For a simple rock and roll gig to attain legendary status, it must induce an element of fiction in its retelling. The people must whisper and proclaim and brag about it as though it wasn't quite real; a strange blip on the space-time continuum that allowed a thousand fans to squeeze into a room made for a hundred. Legends, by definition, tend to skirt the supernatural.
They also, by definition, belong to a previous era. The Sex Pistols at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, Public Enemy at Hammersmith Odeon, Throbbing Gristle's Prostitution Show at the ICA – take the venue's capacity and double it, and that's the number of fans who'll tell you, “I was there.” But the show that sowed the seed for this interview? Well, that was no simple rock and roll gig – and these are no ordinary legends.
And talking of Throbbing Gristle, those perverse pioneers of avant-garde noise and the shape-shifting genre we still call 'industrial', it's one half of that now defunct operation who sit before me today, forming two-thirds of a pan-generational supergroup which, following their single one hour show in May 2011, is also effectively defunct.
Last year, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti (who've been releasing music as Chris & Cosey, and latterly Carter Tutti, since Throbbing Gristle first disbanded in 1981), called in Nik Void of London-based industrial resurrectionists Factory Floor, just before a gig they had lined up at Camden's Roundhouse, part of a two-day festival organised by record label Mute. A week of bashing about at Carter and Tutti's home and studio in Norfolk was enough to nail down a 40 minute set, but they still had no idea how the show would turn out.
“Nik came to the studio in the house, and we just did some improvising together to see how well we gelled and and if we liked the foundation that Chris had prepared for us,” says Tutti, speaking from underneath the same dark fringe that framed her face at the ICA in 1976, when a Tory MP infamously dubbed Throbbing Gristle “wreckers of civilisation” for their naked, blood-smeared performance art.
That urge to provoke a spontaneous event has run through Carter and Tutti's work for decades, from experimental happenings in the '70s as part of art collective COUM Transmissions, to the disjunct between Throbbing Gristle's recorded output and their knife-edge live performances. The one-off Carter Tutti Void show was no exception.
“The main thing was to keep it as fresh as possible, so we just did two run-throughs, didn't we? And then we said right, let's take it to the Roundhouse and see what happens,” says Tutti. “And the atmosphere in the room was so good that it kind of fed the whole thing and it just became this, like, not even a monster – it was a wonderful kind of feeling in the room, and it just built and built and just flowed. I mean, I can't remember doing much, really, can you?”
“No!” says Void, prompting laughter from the ex-TG pair. They've listened back to it many times and still find it hard to distinguish the sounds each player was responsible for.
“I even think now, well, who's doing that? Because quite often you're answering each other,” says Tutti.
“I pretty much knew what I was doing, but I couldn't really pick out between them two what they were doing,” adds Carter, who provided the drum sequences that underpinned Tutti and Void's groaning, grating guitar manipulations.
“We all developed our own language,” explains Void. “Cosey and I occupy a similar space within music, but when we met and started playing together we realised we occupied a different tone, and that allowed us to have this question and answer session, and we just built on that didn't we? It was a listening process, as opposed to remembering what we'd done before and learning to play something.”
What was that difference in tone? “We both play guitars manipulated through electronics, and I think [Cosey's] are slightly deeper to mine – mine's really high and Cosey's is quite low, and they just seemed to work together in an almost animalistic way.”
“It's very different live than in the studio,” adds Tutti. “Once you get through a PA it has a power, a momentum all of its own, and that's what you jump on and you ride with it. And that combination, with the audience as well and the energy in the room, I think that's what really generated the whole piece."
The trio performed without fuss or embellishment, under stark lights among a landscape of cables, boxes and machines.
“You saw the mechanics of the process, that's what it was about,” says Tutti. “That's what's so good about the audience, 'cos they're aware that you're creating it, it's not playback, it's not regurgitating songs they've heard before, so they are part of the process.”
“And how the audience reacted definitely influenced how we played,” adds Carter.
The resulting album, Transverse, is a guttural rasp from the ravaged carcass of machine music, a white-hot flash of metal-on-metal like replicants rutting on an rusted iron stage. Practically no one was there that night in the Roundhouse's tiny second room: perhaps a hundred or two, and it was bursting at the seams, so much so that this writer was turned away and had to make do with a pumping rave revival set from Moby in the main room.
But reports of a mesmerising and visceral performance from the trio trickled through, sowing that seed needed to grow a legend. The way these things work, three or four hundred people now confidently state that they bore witness to the birth, life and premature death of Carter Tutti Void. And the legend spread with the help of a stonkingly sharp artefact of that performance, released in March this year.
“We took along a little recorder, just to record it for historical purposes,” says Carter, “but we didn't know there was this massive OB [outside broadcasting] truck out the back recording! We thought we'd got a little recording and then Mute said, oh, we've got a multitrack recording of it from the desk! That's why it sounds as good as it does, I mean, it sounds like a studio album almost, it doesn't sound like a live album.”
Usually, the three of them find themselves recording at home – Carter and Tutti in the studio they've been building since the '80s, and Void with Factory Floor in their London warehouse – in a long, considered process. 'Transverse', in contrast, was rehearsed and recorded in the space of a few weeks. Was it a refreshing change to their usual approach?
“It's amazing,” laughs Void, as Carter adds, “I wish we could do it all the time!”
“Sometimes I wonder what the outcome would be if we decided to spend two months together working on something,” says Void. “I think it would be a very different record, and that's what's so great about this, it's such an honest record, it's just honestly what was coming out of us at that time. Sometimes when you meet people and you get chemistry it doesn't get recorded, and that's kind of what ['Transverse'] is.”
An undeniable part of the record's slow-burn success this year is its hypnotic cover, a mind-bending piece of monochrome op art that seems to quiver in front of your eyes. Once you've seen it, the urge to purchase it is overwhelming.
“I thought it would be nice to have something that actually moved when you went near it, rather than just sit there and be a pretty picture,” says Tutti. “So for me it was all about the fact that it's got a bit of energy there, unsuspectingly, and you think, what was that? It also speaks about the actual concept of the thing, the three of us together, the transverse – Nik's sort of cutting across the Carter Tutti part here, and we have jointly cut across what she's done with Factory Floor, and that's what it's all about.”
None of the three is a trained musician, and they all agree that their lack of knowledge is a vital element of their music. Have they consciously avoided learning too much about their craft?
“You obtain your own skillset through what you do,” says Carter.
“You become proficient in your own style,” Tutti agrees. “I was taught to play the piano when I was 11, but...”
“You don't play piano!” laughs Chris. “I started stripping it down and playing it like a harp, it just sounded better! The thing is, I've never felt that a structured formula for music was a vehicle for me to express my feelings. Someone else wrote how to do that. They weren't me. I don't see how that could even be possible.”
Their efforts to take the recording process into their own hands and avoid prescriptive musical structures neatly reflects the philosophy of self-reliance that both bands take seriously. Do they see themselves as overtly political, still?
“I think the music both [Nik] and us make is a protest in its own way,” says Tutti.
“The music industry is pretty hard work at the moment, so we decide how to put things out and who with,” says Void. “We don't want to restrict ourselves to one label, which I guess is a kind of protest against doing things the normal way, and we try really hard to be self-sufficient. I think that's how we were raised by TG, you know?”
“There's lots of parallels,” agrees Carter.
The problem with playing by your own rules is that it can leave us fans pretty disappointed. Carter Tutti Void played four songs and immediately evaporated. They're sitting in front of me now, but as far as being an active band goes, they're no longer a going concern. So come on – might there be more from Carter Tutti Void in the future?
“We've had loads of offers to do gigs,” says Tutti, “[but] people would go along expecting to hear the album. Just by the nature of the way we did it the first time, it's gonna have to be different every time.”
“That's exactly how I felt,” agrees Void. “If we worked together in the studio it probably wouldn't have the same energy. It would have to be something completely unique and different.”
While we wait for the trio to work out how they might ever collaborate again, Void continues to work on Factory Floor's first proper full-length album, due out next year, which follows the single 'Two Different Ways' released on DFA in November. The band also recently collaborated with artist Hannah Sawtell at the ICA, a move that uncannily parallels Throbbing Gristle's association with the London art gallery, though presumably with less accompanying tabloid hysteria.
Meanwhile, Carter and Tutti are wrapping up Throbbing Gristle for good with the release of a double album, the first half of which is a cover of Nico's maudlin classic Desertshore, featuring vocals from an estimable cadre of artists including Antony Hegarty, French film director Gaspar Noé and porn star-turned-musician Sasha Grey. They'd been working on it with former Throbbing Gristle bandmate Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson until his unexpected death in 2010.
“Someone said, just after he died, will you be finishing Desertshore for him?” says Tutti. “And we said yeah, of course we will – kneejerk reaction. We couldn't work on it for quite a while because it was just too upsetting, but then as we started working it kind of formed itself, it had a lovely momentum about it and it wasn't at all angst ridden, was it? The tracks came together almost like magic.”
The Final Report, a collection of tracks completed from the last sessions with Sleazy in 2009 and 2010, completes the double album and the lifespan of Throbbing Gristle. With performances of those records still a possibility, and the couple's own far-reaching back catalogue still to be added to, it somehow seems unlikely that Carter Tutti Void will get a second airing.
Or does it? Is there the slightest chance of another record? They glance at each other, smiling.
“Possibly,” says Carter.
“Yes,” adds Void.
Tutti adds the final word. “I don't see how we can say no, really,” she smiles.