Interview: Severed Heads

By Joe Radio
Recorded: November 8, 1988
Air date: March 3, 1989

Featuring Severed Heads founder Tom Ellard (TE), recorded by phone from his house in Sydney, Australia. The music segments mentioned here were mixed in when the interview was broadcast.

JR: Let's go back about 10 years to 1978, when you started your record label called Terse Tapes. What were some of the first projects that you did with that label?
TE: Well, around about that time, there was a cassette movement, globally. There were a lot of people putting out cassettes here, there, and everywhere. One of the things I was trying to do was get that sort of material out in Australia. So we got a couple of English cassettes and stuck them in the shops here. So we did people like The Door in the Window, and a couple of people that were doing cassettes at that time. And also actually to start off with we pressed a few records. We did a 7" sampler EP and the first Severed Heads record. The way the finances were at that stage it just seemed to be sensible to follow up those records with cassettes and that whole thing spread.

JR: Before the label even got off the ground, you had already been experimenting on your own with tape loops and other assorted equipment. How soon was it before you actually released some of your own material on Terse Tapes?
TE: Well, I'd sort of been mucking around from a very early age, but it didn't make sense to put anything out until the climate was there. The climate was around in about 1976 in England, but of course the rest of the world follows a little bit behind that. Right about 1979, it looked like you could put out things like what myself and other people were recording, and that other people would listen to it, and that made all the difference. Otherwise, there was absolutely no point in distributing it. So '79 was about the year that we actually tried to do some sort of public activity. Before then it really didn't matter whether anyone heard it or not.

JR: What was actually the first release by the band?
TE: It was a record called Ear Bitten. We had one half of it, the A side, and another band had the B side, called the Slugfuckers. We basically chipped in money, both sides, and between the two of us were able to put an album out.

JR: Let's listen to the track called "Dance". Was the band actually called the Severed Heads at this point?
TE: Yes, it was, actually. At that record we decided we had to call ourselves something, and it really sort of solidified the whole thing.

[Music: "Dance"]

JR: What happened next, after Ear Bitten came out?
TE: Well, that was one side of the record, so the thing to do was to get the other side of it, which we did as a cassette called Side 2, for obvious reasons. It had a whole lot of other stuff on it that we'd been recording about that time. As you know, bands, when they're first starting off, go at a furious rate. Within a couple of months, the whole thing just changes. So we were pretty keen to put out a cassette of what we'd been doing more recently than what was on that record. Side 2 came out originally in a sort of folder package, and then later on we did a sort of color photostat box for it. Then about 1981, the whole cassette thing was starting to die down, and it seemed like either I had to put up or shut up. And I decided to put up, starting up a record label, which for various reasons, we called Dogfood Production System. The main reason being that my attitude at the time was putting out records was like canning dog food. There was no particular aesthetic advantage of one over the other, you know? So we put out four records of that one, the first one was the first Severed Heads full album, and then one by a band called Hiroshima Chair, and one by a band called Negative Reaction, and one by the Slugfuckers.

JR: Now was this Blubberknife?
TE: No, Blubberknife came later on. This one was called Clean. It was the first sort of what you could call studio album, in that I'd actually managed to save up for a four-track tape recorder at that stage, which all the bands recorded on. We pressed up ... 1981 was a very bad year. It was about the time that people decided that they just really weren't interested in all this weird stuff, you know? They just wanted to hear Dare by the Human League, and that was it.

JR: Which tracks from Clean do we have at our disposal here?
TE: Well, what we did with that record was we sort of mixed it all up with a whole lot of other stuff, and we did a sort of "stream of consciousness" mix when we were reproducing that for the Clifford Darling album, we got a whole lot of stuff off Clean, and intermingled it with other stuff on the B side of that double album. The idea being that the record had problems and that we also wanted to incorporate a whole lot of ideas and activities that were going on at that time. So it's very hard to point out and say this particular bit of the record is off Clean.

JR: OK, let's go ahead and skip ahead to Blubberknife. Was this released on Dogfood, or were you already with Ink by this time?
TE: No, we put this out through Dogfood, It was a C-90 Cassette. Basically, Dogfood had been unable to buy ... If you think about it, it's a hardcore record label. In a country which is about 13 million people, you just couldn't get the thing going. Either it was too early or too late; I've never really been able to figure out. So the money wasn't there, and we also had about 2 albums' worth of material, so we thought we'd stick it out as a C- 90 cassette. Which initially it came out ... sort of hard to describe. What we do, is spray paint the cassette boxes silver, and then we'd fill them up with all this recording tape, which I think had Julie Anthony on it or something. And then there'd be all these television parts, that we'd been mounting on it with sprockets and brackets and stuff like that, so you'd end up with this large silver box, with tubes and wires and stuff coming off it then we'd shrink-wrap that at a friend's factory. And we made about 250 of them, with the television innards, and took them around to places. Of course, they sold very quickly. Then we had a short run inside calculators, the cassettes would be put inside calculators, which would be working ones. And that went on for a while, then we went to a stage of color folders. Basically, we tried to make it into more of a fetish object than a record, if you know what I mean?

JR: This seems like a lot of work. What was your idea here, with the television set and the calculator, was it just more of a way of getting people's attention?
TE: The whole idea was to make it a fetish object. Like an oil painting, there might only be one copy of it in the whole world, and there would be 250 copies of it. It would be a small number of very fetishistic things. A lot of people I know have still got these things still in their shrink wrapping.

JR: Do you know where those television sets are today?
TE: All the different copies? I don't know. There's been a few people around the place who have sent me photographs of their ones that I've kept. My way of thinking now is, if you don't even open them up and listen to the music inside, then the whole thing's really backfired on us, you know?

JR: Let's listen to a couple of tracks from Blubberknife. I'm going to start with one called "Lower than the Grave". This one has a rather interesting sample ... Where did this sample come from?
TE: It wasn't sampled, for a start. We didn't even know what a sample was. It's all done with tape cutting and editing. It's actually Sir John Gielgud, and he's reading from The Pilgrim's Progress. So at the beginning of the story, when he's coming from the city, the pilgrim is leaving the city and going off on his journey. It just happened to be a sort of tape that we had around.

[Music: "Lower Than The Grave", "Adolf A Carrot"]

JR: After Blubberknife, I believe, some interest came from Ink Records in England.
TE: Well, we did that cassette, and next year in ... no, actually about the same year, 1983, we had this new thing together, called Since The Accident. It hadn't actually got to that stage yet. By the time, there was a lot of fighting in the band and the whole thing broke up. At that stage it was Simon Knuckey, Garry Bradbury, and myself in the band, and the other two, Gary Bradbury left in a very noisy way, and there's lots of reasons for that, so we didn't finish that off until maybe ... no, by 1983, we had a C-60 cassette available in a folder. So what actually turned up ended up being the LP version, it's just a very much cut-down version of what was originally a cassette. And at that stage, there was a fellow called Dave Gibson, who was down from England, and he was looking for Australian bands. The flavor of the month in England at that stage was Australian bands, and it seemed that every little English company was down here trying to find a couple of bands for some compilation, or something like that. The story goes that we gave him a copy of Since The Accident as a C-60. He went down on ... it's a very big country we live in, and the cities are far apart, so he had a 14-hour train trip with a Walkman and a copy of Since The Accident. And by the time he arrived at the other city he'd decided he'd go for it. So it came out in England the next year.

JR: This album has lots of interesting songs with interesting titles, like "Exploring the Secrets of Treating Deaf Mutes", "Gashing the Old Mae West", "A Relic of the Empire". Would it be presumptuous to ask you where you got some of these song ideas from? TV and radio and other media come to mind.
TE: Well, a lot of songs like your usual top 40 stuff has a theme about it. Like he loves her, and she doesn't loves him, and you get the title from that. What we had was collections of noises, and there was no real theme that you really could put to them, so it was sort of up for grabs what would call them. There was no confining principle, you were really free to call them whatever you want. So we'd just go for whichever phrases or ideas happened to be up in the air at the time. The thing started off weird with Blubberknife. It's just a word that just had a nice ring to it. So "Exploring the Secrets of Treating Deaf Mutes" is the title of a small pamphlet put out in Peking back in the Maoist era. The idea being that Mao used to talk about how you had to learn from the people, you had to learn from the people's medicine. This was a booket telling doctors that they had to learn about acupuncture. The idea was that you'd stick pins up people's ears and they'd be able to hear again. The booket was filled with lots of little children with pins sticking out of their ears, all so happy and smiling and singing away, even though they were deaf mutes before. The lyrics for that actually got written after we had the title.

[Music: "Exploring The Secrets Of Treating Deaf Mutes", "Houses Still Standing"]

JR: Next we come to the first successful single for you, "Dead Eyes Opened".
TE: Well, it's utterly insipid, isn't it?

JR: Most people would think that this song is very important for you because the band's name is in the dialogue. Is that correct?
TE: Well, we found the ... the essential issue with that thing is the tone of the fellow's voice. The man is called Edgar Lustgarten, and he's a crime journalist in England. It's was quality of his voice which was interesting. I suppose when you hear that particular snippet it's funny enough to stick it on the soundtrack. And it's a very obvious ... it does the trick in terms of your band's name is in the song. I mean, if you think about the context of that song, it's been played in dance clubs. Dance tracks are a sort of blur, because they're made to sound exactly the same, so you can intermix. Obviously, a dance track which mentions the name of the band is going to somehow do a lot of use for the band, you know? Musically, the song has very little to do with what the guy's on about so much as the way he says it.

JR: Was that piece the inspiration for naming the band?
TE: No, not at all. When we started, it was myself, a guy called Richard, and a guy called Andrew. At that stage we were completely antagonistic to the whole music world, mainly because of Richard. We just wanted to be completely, utterly, to do everything wrong. The same way as a band called the Buggles, because they thought that was the worst name they could think of for a band. We called ourselves Mr. and Mrs. No Smoking Sign, because it was the sort of thing that was going to turn people off. They'd just hear it and they'd go "ugh". Circumstances around 1979 meant that we had to come up with a sort of ... The idea was to pretend to be one of these Throbbing Gristle clones. That was the fashion at the time. By calling ourselves Severed Heads, it seemed to do the trick. It's a very unfortunate name but one that we're stuck with, because it's been around for so long.

[Music: "Dead Eyes Opened"]

JR: Now we're up to 1985, and the album City Slab Horror. At this point, which people were the core of the band?
TE: We had Paul Deering, myself, Simon Knuckey, and Stephen Jones, who had been around for a while at this stage. Myself and Paul Deering did that record in 1984. It was supposed to be released at the end of 1984, but typically for Ink Records, it came out a year late, and it was recorded under a great deal of difficulty. I was part of an art collective and I had my studio in a room in a place which was across the city from where I lived. This was a place which had women-only days, so I couldn't get access to my equipment half the time. Also Paul Deering and myself fought quite a lot through the whole thing. He had very different aspirations to mine. He's into that bang bang, thud thud, death, horror sort of thing, whereas I'm not, I'm pushing more for melodies. But you can hear that in the way that City Slab Horror is sort of a percussive record. He and I recorded that and we had a screaming match and he went off to Queensland for a while. Myself and Garry Bradbury mixed it and recorded "Goodbye Tonsils", and it came out the next year.

[Music: "Goodbye Tonsils", "Acme Instant Dehydrated Boulder Kit", "Spastic Crunch"]

JR: "Acme Instant Dehydrated Boulder Kit" sounds like somethingfrom a Road Runner cartoon.
TE: Exactly. I'm really pissed off with Laurie Anderson, because she went in print saying she's on the same label with Bugs Bunny. I've always had a great aspiration to be on the same label as Bugs Bunny.

JR: Any other samples from Warner Brothers?
TE: I wouldn't admit to using samples from other people's products. It just seemed to be an appropriate title.

JR: Next is Stretcher, an Australian-only release also from 1985. Why wasn't this released in the same way as the others?
TE: Well, we had finally gotten signed by an Australian label, two years after being signed by an English one. I'm sure you realize the same thing going on in the states. We had been picked up by a label here called Volition. What that record was trying to do was encapsulate what had been going on in the past. It was an attempt to get all the stuff off the previous records and stick them all together on one thing. It also included the material that was on a mini-album that the Canadian label Nettwerk put out. At the same time, we went on a tour in 1985 of England and had stopped off in Vancouver for a short while, where we had signed on to Nettwerk, and at the same time, we had signed on to Volition, so we were on an English label, an Australian label, and a Canadian label, which is sort of like the colonies.

JR: Now they called themselves the "Ink-Nettwerk-Volition Axis".
TE: No, I called them that.

JR: The three labels were not as friendly with one another as would be believed from that phrasing.
TE: Well, we tried. There's still an excellent relationship between Volition and Nettwerk. Volition markets Nettwerk's stuff here, and we now are involved in some sort of co-production system. So it was basically an Australian-only thing, getting people up to date. We don't sell very many records in Australia, but the quality is always the best, even if it's limited edition.

JR: Side A of Stretcher contains things from other records, but Side B has things that you can't get anywhere else. For example, a track that I consider to be kind of an opus, and in many ways the opposite of "Dead Eyes Opened", is one called "Spurned". What was the story behind this one?
TE: Well, it was an entry in a radiophonic composition contest run by our radio station here. The way it's done is by having noises caught in a delay. I didn't have a sampler or anything; what I've got is a delay thing, with continuous noises coming out of it, and I'm feeding it through filters and stuff on a big modular synthesizer, so it's --

JR: The vocal is one woman's voice echoed to make it sound like a chorus.
TE: There's that, and other tones made up of vocals. Anyway, we took it to a radiophonic composition contest and it lost. The thing that won was tuned raindrops falling into a bucket. The judge was a person at a conservatory of music here, and the person who won was one of his students.

[Music: "Spurned", "Big Blue Is Back"]

JR: What's "Big Blue Is Back" all about?
TE: Well, it's sort of to do with Frank Sinatra. He gets called Old Blue Eyes, and IBM is called Big Blue. Then there's all this talk about where Frank Sinatra's finances came from in the early days, and you just take it from there.

JR: That takes us up to the end of 1985 and the album Come Visit The Big Bigot. How did you end up working with Nettwerk?
TE: I'd been corresponding with a few people in Vancouver. I got a letter from someone from Cevin Key who said that they'd done 40 copies of a cassette by this band called Skinny Puppy, and did I want one? And I didn't write back, much to my discredit now; I could have had one of those 40. I actually wrote to Bill Leeb quite a lot. He is now in Front Line Assembly. He was basically saying that if I wanted to drop in, we could chat. The fare from England to Australia was 350, and the fare from England to Canada to Australia was also 350, so there was no problem with dropping in. Unfortunately, Nettwerk had different ideas and all of a sudden we found ourselves on stage. And then we signed on.

JR: Did you record Big Bigot later?
TE: Yeah, that was 1985-86.

[Music: "Propellor", "20 Deadly Diseases", "Strange Brew"]

JR: "Strange Brew" is one of the few cover versions that you've done.
TE: Well, it's one of those component songs. If you listen to the original, it's got a whole collection of noises that sort of wiggle around in a circle. There's this guitar pump noise in one of the channels, and other things. "Strange Brew", the original, is like listening to a washing machine. I wanted to turn it into a dishwasher. We've done other covers, mainly from the early psychedelic period. The next single is going to be "Baby, You're a Rich Man" by the Beatles.

JR: Right after this time, it was arranged that you and Skinny Puppy would go on tour. How did you feel about that idea?
TE: It seemed all right. I was glad that we were going with Skinny Puppy, for the obvious reason that they were popular and we weren't. It's nice to hide under somebody's skirt.

JR: I saw your show at the Stone in San Francisco. Where else did you go in North America?
TE: Well, we did about every city in Canada, and all of Europe. And then we came back to the states, and by that time both bands had just about had it, because Europe was such a debacle. But we did most of the population centers in the states. East coast, west coast. In-between was kind of difficult; we were supposed to play 3 shows in Texas but they never happened. At one place somebody died, another turned into a gay brothel, and the third was closed by the police.

JR: By that time, you were ready to not tour for a while. What happened after the tour in Sydney?
TE: Well, not much for a while. 1986-87 was extremely difficult. There comes a time when you just want to do other things. About the end of 1987 we started on Bad Mood Guy. By now, the thing was a bit more organized, for better or for worse; I'm beginning to think worse by now. We were booking into a large studio and the whole thing was mixed in two days. We were doing very expensive things, not at home anymore. This time we did it in a 24- track studio, and the environment was very difficult. Everything sounded a bit squeaky clean.

JR: Did you start to feel you were losing control?
TE: Not at that stage. After the record came out, it became pretty obvious though. Now I'm taking it all back. I was no longer working with other people. Now I'm doing it all by myself. Solo efforts are usually pretty diabolical, so I wanted other people involved. This will be the second record by that group of people. Now it's Robert Racic and myself, with some others.

JR: Bad Mood Guy did produce a successful single, again.
TE: The first one, actually, since "Dead Eyes Opened".

[Music: "Hot With Fleas", "Nation"]

JR: We also have "Nature 10", from the Nettwerk Sound Sampler. Was this track sort of an afterthought?
TE: Well, Nettwerk wanted sort of thing that they could do as a 12", a dance track or something. The mood I was in was when I got back from the tour was not conducive to doing a 12" single, though. I think the track adequately sums up how I felt at the time. It was recorded at somebody else's place, since I had noplace to live at the time. It's a bit deranged, actually. You get a clue as to what was going on when you see who the producer was.

[Music: "Nature 10"]

JR: We're just about up to the present. A CD is available, called Bulkhead, on Nettwerk and Volition.
TE: Not through Ink, I should hope.

JR: It has the latest "Greater Reward", and extended versions and B-sides, going back to the remix of "Dead Eyes Opened". Was Bulkhead your idea?
TE: Yes. I made a tape of all our 12"'s for somebody. At the time, the 12"'s weren't available, and it took a year to organize it. It's the cheapest way to get a hold of our 12"'s. That's what we're doing, trying to make things cheap and available. The one CD is not all that expensive. In Australia we're doing it on vinyl.

JR: The only 1988 release on the CD is "Greater Reward", which is the first Severed Heads single to make the Top 20 of the Billboard chart in America. Congratulations, Tom!
TE: Does this make me part of a fascist regime?

JR: Oh, yes. It lists the catalogue number, artist, weeks on chart, etc. You're right up there with Michael Jackson.
TE: Well, he's certainly got more talent than me.

[Music: "Greater Reward"]

JR: What's next for Severed Heads?
TE: Well, the next thing you're going to have inflicted on you is another remix of "Greater Reward". There's a style in England called Acid House. I don't know much about it, but my keepers tell me it's the latest thing, so we're doing a European remix of "Greater Reward". Which to my ears sounds more like a washing machine to me than anything else. It's going to come out as a CD in the states and as a 12" in Europe. The main thing at the moment is an LP, the first one since 1987. It'll turn up sometime next year. The interesting thing about it is that it's done at home, just like the early ones. Also I'm taking more time over it, not letting other people do it. It's more of a personal thing. It sounds more like Bigot than anything else.

JR: On Nettwerk?
TE: Yeah. I gather that we're on tour in April as well. I just get told these things, I don't plan them. Later this week, I'm having a meeting about stage presentations.

JR: Thanks for your time, Tom.
TE: No worries!