There’s a long legacy of artists having bands. Mike Kelley, David Wojnarowicz, Yoko Ono, Richard Prince and Jean Michel Basquiat all had them. The artist Genesis P-Orridge started Throbbing Gristle because of what an old man at a pub told her. He was someone she’d regularly chat with and “he’d been gassed at the Somme in World War One and he had about two teeth,” she says. At the time, the Dada-influenced collective P-Orridge co-founded COUM Transmissions, which was getting a fair bit of press for their controversial performances, including live enemas and 10-inch nails. “I understand why you are doing these strange things, Gen, but what about the other people in this pub, would they understand?” the old man asked her. He suggested music as a way to reach a maximum amount of people with the same ideas, and this inspired P-Orridge to start her industrial band Throbbing Gristle in 1975.
Artists start bands for lots of reasons. The creative impulse to make music often comes from the same place as what inspires artists to make the other art they make, whatever that might be, paintings, sculptures, video installations. But the context music exists in — the clubs where it’s played—is far less pretentious, and more fun. Plus it gets artists out of the studio and up on stage. (And, as an aside perhaps, who gets laid more than musicians?)
Starting a band was in another era a fuck you to the lofty art world. In ArtForum in 1983, Kim Gordon wrote about the art school kids who started No Wave bands in the late 70s, of which she continued the lineage with Sonic Youth. “Their involvement in music, spurred on by the cynical, anarchistic aspects of punk rock, was an alternative to alignment with the art world.”
When P-Orridge looked to start making music, it was in part motivated by this feeling that “the art world was getting too precious, too careerist, and somewhat sterile.” While she felt that the art world favored being formulaic — “you had to repeat yourself over and over to succeed” — P-Orridge saw more potential to really challenge people to think about human behavior and our cultural programming through making music, precisely because she was untrained as a musician. “One person wrote even an ape with severed arms could play the bass guitar better than Genesis and I thought brilliant, we are certainly breaking down the musical traditions.”
This idea of deconstructing what’s been done in the past to make something new motivates artist-led music projects both then and now. With his band the Black Monks of Mississippi, sculptor and social practice artist Theaster Gates says he’s “kind of an interloper in the field of music” trying to find “what else is possible?” But these projects no longer exist outside the art world the way they once did. Even though it was formed as an alternative to it, Gordon notes that ironically the art world embraced the No Wave movement. These days anti-diva Kembra Pfahler, who fronts the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, is a darling of museums and blue chip galleries with work like butt prints and reproductions of posters promoting her band the playing at CGBGs.
Today we have a pretty expanded definition of art. If urban redevelopment or a mobile hair salon can be an art project then of course a band can be too, but also there’s a utility to welcoming these energized performances into hallowed institutional art spaces. Art bands and multi-hyphenate artist-DJs are mainstays of museum galas and youth-oriented programming, gallery openings after parties, and luxury brand-sponsored art events. For instance, Gates’s band played the Prada VIP club last month during Art Basel Miami Beach.
Today Gen X artists like Wolfgang Tillmans and Kai Althoff also have their musical side projects while millennials like Juliana Huxtable and James Ferraro work in both music and visual art as well as poetry, it’d be hard to say which one most prominently — in our post-internet age, it’s maybe easier to work across multiple mediums as most content ends up distributed online in some capacity anyways. But still, many artist-led music projects seem to follow in the lineage of those from an earlier era, conceiving of their performances more visually than a typical rock band — with think costumes, props, and video projections. Their approach can be more conceptual too, whether about meta-narrative or representation. And sometimes artists having a band can also be a fun collaborative project that’s a foil to an isolating studio practice.
I talked to members of six artist-led music projects — including the band that P-Orridge currently fronts, Psychic TV — about how they got started, how they navigate between art and music contexts, and their biggest influences.
IUD’s roots go back to Lizzi Bougatsos and Sadie Laska meeting in art school when they were 18. After they graduated, they moved together to New York in ‘97, sharing an apartment. “We were trying to be artists but we were poor and didn’t have studios. A way to be creative was to make music with your friends,” says Laska. They started the art rock band Actress with artist Amy Gartrell and painter-DJ Spencer Sweeney, who’s today a sometimes member of IUD.
Laska ended up moving to DC and Bougatsos got deeper into the music world, starting the world-music-infused electro pop band Gang Gang Dance in 2001. (In the early aughts, Bougatsos also had the metal band AngelBlood with artist Rita Ackermann.) When Bougatsos was touring in Japan with Gang Gang, she discovered this all-girl band with two drummers OOIOO, the side project of the Boredoms’ Yoshimi P-We. “I was absolutely blown away by them,” says Bougatsos, and it got her thinking who could I drum with? She heard Laska had been drumming in a band in DC and was moving back to New York. In 2004, they started IUD.
“When we started drumming together, Sadie and I had different styles but when we locked in that was key. There’d be these moments when we were totally synchronized and people were like you look like you’re about to have sex,” says Bougatsos. “Those moments are pretty primal and organic and for me that’s what drumming is all about.”
Bougatsos notes that some art bands are almost like “puppet theater,” but for her “instrumentation and musicality take precedent.” Still, with IUD, there’s more room for getting weird than with some of her other projects. “Gang Gang is very much traditionally a soundscape — we are crafting sound almost like an orchestra — and IUD is a soundscape too, a very loud soundscape, but also with IUD we never know where the performance could go,” she says. “One time in Zurich with IUD, I lost my voice and I put on this mask and just crawled around the space. Spencer Sweeney continued playing the drum kit and Sadie just followed me filming.”
Laska who’s primarily a painter, appreciates that the band is a welcome escape from working alone in the studio. “I’ve always liked collaborating, and Lizzi and I are great collaborators,” she says, “It comes from when we were in art school and we did weird performance pieces together.” Bougatsos adds, “We’re both capricorns. We’re both the same age. We grew up together. We just get it.”
After studying experimental film at Sarah Lawrence, JD Samson first became the video projectionist for Le Tigre and then later joined the band led by riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna (and in which artist Sadie Benning also played for a stint). “My input into that project was visual first. I actually never studied music,” says Samson, who today teaches at NYU Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music. “One of my classes is about where performance art and conceptual art meets music performance.”
Le Tigre, which Samson eventually joined as a proper band member, very much straddled the art and rock worlds. “We incorporated performance art, costume, choreography, and video, and I guess you could say all of that was conceptual art including the project in and of itself, which was really focused on the visibility of our feminist activist selves. Being on stage was almost the art project,” explains Samson adding, “Our music was sample based. We weren’t necessarily trained musicians in the sense we weren’t even working in a specific key.”
After Le Tigre went on hiatus in 2005, Samson and Johanna Fateman formed the band MEN, continuing to mix feminist politics with dance music and performance art-y sets. Bougatsos remembers, “JD would wear this TV box on top of her head. It reminded me of the Residents, that band with the eyeball heads.” On their 2013 sophomore album Labor, MEN had a song expressing support for Pussy Riot.
“After MEN took a break, I had been performing as JD Samson but I felt like I’d been relegated to the music world,” says Samson adding, “I was feeling a bit uncomfortable about that.” At a visual art residency, she started experimenting with rock sculptures and then incorporating them into performances. Last year at the Lower East Girls Club, she collaborated with other artists, performing with a shirt made of strung-together rocks, and at Ballroom Marfa, drilling into rocks. “I was using the drill and the rock as an instrument,” explains Samson.
These days, Samson also has the cheekily titled project New Band with No Name with musician Roddy Bottum (Faith No More, Imperial Teen). They played at the Kitchen accompanying a Laura Parnes film commenting on the Trump era. “Our song was called ‘Pretty Shitty,’ talking about how we’re all feeling pretty shitty apathy in our community,” says Samson. She’s hoping that the new band can incorporate some of her experiments with rocks as instruments in the future, too.
The origin story of Hairbone begins about a decade ago when their guitarist Nathan Whipple saw artist and frontman Raúl de Nieves performing at a Chelsea art gallery, where he was part of a group show. “Raúl was just amazing,” says Whipple, so he wrote him a letter suggesting that maybe they could collaborate. Together they started a band Try Cry Try and roped in their friend Jessie Stead to help out with video projections. Eventually the three of them became Hairbone — formerly Haribo, named after the German gummy company. “At first it wasn’t as musical with songs and stuff. It was kind of more just like a freak out, type of thing,” explains Stead. “We started to write songs more and made a set list that the freak outs would weave in and out of.”
The three-piece’s performances are full of wacky theatrics, wigs, and homemade props, like cardboard washing machines. The typical set up is Whipple on guitar, Stead on an electronic drum kit, and de Nieves on the mic foregrounding the performances with his hypnotic restless energy. In the past, they’ve described their music as “sexy clown, post butt-metal party anthems.” “We can play in a museum and the next time a bar or a basement,” says Stead. “It’s such a DIY thing. It’s been fascinating to have a museum present that. In a way, it’s sort of out of context in a museum but it’s also not. There’s a long history of art punk bands that we fall in line with.”
The band fits into the artists’ respective practices in different ways. de Nieves is interested in transformative experiences. “This live act opens up so many portals in the brain. The band has provided a platform for all three of us to release a sense of energy and anxiety,” he says adding that “the energy of the audience is just as important as the music.” Stead, in turn, explains that documenting the band is part of her video practice. “I think about the band as a story. Its life — its beginning, middle, and end — to me, it’s like a decade-long movie.”
de Nieves is influenced by bands like Bikini Kill and Le Tigre as well as avant-garde musicians like Philip Glass and John Cage. Stead links what Hairbone’s doing to other art bands like Mike Kelley’s Destroy All Monsters. And Whipple is inspired by the music that artist and friend Ryan Trecartin makes on FruityLoops for his absurd videos (in which the band members sometimes feature). See for yourself how these influences all come together in a raucous Hairbone performance when they play next Tuesday, February 5th at Trans Pecos in Brooklyn.
“Mhysa grew out of my studio work,” says Philly-based multimedia artist E. Jane about their alter-ego persona and music project. Jane started making lip sync videos in grad school, including them in early iterations of their ongoing Lavendra installation, which explores the legacy of the black diva through sci-fi mythology. “I love pop stars and singing these songs but I was doing it through this character because she’s more femme than me and more performative than me,” explains Jane, who uses the genderqueer pronoun they while their persona Mhysa uses she.
A professor in grad school suggested that Jane take the lip-sync performances more seriously. “I want sincerity from you,” he urged. Jane thought, “The realest thing would be if I were to make an album.” They submitted an EP as a midterm in grad school and Mhysa’s first full length album fantasii came out in 2017. “I do the graphic design, the production, sometimes the video editing,” says Jane. “I think a lot about it as total art or gesamtkunstwerk.” Other influences include ORLAN’s body performance, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s fictional Roberta Breitmore character, and riot grrrl rap persona Mykki Blanco.
“I’m really adamant about Mhysa not performing in a gallery because she’s not that type of an art piece. It would be too self referential like the snake eating its own tale. She performs out in the world,” says Jane, adding that club parties like GHE20G0TH1K are the ideal space. “Performance ephemera can go in the gallery, performance documentation can go in the gallery, but the live performance, I want that to go on a stage.”
Mhysa has toured prolifically this year across Europe and North America. The live act features DJ support by Jane’s partner and collaborator who makes makes music as lawd knows and art under his given name chukwumaa. Together the two artists also have the experimental club music project SCRAAATCH. Thinking about working between different contexts — in addition to nightclubs, SCRAAATCH has played PS1’s Warm Up series, the Chelsea art-performance venue the Kitchen, and they have a monthly show on the online radio station NTS — chukwumaa notes that in the music scene, they’re a part of “there’s a lot of interlopers who are art-oriented or literally have art degrees making music with functional club sounds but they have an entire artistic premise to it as a first thought, not as a second thought.” He adds, “the press releases might as well be artist statements.”
Brenna Murphy and Birch Cooper’s project MSHR (pronounced mesher) grew out of the Oregon Painting Society, a five-person art collective formed in Portland in 2007 which defined both its method and goal as “transcendent creative collaboration.” Cooper says the collective wasn’t medium specific but “engaged in a wandering aesthetic approach.” This kind of radical collaboration can take a lot of patience. “It took us a long time before we got anything good,” recalls Murphy.
OPS eventually developed a practice of creating interactive audiovisual environments, which MSHR has continued to build on since 2011. “We’re an offshoot from the original, like a space pod from the main ship,” says Murphy. MSHR’s mad scientist performances feature trippy multi-sensory feedback loops made possible by light-activated synthesizers and sound-activated lights.
Cooper says he’s always been interested in the potential of collaboration as a way to achieve “something you couldn’t have thought of on your own” — he specifies that he values exploring both collaboration with other humans as well as collaboration with software. While MSHR’s work often takes the shape of set at a music venue, albeit one with more strobing lights than your average noise musicians, they also design interactive sculptural installations like Sonic Arcade at the Museum of Art and Design in 2017, which featured a generative system integrating the sounds of museum-goers. Both Murphy and Cooper also have solo art practices.
“We operate in a lot of different contexts,” says Cooper. “Those contexts determine who we are in that moment.” Murphy adds that with MSHR, they are conscious of how these different contexts influence audience expectations. “Sometimes we are very aware that people are coming in more on the visual side or more on the sound side,” she says.
Cooper and Murphy are very influenced by other art collectives, including La Monte Young and the Theatre of Eternal Music, later known as the Dream Syndicate. “They made these long-standing sound and sculpture installations,” says Murphy. (You can visit of the Dream House, an immersive installation created in 1993 by Young and Marian Zazeela in Tribeca.)
“A band doesn’t just have to be four or five people on a stage doing the same tired rock ’n’ roll moves,” says P-Orridge. “My first band, Throbbing Gristle, we did things like one time we had mirrors all across the stage so the audience could only see themselves. Another time we played in a cube of scaffolding with TV cameras all inside, so you could watch us on TV monitors all around outside but if you wanted to hear us you had to go to the roof because the PA was pointing to the sky. You could only watch or listen, you couldn’t do both at the same time.”
P-Orridge continues to bring this same spirit of innovation with the group Psychic TV, which she formed in 1981 with Alex Fergusson and another ex-Throbbing Gristle member Peter Christopherson. Over the years, Psychic TV experimented with industrial music, acid house, and psychedelic pop, and many different musicians, artists, and writers have been involved in the project including Fred Giannelli, Larry Thrasher, Derek Jarman, and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary.
Psychic TV has always centered video. In 1982, they released the First Transmission in a series of four VHS tapes, which montaged together scenes of rituals, home drug videos, grotesque surgery and scarification, and archival footage of Jim Jones. Today their performances feature a psychedelic light show of video projections. “It’s a very spiritual experience,” says P-Orridge.
Over the years, throughout these musical experiments, P-Orridge says, “I always carried on making art.” Whatever the medium, P-Orridge approaches everything like a cut-up. “I see the world that way, constant fragments of fascination swirling around me,” she says. “Everything is collaging for me. It’s one of the only ways to guarantee new combinations. No sort of linear thought would give you that. I’ve applied that idea to everything music, art, photography, my own body, and it’s always given me amazing results.”
This cut-up approach features in a Psychic TV remix for Trent Reznor that reworks the track with audio of howler monkeys waking up that an LA zoo, or P-Orridge’s sculptures that mash up shoes of her sex worker friends with animal horns and voodoo ritual items, which are on view right now at Marlborough Contemporary. But also in the Pandrogyne project, where P-Orridge and her late partner Lady Jayne underwent body modification to physically resemble one another and unite as one entity.
“A lot of LGBTQ people have heard about the Pandrogyne project and come out to see Psychic TV,” says P-Orridge, who’s 68 and currently battling leukemia. “The reason why I’m prepared to do the band even when I’m sick is that we’re getting more and more people than we’ve ever had and they are getting younger and younger and more and more enthusiastic. We’re getting a lot of people from the LGBTQ community and there’s not been a lot of gay rock. They’re coming to a completely new celebration of loud music and lights and videos. So many people say that it’s inspired them and I feel a real responsibility in that. There’s a sense of unity and deep trust that makes it so worthwhile.”