John Murphy – Shining Vril/ Knifeladder Interview: 2002
Originally intended to be published Spectrum Magazine Issue 6# which was cancelled before publication
Previously published via: www.compulsiononline.com
First of all, when one looks at your extensive and lengthy involvement with the industrial / post-industrial genres, you have had a rather illustrious career. Could you provide a historical rundown of your involvement with industrial / post-industrial music, relating to both your own projects and collaborations with others?
My so-called career has been shaped as much by chance as chosen design. There hasn’t ever really been any overall master plan, which may have hindered me at various points along my route to oblivion. Some people might find my tale fascinating others an abject lesson in how NOT to have a coherent career path – perhaps I am my own worst enemy in some regards.
The so-called evolution of my musical interests has taken place over many, many years. It is so convoluted even I cannot accurately remember everything. Over the years I have been involved with many different styles of music besides the whole industrial / post-industrial thing but in regards to my so called more industrial / experimental / electronic – whatever side of things – I became interested in the genesis of this sort of thing firstly in the mid 1970s, just before the advent of punk when as a teenager in Melbourne, Australia, I was first exposed to the joys of Krautrock, European prog rock, early 70s Glam rock and 60s / early 70s psychedelia. I started collecting and listening to all sorts of music at an early age and became involved in bands, properly from the age of 8 years old onwards. I could go on and on about this period and my influences and experiences for quite a while but won’t bore the pants off you. I was always an ardent Anglophile from a very early age onwards mainly through the influence of my mother and various relatives, so British music and culture was always very important to me.
I was heavily involved in the early Melbourne punk / new wave scene of the late 70s and after playing with local politically orientated punk outfits I helped form one of the southern hemisphere’s first sort of electronic acts called Whirlywirld in late 1978. This was a 5-piece outfit perhaps somewhat similar in some ways to early Clock DVA, Tuxedo Moon and Cabaret Voltaire with a dash of late 70s Low period Bowie. There was also a slight bit of a TG influence in some of the songs – though we did vary quite a bit over a 2-year period. We folded in late 1979 as we had hit a sort of artistic ceiling locally.
I ended up in London very early in 1980 basically to form another outfit with one of the other members of Whirlywirld, who is now sort of an Antipodean electronic dance music icon. Because of my percussive ability and certain contacts I became involved as a sort of permanent session drummer for the Associates. During the early 1980s I also worked as a session drummer for Shreikback, Gene Loves Jezebel, Nico (briefly) and a few others.
My European industrial / experimental experiences started towards the end of 1980 when I started working on the whole Kraang thing, purely as a bit of interest and fun for myself. At this stage it was called Krang Music and I released a cassette mid-81ish, which seemed to gather some sort of interest in certain quarters. I had always been a noise freak from an early age much to the despair, anger and head scratching of many of my teenage Melbourne peer group who just could not understand why I wouldn’t just stick to playing the drums and leave the music to the professionals. I think I may have had the last laugh, perhaps.
Through my friendship with Jim (Foetus) Thirlwell, who I had known well since 1978, I somehow met both William Bennett of Whitehouse and also Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound. I was asked to perform live with Whitehouse playing modular synth throughout 1982 / early 1983, as well as recording one album with them. I also did some Kraang performances in London around this time and also did some live work with a sort of improvised experimental outfit that was sort of in the style of AMM. I’m afraid I can’t remember the name.
I did quite a bit of stuff with various people during 1983-84 including tours and recording with SPK, recording for a video soundtrack released through Twin Vision, SPK’s video company, recording on one Nurse With Wound album, recording with Lustmord (the Paradise Disowned album), recording and live work with the early Current 93/Dogs Blood Order (the first few C93 albums) more Kraang material, another duo outfit called Krank which eventually had a European and North American CD release many years later in the early 1990s of material recorded in mid-1983. Some of this material was originally used for the Twin Vision video release. I also contributed tapes and primitive loops / sound samples via mail to an Australian quasi-industrial outfit called Hugo Klang, old pals of mine.
I returned to OZ after 5 years away in the mid 1980s mainly because of physical illness and general exhaustion. I got my health together and helped form an OZ based experimental, post-industrial act titled Orchestra of Skin and Bone. This outfit was in the same general area as mid-period SPK but had a darker, more ritualistic sort of tone, perhaps. Live it was a very confrontational sort of act indeed. We were quite influenced by the music of Harry Partch. We released one album in OZ in 1986, and did some soundtracks for local underground films. A CD of one of these soundtracks and a live 1985 Melbourne performance was released in Europe and USA in 1991 under the title of 1984-1986 (on Unclean Productions). As far as I know it received a good response and reviews but the band somehow or other ground to a halt during mid-1986, rather a pity as I always thought we had the potential to be a world beating act, as I knew what was going on elsewhere. Locally in OZ the general response was not good. We were basically feared by local audiences and had much trouble getting shows or local interest. An unfounded reputation of being sort of occult weirdies and on-stage bloodletting at times did not help matters. The album we released in late 1985 garnered some overseas interest, particularly in the USA, but fell into obscurity locally. The label collapsed soon after – typical of an OZ indie label of the time. I lost a lot of money, which caused me a little bit of grief.
Various members of the Orchestra of Skin and Bone including myself helped co-ordinate and record the soundtrack and incidental music for the OZ film Dogs In Space during 1986. I also worked on soundscapes for local video clips, underground films and did quite a bit of session work with various locally based acts between 1986-1990. Some of this was semi-experimental in nature but a lot was quite conventional and pretty straight. Some of the acts were The Index, Shower Scene From Psycho, GUM, Bum Steers, Box The Jesuit (well known Sydney based gothicy act), Max Q (semi-solo experimental project of Michael Hutchence of INXS), Not Drowning Waving and a lot more that I can’t and don’t want to remember. A lot of it was purely for the money.
In the late 1980s Kraang did the occasional local performance and recordings in both Melbourne and Sydney, though not to any sizable interest. Some of these performances went under the name of My Father of Serpents. In the early 1990s I did some more ritualistic, dark ambient performances using the name Ophiolatreia (its Latin for serpent worship) and had a track titled ‘Mirror to Dionysus’ on a compilation CD released by Dark Vinyl in Germany in 1992. This was just after they released the Krank material that I had originally recorded in mid-1983.
In the OZ experimental industrial area between 1986 – 91 I also worked with Ulex Zane of Zone Void, who had some recordings I participated in later released on Cthulhu Records of Germany; GUM – a local industrial duo who put out two local albums; Stress Of Terror – one cassette tape; Disciples of None – another project of Ulex’s; Sootiken Flesh – a friend’s semi solo project in the style of Whitehouse meets early Non with ritualistic drums – pretty good actually. Two tapes were released and an unreleased album for a local metal label; Browning Mummery – old OZ friend of mine doing classic style industrial sound. Two CD releases feature myself amongst others; Nada – a local Sydney based art ritualistic performance troupe; Jaundiced Eye – a Sydney based experimental / post-industrial three piece which at times included myself. The music was a mish mash of experimental techno cum ritualistic dark ambience. Unfortunately nothing has ever been properly released, only short run CD-Rs I believe.
Subcutaneous Theatre was a ritualistic sinister, industrial dark ambient duo that I was involved with that also featured Debra Petrovitch, a Romanian Australian performance and sound artist. In some ways she is like a cross between Jarboe and Diamanda Galas – a very talented intense performer. She has also appeared on some Shining Vril pieces, on the “Split” CD of Shining Vril / Knifeladder. Subcutaneous Theatre appeared at some Sydney art experimental events in the late 1980s and released one cassette on the local label Cosmic Conspiracy Productions and were planning to record a proper album in late 1990 with Andrew Trail engineering. For various non-musical reasons this never happened.
In slightly more conventional terms I also became involved with two acts from 1986-87 onwards. The first group was called The Slub something I originally put together as a sort of revenge cum musical joke in early 1986 as a one off event. I originally tried something sort of similar nearly 8-years before in Melbourne a feedback no/wave one off act called The Alan Bamford Musical Experience named after an old friend of mine. This eventually petered out in the early 1990s, quite a while after I made my escape. This was a noise guitar orientated act and could be at times alternatively brilliant and utterly appalling – often in the same show. It was sort of like a cross between a deranged Plastic Ono Band, Trout Mask Replica Beefheart, early Swans, Butthole Surfers, Whitehouse and Skullflower. Though all these comparisons do not quite do it justice. We were probably one of the most loathed acts ever in the whole southern hemisphere but even so we put out one cassette which got international interest, one locally released album titled Rootman which got rave reviews in the USA, and we released quite a few singles on the USA based label Sympathy For the Record Industry which seemed to do okay. I should also point out that I was one of the two singers in this act plus I was responsible for the majority of the noise and atonal sounds playing feedback drone, Slub guitar at intolerable volume, my trusty old EMS AKS synth and a primitive sampler/tapes. The other guitarist playing in a Beefheartian deranged style. It was through this band I originally met Andrew Trail later of Knifeladder as we once shared the bill with his act (Ministry Of Love) in Sydney. He still thinks that the Slub was one of the most “out there and plain crazy” acts he has ever seen anywhere. This group also used to make some of my more muso friends – guitarists especially virtually froth at the mouth in anger as we were so unmusical in their correct eyes. The fact that I was also much better at getting extreme guitar feedback frequencies than they were didn’t help matters at all.
The general negativity of this band left me with many bad psychological and physical scars and I eventually got out and sort of saved my tattered sanity and soul in late 1989 after leaving Melbourne for Sydney where I briefly drummed for Box The Jesuit, did the odd performance with Subcutaneous Theatre, Jaundiced Eye, My Father of Serpents, Browning Mummery, recorded with Max Q and some of the aforementioned acts and developed my friendship with Andrew Trail later of Knifeladder and lived a fairly degenerate lifestyle if the truth be known.
The second act was called Dumb And The Ugly, which released one 12-inch mini album, and one CD. We performed in Melbourne with the odd show in Sydney. This was a 3-piece outfit in which I played drums and some samples. This was formed with some very old friends from my teenage years who also played with other acts. This act was in the style of Sonic Youth meets Hendrix and Chrome/Helios Creed. Personality clashes eventually destroyed this outfit. I had had enough and couldn’t deal with music any more.
In the early part of the 1990s things were generally spiraling out of control in my tattered existence and I slowly curtailed many of my musical activities as I was not finding a great deal of personal satisfaction with any of them at all. I did some performances and recording with a Sydney based ritual, dark ambient, experimental techno hybrid sort of act, which was originally called Jaundiced Eye, but somewhere along the line the name somehow changed over to Dweller On The Threshold. We played at quite a few rave cum pagan orientated events in and around Sydney including a support slot for Meat Beat Manifesto. I also guested from time to time throughout the first part of the 90s with some other live local acts playing drums synth, samples and lo-tech electronics/tapes on both recordings and live dates. These acts included Monroe’s Fur, Psychic Date, Harpoon, Louis Tillet (OZ singer, writer) Monkey See Monkey Do, Beastianity, Extinct, Hugo Race’s True Spirit (industrial Nick Cave like blues), Blood and Iron (which also featured David Booth, who now plays live with Der Blutharsch, this act had a sound somewhat in the vein of Laibach, Autopsia and similar acts) and possibly a few others. It is actually rather hard to remember everything from this time. I also continued to do the odd bit of session work for more conventional musical acts – all OZ based so the names wouldn’t mean anything to Northern European or North American readers. It was mainly recording with the odd live show – I needed the cash! Even that didn’t always come through – such is the foibles of the music industry.
In the early 1990s I did some recording and 3 live performances in and around Sydney with an old friend of mine, Dominik Guerin who was one of the original founders of SPK. He was with them up until the time of Leichenschrei. Along with another old OZ experimental pal named Jon Evans who now lives near Berlin, we recorded and performed together under the loose name of DOM. 8-9 tracks were somehow recorded and the remastered tracks (which I did with Hunter Barr of Knifeladder at Retina studios in mid 2001) which may be at last released, sometime in the next few months or so…under the name Last Dominion Lost. The title will be The Tyranny of Distance and the music has at times some resemblance to Leichenschrei era SPK. Others may beg to differ about this – there was certainly little local interest in what we were doing around this time..so once again things slowly petered out.
Around mid 1993 I literally by chance (fate perhaps??) bumped into Douglas P of Death In June at some sort of semi-industrial event in Sydney during one of his periodic visits to Australia. We renewed our friendship and acquaintance and later in the mid 1990s or whereabouts the Scorpion Wind album, Heaven Sent, was recorded. This also featured Boyd Rice of Non. A few months later I was asked to play live percussion on some DIJ live shows in Europe and I have been doing this ever since.
While I was in and around London in early 1997 I renewed my friendship/acquaintance with Andrew Trail whose previous outfit Autogeddon had just finished and slowly and tentatively Knifeladder was formed – even though at this stage it did not really have a name as such. We did a few live rehearsals and the hard graft of sound source and sample making at home, building prospective pieces from literally the ground upwards. Soon, Hunter Barr, an old pal of Andrew’s, joined and Knifeladder was properly formed. We played our first proper live date towards the end of 1997 at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town. I also did a little bit of drumming recording session work with Strength Through Joy in the middle of 1997, I seem to recall.
Since 1997-98 besides live shows and tours with Death In June in many different parts of the globe I have also mainly worked on Knifeladder and to a lesser degree on my own solo ritualistic experimental soundscape project Shining Vril.
As well as this over the past few years I have done quite a bit of guest and session work (both live and recording) with various acts scattered all over the place. These have included live percussion with Der Blutharsch in 1998-99, some live percussion on a few Fire and Ice shows in late 1998, some recording and live shows with Ostara, Wertham, Andrew King, Sleeping Pictures and Foresta Di Ferro over the past few years. I have also contributed sounds and samples to album and CD releases by the Sword Volcano Complex, Genocide Organ, Brownning Mummery and Subcutaneous Theatre (both in Australia). Recently there have been a few other artists scattered in differing parts of the globe who have also asked me to possibly contribute “bits and bobs” to their forthcoming recordings and I may possibly do so – depending on time and what I can possibly come up with. I am currently trying to keep most of my ideas and sounds for Knifeladder and Shining Vril recordings. I have also recently decided to reactivate my old-school industrial noise project Kraang for a round of new recordings sometime soon.
I hope this gives something of a general idea of my personal musical history and collaborations over the years in the general industrial / post-industrial, experimental areas of music.
What introductory information can you provide about your solo project Shining Vril?
To explain the whole concept of Shining Vril is rather difficult but I will attempt to give it a go anyway. This particular project came into being somewhat slowly towards the end of 1999. Without really attempting to give it a great deal of thought I started to record a few solo pieces that were due for various compilations around the globe. I had made quite a few potential contacts with my various live tours with Death In June and had received a few offers for contributions to various compilations and samplers on European and American labels. I had also met Stefanos of the Greek label C.A.P.P during a Greek Death In June tour in mid-1999 and somehow or other we got talking and he offered to release a “split” vinyl release of my solo recordings and some Knifeladder material on his label. This eventually turned out to be the Split CD release that came out in mid-2000 that seemed to gain a reasonable critical response in Europe and North America.
Basically Shining Vril is an ongoing solo project of mine to explore my own interests cum obsessions. It does not encompass any one particular musical style or aesthetic. Anything can or will be used in the construction of the compositions. The line-up is flexible with myself being the only constant. It can be anything I want it to be. There is also an esoteric / spiritual side to the whole thing but I am trying not to make this too obvious or self-evident. It is there for potential listeners to discover and contemplate for themselves. A form of self-initiatory gnosis perhaps using musical and other sounds in a ritualistic and a subconscious way, to aid the process of self discovery and awareness along somehow. I find all this very difficult to accurately put into words as I generally find they can be quite inadequate for the task.
I have contributed to quite a few compilations over the past few years and will continue to do so for the immediate future. Hopefully a proper full-length release will happen as well as I have quite a few unrealised ideas and plans.
As Shining Vril as a moniker has a rather esoteric/spiritual connotation, what led you to choose this and does the name signify a specific pursuit with the ritualistic soundscapes you produce?
My reasons for using the name Shining Vril as a moniker are many and varied. Many years ago, as I said earlier, I used the moniker My Father of Serpents as a name for some solo recording and live performances in Australia, but I was never entirely happy with this. This name mutated into Ophiolatreia which basically means serpent worship in Latin but this was a bit of a mouthful and didn’t really do what I had in mind justice. I found it very difficult to actually settle on one particular name but the word Vril kept cropping up, so it was destined that somehow or other the word Vril would be used somewhere in the name for my solo material.
I have rather a deep interest in esoteric cosmology and hermetic, gnostic philosophy especially in the areas of ancient sacred sites and the still potent power associated with them, the old Mystery religions, rites and practices, the Northern Mystery tradition and what you would call “the Perrenial Philosophy” of mankind. I’m also interested in the more esoteric work of Jung, Reich, Evola, and associates; the Grail Myth and the work of Otto Rahn which encompasses a few different paths that interest me such as Catharism, the Thule Myth and also esoteric Christianity and the whole Black Sun thing. The whole Vril belief as espoused by the Luminous Lodge and the Vril Society in 1920s Germany also personally interested me. I believe there is something undeniable and powerful in all this – call it what you will and me gullible perhaps. Vril, Chi, Odic Force and a thousand different localised names in many differing cultures. This force seems to have been in existence for perhaps forever, even if a lot of the interest over the past century or so has been due to many reading the book The Coming Race written in the late 19th Century by the English occultist and novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton which seemed to be taken rather seriously in certain parts of Northern Europe in the early 20th Century.
On a slightly different level I have also in the past 10-12 years learnt various forms of healing techniques such as Seichem, an ancient Egyptian derived healing technique supposedly and I’ve seen various forms of Taoist Asian chi energy techniques performed often in front of dozens of people. This is really what inspired the name Shining Vril as in one demonstration in Sydney in 1992 the Korean chi master produced a shining wavering sort of chi energy ball which every one in the room could see – and certainly feel. I prefer to call this sort of energy “Vril” as this may have been it’s primordial name many thousands of years ago and it was probably a lot more potent and powerful than today.
Split was a shared CD with Shining Vril and Knifeladder. How was this disc received by the underground?
This CD release seemed to be received reasonably well and received some decent reviews in various magazines and websites around the globe. Personally I cannot actually say how the “underground” received it overall but the reaction in general seemed to be quite positive. I am still not actually sure how well it sold but apparently it was pretty widely distributed through the many distributors worldwide that Stefanos of C.A.P.P deals with. Some people found it slightly confusing as to which pieces were by Knifeladder and which pieces were actually Shining Vril. As I mentioned earlier it was originally intended to be a vinyl release with one side each for each act but it somehow ended up being a split CD. Reviews in general were quite good especially from some Northern European based magazines. I receive feedback from time to time especially from places like North America, Germany, Scandinavia and Italy but not much from Australia I’m afraid. Both acts names seem to be slowly but surely getting around in various circles. I suppose my past-reputation may have been of some help in this area. One never knows!
In that the Shining Vril tracks on the split CD featured female vocal contributions, is this person a full time member of the project?
The membership of Shining Vril is basically myself and anybody I feel can make a positive contribution at the particular time of recording or live work and who wishes to do so. I have collaborated with many others during my so called long and illustrious career. I have done a lot of recordings and work over the past 10 years under a few different names with the woman who provides the female vocal contributions. At the moment though our relationship is perhaps unclear. Her name is Debra Petrovitch and she is an Australian performance artist cum experimental musician of Romanian extraction who I have known and intensely argued with over many years. We did some work together some years back in Sydney under the name Subcutaneous Theatre. Andrew Trail of Knifeladder also knows her quite well. I would be happy to work with her once again but she can be a rather formidable and difficult personality at times. I can assure you that the Vril sessions for the Split CD became a rather an intense emotional experience for both of us. We sometimes rub one another the wrong way around literally. Both of us were also having minor emotional crises at the time, which perhaps did not generate a particularly positive atmosphere. Still some people do their best work when they are like this.
It would appear that you use a mélange of electronic samples, processing equipment, tape loops etc along with real instruments such as bells, chimes, singing prayer bowls, flutes etc. how do you approach a writing composition particularly as Shining Vril tracks inhabit a free-form flowing style?
This is rather a difficult question for me to answer I’m afraid as I actually have no set, regular pattern in composing. This may disappoint some people out there who worry about such things but things generally come together out of their own accord. I use whatever and whoever is available: a combination of high and low tech in equipment, borrowed, found and abused. I suppose my subconscious, musical, life experience and dreams in general play a large part in my writings. I decided some time back that there would be no definite musical “style” to Shining Vril so I may “dip my wick” – to use such a charming expression – in a few different genres. I am interested in many different things and these perhaps come through in my work and compositions. Sometimes the pieces just write themselves and I perhaps am just the chosen channel. I also often work from a very gut-level feeling and often find words fairly inadequate to properly express what I am trying to put across. I also do not claim to be particularly original or indeed inspirational in my so-called compositional style. The pieces / tracks whatever just sort of evolve in the actual process of recording – make of this what you will. My only actual musical rule for myself is “try and keep it simple” which I seem to inevitably break almost everytime I am doing my own material in the studio. My complex restless mind seems at times to be my worst enemy especially when making new music.
You stated on the Death In June discussion list that you were not too enthusiastic about performing as Shining Vril and more specifically performing solo. Can you elaborate on this? Likewise was this aversion to performing solo the reason for recruiting live support from Marco Deplano (of Wertham and Foresta di Ferro) for the show at the Hinoeuma Club in London?
I have never particularly enjoyed doing solo performances of my own work. A few fairly disastrous live performances mainly in Australia in the mid to late-eighties sort of confirmed me in this view. For some odd reason I find it far more comforting to perform in a group mode – safety in numbers perhaps? I have played thousands of live shows over the past 25-years or so in various parts of the planet but these have mostly been with some sort of band or other musicians. I have also done a lot of session work both live and recorded where I have been an anonymous backing musician. I used to take to this like a duck to water and never really felt any pressure or nerves. It only seems to be that when I do my own solo live stuff that the inner demons seem to rear up their little pointy-heads. Still this is something I am slowly getting over. Unless you have actually been a performer it can be difficult to describe the inner tension that can go on when presenting your own work by yourself to a potentially hostile and contemptuous crowd. My OZ experiences were not particularly pleasant and maybe it scarred me somewhat.
Last year Gaya (Donadio) of the Hinoeuma Club asked me to do a performance and didn’t seem to take no for an answer so I eventually relented and started to plan something without banging my head against the rehearsal room wall in frustration, something that has indeed happened more than once in the past.
I asked Marco to give me a helping hand as he is a good friend and rather supportive of most of the things I am involved with. I have also helped him with live Wertham and Foresta di Ferro shows at Hinoeuma in north London over the past 2 years or so and he was quite keen to return the favour. So yes performing with one other person on stage, for me anyway, can sort of relieve some of the internal doubts and pressure somewhat. I am rather a perfectionist unfortunately and I only want to present a Shining Vril performance that would be out of the ordinary. Ideally there would also be a visual element as well but I suppose I will have to leave this for the future – once all those performance and songwriting royalties and checks start to roll on in once again. I may be waiting a long time.
The show at Hinoeuma actually went a lot better than I expected both musically and as an actual performance. I was reasonably pleased with it for a change and as a result have considered doing some more as a few people in various parts of Europe have requested some. There may be some in the not too distant future in Italy, UK, Poland and maybe Germany/Scandinavia as well. These will probably on the same bill as Foresta di Ferro or Knifeladder. I was also asked a while back to do something in the USA but whether this ever eventuates is up to the gods. We shall see
I understand that you collaborated on a musical project with members of Knifeladder in Australia prior to forming Knifeladder. Could you tell us about this? How did Knifeladder come about? What was the idea behind the project?
I will have to answer sort of yes and no to this particular question. I have known Andrew Trail of Knifeladder since approximately early 1988 when I first met him in Sydney, Australia, when my act at the time titled the Slub; a noise guitar outfit sort of like a combined Skullflower meets Butthole Surfers cum Plastic Ono Band performed on the same bill as his band of the time called Ministry of Love. We sort of hit it off at the time and when I returned a few months later to Sydney – after recording with Michael Hutchence of INXS, for his experimental group project called Max Q, – we resumed our budding friendship. Over the next 2 years we saw one another pretty regularly. For a few months in 1990 I helped out on drums for some mutual pals of ours in a Sydney based gothicy orientated band called Box the Jesuit (at times slightly in the same area as the Virgin Prunes) after their drummer disappeared. Andrew also mixed Subcutaneous Theatre, an experimental, ritualistic duo I was also involved with which included the performance artist, Debra Petrovitch.
We sometimes appeared on the same bill as Andrew’s act, Ministry of Love. Andrew was also due to engineer an album for Subcutaneous Theatre towards the end of 1990. This was going to be released on the local experimental label Cosmic Conspiracy Productions(run by Alex Karinsky – who later moved to New York and promoted some Current 93 shows there in 1996-7) which had also released some Ministry of Love material. Unfortunately this never happened mainly due to financial reasons and Debra’s unforeseen pregnancy, which put a spanner in the works and pretty much curtailed everything for a while, rather unfortunately in my humble opinion, as I’m sure it would have been pretty impressive.
I saw Andrew quite regularly and he also sometimes mixed another ritualistic experimental act I was involved with at the same time containing ex-members of Box the Jesuit called Jaundiced Eye, who also played quite a few shows around Sydney, especially at 2 notorious venues called The Evil Star and a local arts centre/squat called the Gunnery. Books have been written about the Gunnery in the last few years in OZ.
Andrew formed another EBM orientated act called Psychonaut in early 1991 which played around the traps to little response and decided to head to London in mid-1991 or thereabouts. He was tired of the inevitable ceiling you reach if you are doing leftfield music in OZ and the Antipodes. Overseas is often the only option…that or slowly implode and decay. . . and recede into alcoholic, drug orientated despair and bitterness over what could have been. I meanwhile stayed in OZ and entered what I call my “dark years” which were not particularly pleasant on a personal level. I was still involved with music but was basically slowly killing myself in various ways. That is all I will say about this unfortunate period of my life but people who really know me will be well aware at what I am referring to…
Andrew and myself sort of kept in touch through various means and mutual friends. I returned to London myself in the mid 1990s for live touring purposes with Death In June. I had bumped into Douglas P. completely by chance while he was in Sydney in 1993 visiting different parts of OZ. He remembered me from the early 1980s and early Current 93 days and we renewed our acquaintanceship. Sometime later this led to him asking me if I would be interested in doing the live percussion for some European and possibly US dates and not being an idiot, of course, I said yes.
After returning to London I soon moved into a spare room in a flat in Kings Cross with both Andrew Trail and Andrew King and slowly but surely that was the genesis of the entity called Knifeladder. This was early 1997, I believe.
Some of the ideas behind Knifeladder I had sort of previously explored some years back in 2 OZ based outfits called the Orchestra of Skin and Bone and Stress of Terror which were both around in Melbourne from the mid-1980s to early 1988 – until I left that city under murky circumstances.
Andrew Trail was one of the few local OZ musicians I felt pretty much at ease with who knew of my overseas history and adventures and was eager to musically explore uncharted terrain. Unlike quite a few of my so-called “friends” back there who were not very supportive at all, and slaves to the latest trends from abroad.
When I returned to London we renewed our friendship and without really meaning to we slowly started the gradual formation of the concept of Knifeladder, by working on sounds cum samples in his home studio. I had tried doing some solo recording in OZ in the early 1990s using the name Ladder of Knives, due to a friend of mine visiting China who brought back a photo of a Taoist ladder statue of swords. These recordings were not particularly successful in concept mainly due to the rather disturbed state of mind and body I was in at the time but once I got myself reasonably well I intended to pursue the ideas I had with hopefully more suitable companions.
The general concept behind Knifeladder started to develop in London during 1997. Over a period of a few months we worked on soundsources and original made samples, often quite primitively recorded and processed cum treated from their very low-tech origins. We started to have some live rehearsals cum semi improvisation sessions and then later on with Hunter Barr – an old pal of Andrew’s at various London rehearsal rooms. An important part of the sound of Knifeladder pretty much from day one has been the live semi-improvisary trance (in it’s proper way) repetitive aspect – which to a certain degree is an integral part of every piece we record and perform live.
If there is a main concept and idea behind our sound it is that we are very much into the live performance aspect of doing so called electronic based music. Loops and various soundsamples put together in a cyclic hypnotic semi-repetative manner with organic trance wind instrument drones and exotic and heavy ritualistic percussion plus repetitive bass drones are pretty much what we are currently about.
Unlike loads of other electronic acts we tend to play our equipment and instruments “live” in the manner of a traditional 3 piece band (though we are much more flexible in instrumentation and members roles than normal rock acts) and prefer not to rely on sequences, backing CDs, DATs or everything being generated by the mixer using laptop facilities and the like. Live semi-improvisation over carefully thought-out backing is critically important to the Knifeladder sound in both live and studio work. Generally we do not play any of our tracks exactly the same way twice. There is always some sort of variation – also the live mixer is of great importance to the overall sound. We know a few really good ones fortunately. It is not that we are Luddites or anything similar it is just that most electronic orientated acts nowadays seem to hide behind their computers and the like in live performances with little thought. The best exception to this I have seen in the last few years are some Coil shows in Europe, 2nd Gen, some Ant Zen acts and possibly some of the acts on at the Hinoeuma club in north London. The audience is often an afterthought and many times you may as well stay at home and just listen to the recorded output on CD or vinyl.
Also unlike many electronic orientated outfits no matter what the style, the 3 members of Knifeladder are influenced by and enjoy many different styles of music and sounds. We have also had many years of experience in live performances and playing many differing styles of music in front of sometimes hostile audiences worldwide. I for instance have had close to 30 years experience in live work playing many different forms of music such as Jazz, Blues, orchestral, Scottish pipebands, musicals, various forms of rock, session work etc and have personally performed in front of some of the toughest and most contemptuous crowds in the world, especially in OZ where you can play like God and still be totally ignored by the local crowds who will be the first to cheer some 3rd rate over the hill act from abroad.
Hunter Barr is also classically trained in different instruments and has also a lot of experience working as a studio engineer for all sorts of differing types of acts and music over the past 5 years or so. Both he and Andrew Trail are experienced and qualified sound engineers for recording and live mixing and they have a sort of professional studio and rehearsal set-up connected with Knifeladder called Retina II. So there is quite a bit of experience and knowledge between the three of us.
It’s an unusual sound comprising looped sounds, various percussive devices and solid bass throb. How do you compose / construct songs? How important is the studio to Knifeladder? What do you mean by voodoo power electronics?
Knifeladder pieces cum songs are composed/constructed in a variety of ways. It is very much an organic intuitive process between the three of us. Often a piece will be built upon from an original loop or sample that the three of us have had a hand in making, often from very low tech origins and by constant rehearsal and improvisation in both the studio and rehearsal room a song somehow forms itself. Tracks have also been built…constructed…from the percussion and sampler upwards…with gradual and cyclic changing of sounds/samples etc overlaid…over time. Other tracks can be constructed differently – beginning with the bass harmonic throb or the Moroccan horn that Andrew often plays. There is no one set way of working for us. Some songs write themselves literally and we just go with the flow. A track can also end very differently from the original conception but we seem to allow room for this as construction of songs and soundscapes is a very organic process for us. There are no real definitive versions of songs in the Knifeladder side of things: pieces change and evolve constantly everytime we perform them live. The tracks ‘Dervish’ or ‘Scorched Earth’ for example have evolved of their own free will over the past three or so years and can vary quite a bit in live and recorded performance, especially in the use of rhythmic dynamics, and length. We very often use a call and response instrumental / soundscape aspect between the three members in a live performance context.
For our more soundscape and non-rhythmic orientated tracks – only some of which have been presently recorded – and haven’t really been featured on Organic Traces due to time restrictions. We have used different methods again in song construction, often constructing a piece from the voice used in a harmonic overtone manner or as an under lying drone or Moroccan horn with other sounds added on at will, playing off one another in a live rehearsal context, working out which sound sits best with another and constantly remembering to not be too self-indulgent and to keep things relatively simple, and to use the recording studio as an instrument in itself. Our ways of working and constructing songs are constantly evolving and changing and we have a few surprises in store for the future in this area.
The studio is critically important to us as is live rehearsal. In the construction of the whole Knifeladder sound and way of being we try and record regularly in our own studio, and as soon as we come with the basis of something new, we attempt to record the bones of it and flesh if out. Some of the material including two tunes (‘Born Under Fire’ and ‘Carousel’) due for release on 2 different Italian label compilations were completely constructed in the studio from literally nothing. This was also sort of the case with ‘Hymn’ our piece on the Operative First compilation, which was built in the Retina studio. All these tracks vary quite a bit from their studio versions when done live. We don’t really think of the studio and live aspect of Knifeladder as 2 completely different things. The studio is really another creative tool for us and unlike some other acts we tend not to be passive, overwhelmed participants when in the studio. Quite the reverse, as we often really go for it!! – ‘Dervish’ being a very good example of this in both the studio and live performance contexts. Many different ideas /sounds and overdubs are tried and perhaps used if they are deemed suitable by the three of us. If not then we often keep these for future use – for other tracks and blueprints.
I am not really sure if Voodoo Power Electronics is an entirely accurate description of our sound anymore. Perhaps we have somehow gone sort of beyond this convenient description now. The others may disagree perhaps. The sounds we use probably are quite a bit more varied than the Power Electronics description. We even attempt to use – horror!! – some melody on occasion from the keyboards, vocals and horns. We have been known to dip our wick into the ritualistic trance, industrial, dark ambient, soundscape areas at times – all these terms don’t really do justice to what I am attempting to say. We try to use many different sounds and do not limit ourselves one particular area which can cause some confusion when people try to pidgeon hole our sound. Still people love descriptions, don’t they??
In the percussive side of things there are a few different things at work besides Voudoun Drumming and rhythms. I have studied middle eastern and Indian tabla percussion, some years ago plus the master drummer aspect of different forms of African drumming which sort of rears its head in some of our work, especially in live performances. Pipehand side drumming which I did for 5 years as a teenager in OZ with a Scottish pipeband…these influences all sort of blend together in the percussive assault on stage and in the studio. Maybe we will have to think up a new more exact and detailed description of our style and sound as unlike a lot of acts around now we are not easily classifiable and cut across a few different musical boundaries and styles.
I hope this sort of answers this question for you – apologies if you all are still scratching your heads in bewilderment
What artists/projects currently hold your interest?
I personally enjoy many different types of music and have a very diverse appreciation of many different musical styles and artists. As far as I am concerned there is only good and bad music. I try to keep an open mind about almost everything I hear and try not to fall into the all too familiar trap of musical cynicism, something I semi-regularly did when younger.
In regards to the current industrial and experimental music scene I appreciate many different artists and acts. A few examples would be the various artists sort of connected with the Hau Ruck label such as: Novy Svet, what I’ve heard of Dernière Volonté, PPF, Der Blutharsch; various Tesco acts such as Anenzephalia; Stateart releases including one from Cyclotimia; other European acts would be Deutsch Nepal, Inade, Tribe of Circle, Thorofon, Scivias, Dieter Muh, Amenti Suncrown, Nocturne, Arkkon, Cyclobe, Coil; some of the Ant-Zen acts such as Imminent; a new Antipodean dark ambient act called Isomer; anything involving Zev; the last 2 NON releases on Mute; Browning Mummery (an old Industrial act and friend from OZ – very good); 2 Polish acts: Spear and Le Plastic Mystification; Aube; various releases from Daniel Mensche, Lustmord, Nurse With Wound, Illusion of Safety and Voice of the Eye over the years; Andrew Liles, Muffpunch, Anti Valium and White Dog all based around London. These are all just examples. In the neo-folk area I think Naevus, Of the Wand and Moon, A Challenge of Honour and the work of Andrew King are the most interesting acts personally speaking. Even though it is difficult to keep up with all the new and latest releases constantly going I try somehow to do my best in these areas. Looking at it objectively I think the whole experimental / industrial / dark ambient / ritualistic whatever “scene” is probably more vibrant than ever – though a touch more originality could be added at times. Still this is something I have never particularly claimed to be.
Outside of this area I personally enjoy a lot of serious classical music (straight and avant garde), film soundtracks, all forms of 50’s/60s early 70s popular music and folk, rock and jazz. Too many composers and artists in these areas to mention and I often forget the names that go with different pieces and songs sometimes. I will always keep an open ear and mind to pretty much anything though most rave, dance and rap / hip-hop music doesn’t really thrill me or indeed attract my interest much. The culture with all this stuff sort of passes me by completely.
You split your time living between Australia and the UK. Why do you choose to do this?
The reason I do this is because I actually can. I have never felt 100 per cent comfortable anywhere and have never really been one of the local lads, so to speak. I have always had an overwhelming urge to see the world and possibly discover myself (man) ever since I was a young sprog. I am usually in Australia for a few months each year where I tend to keep a fairly low profile doing lots of non-career related things. There is no exact reason why I divide my time between both countries it just seems for a good proportion of the last 20 or so years that most of my creativity and work happens in Europe, especially the UK. When I am back in OZ I usually do a bit of recording at a local studio near my mother’s seaside house which is probably one of the best studios I have ever worked in anywhere and for some bizarre reason is situated in the boondocks of southern Queensland, miles from any large town. Other than that, as I said before, I keep a low local profile and do not receive much Antipodean support or interest at all.
One other reason could be that I have a reasonably large support network and musical peer group in London and parts of the rest of Europe who sort of understand where I am coming from and are generally supportive. In Australia I have a network of old acquaintances who often aren’t very supportive at all. Quite the reverse, in fact: some are down right contemptuous and hostile, while others are totally bewildered by the aesthetics which seem to guide my path. The majority of the projects that I have been associated with over the years have received either little or indifferent response from Australian audiences. A lot of the people I know their have become increasingly parochial over the years which has always alienated me. I have had many discussions cum fruitless arguments with various Antipodean pals over the years about what I do etc so in general I no longer bother to keep the majority of them informed of my activities – musical or otherwise. This is just one of many reasons why I spend quite a bit of time outside of Australia. I have had many unusual experiences which would just not have been possible if I had stayed in OZ and I would be a far lesser person for it. I march to a different darker drum so to speak than the majority of Ozites who mostly consider me (if at all) a weirdy ratbag eccentric, if not worse. Why should I bother to have to put up with a local insular mindset when I know that others elsewhere will be more appreciative.
Also another reason is that I personally love being an expatriate from my homeland. This is very stimulating and intellectually satisfying. I feel somehow more alive and this in turn stimulates my thought processes, musical composing and general pursuits. I use my time in OZ as a bit of a breathing space and regeneration period before venturing out once again to parts unknown. I could say a lot, lot more on this particular subject but will shut up for now.
I should also point out that I have met other people from various parts of the globe who have similar things to say about where they came from so it’s not confined to one place.
You seem to be able to travel through Australia and UK/Europe on a reasonably regular basis, how are you able to manage this? I suspect that this might lead to some interesting jobs in order to finance such travels?
This would be telling somewhat but let us just say that I sort of get by – not particularly well admittedly. I do lead a somewhat primitive lifestyle which certainly wouldn’t be for everybody, and I would certainly not recommend it if you want to hang on to your sanity and health. I have paid a heavy price in terms of lifestyle for the musical and artistic adventures I have had over the past 20 or so years. Quite a bit of sacrifice has gone into my endevours and international travels. I am also something of a “scammer” in regards to accommodation, musical equipment and such like, and currently at least do not really have a settled abode anywhere in the world.
Yes I have had many interesting and mundane jobs over the years in both Europe and OZ, which have helped finance things a bit. Examples include: running recording studios and rehearsal rooms in both OZ and London, lots of restaurant work in London and OZ; bar tender; theatrical hand and stage manager; new-age and alternative bookshop co-owner in Sydney some years back.; working in record stores; packing records at various distributors in UK and OZ; session musician in both UK and OZ; telesales marketer; actor in underground videos and films; soundtrack designer for similar sort of films; extra in TV commercials and mainstream films in OZ; antiquarian bookseller in Australia (briefly); assistant in jeans shop (late 1970s); and industrial cleaner at various times. These are just a few jobs I have had to do to earn a crust to continue on my merry bohemian way and enjoy what the world has to offer.
I believe there is also another John Murphy operating in a similar experimental and /or soundtrack field of music. Is this the case and how much actual confusion has it created?
Yes, apparently this is indeed the case, and it has caused some confusion with a few people, which I have attempted to clear up. Certain friends and acquaintances of mine have occasionally seen a documentary or something similar on Channel 4 in Britain or SBS in OZ or elsewhere which mentioned in the credits that a John Murphy was listed as responsible for the sound design and soundtrack, and that the music or whatever was in a sort of industrial / experimental mode. They just sort of assumed that it was just little me. I had to disappoint them by saying that I had no personal knowledge of the aforementioned documentary or indeed the person involved. This incidentally is an area I would like to explore and possibly get involved with as I have had a little experience in this particular neck of the woods in years past both in OZ and the UK.
There hasn’t been a great deal of confusion but this was possibly the catalyst to me to again start spelling my first name as Jonh, something I used to do many, many years ago in the days of punk in the late 1970s. Running into quite a lot of other John Murphy’s in various parts of the globe may have had something also to do with this. This in turn seems to have confused a few people out there in the international experimental / industrial music arena. Obviously I have shot myself in the foot once again by over estimating people’s general intelligence in the first name department. I will just have to persevere in that I suppose.
You are involved in is the relatively new Operative Records. What comments would you like to make about the concept of this emerging label?
Well for a start Operative Records as a label and so-called collective came into being towards the middle of 2001 in London. Members of Knifeladder, Naevus, Muffpunch, Rective, Andrew Liles, Ruse, Andrew King, Anti Valium, Gaya of the Hinoeuma Club and a few others got together at a series of meetings cum drinking sessions at various people’s abodes around London and slowly but surely the idea of some sort of supportive label cum collective sort of emerged out of the fog. Some of us felt that there was quite a bit of interesting and innovative stuff happening at various venues such as the Hinoeuma Club in Finsbury Park without much local interest or label support. We sort of perhaps foolishly attempted to do something about this by putting together a compilation CD titled First that sort of showcased what we all felt were the most interesting and innovative acts who hopefully would eventually release their own CDs or vinyl through or on the Operative label. This would be financed partially through the money earnt in sales of First, theoretically speaking, of course.
The basic concept of Operative is to have so called Outsider sort of acts that we all felt were being ignored locally as they didn’t conform musically or conceptually to Brit fashion dictates. It was to give these acts a sort of vehicle; a way in which to get their releases exposed, distributed and to provide a support network. I’m not actually sure if I am explaining the whole thing properly but it is slowly but surely reaching towards its goal. Besides First which has received some interesting reviews internationally, CDs have also been released by Leisurehive, Naevus, Knifeladder and a few more are being planned for the future. These include a possible split Shining Vril CD with Lloyd James of Naevus and his solo project called Retarder. An Antivalium / Andrew Liles split release, a White Dog (Gaya and Joanne of Naevus) CD. All these releases will be self financed so Operative is also an avenue for innovative acts to put out releases and gain distribution through Shellshock in the UK and abroad. That is sort of it in theory and hopefully it will eventually all work out for the best. The concept behind the label is best explained on the website at http://www.operative-records.co.uk
The Naevus release Behaviour and the new Knifeladder CD release Organic Tracesk have both received more than a bit of interest and appreciation internationally though this is still early days. Both of these acts have also performed outside of London at the Leipzig festival in Germany and have therefore garnered some international fans and interest, after a lot of hard slog around the local traps to little avail at times.
What’s next for Knifeladder / Shining Vril / Foresta Di Ferro and any other acts you’re involved in? Any closing comments?
First of all I would like to say that Knifeladder is not my band!! And I am not their leader. Some people, especially in Europe, seem to have got this idea into their head, at times, so I would like to point out that I am only one of three members who are all treated on an equal basis in terms of song writing terms and in all aspects of the group. We discuss all ideas and plans fully before putting them into practice.
Over the next few months I would say that our main priority is to get Organic Traces properly distributed and sent out to all the people in various parts of the globe who seem to be interested. We also plan to perform live outside of London hopefully. We would like to take up some possible offers of shows in the north of England, and different parts of Europe mainly Italy and possibly Germany and Belgium. We also have some tracks appearing on a few European compilations and samplers. Some of which are due to be released very soon – though you can never really tell with these sort of things. Two pieces are on two different Italian based compilations: one track ‘Born under Fire’ on the Oktagon compilation Audacia Imperat and another piece titled ‘Carousel’ which is a recorded reinterpretation of an early Knifeladder live track appears on the Italian compilation Tal Mont De Lune due for release soon by Nail Records. I should also mention that Shining Vril has two tracks (‘Conquest’ and ‘A Secret God’) on these compilations as well.
We also intend to record (for an eventual second CD release plus some possible compilations) over the next few months. Some of our newer less rhythmic orientated material – which will certainly showcase other not so obvious aspects of the Knifeladder sound and maybe introduce some new unusual sounds, recording techniques and instruments. These may also feature some unexpected “guest ” vocals/voice. These are ways to widen our sound and to introduce the unexpected. We all enjoy confounding expectations and are determined not to fall into recording or live/performing clichés with all our newer material especially. We are worried about falling into a formula in our general approach.
Finally, very recently someone in Europe has just approached me and Knifeladder about something new which may open up a whole new field for us to possibly explore in the long term. I will leave this for all of you out to ponder. . .
Shining Vril will continue to appear on various European and perhaps American compilations and samplers. I have quite a few tracks appearing on various so called European based V/A tribute “compilations”: including one for Ain Soph which was supposed to be released by Oktagon; a track on a sampler being put out by Die Tat mag of Germany; the two aforementioned Italian based compilations and maybe a piece on a Scott Walker tribute that someone in Spain (I think) is putting out in early 2003. I also intend to slowly record more material and eventually release a full scale self financed CD or album, probably through Operative Records, though this will entirely depend on personal finances. One or two European based labels have also expressed some interest in releasing some Shining Vril material as a CD or similar so we will have to see. Lloyd James of Naevus and myself have occasionally talked about doing a joint Shining Vril/Retarder CD release sometime in the future. Retarder is the name of his solo project. Anyway expect some Shining Vril full length release sometime in the not too distant future and also expect some possible Shining Vril live performances – probably in London and maybe Italy, Denmark and Germany. It’ll probably be with both Knifeladder and Foresta Di Ferro or something similar.
Two other releases that include sounds cum “bits and bobs” from me are the second full length release from Sword Volcano Complex on Triumvirate Records in the USA and the debut full length CD release from Foresta Di Ferro, Marco Deplano’s project. This will be released released through Hau Ruck – Albin Julius’s label in Vienna. Both releases should be out early in 2003 or thereabouts.
There may be some new recorded KRAANG material out through Tesco from Germany some time in the not too distant future. I am due to start work on new tracks pretty soon. These will be the first new pieces recorded since the late eighties.
Tesco will also be releasing some old material recorded just over 10 years ago in Sydney, Australia, which I was involved in along with my good friend Dominic Guerin who was one of the main and original founding members of SPK back in the late 1970s and another old friend known in the experimental scene in Oz named Jon Evans. This will be released under the name of Last Dominion Lost, and the title of the CD and vinyl album will be The Tyranny of Distance. It is in parts somewhat similar in sound perhaps to Leichenschrei period SPK – make up your own mind. That seems to be about it for now I guess!!