Nov 2019 22

Test Dept founders Graham Cunnington and Paul Jamrozy speak with ReGen in Part 2 of a two-part InterView series, touching further on the band’s creative and artistic legacy, the development of their newer material, and the assurance that hope for the future lies in new ideas not found in the past.
 

 

An InterView with Graham Cunnington & Paul Jamrozy of Test Dept

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

There is a certain despair that comes with the knowledge that the culture and political divides that threatened the world in one’s youth pervade decades later. Nevertheless, Test Dept founding members Graham Cunnington and Paul Jamrozy will not allow that to deter them; after two decades, the pair are as fired up as ever to create a Disturbance in the form of the band’s first new album since 1997, along with the recent U.S. tour, which concluded with an historic appearance as one of the headliners of Chicago’s ColdWaves VIII.
Since the band’s foundation in 1981, Test Dept has sharpened and refined the parameters by which music can be defined, playing an influential part in the development of what has become known as industrial music, well beyond the term taking on new definitions over the ensuing decades. Themes of sociopolitical unrest and protest delivered by way of aggressive lyrical manifestos and abrasive sound collages that infused scrap metal percussion and early electronics placed the group at the forefront of the underground; participating in numerous causes and collaborating with various industrial organizations like the South Wales Striking Miners Choir, and performing in abandoned factories and railway stations, maintenance depots, and disused prisons, Test Dept stood out even among its contemporaries.
Even after the band’s dissolution, Cunnington and Jamrozy continued down the same ideological path with new projects and artistic endeavors, eventually reforming first as Test Dept: Redux in 2014, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the U.K. Miner’s Strike with the DS30 film installation with the AV Festival, publishing the Total State Machine book documenting the band’s history in 2015, and finally releasing Disturbance on One Little Indian Records in March of this year. In September, Test Dept embarked on a U.S. tour, which concluded with an historic appearance as a headlining act at Chicago’s ColdWaves VIII.
Prior to this, ReGen Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Graham Cunnington and Paul Jamrozy in this second of a two-part InterView series about the history and resurrection of Test Dept, touching on the application of the term “industrial music,” some of the significant and disturbing events in U.K. history that molded the band’s penchant for sociopolitical protest, the logistics of touring, and assuring us that the best ideas for a better, brighter future will not be found by holding onto a grim past.

 

What sorts of challenges did you face in adapting Test Dept’s sound to include modern equipment on Disturbance?

Cunnington: I suppose the first thing is that we only had samples from the earlier material and not the actual backing tracks, so that was pretty hard to work around because we couldn’t multi-layer too much with that. So, we took some very basic ideas from that, using one or two samples and building from that, so the sonic challenges were in stripping all of that away and the introducing new material. We worked with electronics and live samples, and in a way, it was a building process in the studio, and developing new ideas alongside that as well. It was all in an effort to get the feel right, so it was an interesting process of building, stripping away, rebuilding, stripping away again, and then thinking each time, ‘Where is this going? Is this getting to where we wanted it to be?’ Sometimes we worked for a long time and then would have a bit of a spat and realize that it wasn’t what we wanted, so it kind of began with the material that we already had. That was a really interesting process, even just to resample and chop up old material that we had and using that to play live and add on top of that; there really are a bunch of layers to it all.

Jamrozy: We’d spoken before about the bass earlier, and in the process of getting to where we are now with the current lineup, we did have some other people who played with us for a bit and we went through a few different ideas with other people. One of those people was Ashley Davies. He had some little kind of electronic noise things that he’d play with, but his main thing is that he’s a bass player. So, we went against our original idea to be onstage not with bass and guitars, and he played a few shows where he’d use live bass. That kind of worked okay in the live situation, but when we came to put it on the record, it didn’t seem to really work in the same way that we wanted it to; it didn’t fit. You know, onstage he plays in a very noisy and punk kind of style that gave it an energy, but on the record, it didn’t sound right. That’s when we got more involved in writing more bass and developing that bass side. It must be interesting to see videos and see someone playing a bass guitar. (Laughter)

Cunnington: Yeah, but most of the bass on the album was created with synths and processed samples and industrial percussive samples. It was done mostly with electronics.

In mentioning industrial samples, the last question I asked of Paul in the first part of the InterView was about the connotations of industrial music and how the genre has developed since Test Dept’s inception, and I’m sure you’re aware of at least some of the various styles and subgenres that have emerged as a result. Did that play any part in your approach to the new material?

Cunnington: No. I would say that it didn’t. I’ve paid attention to some of it, but not all. As Paul said, we’re not really interested in fitting in with a movement or a genre. I think that industrial music is something that’s a little outside of what even we are, because everybody who seems to be identified with it has some very different influences, as we have; I suppose in those terms, we are, but what it meant in the ’70s and early ’80s is very different to what it means now. So, not really. I mean, it is about experimentation and growing and creating your own path. You know, in the early ’80s, it was the sort of death of the industrial era, and there were changes all across the infrastructure… it was all falling down, really. That was an influence on our sound because those were our instruments; we couldn’t really afford guitars and such, so we had to make music with whatever scrap and metal we had lying around. In the ’80s, one had to be influenced by the times, so there was the transition into more electronic sounds – what became acid house and electronic dance music came from socio-politically the outsider movements of dance music and house parties, which already came from different tribes, and those tribes were coming together, which created a very outsider political movement, especially in the U.K. It was very much about stepping outside the system and creating a separate society in a way, and that was all part of the electronic music. Now, we’re pulling all that together by looking at our early music and history, and putting that into one, and I think Disturbance really unified all of that.

Jamrozy: One thing fair to say, though, is that since we’ve obviously started coming back to play live shows, we’ve been involved in some industrial type festivals, so we’ve come into contact with a lot of different people, who are doing diverse things. So, we’ve gotten to see the scene and what’s currently going on and how these things have emerged; also, when we came back to do the book and we started being active again, we were working electronically like DJing or whatever the word would be. We have been a bit involved in doing what other people have actually described as a hybrid DJ thing – doing a live electronic thing by playing samples and not just mixing other people’s tracks, but also mixing in some stuff. So, through that process, we do a set where I mix in a lot of the old industrial stuff that comes through, and that goes through a timeline where we merge that into a more current industrial/techno setting. We’ve kind of embraced the past and continue the past of industrial and bring into the sort of underground industrial/techno scene that it is now. Through that, we’ve been writing and doing mixes, and we will have a remix album out soon.

 

 

Regarding the track ‘GBH84,’ which you dedicated to the Orgreave Truth & Justice Campaign, and this relates to the DS30 film installation you did in 2014, which Paul and I discussed earlier. For those unaware, would you tell us about the Orgreave Truth & Justice Campaign and Test Dept’s connection to it?

Cunnington: Well, the DS30 was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the miner’s strike. We’d made an album, Shoulder to Shoulder, with the South Wales Striking Miners Choir, and we went around the country doing all sorts of benefits raising money for the miners’ cause. We met people along the way who worked with the miners’ brass band and pipe bands. We connected with a miner named Alan Sutcliffe in Kent, who was very active on the picket lines, and he’d also given a very powerful speech and wrote stuff during the strike, and we put some of that into music. But yeah, we were raising money for the miners, and the reason for that was because Thatcher had to destroy the unions to introduce the whole neo-conservative conceit and push her agenda; that was the start of it, and the miners had the most powerful unions in the U.K., so that was why it was such a powerful and beautiful moment… especially today, because it would be a slightly different situation today otherwise.
Orgreave was an essential battle during that strike where 7,000 miners and around 5,000 police fought across fields of the Orgreave reprocessing plant. It was a time when the police really… I mean, the press reported it falsely, and there was a lot of subterfuge… it was like a civil war. The police crossed the fields, charged in with horses, and were arresting everyone on false counts. It was a huge outrage and a miscarriage of justice, and it hasn’t been dealt with to this day. The OTJC is trying to fight for justice to be served for that. They produced made up accounts, false witness statements and false charges against 91 different miners, and you can see on the statements that it’s all copied – cut-and-paste – and that if you see the individual statements, it’s obvious. But the way the TV reported it as the time was that they cut the footage to make the miners appear like the police were justified.

Jamrozy: This is the South Yorkshire police force, and they had all these trumped up charges that were eventually thrown out of court and people weren’t charged. But there was never any compensation; despite that, nobody was charged from the police with anything illegal in the matter. But it’s the same police force… I don’t know how familiar you all are in the States with the Hillsborough disaster in 1989; it’s basically the same police force that were involved in that, and it was the same people. They blamed the people being crushed to death on them being drunk, and they were locked in cages, and even then, they fed stories to the media about drunken scalpers urinating on their own people. It’s the same police force involved in both incidents, and both have sort of been thrown out and none of it has been concluded. Like a lot of these things, there have been inquiries and things kind of move on, but if Corbyn gets in, there is the hope that it will come to light and there will be another process where things will be looked at. But if not, then it’ll likely just get knocked out, and these old guys who were there will never be compensated for what they and their families had to go through.

 

 

Well, now to bring things back to music, Test Dept has toured the States. What are your impressions of the U.S. audience now that you’ve gotten to perform here?

Cunnington: It’s been great apart from the lack of sleep. It’s not easy to carry all the gear since we built a new set with all the scaffolding poles and strangely shaped objects; it’s quite difficult. But yeah, it’s been really great to reconnect with the U.S. audience. There have been a lot of people who have followed us for a long time – 30 years at least – and have finally gotten to see us. Yeah, it’s been really, really good, and it’s also just encouraging to see a lot of people appreciating the technical ability we display in the band, and saying that we’ve voiced a lot of their feelings and thoughts. In the U.K., we get information about what’s happening with Trump and everything, but we don’t get to see the everyday goings on and how people are being affected, and how they’re reacting, so it’s good to get to talk with them about that as well.

There was some concern about if Test Dept would even be able to make it into the States; Pop Will Eat Itself had a good chunk of their tour cut short because of some issues, and several bands like Die Krupps and Lord of the Lost went through it recently as well, so I’m glad Test Dept made it.

Jamrozy: You’ve got to give credit to Jason Novak and the ColdWaves people for actually getting it together. He invited us to Chicago and he arranged some other dates around it, and even that was difficult; Phoenix pulled out, and he actually managed to get this all in at very short notice. There was a great audience in Denver. But yeah, in terms of just being able to tour, it seems so difficult these days financially, for promoters especially. It’s a great risk, really. You have to put up so much up front and get legal papers written up to say that you’re even allowed in the country. When you tell people this, they don’t believe it. I’ve been speaking to some young guys here, and the conversation came up and I had to say, ‘Well, it’s not that easy to just come and play. We’d love to come here and play more often,’ but there are so many things to consider. It’s a huge financial risk for the promoter, really, because we could just turn up at the gate and they’d say, ‘No, you’re not coming in.’ And then, that bankrupts someone; it’s terrible! So hopefully, they like us here that we’ll be able to come again and not have so much trouble.

Here’s hoping. How would you say that ColdWaves stands out from other festivals that you’ve taken part in?

Cunnington: Well, it’s great that ColdWaves is looking to bring the scene together, and the main thing about how ColdWaves began and has developed is to support a great cause. So, how it grew is really inspiring, and we fully support that.

Jamrozy: Some of the shows we’ve been doing have been ColdWaves showcases like in San Francisco and New York, so just seeing the number of bands in the lineup is hugely ambitious… and to get all those bands together in one evening and still take them around the country as well. Big credit to Jason; I know he’s had a difficult time, so huge credit to him for being able to put this all together.

I’ve told him repeatedly that he’s superhero for what he does.
Touring, as you’ve mentioned, is not an easy prospect, and it does seem like no matter where you are on the tier, the difficulties just seem to be increasing to such a point that it seems like festival events are becoming the best way to experience a band live anymore. Is there any truth to this? What do you see as the future of live performance?

Cunnington: Well, personally from our point of view, it certainly is quite difficult to tour in the way that we are with the sort of equipment that we have. We have new technology, which does aid in reducing the need for bigger metal tanks and such, which is obviously impossible to carry. But even in that, smaller venues can’t really support the rig we have, so festivals can support that type of need for live performance. But I’m not sure; it’s easier to set up a more purely electronic setup, or even with a few guitars, which are much easier to take around. I don’t know. Some places seem to be struggling, even in London. I don’t know what it’s like here, but the real estate has become so expensive that many venues can’t even afford to carry on. It does seem to be getting harder.

Jamrozy: There are a lot of new festivals happening, and a lot of them are very good. But a lot of them have become very commercial and very expensive, and in a way, the whole original vibe of a festival has become sort of corporatized and cleaned up in a sense. I think that the festival scene is good and bad. I know that a lot of people in the U.K. are sort of festival tourists – they’ll go to festivals in Eastern Europe because it’s a lot cheaper, there’s a lot corporate control over the events, so it all really depends.

Cunnington: Our performances have always been quite a spectacle, so it’s a different thing listening to a record with us… with all bands, of course, but because of the visual element to what we put into it.

 

 

We are now in the year 2019, which movies like Blade Runner and AKIRA predicted as a dystopian future with militaristic and corporate control over the population, and these are certainly the sort of themes that many bands, including Test Dept, have addressed over the years. How would you say your perceptions of progress and the future changed as these fictions become reality?

Cunnington: Well, I suppose in the past, there were dystopias, but there was also the idea that technological change would lead to more progressive thoughts and a brighter future. It’s not looking like that at the moment, but because of the situation we’re in, looking at the future seems to be a world of doom and gloom… and it doesn’t have to be. It’s hard not to be doom and gloom about it, but actually, we’ve got to get hold of it. The changes that are happening in new technologies and how that’s going to affect the whole future, and of course climate change affects everyone on the planet, but these things need to be addressed. They can be bloody changed; it’s possible, but we’re rapidly running out of time. With the new technology, there’s going to have to be a new global system of society. So, the whole past ideals and ideologies are useless for the current situation. We need to somehow develop a new model for society. We’re going to have to adapt to changes and realize that what’s coming is not in the past; we have to look forward.
It’s strange to see climate deniers and the right wing in the U.S. and the U.K. and across Europe; it seems worrying, like, ‘Okay, that’s the way we’re going.’ But it’s possibly the last grasp of holding onto the past instead of looking to the future for the answers. The answers aren’t going to come from the past, because the society we’ve created is different from the past, and we are at new beginnings.

Jamrozy: People are looking to old ideas in order to push forward their own agendas, but it’s all pretty desperate and opportunistic kind of stuff; they’re all short term runs for power, and it doesn’t make any sense to wind back the progress that society has made over the last 50 years… since the last World War, really. There is an older generation that still believes in the past, and as they age and disappear, hopefully, younger people will come along with fresh new ideas and will be able to change the direction of things.

Cunnington: I do think, worryingly, that there are a few young people on the right who have caught those ideas, but I think it’s mostly driven by the older generation who are looking to some mystical past when things were great when they never really were. Nobody in Britain would like to live in the supposedly glorious times of the past because they were pretty grim. The idea that we could regress and become this isolationist little country in the globally affected world is just insane; it’s not realistic at all.

‘Make America Great Again?’

Cunnington: (Laughter) Yeah, the idea that the Brexiteers have about Britain’s great power… Britain’s power then was about imperialism, slavery, and subjugation. And the reality at home was that child labor was on the rise with children working since the age of six! That’s the reality.

Jamrozy: Great! Let’s get back to that! (Laughter) But yeah, it’s a long way from the projected future of automation and that people will be freed up to live a more beautiful, leisured life; that seems to be a future fiction that… you know, it’s still possible, but we don’t seem to be working toward that at the moment. Work more and more for less and less, and other people are just not working at all because they’re getting completely screwed over.

Cunnington: Yes, perpetuating the different levels of society with a big underclass that have nothing, and the rest who have escaped that fate. In Scandinavia, they’re experimenting with basic income, and that can do something so that people have something to do, but there has to be some purpose in life; if you’re just getting basic income and you haven’t gotten a job, you have to find another purpose. Maybe it’ll be creating great art, which would be great, but if you haven’t got a purpose, there will be societal collapse and people are going to be wanting more and not able to jump the divide. That’s why a new model of society needs to be built, but we’ll see how it all ends up. You have to start building.

Jamrozy: We have homelessness in the U.K. on a grand scale, which is terrible, but everyone’s been really shocked to see the level of it in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s just astonishing that you could have that, that huge kind of wealth so few people have can even allow that to happen.

 

 

Test Dept
Website, Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud
One Little Indian Records
Website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

 

Photos provided courtesy of Test Dept and Marauder Music Marketing
Live photography by Tabetha Patton (MizTabby) @ ColdWaves VIII, Chicago, IL, 2019/09/21

 

 

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