Wriggle Like An Eel: The Primal 'Afro Noise' Of Cut Hands
"Seats are classy, noise is not." Such was the reply from @justinsnow after I'd expressed my own dissatisfaction at a seated noise show just outside of Washington, D.C. To be fair, Pyramid Atlantic, in Silver Spring, Md., is an art gallery, a space more conducive to contemplation than spastic motion, but on a recent night, there was a primal body ritual at war with our senses: The rhythmic Afro-voodoo-noise of Cut Hands.
Cut Hands is William Bennett of the influential noise provocateurs Whitehouse. Since 1980, Whitehouse has screeched feedback and screamed hate across the U.K. And 30 years later, the extreme "power electronics" and truly disturbing lyrics of Psychopathia Sexualis are still like a bulldozer in a dress shop, making Odd Future look like kids playing with Tonka Trucks in a sandbox.
Released quietly last year on Bennett's own label, you almost had to know Afro Noise, Vol. 1 was something new from the Whitehouse camp. But track the evolution of Bennett's career and Cut Hands is not only the next logical step for Whitehouse, but for noise itself. He uses traditional Ghanaian and Haitian percussion to create ecstatic dance music that's at once primal and futuristic. Beats clang and rupture like an industrial drum circle, unsettlingly deep and throbbing bass rattles the core, and buzzing, sun-dripped drones tie it all together.
Looking quite dapper in a black suit jacket and purple button-up, it wouldn't be long into his continuous, hour-long performance that Bennett started — to borrow a PG version of a Whitehouse lyric — wriggling like an eel, seated patrons be damned. Before his performance, however, Bennett and I talked about the Santeria priest that introduced him to African instruments, unconscious music and dancing at noise shows.
NPR: Recently, there was a great piece on Pitchfork about the "regression" of noise — getting quieter, more minimal. Many of the past decade's bigger names in noise — members of Wolf Eyes, C. Spenser Yeh, John Wiese — have scaled down their extremity. Cut Hands is by no means minimal or quiet, but it is far more rhythmic. And noise has gone that direction, too, with artists like Pete Swanson. Have you noticed this trend? What do you think of it in the context of noise's history?
WB: Well, you know, I'm not really a musicologist, so it's not really for me to comment on other people's — I do what I do and what is, is and what isn't, isn't, if you know what I mean. In speaking for myself, which I'm more qualified to do, I accept that it is in some ways more accessible through the presence of rhythms. That said, [it's] so much more complex than the kinds of rhythms that people tend to refer to. What I mean by complex is that the brain can't process them in the way where you can just tap your foot and know where each beat is coming.
So, yes, there are definite rhythms and the brain recognizes them as rhythms and there's a degree of repetition, and, yet, at the same time the brain can't process the complexity of it in a way to predict what is coming up next. Therefore, we're operating in a realm somewhere between the two places.
The other aspect is that there aren't vocals and so you don't have this conscious language experience that you would get if someone is singing. To compensate for that, in the live setting there are visuals and other aspects that I call "transparent concessions." Essentially, the intent is the same: basically, to blow people's f------ minds.
NPR: It almost sounds like you're describing unconscious music.
WB: Well, everything is unconscious to a degree. Every form of communication contains unconscious communication. The difference is whether the unconscious communication is being designed in a particular way or not. Do you see what I mean?
People respond to everything, you know. People cannot not respond to something. The real question is how much design has gone into the unconscious part of the communication. And in the case of Cut Hands, an enormous part has gone into that. That's most of what the music I do represents — [it's] designed at an unconscious level. It's specifically engineered transparent concessions.
NPR: What does "transparent concessions" mean?
It's a term I use, which — briefly — refers to the use of imperceptible methods of achieving what you previously might have considered impossible to achieve — for example, in another context it'd be like a magician making an elephant disappear. As far as Cut Hands is concerned, and to put it another way, it's part of my interest in how a person experiences the experience of music rather than the traditional focus on the "experience." Hope that makes some kind of sense. I can't elucidate beyond that without compromising its transparent-ness.
NPR: I know you've been interested in African music for some time, but what, specifically, drew you to it? How long have you been studying it?
WB: It goes back about 15-20 years now. It's been a long time. Although the Cut Hands album came out last May, if you've been following Whitehouse the last few years, you would've heard elements of African percussion.
The inspiration all started from a Cuban friend of mine who was a Santeria priest, Santerias kind of being similar to Voodoo in Cuba. And he spent a long time, several years, in the Congo region part of the United Nations with some tribes there. I learned an enormous amount from him. It was very inspirational in terms of creating music that was as intense as what I was doing already and, yet, using completely different ways of achieving that.
NPR: Have you studied African music formally?
WB: Yeah, originally I was classically trained when I was a teenager. I don't know where I went wrong along the way. [Laughs.] When I got a collection of Ghanaian instruments to use — not so much to play African music because what I do isn't African music. It's my own music. At the same time, I wanted to understand about the instruments themselves; in other words, what they represent as artifacts. So I did some djembe classes and doum doum classes — less to do with the music and more to do with just understanding and respecting the instruments.
NPR: Was there a specific eureka moment when you realized that these two musics could co-exist?
WB: That's a very good question. I'm always terrified of falling in love too much with my own music. I think it's very easy to fall into the trap of making music and thinking, "Oh, that's the greatest thing." So I'm very wary about doing stuff and thinking it's good. It takes a long time to be able to judge it neutrally, if you like.
So it seemed like an amazing possibility and, yet, it took a long time myself it was the best idea. The first experiment with it was "Wriggle like a F------ Eel" and I had terrible misgivings about releasing a Whitehouse record with African drums on it. I thought that this could be a terrible, terrible idea, even up to when it was released. I was very unsure if it was the right thing to do. It was only much later that I thought, "Oh yeah, oh yeah, it was really cool."
NPR: Do noise kids dance at Cut Hands shows?
WB: Yeah! I think you'll find a lot depends on — I mean, for example, tonight's show is all seated, so that might preclude any dance. [Laughs.] I've learned a lot of it depends on the physiology of the environment. So if you play in place where people dance, like a club or a disco — and in Europe, that happens a lot — then you'll find that people go absolutely crazy, I mean, almost to the extent of frothing at the mouth. It affects me in the same exact way. It's very difficult for me to resist.
In a rock-type venue, they're not really designed — architecturally speaking — for dancing, so it's much more difficult for people to initiate.
To answer your question, there are probably two elements to whether people dance or not. One is obviously the music itself. There's got to be some component of the music that encourages that. And the second component is the actual context in which it takes place. We're all deeply affected by the space around us or the people around us much more than we like to think. Why do people when they go to an art gallery, why do they whisper? That doesn't make any sense when you think about it. And, yet, people do. They're being affected profoundly by the space they're in.
NPR: So I know that Whitehouse got its name from Mary Whitehouse and a porno mag of the same name, but have you ever been to the White House here in Washington, D.C.?
WB: Yeah, I have. A long time ago in the early mid-'80s I think it was. I think there's pictorial proof of that as well. I wasn't invited in. [Laughs.]
NPR: Where does Whitehouse sit now you're putting it to the side for the moment?
WB: You know, I'm not really good at multi-tasking, so it's not something I can have going on simultaneously. While I'm doing Cut Hands, I just don't know. Everything I've been doing has been with Cut Hands and it's been fantastic. I'm absolutely thrilled how people have responded to it. I just don't what's going to happen with Whitehouse while Cut Hands is still going on.