An interview with
Chris Cutler (2004)

By Beppe Colli
Feb. 8, 2004

In the short time they existed, between 1978 and 1980, the Art Bears - Chris Cutler, Fred Frith and Dagmar Krause, with the invaluable assistance of engineer Etienne Conod - produced three very fine LPs: Hopes And Fears, Winter Songs and The World As It Is Today. Three albums of songs full of innovations. Featuring the three original LPs freshly remastered, a double CD of remixes, an extra CD of rarities and an extensive booklet, The Art Box is the box set that marks their 25th anniversary.

During the first week of February I had an e-mail conversation with Chris Cutler about the group.

As a first question, I'd like to ask you about the transition from Henry Cow to Art Bears. When I bought the albums, I noticed that though it was released first Henry Cow's Western Culture had been recorded after Hopes And Fears, the Art Bears' first LP. You talked briefly about this in the liner notes to the CD re-release of Western Culture. Would you mind elaborating on this?

What became Hopes And Fears started life as a Henry Cow LP; our first independent release after leaving Virgin. The whole story is in the booklet and it will be easier to copy it from there I'm sure, but yes, I suspect that if it had come out under the name of Henry Cow, it would have surprised a lot of people - although the LP would not have been the same because Henry Cow removed tracks recorded for it (instrumental, mostly) and Fred and I then wrote four more songs to complete it. It was work on the extra material that originated our unusual work method - and without that the Art Bears would never have evolved and Winter Songs and The World As It Is Today would never have been made.

("1978. In January, days before we left, there were serious disagreements about the material, leaving us with a studio booking and too little music. I was deputised to try to produce new texts for a piece of Tim's (...) - an impossible task in the time available. So I wrote some short texts and proposed we make a song LP instead. In the absence of anything else, this is what we did, working on the material en route to Switzerland, in a rehearsal room when we arrived and throughout the recording itself. On our return to London, Henry Cow decided that this work was not what 'Henry Cow' should be doing and that therefore we should not release the record. Fred and I offered to pay the studio costs, took the songs, added another four and released the result as the first Art Bears LP: Hopes And Fears.")

I have to say that had the Hopes And Fears album been released under the Henry Cow name - and right after In Praise Of Learning and the Concerts live double LP - I would have been quite surprised. Sure, there had been the Desperate Straights album - but that was a joint project with Slapp Happy. Where did this interest in "short songs" come from? What were your general points of reference? Did a certain "spirit of the times" influence the new project at all?

Desperate Straights was a very important experience, I think, because it put us all directly back in touch with the song form and with what was essential about pop. And Pop was what we all grew up with in those days, one way or another. Moreover, Fred and I at least had both come from rock backgrounds and had spent years in bands playing songs. So they were in our blood. Suddenly we found we were keen to explore them again, but from a more evolved, less commercially motivated perspective: from having been away and learned a lot of other things in the interim in fact.

When I attended one of your seminars - it was in 1987, at the MIMI Festival in St. Remy - you were asked whether the Art Bears song In Two Minds, off the Hopes And Fears LP, was in any way intended as an homage to The Who. If I remember correctly, you seemed to accept the idea. Would you elaborate? Henry Cow and The Who not being considered two groups one would mention in the same sentence...

It would be hard to deny the connection. It is so obviously a reference. I was certainly directly influenced in my youth by The Who - and in particular by Keith Moon. The Who was also one of the earliest bands I can remember who welcomed abstract noise into their songs. In the context of the early '60s they were provocatively radical and experimental; a fact easily missed in retrospect because, at the time, popularity and experiments in rock were closer together than they were ten years later. Useful too to read the RIO statement from 1978: Henry Cow always considered itself a rock group, and the music we played rock.

Where did the group's name come from? (It sounds like Heart Bares...)

I took the name from a sentence in Jane Harrison's Art And Ritual. Even today, when individualism is rampant, Art Bears traces of its collective, social origin‚ but not too much should be read into this; it just sounds intriguing, has an animal in it, plays with ambiguity and is mildly ridiculous.

The two Art Bears albums that followed - Winter Songs and The World As It Is Today - were recorded as a trio. What kind of studio procedure did you use - I mean, there was a certain amount of overdubbing...

There was only overdubbing. We never played a note of music together. That was the method we adopted to complete Hopes And Fears as a trio. No rehearsal, no actual playing of the material together, no discussion. I wrote the texts and sent them to Fred and he set them. Then we all met at the studio, decided on a structure for the first song and immediately laid down a click track alongside the vocal melody for Dagmar to take upstairs to learn. Then Fred and I built up the tracks one by one, getting the sounds and deriving the parts as we went. So we were really able to use the studio in a fully compositional way: with no pre-existing ideas about instrumentation and no influence from actual collective playing - just the arrangement of sounds and performances on tape, including effects directly derived from the qualities of tape itself: making it run at different speeds, backwards, cut up and looped. So we constructed the pieces rather than performing them. On the other hand, we constructed them, for the most part, from performances. And that is something also unique to the recording process.

About your lyric writing: the lyrics for the Winter Songs LP were related to some stylobate of a cathedral, while the ones for The World As It Is Today had a bitter, at times almost desperate tone. Would you mind talking about them?

I think the question needs to be more specific. I can say that Winter Songs was undertaken as a coherent song cycle, pursuing a single topic: an attempt to put the contemporary world into a different perspective and to show that our way of perceiving wasn't inevitable or true, while The World As It Is Today was about what it said on the label, and was undertaken in a dark time. But for my own part, I don't find any of it desperate. It certainly wasn't intended that way. Angry maybe. Very angry. But not desperate.

How did the group work live? If I'm not mistaken, Peter Blegvad did some live work with you...

Since all the songs were generated in the studio and never performed, a lot of them were literally unperformable. Preparing for concerts meant involving more people as you said, Peter Blegvad, and Marc Hollander, and finding solutions to performance problems. We also used some material on tape, which was cued in by the sound engineer at the required places.

How did the group come to an end?

The making of The World As It Is Today was a fairly traumatic, Dagmar arrived with a contract, the atmosphere was difficult - reflecting the state of the world, I suppose: there were riots and teargas in Zurich while we were recording. Indeed, Dagmar refused to sing the last song because she found the text too violent. It was a hard time. Though that perhaps helped the record to be as intense as it needed to be. I remember leaving the studio with Graham Keatley and instead of going back to London, we just stuck out our thumbs and headed south. No particular destination in mind. We got to Vienna and after a while went on down to Rome. It took a couple of weeks to get over that record. We all knew that that was our last record.

What was that about a contract...

Dagmar arrived at the studio with a recording contract, written by her husband, Bob Ward, which we had to sign before she would sing. It was completely unexpected and was, at least for Fred and me, rather shocking, since it seemed to indicate that we were no longer just friends, following a shared vision, but employer and client.

What in your opinion is the Art Bears legacy today? Do you hear any groups that make you think - "ha-ha! I know this".

I've heard a couple of groups who sound like the Bears - Gorilla Museum and an Italian group: Lingham. But generally, nothing obvious. The group was so marked by particularities - our studio work method, Etienne's creativity, our very personal playing styles and techniques, Fred's unique compositional approach, Dagmar's extraordinary voice and my own rather elliptical approach to text writing - that it would be hard to reduce to a formula.

The Art Bears box includes Art Bears Revisited, a double CD of remixes by the likes of The Residents, John Oswald and Otomo Yoshihide/Ground Zero. What was your intention in commissioning those works?

I thought it would produce interesting results, and I like the idea of making new work with no new musical information; to discover how different people hear this material. How much can be made from so little...

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Feb. 8, 2004