For some punk had come to destroy rock n roll and once the trad rock fabric was ripped all manner of ideas were explored in the post punk hinterland. Post punk itself is experimental to an extent put Test Department and their fellow travellers in the so called industrial music scene were revolutionary in every sense of the word – politically and musically.
Found sound, unconventional instruments pulled out of skips and non mainstream venues.
This was the new landscape
In the post punk hinterland all manner of ideas were flying around. Formed in New Cross in 1981 , Test Department were one of a number of disparate acts who reacted to this new environment and space for ideas eschewing the trad rock of guitars and riffs and utilising the found sound of metal percussion and empty warehouse space to create what has been termed industrial music. This was a loose scene of fellow travllers along with a whole cabal of partly affiliated fellow travellers like Laibach and Einsturzende Neubauten except that Test Department – noisier cousins of the prime innovators like Throbbing Gristle – took a more British root and created a new kind of metallic clanking folk music for the turbulent times that reflected the antagonistic politics of the Falklands war and miners strike in intense and energetic performances of ideas innovation and action.
It’s been a long time since we heard from the band but a new book Total State Machine that documents their fascinating history has been printed with many events to promote it lined up and to make sense of their unique archive and history. For more details on the book and upcoming events please go to the band’s website.
Louder Than War caught up with Graham Cunnington and Angus Farquhar to discuss the band’s unique and innovative history.
LTW Is the book finally an attempt to look back and make sense of your history.
GC ‘It’s partly that and an exploration of a time when we had the freedom to explore in terms of ways and means to create possibilities and in terms of the what we did in the empty spaces and the derelict buildings where we created these environments and to be able do the big shows impossible nowadays.’
LTW We always say at LTW that all great art comes from having space as well as being a reflection of the environment of the musician.
GC ‘Yes. And we were using the environment as an instrument as well in a sense as we took the instruments from objects that were around us in a bid to get to the back to basics of primitive punk as it was originally. It was just everywhere around us – the materials that we could work with. We were unemployed, on the dole, with no money. The music was kind of made by the surrounding environment as well. We were also interested in going into those spaces to perform and using them and bringing audiences into different spaces not seen as rock n roll that people were used to being in.’
LTW It’s a common thing now
GC ‘Now they have theatrical events in unusual spaces all the time like arches or warehouse spaces, it was all sorts of things. Back then it was unusual to use even warehouses. Looking back at material we used we realised that it would be impossible now but then the instruments were not readily available. It was a whole different thing being able to make your own music outside the system which has a whole different meaning now.’
LTW In the early eighties it was self made
GC ‘We had the freedom to make music the way we wanted with what was there. In a way the Akai and Fairlights would cost 3000 pounds a day to hire and that would be beyond us so we have to make our own sounds.
AF ‘We talk a lot in the book about early recordings in Cold Storage studio in Brixton which was This Heat’s place. A whole subculture of groups used that studio. We got the AMS for a session but nobody knew how to work it and we were learning it as we went along. It was very experimental and not the clean sampling fashion like these days. We also did try to use electronic gear and experiment with it. Daniel Millar said something about how punk music was for the masses but you had to know how to play but with synth music you just put your finger on the key and played it and you had a song but that kind of equipment wasn’t cheap unless you had a major label backing you!”
LTW Poverty was a driving force and the only limit is your imagination?
GC ‘It developed from that and we also had the live thing where we created a very intense visceral performance. It was quite a cathartic performance. On record we experimented as much as could could but we couldn’t reproduce it doer the live performance. The visual aspect worked well onstage but we couldn’t reproduce that on record. We never really translated that to record but the equipment in the studio that forced us to find new spaces.’
AF ‘We were very open people. People like Ken Thomas, loved to experiment and play around with the studio and use it as a tool rather than as a means to an end.’
LTW When you started the project was it to something that more trad? and was it that there was no equipment to dictate the sound you made?
AF ‘From the outset when visual director Brett Turnball who did the slides and film for our multi-media events came and saw our first show and really saw the potential in how we developed. That resulted in the imagery and the Soviet type stuff and into the much more coherent aesthetic that worked with what we were doing and made everything work in a much more sophisticated kind of way. It was a real melting pot of of ideas.’
When you started did you try and form a normal band ?
GC ‘We were interested in creating something new, not assimilating into the rock thing like punk had done. We wanted to do something with that feel of punk but was actually making a new type of music. Punk had been an inspiration for us – bands like the Sex Pistols, Television then the Ruts all showing there were possibilities with that kind of music.’
AF ‘In a lot of ways it was the dub aspect of reggae that became far more than a token thing for us with its more experimental playing around with the sound that was big for us. The assimilation of punk spoiled and it just seemed to become very nihilistic at times. We wanted to take that anger that we felt as young men in a difficult environment and construct something far more constructive for ourselves. It was not up its arse like punk had become. Everyone wanted to be Sid Vicious but that was all dead and buried by then. The Pop Group were great, that slightly jazz thing and that sort of stuff that was far more open to possibilities also Throbbing Gristle and people like that.’
LTW Was the inspiration TG or their fellow travellers reacting to the possibilities of punk?
GC ‘We had the experimental sensibility or attitude or whatever it as well. We were fellow travellers in that sense and in terms of our instrumentation which was industrial.’
AF ‘We didn’t see ourselves as part of industrial. It was only when later on that people see similarities and connections. Industrial is a very broad church and it only becomes a genre by looking at it from the outside.
Back to the book and the archive and in retrospect we were the most industrial band of them all actually in that we used industrial equipment and engaged with people who worked within industry and worked in industrial spaces.’
Were you aware of Neubauten in Berlin and Laibach in Llubijana?
GC ‘We were aware of people coming through we were interested in music and we were always interested in experimental musical forms. Obviously we had influences from all sorts. In terms of what things became all those groups were very different and I would not call it industrial certainly. Our trigger was when we went to Amsterdam and saw Z’ed perform on a big lorry with springs and that was our first connection with him. We had already been talking about rhythm and voices and not guitars and Z’ed was the trigger to explore this.’
AF ‘In terms of individuality there was something exciting about Z’ed in what he was doing. It was quite dangerous with him hurtling around stage chucking springs about and attacking them. That kind of approach was really exciting. We actually started working together as a group and tried to take that aggression and make it far more disciplined and in a way more collective sense. That was we worked together as a unit. There were different roles in the machine that became cogs in the machine in that sense and that put us apart from other groups. We were not promoting ourselves as individuals or egos. We were part of this thing that we had created ourselves. We were the machine.’
LTW Even the band was a machine! how industrial is that!
GC ‘We developed quite early on and we were soon using different things like brass and weird things. We were always interested in different textures and stuff. We used more drums as we went along. Then we started working with different people who were interested in developing the musicality in a different way. It was always a mixture of elements. We have worked with different musicians and brass sections john Earcott did lots of brass arrangements early on when we transposed an orchestra and choir. We were always experimenting with different ways of sound and also the themes of the music developed and changed sometimes it went a bit crazy nd sometimes it was quite interesting like with the Beltane Fire ritualistic rhythmic stuff. There was plenty of development in sound and musical equipment. We stayed away from the song formulae and from getting too close to the normal musical framework but sometimes we did and to our detriment! with the acid house thing we saw that as a grass roots music and a political movement that we felt more akin with. At the time, from the early 90s onwards we got more involved with that and with the new technology of sequencing and sampling and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.’
AF ‘Certainly in the UK there wasn’t those connections in Europe at the time and that kind of changed over time and later on we found places like Italy had connected with the Mutoids who had gone out there. There became an exodus from the UK of like minded people who found it too difficult to operate in Britain because of the covert police tactics and there were groups all over Europe and we started to connect with people. There was something quite vibrant going on in parts of Germany. It was an evolving landscape really and we were evolved to some degree with that.’
LTW Did acid house affect your work?
GC ‘There was an hedonistic aspect of it that not really us but we did have a tendency to be interested in interesting events in huge warehouse spaces, stuff like that we were already doing that. It was certainly refreshing and the early acid parties were partly very much having a kind of similarity with what we were doing. In the book we talk about it and the formation of dance space and experimental ties to it that were similar events in that kind of sense.’
AF ‘It was down to the individual. It certainly had an influence. We had been working on stuff for ten years and the shows had got bigger and bigger. In a a way it had become so huge that we became quite detached from what going on. We needed to get back down to grass roots instead of expanding and it was quite nice to focus on the music and playing and working with new technology. Angus had left and gone to Scotland to do theatrical and large event based work and the rest rest of us came back to London and started something afresh- things developed from there really.’
LTW politics was always key to the aesthetic
GC ‘There certainly were always there from the beginning, bringing in the more focussed, anti authoritarian view from punk. we had an integral thing that was always to be to the left/slightly anarcho feel. I think we focused on that from the beginning. The themes were more more sophisticated as went on. We looked at propaganda and looked at it from an outside view. It developed as Thatcher got worse with us resolving that was our direction and it got more focussed with the dialogue. In the end, with miner’s struggle, there was no way you could ignore that. You had to decide which side you were on. There was the introduction of the free market and we were against that. These things were all part of the dialogue.’
AF ‘It came before the miners really. Before that there was the Falkland war and seeing how people so easily manipulated. At that time Thatcher unpopular and then became a hugely popular national leader people for the very patriotic with the waving of union Jacks around and Thatcher was driving tanks around and you realised at that point that you had to decide where you stood. The miners were our natural allies I suppose to build that relationship with.’
LTW what was miners reaction to this bunch of metal bashing weirdos turning up playing mad music for them!
GC ‘It was straight away that we connected. Everywhere we went people’s reaction was the same about this music is speaking to us and people recognised that. The mining communities were working hard and they liked the live show because of the similar physicality. The show was sort of like being down the pit.’
AF ‘It was always an icebreaker and they would say I do that for a living myself!’
GC ‘we had images of the Orgreave riot going up behind us whilst making this music and people got it straight away. We were making a soundtrack to these times with images of what going on. People got it. It was odd to have this what was perceived as a conservative culture in terms of a traditional outlook even if revolutionary idealistically to have something very urban and something completely different. It could have been a shock to their system but they took it on board and that was our greatest moment.’
LTW : why did you decide to do the book?
AF It was difficult and a long process. We had tons of stuff and nowhere to place it really. We had kind of felt that we had been sidelined over the years due to record companies. We were off the radar and we wanted to address that. What we were doing in the eighties to the nineties was not recorded in the media at that time and it has now been written about in the book. Some of the stuff we were doing has been censored and the multimedia events were quite seminal in terms of public art. We wanted to put that back out there and for people to remember it.’
LTW Laibach are very good at creating a museum around themselves and do. What is the future now? telling history or creating new stuff?
GC ‘I think we needed to do the archiving to get the word out about our true story and our legacy out there. It was also just to get it out from under our feet. We may do some smaller electronic stuff not as Test Department because we don’t want to come back or go back.
AF ‘The aesthetic was always to use our surroundings but we don’t live in those surroundings any more and as much as we are quite happy to continue and talk about our history we want to move on. Laibach and Neubauten never needed to be historised because they were continuing over the years and we were not.
On this tour we are doing seminars and academic stuff in universities. There’s lots of places we can go to and open it up and see what possibilities there are and see what develops.’