Often referred to as the “English Neubauten,” Test Dept remains one of the most innovative and influential entities in modern industrial music, with founding member Paul Jamrozy speaking with ReGen about the band’s history, the current state of the world, and more in Part 1 of a two-part InterView series.
An InterView with Paul Jamrozy of Test Dept
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Industrial music has undergone numerous permutations over the last three-to-four decades, but respect is always paid to those acts and artists whose innovative work paved the way for what we now call “industrial.” One such group is Test Dept – founded in 1981 and featuring numerous members across the band’s lifespan, with founders Graham Cunnington and Paul Jamrozy remaining at the core, the band’s experiments with the use of found sounds and objects, incorporating intense and frenetic multimedia visuals, all set to themes of sociopolitical protest in the early ’80s has granted them an enduring legacy in the genre and beyond. Often compared to contemporaries like Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Dept stood out from other bands of their ilk due to their collaboration with various organizations in the name of industry, including the South Wales Striking Miners Choir in 1984, and holding performances in such unique locations – abandoned railway stations and factories, maintenance depots, and even disused prisons.
By the ’90s, Test Dept began to incorporate more rhythmic electronic and techno elements, all the while maintaining a fervent political stance that often found the band at odds with the ruling right wing administrations of their homeland and abroad. The band ceased activity in 1997 following the release of Tactics For Evolution, although Cunnington and Jamrozy remained active in their own musical and artistic endeavors. The pair reunited in 2014 as Test Dept: Redux, reinterpreting the band’s past material in a modern remix context, subsequently being commissioned by the AV Festival to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the U.K. Miner’s Strike and putting on the large-scale DS30 film installation at the Dunston Staiths timber structure on the River Tyne. The following year, PC Press published Total State Machine, chronicling Test Dept’s history, and then in 2017, the band organized the Assembly of Disturbance three day festival. In 2019, Test Dept released its first album in over two decades; released on March 1 via One Little Indian Records, Disturbance bears all the hallmarks of the group’s sound, from the use of scrap metal and unconventional instrumentation, samples, pulsating electronics, with themes of social, cultural, and political unrest that are (sadly) more relevant now than during the band’s initial run. Following the album’s release came the Disturbance tour of the U.S., culminating in a momentous headlining appearance at the Chicago ColdWaves VIII festival event.
Prior to ColdWaves, ReGen Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Graham Cunnington and Paul Jamrozy about the history and resurrection of Test Dept, touching on the current state of world events, the band’s approach and creative ethos, and the connotations of the term “industrial music.” This InterView is presented as a two-part series…
Given the band’s history of protest and political themes, it’s fair to say that there’s a lot to draw from, but what can you tell us about the specific motivations that sparked the fire to reform Test Dept at this time?
: Myself and Graham were close friends, and we always kind of continued to do stuff together anyway. Things didn’t ever really stop; we always had ideas brewing in the background, but things just felt right to stop it when we did. But as you said, lots of things are happening globally and we always get all kinds of support from fans asking when we’re going to get out there, why don’t we do a new album, and that sort of thing. That built upon us for a while, but we did actually start working together in a sort of Test Dept: Redux – the idea of doing remixes and some kinds of performances, and we did end up doing one in Belgium in 2014. For us, it wasn’t very satisfactory in terms of how it worked, but there are a lot of bands going up playing with laptops and doing the sort of playback thing with vocals; it was more than that, but it sort of felt like a shadow of what we’d previously done, so that took that off the front burner, and we started to reconsider how we could work it.
And then, we did get the invitation to do an event for the AV Festival at the Dunston Staiths, which was the 30th anniversary of the miner’s strike. We had already been working on a book at that time, so we were already exploring our archives and that was something that was progressing anyway. The Dunston Staiths thing turned out to be a massive opportunity and a very special event – using the archive material, engaging the local people, and doing something on a monumental scale, which we hadn’t done in a long time, so that was really very exciting. It was very well received, but a lot of people said, ‘Well, why didn’t you play live there?’ It was this massive industrial site on the river, and people had to pull up on boats to see it, so it was more of a film and an installation. That got us thinking, and then the AV Festival commissioned us a year later to do a live performance, which we did to an early Soviet film, which was archived and is now in the Ukrainian film archive, so Graham and I did the sound for that.
So, the idea of remixing the album wasn’t particularly… I mean, we didn’t even have the background material for that or any of the master tapes, so we had to resample stuff and work that way, which ended up changing things and rewriting and mutated into kind of what started turning into a new album. From there, we started working with a lot of new people. We worked with Lottie Lou, who we worked with in the studio and who was also a sort of sound person for us. And then, we found a young drummer called Zal Kaute, and the chemistry was immediately perfect. We brought her into the live show, and everyone was just astonished by how great she was as a live performer – really active – and it was kind of the missing link really. We’d always worked with other drummers; we all do percussion, but we always had the really solid drummer who was the metronome, and then we could play off them. So, when she came in, she gave it that energy and that solid metronomic base, which we needed to fuse the percussion and the live electronics together. And then, a new visual director came in by the name of David Altweger, who’s not unlike Brett Turnbull; when Brett first came in, he had these ideas of how the live show could be much bigger, looking at Soviet film directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Jānis Streičs, and how they used propaganda… he took this idea and elevated us as these heroic workers in this backdrop, which is kind of ironic since we were just some young people from London. We had that solid visual base for a long time, and we’ve worked with some great film and visual directors, but we needed someone to come in with some fresh ideas, and David Altweger brings a very dynamic dimension to it. He’s working with audio response and mixing the visuals live to be responsive to the live audio, so that makes for a more active and fresher ingredient. There were a lot of elements to it, but really, it was the invitation from the AV Festival to do the Dunston Staiths thing that made us realize that this was the time to get out there and develop stuff again.
It sounds like it was a big snowball effect of just numerous events fortuitously leading into the next. One of the things I read just before the album’s release was that you felt bass was lacking on some of the old recordings and that you were bringing it back to the front on Disturbance. Bass is a big talking point for musicians now, especially in electronic and industrial forms of music, so how much of that do you think was due to the available technology when you made those early recordings, and how much of that is simply part of a new approach?
: I think it’s a bit of both really. Graham and I were brought up in South London, which is notorious for reggae-d up sound systems where we’d go to parties and they’d play bass that would actually shake the buildings up. We grew up with that, and although we still have a love for that kind of music and sound, with the metallic thing we do, things kind of went off into a different direction. It’s generally more in a higher frequency range. In the early days, our approach was… we had Angus Farquhar come in, and he played bass, but live bass in the very beginning, and then we decided that because of how it looks and from our stance on music, we’re not going to have any guitars – cut guitars from the stage. In some respects, it was an ideological and aesthetic principle view that we took, but in some ways, it limited the sound. We worked with a lot of the early electronics, and some stuff does have bass on it, but generally, when we listen back to the stuff, it sounds a bit thin and that if you had more bass going on it, it would sound so much more powerful. And just listening to contemporary music and the more technologically based music, bass is very important. So, when we got into the studio and working with Lottie, we started writing bass lines and building on that, layering stuff up, which is like starting with the scaffolding of the early tracks and going from there. Bass just offers a much fuller frequency range, and it became really important to develop that.
When the album was announced, Graham had said, ‘We’re still angry but it’s tempered by a slightly different wisdom.’ Could you perhaps elaborate on that, let us know about some of your observations and touch on specific examples of how that manifests in your music now?
Jamrozy: I think when we’re on stage, we could come across as a kind of angry performance… or rather, an energy, but we’re trying to point that energy in a more positive direction. In the early days, we were more anarchistic, and we were angry about things, we’d shout about things, and we’d make a lot of noise about things. But I think we got some probably fair criticism – ‘They’re just angry young men, they’re not contemplative enough of the wider picture.’ That was probably fairly common, and we were agitators. Now, coming of age, you see things in a more rounded perspective. But things are pretty terrible at the moment; I couldn’t imagine 30 years ago that some of the things we were doing then would still be relevant, or that there would be a need for us to come out and say something about it. So, yeah, within what we do now, we try to offer a bit more hope and a bit of the possibility of change, although it’s very difficult having a worldview that has any kind of positive or utopian outlook. If you try to imagine a positive future, all you can think of is all the dystopian ideas that have to do with technology, media, the populist characters on the world stage. The world is a very scary place, and I suppose now with the climate and planetary changes, people still don’t take it seriously enough. Trump, for whatever he is, has opened the door for people like Jair Bolsonaro to come in in Brazil, and then you’ve got the Amazonian fires burning… all this stuff happening that is having an effect that allows people… previously, people thought of history as a progressive thing and that things will get better eventually, but now, it’s quite difficult to see or say that. On a smaller individual level, yes, there are different movements doing grassroots stuff and building stuff from the base up, but as a unified world vision, it’s very difficult to see anything positive. But with climate change, there will come a critical mass that will sweep everything else away, because people will realize that a lot of the kind of stuff that they’re thinking about becomes irrelevant in the face of greater dangers.
It’s interesting that you say that, because Stephen Fry had said something similar in a performance special of his, that people will ‘decide’ to be free and make positive changes. But it does seem like we keep repeating these patterns throughout our history. Do you feel that we are ever going to progress as a people?
: Obviously, South Africa example is a good example of how suddenly… people have just had enough, and it just changes, and it has to change overnight. Sadly, with South Africa, they came to power, but they were kind of stitched up in the economic backdrop of that, so in the end, things never change that much and a lot of the kind of characters who seemed to be heroes at the time got corrupted because money is a great corrupter. But it is a good example of that. The other thing I did was C.3.3., and I’ve done a lot of work in jails working with young people and older people, and in that time, I was working in a Reading jail and I was just doing music workshops with young offenders. It was very challenging kind of work, but it was an old Victorian kind of jail, so I had to kind of work with the ghosts of that building and what it represented. That became important, and then, they actually closed that jail down. With most of these things, usually when they close those things down, they can turn it into a hotel or something – regenerate it in some kind of horrible way. The positive news about that is there’s a guy called Melvin Benn who works for the Reading and Leeds festivals in Britain; he’s kind of been based in Reading, so he’s trying to get that taken over and turn it into a theatre, which would be great… that this old building actually maintains a link to history, but is used in a positive way. In terms of that album though, I was seeing these young people in this old building where the conditions were terrible; they’re not treated in the same harsh way as a hundred years previous, but at the same time, the conditions are so awful there that it’s not really fit for purpose. If you’re talking about rehabilitating people, it’s not going to happen.
Now, I do a bit of work in HM Prison Pentonville, which is in central London, and doing some radio stuff with prisoners in there. It’s 175-years-old; it is a Victorian building. It’s crumbling, vermin-infested, and that’s not to knock the people or make an anti-authoritarian statement here, because some of the governors and stuff have made really big efforts to try to make it better with what they’ve got. But when it comes from the top-down, the government doesn’t want to put any money in it; everything gets cut and cut and cut until you’ve got not enough people to do the work that is necessary in this stuff. That’s in prisons right across the board, and people are expected to do more and more for less and less. Either this stuff gets handed out to the private sector and maybe things improve that way, or they just keep rotting – and the same goes for the health service – and that gives them an excuse to sell it off and make money. You know, they’ve got nothing left in Britain to sell off really… unless we do the Brexit thing and if Trump’s still in power and we do a trade deal with America. They’d love to get their hands on the health service – it’s already being slowly undermined and privatized anyway – and that’ll be the death knell of the National Health Service and we’ll end up with some kind of horrible thing like you’ve got in the States where people can’t afford to pay for treatment. But the other big one is the prisons. It makes total sense that the government would just sell off prisons to Americans, because then they could privatize them all, and then keep them full up because the shareholders would be happy and see them raking in the profits from it, and they really don’t have to do much while they keep banging up these young guys and keep them locked away. And they’d probably have a similar system of ‘three strikes, you’re out,’ so it’s like, ‘that’s it, you’re not coming out, and you’re stuck in here.’ It’ll keep the prisons full, and I can see that they’ve got their eyes on those two. I don’t know what else there is left really that they can buy, because they’ve sold most of it already.
As if one couldn’t be more depressed about the state of things?
Jamrozy: Well… yes, but on the positive side with what’s going on with the Brexit thing is there’s going to be a general election. Maybe people like Corbyn… you know, they’ve got quite a radical manifesto and agenda where they want to re-nationalize the utilities; they want to stop students from having to pay fees, and they have quite a big agenda. If they can push that through, then it would mean quite a radical change. But they’ve been demonizing Corbyn for years, just trying to scare people off.
It’s the same in the States with anybody who is ‘progressive,’ like some of the people who have been elected over the last several years, and all the constant demonization of progressive and non-conservative values.
Jamrozy: In Britain, we’ve got Boris Johnson in, and although he acts like a buffoon, he’s a got no principles whatsoever; he’s a total opportunist really. Some people still think he’s funny because he can ruffle his hair up and act like fucking Stan Laurel and make a few odd jokes; people think, ‘Oh, he’s such a funny guy,’ even though he’s got a radical agenda that is basically all for him. In that sense, he is a Trump 2.0 figure.
George W. Bush seemed like that a few years ago.
Jamrozy: Oddly enough, on the plane over here, I watched the Vice movie, and it was actually quite funny. But the guy who played Bush in that movie (Sam Rockwell) made him seem like a total gimp and clueless, but was quite happy to give all the responsibility to Cheney because he didn’t know what he was doing; he was quite happy with that as long as he was called President. That is worrying because all these figures… are they really pulling the strings? They’re dangerous people some of them, but behind the scenes are other more dangerous people… are there? Some of these guys are indeed puppets. Is Trump really just a puppet? I don’t know. And when people want to get rid of him, they will get eventually something to happen to him, and they are subpoenaing him and getting his tax accounts and such… but I don’t know if that’s going to make any kind of difference.
Well, certainly not among his supporters, but that’s a whole other issue.
Jamrozy: Like the Trump supporters, it’s a bit like that in Britain. Even though they are shat upon daily, these people who feel they are entitled to be in a position of power and feel like they’re superior. People still have this idea that these posh buffoons are working in their interest; it’s incredible that people would still vote for them based on some strange populist thing because he’s on TV and seems funny.
I got rid of television a long time ago, partially for that reason.
Perhaps we should get back to music?
Jamrozy: Oh yeah.
Test Dept is often counted among the progenitors of what is referred to as ‘industrial music,’ even though the term has taken on different sounds and connotations since your early history. How much have you paid attention to these developments, and did that play any part in your approach to the new album?
: I think over the last few years, it’s become more apparent that there’s been a big techno/industrial scene and EBM has kind of taken off. When we did early dabbling of what you could call dance music or that sort of thing, there were a lot of real industrial fans who really didn’t like that; certainly in Europe. But I think it has kind of changed quite a bit, and there seems to be kind of more of a merging of the genres in that sense in more subgenres. Just the term… we kind of never really liked being called industrial at the beginning because it seemed like a fabrication by the media to make a movement out of something that wasn’t really a movement – it was more like-minded individuals working in the same timeframe really. Although there were early industrial people like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, and then you get to the next wave like Neubauten and SPK and people like us came through, and after that is more of an American thing with Front Line Assembly, or Nitzer Ebb in Britain… everything was very different really; I don’t think there was a lot in common with those bands, but over time, it seems to kind of make sense from more of a historical perspective. Also, because there are so many different subgenres these days, it kind of makes sense just to be able to hold it together as some kind of movement so people know things are happening; otherwise, it gets so easy to get lost in the sea of stuff that’s out there, whether it’s good or bad. In that sense, we’re not worried about being called ‘industrial,’ and we know that the original term came from Throbbing Gristle and their idea of the death factory and what that meant, like a process. Whereas, I made a statement semi-jokingly that actually, we are the only industrial band because we actually deal with people in industry – we work with the South Wales striking miners choirs, we’ve done stuff with printworkers, and not just benefits and stuff; we do it as a collaboration. So in that sense, it was just a kind of a bit of a joke, but actually, it was just stating that there was a huge difference between what we were doing and what other bands were doing with computer-based and sampling industrial sounds, and then maybe adding a few guitars and bass on top of that… doing something and calling it industrial, but yeah, we don’t have any problem with that now. We’ve been around too long to be affected by that.
Next: Part 2
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