On Saturday, artist, maverick, musician, and provocateur Genesis P-Orridge died of leukemia at age 70. Or, as s/he would probably have put it, using the same words that s/he did to refer to the 2007 death of h/er wife, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, on Saturday, Gen dropped h/er body. As one of the progenitors of industrial music in the enormously influential ’70s and ’80s band Throbbing Gristle, as someone who helped expand notions of what music could be all together, as someone whose commitment to performance and art was written (and revised) on h/er body, P-Orridge’s iconoclastic spirit lives on.
P-Orridge’s death prompted me to revisit an interview I conducted at h/er apartment in the Lower East Side in 2013. At the time, I intended to publish a profile of P-Orridge on Gawker, but never did—a failure of my mind and body. Over the course of some seven hours of conversations, P-Orridge overloaded me with information about h/er life and art. My initial angle was to tell the story of the demise of Throbbing Gristle, which broke up in 1981 and reunited in 2004, only to disband again in 2010. But it felt impossible to tell that story without telling the stories of the band’s surviving members (Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson died in 2010)—Gen’s account and that of Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter (a couple) diverged wildly. I was soon flailing in he said/she said weeds. And then I got very sick with the lyme-like rickettsia, which essentially put my brain out of commission for more than a month. When I recovered, I simply moved on with my work and abandoned the piece I had assigned myself and struggled with.
Rereading the first part of the interview I conducted with P-Orridge (which lasted over three hours and whose transcription yielded over 30,000 words), I was moved. I asked h/er a lot of broad questions about h/er life and life in general, and s/he happily played the role of sage. S/he struck me as entirely transparent, willing to honestly answer any question I threw at h/er. I had read a lot of interviews with P-Orridge that were so focused on theory, that I felt treated h/er more like a specimen than a human. I didn’t want to do that. I was more curious about the granular stuff. Parenting. Sex. H/er gender identity and adapting to referring to h/erself as “we.” Both of those notions stem from h/er well-known project with Lady Jaye called Pandrogyne in which, through a series of plastic surgeries, they essentially became each other for the sake of art and as an expression of their love. Gen’s pronouns, s/he and h/er, reflected the grafting of Lady Jaye’s soul onto h/ers, even in death. Much of this was captured in Marie Losier’s beautiful 2011 documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.
It is with a degree of ambivalence that I offer this highly truncated (though still quite long) transcript, which highlights the portions of our conversation about Genesis’s life experience and existential philosophies. I love Throbbing Gristle (and enjoy P-Orridge’s subsequent music with projects like Psychic TV), and I have loved a lot of what P-Orridge has observed about life. Before I was a fan of h/er music, I saw h/er in the 1998 electronic-music documentary Modulations and fell in love with h/er mind when I heard h/er say this quote: “When in doubt make no sense. No sense is good. And nonsense is good.” That became something of a credo of mine.
At the same time, I do not want to unduly venerate P-Orridge in death. S/he was far from perfect and could be, according to accounts, quite awful. H/er ex-girlfriend and TG bandmate Cosey Fanni Tutti accused P-Orridge of physical violence and emotional manipulation in her 2017 memoir Art Sex Music. For the sake of provocation and expression, P-Orridge and TG (as well as the art collective from which TG sprang, COUM Transmissions), crossed certain lines in the ’70s that would be denounced today. They had a thing for Nazi uniforms and imagery. For example, one of the covers of TG’s single “Discipline” depicted the band standing outside of the former Nazi Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin, and the logo for their label Industrial Records featured a crematorium at Auschwitz.
Additionally, early editions of their second studio album, D.o.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle, were packaged with a calendar featuring a picture of a shirtless prepubescent girl who was P-Orridge’s friend’s daughter. I asked P-Orridge about both of these things and s/he sort of waved them off—the Nazi stuff was purely aesthetic (they just had the best uniforms, s/he claimed, as though the ideology these clothes represented could be amputated from their look in a clean cut), and the calendar was innocent and not at all meant to invoke child sex abuse imagery, P-Orridge told me, adding that the girl had requested the taking of the picture. I don’t find either of those answers satisfactory in retrospect, and I wish I’d pushed back harder.
Everyone’s legacy is complicated. We are neither our best nor our worst moments. P-Orridge’s is more complicated than most. S/he had a reputation for being violent and combative, but with me was warm. S/he spoke in a purr as rough as a cat’s tongue. As s/he alternately stroked h/er dog Musty (whom s/he had acquired, s/he said, from Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha) and served me screwdrivers, s/he told me wild stories about being hunted by authorities over h/er “dangerous” art and hanging out with Buddhists in Kathmandu. S/he repeatedly asked if I was having fun, and confirmed s/he was, too. I was definitely charmed. In an obituary that ran in the Times on Saturday, writer Tim Mohr, who was working on P-Orridge’s memoir with h/er, referred to h/er as a “Zelig-like character.” That sort of snapped things into perspective for me. P-Orridge prided h/erself on not being one thing for very long. As s/he explained to me, “And also we have this sort of slogan: ‘Never return to a previous character.’” Now it seems clear that what I got to see up close was just a blur between iterations. The depiction below is as true and false as a snapshot, a single frame in life teeming with them.
Your output has been defined in part by its speed. You’re always doing something and there is so much of it.
We are very productive.
Would you say that fast turnaround from your brain to the finished product is part of your MO? Part of what defines your work?
Yeah. If we’ve had an idea that we think is valuable or worth investigating, we feel duty-bound to make it happen even if it’s against all the odds. Hence Industrial. That’s why we came up with the idea of “cultural engineer.” With no resources, no skills, we decided to invent a band that is a different form, and insist that you’re right until the world agrees, which sounds really arrogant, but it’s just a matter of speculation, analysis, and thinking, “Okay this is inevitable, so let’s just push it there.”
You’ve never had a Top 40 hit or any of those markers of mainstream success. You have to find you to know you. I’ve read Wreckers of Civilisation, and it might have been Cosey that said it, but in my understanding, the concept of art was something you collectively found laughable or mockable…
The art establishment and the gallery system, yeah absolutely. I mean we all know now it’s become so laughable, we all know now it’s just become an alternative stock market. And within that, it’s arbitrary who they decide to champion to make rich and famous. Usually, people who are shallow enough to want that.
But they don’t want people who are prepared to turn away if they are bribed and say, “No, I don’t want your money. We would rather just keep really clear and pure.” And that’s of course why they get nervous. Because their control system is based on bribery of one kind or another: bribery of the ego, financial bribery, celebrity, museums, whatever it might be. Usually, that’s the death of creativity. People become formula-ized. Why can you recognize so many artists’ works without being told? Because they do the same thing over and over again. Why? What is the satisfaction of that? Bridget Riley is a really great woman, and we are friends with her. But she does stripes. So you can always go, “That’s a Bridget Riley.” They are stripes. They are beautiful stripes. The best stripes anyone’s ever done. Warhol you recognize because of the texture of the silkscreens, and Salvador Dalí you recognize because of the style. And the style becomes more valuable than the content. And the content often isn’t even about philosophical or really important issues. Well, nowadays it’s mainly cynical jokes. Damien Hirst and his crew really helped destroy the last vestiges of meaning in the art world. And they’ve done it with the tongue in the cheek, but they also feel special, obviously, or they wouldn’t do it.
What happened with me personally was we were doing COUM Transmissions for a few years and we were in Hackney. We used to meet this old guy who had been gassed in the First World War. He had one tooth in the front. We just sat on a bench and talked to him. One day we went to a pub and were just sitting talking, and he asked me about COUM and what we were doing, and we tried to explain it. He said, “I really get it. I understand, but would all the people in this pub get it?” And we went “No.” And he said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if you found a way to say the same thing in a form they could understand?” From this old guy who got gassed came this really astute critique. If you want to really communicate, use another medium. And we thought: music. That was the medium. Then we had the whole problem of how do we create music when we don’t really want to play, we can’t play, and so on. How do we make something that works despite not having the traditional skills and wanting to prove anyone could create something special if they analyzed what was around them enough? That’s how TG began.
You have developed as a musician since then.
Yeah. Sure, oh yeah, definitely. You have to keep changing, you see. That’s why we had to stop TG.
It strikes me that you’re living a life that is impossible to summarize.
Oh yeah, it is. You’d have to write several books. It’s gotten too complex at this point…
Is that part of the point or just an inadvertent byproduct of living as you see fit?
That’s just inadvertent. Right at the beginning, way, way back, we can remember being nine years old in a place called Gatley, in Cheshire and going to a coffee bar and this guy between a gypsy and a beatnik came in. He was really scruffy with long hair and had earrings and my mother went, “[Gasp] Look at that person over there! That’s so disgusting!” And we’re thinking, I’d love to look like that. We’ve always been drawn to the male androgyne that kind of look, that’s why we love the ’60s so much because [it was] the best time of male fashion and liberation. Men became unafraid of looking feminine and girls loved it, they still do. Girls love feminized men.
So those were key little hints about where we wanted to go, and then around ’65, one of my teachers at school introduced me to Dada and surrealism so we read a couple of books on that and the thing that really intrigued me and inspired me the most was the lives they were leading. They did these weird exhibitions and things, but they also did strange theatrical interventions and challenged the world heavyweight boxing champion to a match and got beaten unconscious as an art thing, even then. So we loved the idea that their lives were just as interesting and exciting as what they made. That was the basic template of what we wanted to be: That life and art are so interlocked that they’re not separable. They’re absolutely, in my belief, the same thing. Or aspects of the same thing. And a way of expressing and sharing perceptions and ideas and concepts.
Is everything a performance? Is life a performance?
It can be, absolutely it can be. Identity is completely fictional. It’s an agreement that most people make with their family first, their parents, their peer group and so on. Most people tend to surrender to the least interesting version of their life to fit in and not be threatened. Some of us do quite the opposite. [Laughs] When we do talks—you know, we talked at Yale recently and the New School, we explain it in a very simple form: Once you’re conceived and you’re inside your mother’s womb, everybody around is going to be talking about the baby and their expectations and the gender and if it’s this gender what they’ll call you if you’re another gender that’s what they’ll call you, and so on. We believe that the baby is on some level hearing that and feeling that. So even before you’re born, you’ve been quite deliberately conditioned to fit in with other people’s ideas of who you are.
And that continues through life. And why on earth would you want to be at the mercy of all these people you’ve not met yet? We’ve never felt any interest in blood relations. To this day, apart from my sister and her two daughters, we have no idea who my relatives are. Cousins and uncles and aunts. The two aunts and uncles we knew are dead. And that’s it. We never want to family gatherings. We believe you chose your own family. We believe people should decide if they want to change their name and decide on their own name, one that represents what they want to become. One that invokes the future they would rather have, like a spell. And you can do that on a lot of levels and create finally a narrative that’s written by you. And that to me is a laudable thing to try to do. That’s what we’ve always been doing. And also we have this sort of slogan: “Never return to a previous character.” Which is why we change ourselves over and over.
When you speak about Lady Jaye, it’s as though you’ve subsumed her…
The way we put it is that we represent both of us in this body in the material, in what appears to be a reality. And Lady Jaye represents us both in the immaterial and hopefully, when we get to the immaterial, we will hopefully meld into one consciousness.
As articulately as you put it, it’s not far off from the way a lot of people cope with death and passing.
No, it’s not. Absolutely.
It’s actually among the more conventional parts of your philosophy that I’ve heard.
Well, we accept anything that works no matter how ordinary it might be. If it works, use it. If you can’t invent a better hammer, use a hammer.
What is it like emotionally? Is it awful? Do you miss her all the time?
Absolutely. But we also know she’s around all the time. After we started going to Nepal and the Himalayas and met more Tibetan Buddhists that had been reincarnated, we came to the conclusion we could no longer deny it was possible, which made us completely readjust our basically existential view of this place.
Do you feel like you could ever be with somebody again?
People often ask me that. It seems hard to imagine. You know? We have a lot of really close people but everything is platonic. Even when we’re really lonely in certain times—not so much now because we have so many friends—but there was a phase about three or four years ago where one was saying it would be nice to have somebody to cuddle up to and wake up with and talk to about stuff and exchange ideas with. But nothing happens, even when we meet somebody we think is really attractive and they really like me, there is no spark, there is nothing. That’s okay. We always have an open mind. If it’s meant to happen, Jaye will find someone. Leave it to her.
Are you transgender?
No. Well, some people would say so. [Laughs] It’s funny you should ask that very question. Jaye used to know this guy George Petros who worked at Propaganda magazine and other magazines in the ’80s and ’90s. He used to come visit us at the old place, Gates Institute and when we were getting really into Pandrogyne. We were really giving him all this information about it being an evolutionary stage and so on, and then he decided to do a new book. He asked us to be in the book and we refused.
Because we’re not transsexuals. It would misconstrue what we are trying to do and make it much too easy for those that would rather not listen. That’s not to say we don’t believe [being trans] is an evolutionary signal; we do believe that. We even did an interview for ABC TV News once and we said transgender people are the stormtroopers of the future. They’re the ones breaking through to the next phase.
And we do try and support GBLT [Editor’s Note: LGBT] and transgender and so on, but we do find it’s a little bit awkward to fit in.
Sure, because so much of it comes from art and this very specific love that you have with this person as opposed to a broader identity.
Yeah, it inevitably affects peoples’ concepts of identity, but even that wasn’t what it was about.
Right. So then it’s a little bit strange when the Village Voice or the New York Times refers to you as “she” right?
Well, no when we write “she,” we put “s/he.”
Right, and that’s to signify…
Me and her.
But some publications just print it as “S-H-E” as though to signal you are transgender.
Well, it will take a long time to educate people and correct language. Even when they’re on our side, they’re not always getting it all. We imagine it is the biggest project we’ve taken on. It’s working to a degree.
Most of the talks we give at university are about Pandrogyne.
Are other people practicing it?
Yeah, of course, yeah. Not many that we know of, but some.
Do they have the same sort of artistic ambition?
Not necessarily as overarching as ours, but it’s certainly coming from a creative place. Obviously we are a unique case, inevitably. But it’s one of those things, we see it as a Trojan horse, or a wedge is maybe a better way. If there’s a gap in the omnipresent culture which we find oppressive, we can push through. We want to make a wedge that makes it possible for other people to come through. And hopefully, the sum total of all the people that push through will open it wider and wider until a human species might actually pop through and start thinking differently. The bottom line is we are trying to get human beings to think and behave differently. Differently than they’ve been programmed, differently than they are expected to behave through their DNA. Culture is completely arbitrary, we all know this. We go to one country you can have 20 wives, you go to another and you can be arrested for having 20 wives. It’s arbitrary. The rules and regulations regarding taboos and sex and love and marriage and all different kinds of behavior are completely manmade to suit those in power usually. As Burroughs always said to me, when you want to know what’s going on, look for the vested interest. And it’s so true.
How often do you see your daughters?
Genesse was just here for a month. She just went back last week.
What do they do?
Caresse is a supervisor of a community health center in Northern California that primarily treats people on welfare, drug addiction, and people with HIV/AIDS. It is a really good job to have. She’s a really caring girl.
How old is she?
Thirty. Thirty-one, this year. And Genesse just put herself through college and got a degree in English literature, with straight A’s.
How old is she?
She is 27, 28 in April. They absolutely adore me. Despite the unorthodox upbringing. To them, it turns out, their favorite memories are being on tour with Psychic TV on the school bus. They love those memories. Having William Burroughs be their Granddad William, being goddaughters to Timothy Leary, standing in Derek Jarman’s actual shoes. They were in his footsteps. Those are all their memories. Marc Almond carrying Caresse onstage and letting her join in a song. William Burroughs blessed Caresse when she was a few weeks old. So unorthodox in a way, but because we were always there, they went everywhere with us; they got maximum attention and all these wonderful intelligent people really being supportive to them, so they had an amazing childhood and upbringing. They are very lucky. We never ever talk to them as if they are children. When they would go, “Why can’t I do that,” we would explain the same way we would explain it to you. Always, right from the beginning, and that seems to have worked very well.
Where is fatherhood on your scale of accomplishments? Does it…
Oh, it’s definitely equal first. We read all these books like you read about William Burroughs and how his son Billy Jr. was abandoned basically for most of his life and died really young because he was trying to impress his father by being another junkie and everything.
I didn’t know that.
Yeah, he wrote that book Speed, which was just like the book Junky. And then he became a really bad alcoholic, and he ended up having a liver transplant. That’s the first time I ever heard William cry was when Billy Jr. died. It really affected him deeply. And you know, you read about [Aleister] Crowley and how he abandoned his children, we just thought—right from the beginning we’re going to prove you don’t have to do that. You can have children and be equally as creative and they can be treated really well. That was a project. To show you don’t have to sacrifice your children to succeed.
Do you think you did it perfectly? Do you have any shortcomings?
Nobody does anything perfectly but good enough.
But you’re proud of your fatherhood?
Absolutely. Really proud of them, really, more than my fatherhood. They’re both really interesting, really smart people. Whenever we play in the area, they always want to come to the concerts. And Genesse always wants to find a way to end up on stage. [Laughs] And for a little while, inevitably, somewhere in their mid-to-late teens, they felt awkward about me being their father. Because they’d go to their friends’ apartments and they’d see our records in their friend’s collections and not say anything, because they felt awkward.
Did you ever have any cognitive dissonance about how you’ve expressed yourself in public sexually once you had kids?
No. If you believe in the way you live, you should believe in the way you live, that’s that. I think it’s in [The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye], isn’t it, when we talk about having breasts, Genesse goes, “You spent that money on breasts when I could have had another car?” That’s how banal it is to them.
Do you care about aging at all?
Only because sometimes you can’t do as many things as you wanted to. The human body is a really fickle thing. Both myself and Jaye would have stayed here forever if we could, just because we enjoy life.
Was there a learning curve in referring to yourself as “we?” Did you have to get used to that?
Oh yeah. We still drop it sometimes. We have about three times [during this interview]. It’s difficult when you’re in the past, it’s unclear. Should you still say “we” or should you be in the past as “I”? It’s a complicated thing.
And you haven’t sorted it out yet?
We haven’t sorted it out semantically yet.
Have you ever had relationships with men?
Are you bisexual?
No. Just sexual. My only real boyfriend would be Nicholas.
Nicholas Bramble, he was a ballet dancer. Ballet dancers have the best bodies. Boxers and ballet dancers.
I prefer MMA fighters.
It’s true actually, you’re right. So yeah that was my first boyfriend.
How old were you then?
Twenty, somewhere around there. He was interesting because he also worked on waxworks at Madame Tussauds in London. And also made the wigs for the waxworks, and moved into making really amazing one-off porcelain dolls he would sell to collectors. And then, as things do, he drifted away and we drifted away and we were in the Limelight in London one night, waiting to meet Alice Cooper, who had a boa constrictor in the back, poor things—someone wanted to do a photo of me and Alice Cooper both with our snakes—and this friend of Sleazy’s really came up and said, “Did you hear about Nicholas?” “What?” “He died of AIDS, in San Francisco.” We didn’t even know he’d gone there. He was one of the early deaths.
How important have drugs been in your career and/or life?
“Important” is a strange word. Through reading Burroughs and Kerouac and everyone, we obviously came across marijuana, etcetera. We smoked hashish from ’65 to ’69. Then we went four weeks without smoking hash really easily and [someone] handed me the hash and I said, “I don’t want it.” And I never smoked again, except in Kathmandu with Lady Jaye. After we met Cosey, we took acid. And then TG, the stress of dealing with everybody made me start drinking again, whiskey.
When we got back into the idea of drugs was [during the emergence of] ecstasy. There was this girl whose nickname was Cindy Ecstasy, who used to come from New York with big loads of it and distribute it at Some Bizarre in ’82, which is where we were. Marc Almond, Dave Ball, all that crew, etcetera. And all just have pocketfuls of pure E. And the thing we found that was just fantastic was that it was great for doing just pure magick rituals. So we started to do that. And what we also found from ecstasy is that we rediscovered our skin—as a sexual organ.
And that it was an interface for translating things that would have otherwise been painful or uncomfortable. It became pleasure, and that’s how we got into bondage because it felt so good. And dildos and whatever. And mainly even then thought we would incorporate ideas like that of restriction and so on, it wasn’t just to fuck. Although, we did do that sometimes, casually. And then we got back into psychedelics in a much bigger way.
When was that?
Through the ’80s, ’85 to ’89. When Psychic TV toured America on a school bus, it was just outrageous. Everywhere we went because of the whole rave thing beginning, fans would come at you with sheets of acid, mushrooms. We couldn’t get rid of it there was so much, so we would sit on the bus chewing these big mushrooms. Yum yum yum. And then the bus became a space rocket. It was fantastic. So we had a lot of fun, all the way through the ’80s, into when we came into America in ’92; we were staying with Michael Horowitz and Cindy, Winona Ryder’s parents, in Petaluma. We were living with the kids in Winona Ryder’s old bedroom. Yeah. We had an interesting life.
I can tell!
People keep saying we should write an autobiography. But it seems far too egocentric to do that.
Do you still do drugs?
Not really. Occasionally. We’ve always been a believer in the ’60s idea that drugs are there to try and adjust consciousness and try to travel somewhere out of the body or try to find something out. For us, they’ve always been problem solvers. At some point, [a friend] came to visit at the old place in Queens and was saying, “Have you ever done ketamine?” “No…” “You should try it, I think you’d like it.” So we tried it using not powder because we don’t like powder. We injected it [from] a bottle. Once you’ve used a catalytic process, it’s slightly different. And he said, “This thing, you won’t understand it unless you’ve done it 300 times.” And he was right.
So you did it 300 times?
More like three or four thousand.
[Jaye and I] went through a phase where before we fell asleep we’d load a syringe each of ketamine. And whoever woke up first injected the other while we were asleep. So we woke up high on ketamine. So we would just do it all day. As soon as it wore off, we’d do some more. And we spent more than a year high all the time on ketamine. And that’s when we came up for all the theories for Pandrogyne.
Were there any adverse effects to doing that much ketamine?
No. Not at all. It’s not addictive. One day we both were using and nothing happened and, okay that’s it. No withdrawal, no anything, just stopped. Interesting. It’s the only drug we know that’s like that. And of course, we found out that John Lilly used to do it trying to learn dolphin intelligence. Do you know who John Lilly is? Have you seen the film Altered States?
Yeah, I have.
That’s based on him. He did lots of suspension in tanks on high doses of ketamine and was trying to communicate with dolphins and learn their language amongst other things. And interestingly at some point using ketamine he started trying to get breasts and wearing women’s clothes. As did Timothy [Leary]. Not the breasts, but the women’s clothes. As did we. So there is something in ketamine. We believe every drug has a spirit. Some good, some bad, some indifferent. Ketamine has a very interesting spirit that tends to encourage Pandrogyne of some kind. So it may well be that without that Pandrogyne might not have become a clear thought. Since then we haven’t been very interested, we haven’t come across a situation where we had to find something out.
How are you doing health-wise? It seems like you have a lot of health issues.
Well, we’re 63. We’ve always had really bad asthma. We’re not sure why it’s got worse; we think it might be because the bedroom’s got damp and mold. We’ve had a hard life, pushed myself always to the limits, so it’s actually amazing that we’re as healthy as we are. Since we were 17, we’ve had to take pills every day to stay alive. And my adrenal glands don’t work, so we have to take pills to release adrenaline. That’s why we get really angry because it’s fight and flight. And the one bit that still works in the adrenal cortex is the fight and flight. So if we get angry, we get the normal dose of fight and flight, plus all the adrenaline that’s already in my blood. That’s why we could go crazy. It’s taken a long time to learn how to control that and bypass it. But we did.
You’ve done so many interviews.
Thousands… I did three yesterday. Do you want to know why we do them?
Yeah, I do.
It’s part of the job, as a creative person. If you think you’ve got ideas that are important and you’re trying to change the way the world outside is, interviews are one of the platforms you can use to get the propaganda out. Secondly, there are people, often they’ve found, because they’ll come and talk to us, there are people in bumfuck Wisconsin or Czechoslovakia or the desert in Australia who are saved from misery and even suicide because they find you and they say, “My god, someone else knows how I feel.” Corny as that sounds it really is true. To me, that’s part of the greater work, to share as much as you can and hope it inspires change and other people to do things. “Oh I could be an artist, I could be a musician, I can write, I can be creative. I could leave where I am and do something more interesting.” And people can truly own their own narrative, so we do it to speak, to people who are listening. And over years your ideas change, they evolve. Things you said in 1975, you could contradict completely later.
You don’t mind that?
No, that’s human. You’re supposed to grow and change. Wouldn’t it be awful if you still had exactly the same ideas?