Today I speak with Paul Jamrozy and Graham Cunnington, of the innovative and highly-engaging UK-based musical act, Test Dept – a group which gives new meaning to the expression, “brutal honesty”.
This is because Test Dept has ever been raining blows upon inanimate objects, albeit in a percussive and poly-rhythmic fashion.
To the uninitiated, these sounds may seem disorganized and shrill, and perhaps even…maddening.
If you’ve seen the musical “Stomp”, imagine that briefly, if you will. Then, replace those happy-go-lucky performers with staunch political activists, and then invite Ogre, Al Jourgensen, and all of Einstürzende Neubauten to the party. This might give your “normal” individual, who may not get out much, some approximation of the sonic scenario here, although, that description is oversimplifying things quite a lot.
In any case, the skittish and faint of heart may be unlikely to enter a venue with Test Dept on the marquee, particularly if they are aware of the group. The sound of a rabid gray wolf baying outside their front door may prove to be more soothing aurally to such an individual.
However abstract and disjointed Test Dept’s on-stage presence may seem to people who have always tended to bathe in the jaw-slackening sounds of pop music, there is, and has always been, a game plan and purpose behind everything Test Dept does. And there are also those that know this, and appreciate their activities.
For the record, Test Dept is known globally for their impassioned live shows, and for their use of industrial “found” material (ie. scrap metal), refashioned into more purposeful instruments, with which they make their unique music.
They have been interpreting the world around them and converting it into vigorous sound since 1981, when they emerged in New Cross, London. Their mission to make music with a built-in purpose continues to this day.
With over a dozen members come and gone over the past almost-30 years, and many collaborators to speak of, Test Dept has been quite prolific, developing a formidable body of work. This is work that may certainly be deemed influential to anyone who knows how to recognize when influence has been passed along the winding corridors of modern culture, as modern culture has a distinct tendency towards wilful forgetfulness.
If you’ve seen some of Test Dept’s video output, you will know they are, in addition to being very rhythmic, visually stimulating and cinematic.
Here is a clip called Program for Progress to demonstrate what I mean.
Recently, the core members of Test Dept has re-formed in order to take the stage once again, motivated by the curious goings-on in global culture. It is they who I had a chance to put some questions to. Luckily, they responded.
So, to delay no further, here is my interview with Test Dept, where we discuss a variety of topics. We start, as logic would dictate, at the very beginning.
For those who don’t know the band or its history, Test Dept, by your own admission, emerged from a decaying culture in South London in the early 1980’s. So much so that you literally grabbed hold of pieces of that crumbling world and started making music with them. Do you remember the first time you did this, and the circumstances around it?
GC: We had been living in Amsterdam when the idea for Test Dept emerged. We relocated to the docklands of South London where we were surrounded by the inevitable consequence of Thatcher’s destruction of the heavy industry and manufacturing economic base in favour of a service economy.
PJ: Corrugated sheeting, empty beer barrels, gas cylinders, car springs, they were everywhere around us. Deptford Creekside was our playground, we wandered around the old decaying factories, rummaged on the banks of the Thames and scavenged in the scrapyards that proliferated the area.
Was your music, in the beginning, more a reaction to the music at the time, or the politics? For example, were you bothered at all by the disco duck?
PJ: It began more as a noise thing, a reaction to where we had been after punk, we had a sense of unfinished business. The post punk period, with the wide spectrum of new experimental music that poured out was all very liberating. The politics were already there but developed rapidly with the hate figure of Thatcher to oppose, The Falklands War, followed by the ‘English Civil War’ that was the ‘Miners Strike’ and the wars kept coming. Must say, Disco duck never really caught on in Deptford but must confess it is quite irritatingly catchy.
Do you feel your music is “atonal” or “noise”? For instance, do you think of it as such, or do you think of it as perhaps “nice” or “relaxing” but maybe just an “acquired taste”? Or are you more of the mindset that “yes, it’s an awful racket, but we love it!”?
PJ: I think you pass through a number of states and emotions in the performing and listening modes. Sometimes you had to go through the pain barrier to reach a crescendo or release and that was true of the audience too. Not everybody got that but those who did were very passionate about it. To us it wasn’t an infernal racket; it was co-ordinated and constructed into a giant machine in which we were all components, that sense of utilitarian unity gave us a vision of building something immense and beyond individualist egos.
Once you make an album using pieces of discarded metal and whatnot, does that metal hold any sentimental place in your heart, or do you simply shove it back into the sea or the scrapyard from whence it came? In other words, do you consider yourselves pioneers of worldwide recycling, or are you simply riding the waves of detritus and scrap as it crests, and then surfing away in the opposite direction once the wave crashes down?
PJ: Well we have had some fabulous pieces over the years but through our own transient lives, lack of a continuous space to work in, etc. Many fabulous pieces were lost such as our giant ten-foot trumpet and the sputniks (antique 1950s brewery barrels made of a very distinctive alloy); but some were just too big to keep, like the ten ton tank that nearly brought the Albany Empire ceiling crashing down. Some took a beating and were just destroyed in action.
Bands like Coil, or maybe someone like Alec Empire, seem to have taken a sound you created and distilled it into more palatable tones with some of their albums. Have you ever thought of doing something more contemplative and “new age-y” in the same way as something like Time Machines (Coil) or Low On Ice (Alex Empire)? Hell, even Throbbing Gristle made that “funk” album, right? Perhaps have a sexy female voice singing “skulls crack” could open you up to…ah, forget it.
PJ: I think we have always been diverse in working with a variety of styles including some ambient tracks, think Plastic (Beating the Retreat), Comrade Enver Hoxha (Unacceptable Face of Freedom) and female vocalists, Nadka (Terra Firma), Gododdin the album with Brith Gof and Totality the album with Katie- Jane Garside.
You have long been associated with the “art” world, whether it be performance, sculpture, concept art, and various counterculture and subversive movements within the “art” world, some dating back decades if not centuries. How comfortable are you being associated with the art world in general?
PJ: The ‘art world’ is far too general a term, we do not sell commodified work to an art market and whilst appreciating work aesthetically, we find that this art world, as an arbiter of taste, is distasteful and totally removed from our lives. However it is true to say we have many artistic influences going back to the movements of Dada, Futurism, Constructivism in the early part of the last century; and on to the multi media of Fluxus, the political stance of the Situationists and other radical art movements in the latter part of the last century. These movements and the art produced was indeed revolutionary and critical of the society it evolved into, using art as a vehicle to expand horizons, or to create visions of a new world of possibilities.
Obviously, Test Dept has no problem making “regular” people uncomfortable with your music, both in recordings and live performance. Surely, even as new people get exposed to your music, they are still as uncomfortable now as they were when you first arrived on the scene. There will always be suburbanites and people racing down Wall Street who, at most, would cast you a disdainful and utterly fed up / confused glare. Assuming you have always enjoyed people’s squirming discomfort at what you bring to the table, do you still enjoy it today?
GC: There are certainly some artists who’s main focus seems to be on making people uncomfortable in a sonic sense, but this is not our aim. We make music that we feel reflects and comments on the world around us, which at the moment is pretty uncomfortable. Our sonic palette is partly gathered from our surroundings and not based on standard ideas of ‘musicality’ (although harmony and melody can have their place at times). There is certainly beauty, and even musicality, in noise. Sound is just vibrating air and all objects that vibrate to make a sound when hit or plucked or bowed (or simply turned on in the case of mechanical objects) are potential instruments; its just about how one perceives or places them. What is comfortable for some is uncomfortable for others – before the C20th atonal music was considered uncomfortable (if not incomprehensible), now it is accepted as a mainstream musical form. It’s all down to perception and taste.
What are your thoughts on bands that people consider to be flag bearers of industrial music who came along after you like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails? Has your influence on them been acknowledged by them, or anyone else, and what do you think of what they’re doing in relation to what you’re doing?
PJ: Trent Reznor has made positive statements recognizing our influence (in fact he has said that NiN are not industrial but rather have industrial influences) but it is not something that really concerns us. In media terms we were pushed to the periphery having not had the majority of our back catalogue available for many years. That was why it was important to publish the ‘Total State Machine’ book to show our history and all the diverse projects that took us into many unchartered waters way beyond the industrial.
I think the majority of these American ‘industrial’ bands are more akin to traditional rock bands that have incorporated electronic and noise elements into their sound, which is fine. However I think we come from a different place, a very European heritage of found sound, electronic experimentation, the classical avant-garde and noise aesthetic with a heavy load of tribal drums thrown in for good measure.
What can you say about Some Bizarre Records, in terms of how the label operated and some of your label mates. In relation to the last question, bands like Einstürzende Neubauten seem to be a more an apt comparison to Test Dept vs. a band like NIN, but is that how you see it, or do yourself as having nothing to do with any of these groups?
PJ: Some Bizarre were responsible for bringing many of the best experimental and alternative acts under one roof and were almost untouchable for a long period. All these acts were very different but shared a sense of creative adventure that is rare. We were always fiercely independent while recognizing that which we had in common with bands like Neubauten, Laibach and others, which was largely our sense of being European in the midst of the cold war.
As the world seems to get only more zany and steeped in various real and imagined conspiracies, how do you see your place in it today?
GC: We try to comment on what we see around us in the real world. Conspiracies used to be political or industrial cover-ups of power-plays or incidents involving subterfuge, mistakes or outrages; these days they are often whole world-views, propagated and expounded upon by a multitude of voices requiring little or no concrete evidence. Anything can be extracted and extrapolated to fit any theory if only limited and specific data is highlighted as proof.
PJ: We have entered a new era of what has been termed ‘Surveillance Capitalism’, where every action, every click is monitored, captured and sold. Information is on the money. Avoiding Facebook or other capture vehicles only slightly minimizes the risk. Be under no illusions the Trojan horse is already within all of our firewalls. You have been Googled.
Test Dept – Selected Discography
History – The Strength of Metal in Motion (1982)
Ecstacy Under Duress (1983)
The Unacceptable Face of Freedom (1986)
Terra Firma (1988)
Bang On It (1993)
Tactics For Evolution (1997)