Fight Your Own War

Editor and contributor Jennifer Wallis talks about power electronics, noise culture, and her new book.

HEADPRESS: Hi Jennifer. You’re the evil genius behind our new FIGHT YOUR OWN WAR: Power Electronics and Noise Culture title, which is proving quite the cult smash. Tell us about the genesis of the book?

JENNIFER WALLIS: I’m not a musician—I have, let’s say, far from outstanding musical and technical abilities—so writing and editing is my own creative outlet where other people’s might be sound. It’s natural for me to explore my personal interests in that format, and so the book really evolved from that desire to create something around power electronics.

A second reason behind it was that there weren’t any existing books that looked at power electronics specifically, and its relationship to noise music more generally. Paul Hegarty’s Noise/Music: A History is the best thing out there—a brilliant read. But I wanted to do something less ‘academic’ that included varying opinions rather than just my own thoughts on it, considering it’s a genre that often provokes strong responses and is the perfect vehicle for people to express their views in very individual ways.

We put out a call for contributions—flyers at gigs, emails, and so on—that got a core of contributors, then filled in around those by approaching people (primarily artists themselves) directly.

The response from fans has been emphatic. Did this surprise you?

No, not particularly—though I’m delighted by it! Noise and power electronics have always been very materially-based; we like our physical releases, our special editions, and our zines. I don’t think that aspect will ever go away, and so the book taps into that. There’s an argument that, with the internet, we don’t need printed books on music anymore because we can find whatever we want online. Richard Stevenson, who produces the Noise Receptor zine, talks about this in one of his chapters in the book; his argument is that print acts as a sort of ‘curation’ tool, in contrast to the overwhelming amount of information online that a lot of us end up skim-reading. Just this week I was sent the Shocktilt zine from Sweden—it’s beautifully done, and there’s no way you can replicate that digitally. Not everyone wants a book, of course—and especially one edited by (gasp!) someone who works in academia—but it’s not an academic book and was never intended to be.

Does anything stand out for you in the finished book? What do you think its biggest contribution to the discourse around the genre is?

It complicates any simplistic reading of the genre, which is exactly what I wanted. There are things in it that also aren’t necessarily ‘PE’—harsh noise wall, and rather theatrical ‘noise’ acts like The Bongoleeros—but they appear because there is some intersection between these and PE, in terms of audience, local scenes, etc. d foist’s chapter, on the Termite Club in the UK city of Leeds, makes wonderfully clear (with some hilarious anecdotes) that PE co-existed at points with the free jazz and noisier experimental scenes. PE didn’t develop in a vacuum and it would be disingenuous to claim it did.

The book’s not a ‘history’ of PE. As the title suggests, we’re more interested in the culture surrounding it than a meticulous encyclopaedia that would be out of date almost as soon as it was released. There are historical elements in there: the first section recounts UK, Finnish, Australian, and US (alas, no German) scenes from the perspective of artists who watched them develop. But the central concern is experiences and perceptions of PE—what it’s like to listen to it, create it, and ‘read’ its often contradictory and purposefully misleading messages. I hope that everyone who reads it finds themselves annoyed by and disagreeing with at least one piece in it (I did), because that’s exactly in the spirit of PE.

And what about your own relationship to power electronics? How long have you a fan? What do you like about it?

I got into PE about fourteen or fifteen years ago, weirdly enough via a book. I wish I could remember which one—it must have been via something Amok or Feral House related—but there was reference to the artwork of Trevor Brown being used by this band called Whitehouse, so I looked them up on the off-chance and that was it. I was brought up listening to Black Sabbath and Deep Purple courtesy of my dad, and had always gravitated towards the noisier side of things anyway, particularly punk and oi. PE’s a genre that has stuck with me—while I do listen to other things, they come and go in waves, whereas PE is consistent.

People may disagree with this, but—depending on how you’re listening to it—I find it both calming and incredibly exciting. Steel Hook Prostheses are one of my mainstays—there’s something very soothing in the rumbling darkness of a lot of John Stillings’ stuff. On the other hand, if you’re watching something particularly noisy live, there’s this heart-stopping, breathless, sensation that I can’t describe any better than feeling ‘fired-up’ by it!

Is power electronics the most divisive musical genre of all time, would you say? I mean, it’s easy to imagine someone liking the odd death metal or hip hop album, or a string quartet, or symphony, or trumpeter, etc. But is it true to say that, with regard to PE, you like it—or you don’t?

I don’t think so—there are plenty of people around who will have strong opinions about thematic content and not listen to certain artists on that basis, but still listen to PE. Personally, part of the reason I find PE consistently engaging is that it is purposefully challenging. PE’s much more varied than many give it credit for so the ‘you like it or you don’t’ argument is a bit simplistic. If it really did all sound the same then there wouldn’t be so much of it—and artists like Slogun have a very distinctive sound that’s at a different end of the spectrum to something like Cloama.

Let’s say no one had heard any PE, however. What should they start (and potentially finish) with?

Urgh, that question! From a completely personal and biased perspective: I guess you should start with the album that (unintentionally) introduced the term in the 1980s, Whitehouse’s Psychopathia Sexualis. It’s funny, though—so few people I know, myself included, regularly listen to Whitehouse any more (although their sound is still distinctive). After that I’d go for anything by Con-Dom and Ramleh to get your UK bases covered. Elsewhere, Steel Hook Prostheses, Control, Slogun, and Deathpile from the US, Grunt and Jaakko Vanhala from Finland, Wertham from Italy, Genocide Organ from Germany, and I’m skipping Japanoise here because it’s not my favourite thing! One recent standout artist that I find myself going back to again and again is Am Not (UK): seriously fierce but crafted with military precision.

In your introduction to Fight Your Own War, you describe the scene as “largely perceived as a group of (mostly male) socially unaware, jackbooted fascists with an unhealthy interest in death, murder and sexual sadism.” What’s the reality behind this preconception?

That’s the perception of many people I’ve come across who know of PE but aren’t actively involved in it, as well as many music writers who are in the industrial or punk camps. That element exists to some extent, the same as it does in punk or metal, but there seems to be a very simplistic ‘guilt by association’ element when it comes to PE. It bothers me when I see friends have gigs cancelled or lose significant amounts of money from venues because some local do-gooder who thinks they know what they’re about has hounded the manager about giving a platform to a supposedly ‘fascist’ band.

But at the same time, we can’t cry about it and pretend PE doesn’t bring this on itself. It’s purposefully confrontational, it uses difficult or ‘transgressive’ themes and imagery. Those aren’t all used with the same intent, though—I think for every person who uses some form of right-wing imagery wholly seriously, there are nine more who use it ironically. The point is you’d have to ask each artist individually, but people outside the scene prefer to make sweeping generalisations because that’s the easier option. There’s a great deal of nuance within PE that a lot of people miss, and the reasoning behind the book’s contents was to cover a cross-section of artists and views.

In recent years it seems that the more we ‘connect’ online, the less exposed we are to views we disagree with—we tend to follow people on Twitter who we agree with, read a certain news website, and surround ourselves with like-minded people on Facebook. Part of me wonders how useful that is, and if in fact you could see it as slightly dangerous—if anything’s clear from world news at the moment, it’s that hardly any of us fully understand other people’s points of view or motivations. We could do with being more willing to listen to views we disagree with, no matter what our personal opinion on them is. So there are pieces in the book that will piss off both the left- and right-inclined, pieces that are critical or contemptuous of PE, pieces that love it unconditionally, and pieces that stand somewhere in between. I think that’s pretty reflective of the reality.

What kind of a future do you think power electronics has? Do you think it could be in some sense ahead of its time?

Its future will be much the same as it’s been up to now. It’s not—I hope—going to become a more mainstream genre, or the next thing for East End hipsters to spend their hard-earned marketing and media cash on. The Wire seems to have decided that PE is suddenly acceptable since some prominent women artists have appeared—and good on those artists—but I doubt they’ll go much further than that. The book’s for fans first, and for those academics, music writers, and others who feel inclined to learn more about PE second.

I’m not sure PE is ahead of its time—there have been numerous forms of ‘experimental’, ‘noisy’ music throughout the twentieth century, always appealing to a discrete group of people without becoming more widely known. That’s how it should be, in my opinion: I don’t know any people making PE who do it because they seek commercial or economic success, and it doesn’t work to look at it through that lens.

Want to know more? Pick up a copy of Fight Your Own War, edited by Jennifer Wallis. Available in paperback and a limited special edition hardback. 

The first book devoted to power electronics, written by artists, fans, and critics.

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