An interview with
Chris Cutler (2008)

By Beppe Colli
Dec. 18, 2008

As I wrote in my review of Vol. 6 - Stockholm & Göteborg, my first reaction upon learning of a soon-to-be-released mammoth box set (9 CDs, 1 DVD-V, with 2 substantial books) featuring  only live material by the glorious, impossible-to-forget, UK band Henry Cow in the year marking the 40th Anniversary of the group's start, was one of total disbelief: All this stuff? Just like my second reaction: Who is gonna buy this one?

Meanwhile, throwing all caution to the winds, ReR - the perennial "King of Timing" - announced December as the box set's release date. But ReR being also the perennial "Champion of Poor Efficiency", the box (as it was to be expected) is not ready - yet.

A time of extreme measures? Well, on one hand it's true that the music performed by this group still sounds great (we can discuss whether this is due to their own merits, or to the low quality of what came after them, at a later date), and I'm quite certain that Chris Cutler (the former Henry Cow drummer who owns ReR, the label behind the box) did all it could be done in order to make everything interesting and worthwhile, the music sounding from merely good to excellent, according to the available source material.

On the other hand, it was a long time ago, in many ways. What about the group's old fans - are they still interested? are they still there? And what about newcomers? - who in my opinion should really get the first three studio album, and the live album Concerts, first. But it's the "pointillistic" model of consumption that's so typical of this day and age that's the real enemy of a careful exploration of an "object" 10 hours long.

A dangerous situation, then, to which Fate added a new "unknown quantity": While the box set is quite reasonably priced, the recent devaluation of the UK Pound Sterling compared to the US Dollar, not to mention (shame...) the Euro have made the profit margins of the whole endeavor, already quite minimal to start with, almost non-existent (all ReR material being pressed abroad).

Adding a new paradox, the box set's Vol. 6, titled Stockholm & Göteborg, released as a stand-alone CD like a "sampler" to the box, had everybody puzzled, sporting a so-so sound, and presenting so many mistakes in the "credits" dept.

So all that was left for me was to talk to Cutler.

I'm pretty sure that by now those who subscribed to the Henry Cow box set are anxiously keeping an eye on their mailboxes, waiting for it to appear... soon. But we know better, right?, the box set not really being expected to ship before... mid-January? Would you mind elaborating on this?

You are right of course. We found some extra material late in the day and it seemed crazy not to include it in the box - which meant changing things around and doing re-design work. Since we'll only do this once, we might as well do as best we can. Happily, people who know us seem to have exemplary patience and understanding, so no angry letters so far. And the box will be better for the improvements.

Of course, those who subscribed to the box set are just a tiny minority, when compared to those who don't even know about it, or don't really care. What would you tell these people, what made Henry Cow so special?

Of all the English bands of the '70s, we went furthest in bringing elements from rock, free improvisation and highly scored contemporary music together into an integrated and coherent aesthetic whole – though, because of our infidelity to any segregated musical style, we wound up in a strange position, socially - not belonging to any generic community of musicians, but accepted by all kinds of audiences (we were invited to play at jazz festivals, rock festivals and new music festivals as if we belonged in each world). Our compositions could be extremely complex, I dare say more complex than any other European band at the time - or since - and our improvisations (which accounted for maybe 40% of any concert) were extremely radical and non-generic. In addition, we were overtly political without compromising our musical aesthetics to dogmas; and we ploughed our own furrow regardless of consequences. Unusually for the time we were constituted equally of male and female members (including road crew). In a way were a dead end since we pushed out to a new musical amalgam that no one wanted build on (or which history left behind). You can judge for yourself as soon as the box is out.

The first Henry Cow LP appeared in 1973, the oldest material in the box set appears to date back to 1971, so what is this "40th Anniversary" about? Looks like a suspiciously round figure to me...

Nothing suspicious about it: Henry Cow was formed in Cambridge in 1968. That's 40 years ago. Admittedly there weren't so many concerts in the beginning (this is detailed in the accompanying book to volume 1) and it took a while to find a language of our own - so we didn't become professional musicians until 1971 - however, the band was formed in 1968.

On the press release I have here it says: "(...) this collection gives for the first time some idea of the breadth and depth of Henry Cow's work". So, why did you wait this long, given the fact that the number of those who are interested in this kind of "difficult" stuff decreases with each passing year?

Many things have happened since we disbanded 30 years ago and, perhaps a little unusually, every ex-member of Henry Cow has gone on to a rich variety of other musical work, both of their own, and as participants in other projects. For many years we were all too busy to look backwards; and some of us felt the need to escape the legacy of Henry Cow - and the past - in order that the work we were doing in the present might be taken seriously. There were various requests for the band to reform during this time, which were all rejected. Time passed. We settled into the present. Now we can look back and see that what we did in those early days is still of value; subsequent developments have not rendered it obsolete. Indeed, far from being left behind, our work seems to have gained coherence in the new, experimentally more arid and mechanized environment. It seemed a good time to take stock. And a lot of what we did had never formally been documented so, at 40, it seemed as good a time as any to tie up the loose ends and prepare a comprehensive document of our working life. That's why it's 10 CDs. As for the public: well, publics and fashions come and go, and what's visible is always a distortion: you can't be guided by popularity in assessments of significance. Essentially, this box is exists because it's what artists do: produce work – of course to entertain whoever might be interested, but equally to launch suggestions and artefacts into the world. That's all: we aren't trying to meet some imagined or real demand, or to have a second chance at popularity, we just want to enable our work to continue working, because it's not yet exhausted.

The press release again: "The officially released LPs tell at best only half this story, and one purpose of this definitive collection is to set the work back into its broader context", which sounds more or less what Robert Fripp had in mind at the time of the release of King Crimson's live box set The Great Deceiver, back in 1992. Do you think - or hope - that the release of the Henry Cow box set will be granted the same amount of attention?

I'm afraid I totally missed the King Crimson box, so there's not a lot I can say about it. How much attention did it get? In any case I wouldn't want to measure Henry Cow

And talking about King Crimson, I seem to remember (but I could be wrong) that at least some members of the group were not really happy about the press lauding King Crimson for introducing live improvisation in rock, without even bothering to mention Henry Cow.

At the time we despaired of journalists who just repeated what bands' managers wrote in press releases. Crimson's sudden discovery of free improvisation was much publicized as something unheard of for a rock band. Since Henry Cow had been at it for years, we were unimpressed. Journalists have no excuse for being so lazy and ignorant, nor bands to know so little about their own field, or to let publicists write nonsense - that's what Sartre would call bad faith.

I'm sure you've heard those rumours about Neil Young being unsure whether in today's market his planned box set collection will have many takers. The press release for the Henry Cow box set says: "It's all a million times better than the terrible bootlegs that are swimming around", to which one could reply that those bootlegs are free for all to download, so...

If you prefer free downloads and bad quality to regular price and high quality, then you probably don't really care too much for the music anyway, so you won't appreciate it; then this box is not for you. Apart from that, and the moral issues, such equations seem to show that the Regan/Thatcher idea that ME is the only intelligible concept has now become an orthodoxy, along with 'money talks' and 'quality is for the birds'.  I'll buy the Neil Young box. We can go down together.

Of course, I expect the booklets to the box to have at least a few pictures of the famous group van, an unsung hero of the Henry Cow story. Speaking of which: Do you think that in today's climate - economic, and cultural in general - something like Henry Cow would be a viable proposition?

No. Even when I look at the fees we earned in the very early days, they are so much higher than the equivalent today (once inflation is taken into account) and there was an audience then for experiments and novelty. Pop in the '60s changed radically every few years and novel forms constantly gained attention - and a public; now we've had hip-hop grinding on for nearly three decades - presumably because nothing more interesting has come along. The structure that encouraged and drove innovation yesterday has dissipated today and the infrastructure of venues and organisers has shrunk accordingly. In such a climate, a group like Henry Cow would have a far harder time now than we had in the early '70s I'm sure.

By now we're all aware of the many mistakes appearing on the cover of Vol. 6. Have you spotted some more - I mean, on the other CDs, and in the booklets to the box?

I hope so.

The press release says: "there is a great deal of written, (...) and textual documentation." I'm really curious about the discussions between group members about musical and logistical issues. Are there any texts about this? (It's been said the members of Gentle Giant used to argue quite heatedly about each other's mistakes in their dressing room after the shows...)

Not really, there are the minutes of one of our weekly meetings, which give some idea of what we discussed, but although we talked a lot about art and music, and sometimes presentation, we did not criticize each other's performances as far as I can remember.

Though I'm certain the booklets discuss this, I've always been curious about the process that had the group choose a (relatively speaking) lightweight player as a replacement for a virtuoso, this not once, but twice. The case of Georgie Born ("who played everything staccato", a friend of mine reminded me recently) being really peculiar.

Twice? Who do you consider the second lightweight? I can't agree with your characterization of Georgie and characterising her playing as 'everything staccato' is only evidence of your friend's cloth ears - as listening to the second box in this set will confirm.

I seem to remember that you liked 70s Steely Dan, but I have no recollection of seeing that band's name being mentioned in the (very few) Henry Cow interviews I read back in the day. Do you remember any other "atypical, unmentioned" names of groups/artists that the other band members liked at the time?

We seldom spoke to the press about music we liked – because we were seldom asked (the Melody Maker 'Band File' was a rare exception); and it's way too long ago to say who liked what with any certainty, but we all listened to a lot of music of all kinds and across all the genre divides. And we discussed music a lot. I like Steely Dan; I think Fred does – but I couldn't say about the rest of the group, quite possibly not. We had quite different tastes as well as having a lot of things in common.

© Beppe Colli 2008 | Dec. 18, 2008