thing, so they both married up, and they represented me, basically. Yeah, and then I manipulated it all, so that’s where it all came from.
That’s so interesting, because the only vocals I recognized are on the song “Heliy.”
Yeah, I was singing live.
Can you identify any of the people whose voices appear on the album in different form?
No. [laughter] I can but I won’t. It’s people that literally have been in my life, and it’s not so much about recognizing their voice so much as. . . it’s just the essence of everything that contributed to making me who I am, and it was like that with the visuals and with the audio.
Is this the Harmonic COUMaction movie? Can you describe it for me?
Well, it’s like I said, they’re still images taken right from my birth, it begins with—to put it in context, when I was asked to do something for the Hull City of Culture, which, Hull is where I was born and where COUM really started, began there, and I was asked to do something there and put together a COUM Transmissions exhibition, retrospective. So I was working with all that material, and then I was asked to do a live performance, and at the same time I was doing my autobiography, so everything kind of came in right at the correct moment for me, so one thing fed the other. And I decided to do a film, like I said, of visuals that represented who I was from the town where I was born, where the exhibition and the City of Culture was taking place, and that’s when I put all the audio together for it as well.
In the film, there’s images of me, there’s my parents when I was born, my sister, where I lived, so there’s geographical references as well as personal references to people. And I did it so they’re all morphing into one another, a kind of visual representation of me being formed, basically. So everything is, like, running and melting from day one, and people turn into other people, into buildings, into—even my pet dog Tremble is in there. Everything is there that was really important to me throughout my life and recorded, and it all just becomes transformed into me, as this metamorphosis of who you are and what formed you. So the visuals are like that, and there’s like things collapsing in and then reforming into something else. That’s how I visually decided to present how I felt about my life.
It sounds like a representation of your “art is life, life is art” philosophy.
Well, yes, it’s all there. It is, actually; that’s what it is, you get the impression, then. That’s where my work is based and continues to be based, is how I traverse this planet, basically, and how it affects me and how the people I come into contact with affect me, and all the forces at play: emotional, physical, geographical. It’s important, ‘cause that’s how we all are, to be honest.
Can you tell me a little about that event? Was there any kind of a COUM reunion? I don’t know who’s still around from that period.
Yeah, it was quite sad, actually, because we’ve lost some people along the way, like everybody has. For the exhibition, I did a new piece as well, which was called “COUM Talks,” and it was basically talking heads of seven original members of COUM. And we lost one of those after I interviewed him. All these people, I had filmed, with just a few questions about COUM—when they joined, when they left, what it meant to them, any particular part of COUM that stood out to them as a memory—and then after that they could talk about what they wanted, really. So I had these seven screens in the exhibition room, and each person was reflecting on COUM and what it meant to them and their little memories, it was really interesting.
And Tim Poston, one of the first founding members of COUM, as well, was the one that sadly passed away. But it’s quite serendipitous, really, ‘cause when I was putting this together, he’d got in touch with me before I got in touch with him [laughs], and he was working in India at the time. You should look him up, he’s an incredible person. When I met him, he was telling me about figuring out how to get ultrasound to work to help irrigate arid areas and things like that. He’d also done research and provided a really cheap way of testing eyesight in India, in the villages there, so people could get treatment, that kind of thing. He was an incredible person. He got in touch with me, and I told him about what was going on, and he happened to have a brother who lived in the same area of the UK as me, and he was going to visit him. So we met up, and I said, “Do you want to do this interview for the exhibition?” And we met up and filmed him, had a lovely time together, and then about six months later he passed away. It was really sad. But then again, I think it’s quite wonderful that he was recorded. His piece, in particular, people absolutely adore, because he has a very. . . peaceful demeanor. He looks like Gandalf, for a start [laughs], so you get some idea. And he has this beautiful staff that he’s always carried around with him, so he’s been Gandalf before. . . maybe he took it from Gandalf. So we met him here, and had a wonderful time with him, and then lost him, sadly. But he was in the exhibition, which was wonderful, and COUM meant such a lot to him. And that’s a new piece that I did for the exhibition as well.
Was it strange at all to be recognized as sort of “official culture” in Hull? I imagine that would be gratifying, but it seems so different from the way COUM was received at the time.
Yeah, it was a funny one, really. That kind of acknowledgement had gained momentum over the past, I guess, 15 years, where I’d been included in group shows in my own right, as well as contributed for COUM, over the years, so it wasn’t so strange. But I kind of thought it was quite ironic. It’s the kind of thing that we would have embraced as COUM, if COUM had still been going. Kind of, like, Yeah, that’s a little bit unexpected, but great! We’ll run with that.
I was given the option of different spaces to do the exhibition: the Ferens Art Gallery, which is kind of, like, quite institutional, and there’s one at the college, the Philip Larkin Gallery, which were both really beautiful. But then I was given the option of a place that could be refurbed, which was bang in the middle of where we used to do all the COUM street actions, and that just felt so right, even though it was derelict at the time [laughs] when I went ‘round, had a look. I said, “Oh, it’s got to be here, because this is where we were, this is where the spirit of COUM was.” So it was carefully planned in that respect. So to be accepted, but then at the same time impose the actual spirit of COUM on it as well, that, Yes, we’ll have that, but we’ll want this space here—that’s the best place, because it’s where we worked.
It sounds like some serendipity was involved overall.
Yes, definitely. It was quite uncanny. There was a lot of things like that going on at the same time. The momentum of that element of serendipity kind of went through the whole, well, two years of preparation, yeah.
I listened to the audiobook of Art Sex Music, which is really wonderful. I know that you were estranged from your family; had it been a long time since you’d gone back to Hull?
No, I’d gone back to Hull ‘cause my sister still lives there, and Les has lived there, has never moved out. So I’ve always gone back to visit Les, right from. . . yeah, when Nick was born, ‘82, we were back in Hull with Les. I’ve always gone back, I’ve never felt estranged from Hull at all, it’s just my place there has changed in itself.
It’s not the Hull I remember—even more so now, because there’s been a lot of regeneration going on because of the Hull City of Culture. It’s not the Hull I remember like London isn’t the London I remember, either, when I go back there. Places change, and what it means to me, it doesn’t mean that to people who are there now [laughs]. But I still have a real fondness for my time there because it was instrumental in a lot of things I do, and informing me, and forming me, from the very beginning. That was where things began for me.
The practice of keeping a diary, I’m curious about that. Was that something you always did, or was that something you started as a young adult because you had a sense that it was important to document what was going on, or. . .
Well, it was a thing when we were quite young, in the fifties, where girls, when they were about 10 years old, were given a diary, to sort of keep track of what they were doing. I don’t know what that was about; it’s quite traditional. So we were kind of, not expected to keep a diary, but it was just like our little notebook, really, with a lock on it, which is quite strange [laughter]. So yeah, I’ve still got that. I had one that I made myself. . . I think I was about 13, 14 when I did that, so I must have felt that recording what I did, even at high school, would have some importance for me at some point. Or just the need to put down how I felt. Because things happen when you’re a teenager at school, and they impact you quite heavily, I think, ‘cause you’re quite sensitive then. You don’t know who you are or where you’re going, who you’re gonna be, and friends are quite important at that age, as well. Obviously, your sexuality, and getting to know what you want to do, and things like that. . . so that was interesting finding that, ‘cause I’d forgotten it was that early on when I was doing research into my book.
Have you always been the kind of person who saves things?
Yeah! [laughs] I say that because, as a child, when Christmas was coming up, my father used to come and say, “Right, clear out! Clear out your toys.” And I used to think, “What?” I mean, it was a good reason he did it; he’d say “I’m giving the rest to the children at the hospital. The ones you don’t want are going to the children’s hospital.” So I would have to think, Oh God, what do I really want? Rather than someone else telling me when I’ve got to get rid of something. And I think that’s what triggered it, is that I wasn’t allowed to hold on to things until I felt that I could let them go. Someone else was dictating that. And since then, I think that had a big influence on me keeping things. But I’m not a hoarder; I don’t need an intervention of any kind [laughter]. Everything I’ve got has got relevance to me in some way, or is waiting for that relevance to emerge, which it does, sometimes, years and years later. I’m quite happy with that.
But again, I think as an artist you tend to collect things anyway, because you sort of see something and you think, That’s wonderful, but I don’t know where it belongs yet. As an object, or even a piece of writing, it speaks to you, and so I hold on to things for that reason as well, it’s not just personal reasons.
Well, I also get the sense—I don’t know if this is right or not—that if anyone would have saved material from TG and COUM days, it would be you?
I think I had a value to things, once they manifest. Like, if we’re going to do something, and there’s documentation in the form of a poster or a press cutting, I recognize that that moment is like—okay, then, the work we’ve done has gone out there, and it’s reached somebody. And that is of as much importance to me as having done it. Because that’s what it’s about; it’s not about me having done it and I can forget it. “Yeah, throw that away, it doesn’t mean anything.” ‘Cause everything I do does mean something, and then it goes on to mean something else to somebody out there, and I think that’s important. So there’s no way that I would throw things away, even now. The accumulation of our archive is getting quite crazy [laughs]. But it’s good; I like saving things.
Just little things. Like Chris used to leave me notes at Martello Street, if we’d arranged to go there to sort of do some sound experiments and things, and then he couldn’t make it till later, I’d get there and there’d be a note on the door. I keep things like that, ‘cause it’s a personal message to you. Someone’s bothered to handwrite something to say “I’m gonna be late, but please wait for me.” It’s a personal communication and part of the whole process of what you’re doing together. I still have all those.
That’s really interesting, because it also sounds like you don’t really make a distinction between what’s for public consumption and what’s personal. It sounds like it’s all personal.
It is, yeah. Yeah!
Photo by Chris Carter
Since we’re talking about archives: am I ever gonna be able to see After Cease to Exist? Is that ever gonna be commercially released?
I hadn’t planned it. No, we haven’t planned it. We showed it on Friday as part of the London Short Film Festival, sorry to say; if you’d been in London, you could have seen it then [laughs].
Does it still get strong reactions from the crowd?
Yes, someone was taken out on Friday evening. I heard a noise, but I didn’t know what it was, and then someone said to me someone had collapsed and. . .
It’s not very nice for them. I don’t expect that kind of thing, but yeah. They were okay.
It hasn’t lost any of its potency, at least.
Seems not, no. And from people I spoke to afterwards—it’s quite strange, considering some of the extreme imagery on the internet now. In the Q&A afterwards, someone was talking to me about that: why does After Cease to Exist have such a strong impact on people, yet you can see those horrific things on the internet? I can’t explain that. I don’t know, maybe there’s a kind of intimacy about it, maybe because it’s old 16-mil film, so you get that strange kind of quality to it.
It’s just one shot, right?
What do you mean, one shot?
Are there any cuts, or is it just one uninterrupted. . .
Well, for a start, it’s 20 minutes long, roughly, and the front and the back end are both just black with TG soundtrack. So I suppose from the beginning you’re being set up for what’s to come, and I think that’s maybe where the impact is, because you’re going into a different zone listening to that music, and then this black-and-white imagery comes on which is pretty realistic, and then you’re taken out of it again into black. [pause] Have I sold it to you? [laughter]
Am I right in thinking there are going to be more TG retrospective releases? I know there have been reissues just in the last year, but is there other stuff that’s gonna be coming out?
Yeah, there’s the rest of the catalog still to be reissued, and there’s some other things in the pipeline as well. That’s just timing, really. And time. ‘Cause me and Chris have other things to do as well.
Yeah, what are you up to?
The album’s out, Chris has done his solo album, so that’s been really exciting. There’s still sort of feedback from that. I have got two really big projects that I’ll be working on in the next year or two that I can’t mention, but they’re gonna see me. . . not disappear completely, but I won’t be doing much live work until those are out of the way, ‘cause I just can’t, they’re too intense. We’re gonna be working on the third and final Carter Tutti Void album shortly. Well, we’ve already started work; we’ve got to sort of reconnect with it in a couple of weeks’ time. So that’ll be out this year. And obviously, there’s a Carter Tutti album got to come out as well, at some point, ‘cause we’ve started putting ideas and the beginnings of tracks to one side. As we work through different things, when we’re working on things, we come across things that we recognize as Carter Tutti [laughs] rather than this particular project, so we have folders of different ideas that we’re gonna go back and work with, which is really exciting for us, to get back to that. And we have Chris & Cosey vinyl reissues as well coming out later this year. So there’s quite a lot going on, really.
Why is this the final Carter Tutti Void album?
Just because we’ve gone on to other things, and Nik’s gone on to other things as well. It was never meant to be, like, a band as such; we were really just coming together to do that one-off gig at the Mute label Roundhouse event. It was just an opportunity, and then it became something else, it took on a life of its own. Which was really exciting; we all really enjoyed it, and still do, but trying to sort of sort out, synchronize, three people’s separate schedules to do gigs or anything like that is really difficult, because Nik has her things that she does, and me and Chris have solo as well as our work together. It’s just practicalities as much as anything else. I mean, we say “the third and final album,” in that form, but we might all well work together at some point in the future. You just don’t know. But I don’t want people expecting us to go out and do loads of albums, and form a new band, and do loads of gigs, because none of us are quite able to do that. Managing expectation, I suppose you’d call it [laughter].
Is it just a coincidence that you and Chris put out solo albums at the same time? Were you working on them in tandem?
Well, you end up working on them in tandem but only unexpectedly. Chris. . . you’d have to ask him about when all that started, I can’t remember, about a year or so ago. But his was planned, he signed to Mute for that as a solo artist, so that was already there. I’d recorded Tutti in the form of a soundtrack to this particular film piece that I’d done. As a stand-alone, it’s an audiovisual installation that I’m showing in Stuttgart as part of a film festival this year as well. It’s shown in a couple of galleries. So that’s that, separate to the album. And like with Time to Tell, there becomes a moment where you realize it should be released as an album, to share with people. And I felt that about Tutti, and it was after Chris’s album was released, and I just sat down and said, “I think I wanna release”—it wasn’t known as Tutti then—“I wanna release Harmonic COUMaction soundtrack as an album.” So I decided to work on it, and we decided Chris’s album would have the breathing space, obviously, I wasn’t gonna bring it out when he’s got a solo album out there.
So when I did that e-mail interview with Carter Tutti Void about f (x), you made it sound like touring is not likely to happen anytime soon. Are you just doing one-off shows when an opportunity comes up?
Yeah. Well I definitely am not, and I don’t think Chris is going to tour, as well. There’s a number of reasons why, one being that we need to be in the studio to get some work done. You can’t keep sort of dipping in and dipping out of that zone you go in when you’re creating something, and then you’ve gotta pack everything up and go and do a gig and come back and try and reinhabit that space again, and that mindset, it’s really difficult. And the other one is that we’ve got other projects that demand that we be here and not go away for a couple of months on end, so we can’t accept gigs. Definitely can’t tour; I mean, my heart condition doesn’t allow it, it’s too exhausting for me. I’ve reached that point now where I can’t do it, physically, forget it. I’d sooner be here making stuff. The poorer for it [laughs], but that’s the way it goes. Everything goes in cycles, doesn’t it? No, those are the reasons, for me, anyway, Chris can speak for himself.
And the other biggest thing is fucking Brexit! [laughs] I hate to bring it in, but it is a problem. Trying to get our gear through customs is likely to be a nightmare. We don’t even know where we stand yet with this. Musicians Union here have had no end of—‘cause we’re members of Musicians Union here—we get communications from them, how problematic it could be, but we don’t know yet. And you kind of think, I just don’t know—I’ll just forget about it for a while and see how it goes.
But there are certain things within the UK that come through, like when we did SPILL Festival in Ipswich last year, which was really interesting for us, to do anything we wanted to do at all, which was great, instead of like “come and do Chris & Cosey,” “come and do Carter Tutti Void,” “come and do Carter Tutti,” it’s that kind of prescriptive gig invitation which is. . . it doesn’t put me off, I mean, I do like doing all that stuff, but when something comes through where you got sort of given freedom, that’s the very thing that triggered Carter Tutti Void. And it’s those opportunities which are really interesting, because something comes out that you don’t expect.
Photo by Chris Carter
I don’t know if this is as true in the UK, but in America, for a long time, there’s been a sort of demand for artists to come out and play an entire album, and as a concertgoer it’s not as exciting to me. I notice that musicians will often fill larger venues if they promise to play an entire album from front to back, and I would much rather hear a surprising evening of new material.
Well, it’s business, isn’t it? It could be interesting—
—to revisit something that you’ve done? As an artist?
I think maybe once. [laughter] I don’t know. I can’t think of doing any one of our albums in its entirety. I mean, the twist on that would be when TG did Desertshore, which wasn’t our album at all. I think that is more interesting. For us, as me and Chris. . . I suppose Carter Tutti Void, the first gig we did, invited by Mute, became an album, which we then went out and did gigs. But it never sounded the same, so if anyone came expecting to hear the album [laughs], they didn’t hear it, because it was always shifting. That’s more interesting for me.
Yeah, and I think the kinds of instruments that you use, it would be almost impossible to recreate something note for note.
Yeah. For me, there’s things like samples that I have in Ableton that I could bring through Chris’s rhythms, but his rhythms are subject to the frequencies the PA’s got and stuff like that, if the bass is a little too heavy or not heavy enough, that kind of thing, which you have to adjust live. But there’s limitations to that anyway. And, yeah, some of my samples could be recognizable within any given track, but then again, when I went, I found that I didn’t like them in any particular order, so I’d just play them where I feel they sound best, and I’ve got effects on them anyway, so they don’t necessarily sound the same. It’s just taking equipment and knowing what kind of sounds that you can generate, and using them in an improvised way, which is far more exciting for me.
I love the movie that you made about the cornet. I’m glad you’re playing it again.
Yeah, I love it, I do really enjoy it, I must admit. I guess I enjoy playing that and my guitar more than I ever have done, which is strange. Yeah, I don’t know how that works.
Why do you think that is?
I have no idea. I try and figure that out, because I feel at one with both of them when I pick them up, whereas I guess maybe there was a. . . I don’t think I’ve ever disconnected with what I’m doing, it’s just a different relationship now, completely. I think it could be that the equipment I use, software I use, instead of hardware effects. . . ‘cause I use hardware effects and software with both of them, and I think that has a lot to do with it. It’s a bit like the guitar and cornet are working with me, and we’re playing with the software together, I think that’s the relationship that shifted.
I was struck by what you said in that short film—the cornet when you play it has this mournful sound, but then it also has a sort of forceful—if you blow it hard, it’s like an exclamation point.
Yeah, definitely. It lends itself to shifting moods, definitely. Like a guitar does, as well, depending on how you interact with instruments, they can all do that. But because the cornet is only going to make a sound with literally your breath, your life, it’s quite different, I think. So you can choose to be, like you say, quite soft and then really harsh—which you can, physically, with a guitar, but it’s a physical striking with the guitar, whereas it’s almost like you’re speaking through a cornet. Which I have done before as well [laughs]; I’ve used it more as a mouthpiece for my voice than anything else, not necessarily to play a tune.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Xeni Jardin’s cancer treatment inspires Cosey Fanni Tutti’s ‘Bioschismic’
A Dangerous Minds exclusive: Carter Tutti Void talk about their new album, ‘f(x)’
Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fanni Tutti in the video for Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’