Interview with Cosey Fanni Tutti

Photo by Ian Cinnamon

Ever since emerging as a founding member of COUM Transmissions in 1969, Cosey Fanni Tutti has been known for pushing the boundaries of creative expression. Her various projects have tested the limits of the audience as well as her own creative process. As part of Throbbing Gristle, she helped influence an explosion of experimental electronic music. Earlier this year, Tutti published ‘Art Sex Music,’ a memoir that provides fascinating insight into her work. In a phone interview, she discussed the book and other topics.

What made you decided that now was the time to write a book about your life?

“Over the past ten years, I’ve thought about writing my autobiography. A lot of people prompted me to start doing it, but I just wasn’t ready. I had so much going on, with the music and art and everything. I gradually started going through my archive and diaries to check up on information for exhibitions and that kind of stuff. I began to think more seriously about how to do it and just started. A friend of mine had said to start it and then figure out how you want to do it afterward. That’s what I did. It was serendipitous that I was at a meeting and someone said, ‘How’s your book going?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ve started it,’ and they said, ‘Oh, I’ll mention it.’ They were going to Fabre. It went on from there, and it prompted me to actually sit down and do it, once I was offered publication. It took about two years for me in total, from beginning to delivery with editing and everything.”

Do you feel your approach or focus with the book changed at all over the course of writing it?

” I’d made a decision that my diaries were waiting for me just to dip in and write my life. It was already there but in diary form. So, once I sat down and started going through them, which was a really lengthy process, lots of things cropped up as well along the way. My approach was that I would do the book like someone was stepping into my life and this is what it was about. The things that came in, the clashes, the high moments, the low moments, everything. That’s what I wanted it to be, a rounded experience of what it was like to be me, really.”

Now that it is out, has anything surprised you about the response?

“The way it’s been embraced has taken me by surprise. I didn’t know what I expected; it was just something I was going to do. Like music or anything else I do, I commit myself to it and then release it to the world, and whatever happens, happens. That’s the way I’ve always worked. So then to get such positive feedback—the reviews were really surprising. I don’t know what I expected, really. I didn’t expect anything, so that was quite wonderful.”

There has been a lot written about Coum and TG. Were there any misconceptions you were looking to correct with this book?

“I wanted people to have a window into the realities I, and everyone around me, faced with whatever we worked on together. I think it’s important because there are a lot of myths out there. And myths about the creative process as well, as if it just comes from nowhere. It doesn’t; it comes from life. I wanted people to understand that about the way I work; it is about who I am and the people I meet and how I inhabit situations and the world in general. There was no sort of big agenda about trying to dismiss or destroy any myths at all, because I don’t see any value in myths other than maintaining belief in something that isn’t real. That’s not what I’m about.”

“As I’ve gone through my life, I’ve thought about what I’ve done. And in preparing for the exhibitions there has been so much retrospective reflection on what I’ve done. I am interested in interpretations of my work; that’s not a problem for me.”

How did the Coum retrospective earlier this year in Hull go?

“That was going on parallel to my writing the book, so that was really hard work. That also took about 2 years to put together. I inhabited my past for a long time in those 2 years. It was quite strange but also really interesting. I reconnected with a lot of people during the process of putting the exhibition together. I did some new films as well, about them talking about their time in Coum. It was a really productive 2 years of writing the book and putting the exhibition and films together. I did a live performance commissioned specially for that exhibition weekend. So, it was really full on, but fantastically well received. Ten of thousands of people went to the exhibition, which was unexpected but really fantastic.”

Working on the book and exhibition at the same time, did you feel completely focused on the past?

“The thing is that even as I was writing the book, I was still doing new things, like putting tracks together and doing remixes with Chris. My art and music continued alongside it all. There came a time during the last months of my doing the book where I just dedicated every day to it. I was really meticulous and methodical about it. Every day was spent writing the book and discussing editing and things like that.”

Looking back to Throbbing Gristle, you were pioneering in your use of electronics. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that?

“I think it was the drive to discover new technologies, and the sounds they could create for us were evocative of how we felt. It was important to get across with a sound that suited the subject matter we were dealing with, or just the feelings we were dealing with at that time. So, the new technologies were really important.”

How has the evolution of technology affected your creative process?

“It’s been great because it means it’s enabled us to do things we normally couldn’t do because of finances. As the technology progressed, it got cheaper as well. And it got smaller, which is another good thing! It became more reliable to a certain point, as well. The only way it changed our working practice was I started using Macs a lot, and software. But we’ve always continued to include hardware when we do recording. It’s not all done with software. Even then, we kind of misuse software, a bit like we did with hardware. We don’t use it in the normal way; we try to make it do something it wasn’t built to do.

“I think that challenge is there are too many choices, and you can waste a lot of time sitting there and going through things. We don’t use things as they come off; we change them all the time. There has to be some kind of strange, inherent sound that tweaks our interest as we go through different banks of sounds. Or just different software, where we’re creating sounds as we go along. Then we work with them, and make them do what we want to hear. It’s still working with the sound like you would if it was an instrument in your hands. We do that a lot anyway; we do a lot of recording of instruments and then put them in and change them. It’s a big mix of things. It works really well.”

In the book, you mention that final Throbbing Gristle tour where Genesis backed out of the last dates, and you continued as X-TG. What was going through your mind at the time?

“The biggest thing that went through my mind was letting down all the TG fans who were waiting for us across the gigs that we’d booked. That was my biggest thing, how that would affect them. Not us necessarily. We were quite happy to carry on working with Sleazy; that wasn’t a problem at all and it was quite exciting. That’s why we did X-TG. The other reason was because we had to give something to the fans; it wasn’t a decision we three had made to let them down. It was someone else. So, we had to clear up the mess, and clear up the financial cost of it as well, which was really quite a lot of money. So yeah, it was very, very stressful and something that wasn’t really necessary. But it’s done and gone.”

The book has a lot of details about your relationship with Genesis, and there are always going to be people on the internet who take sides and comment. Did you think about this is at all when you were writing?

“Not really. The book is my true life story; there’s no way I can start changing the facts to suit other people’s opinions of me or of Genesis. You can’t go back in time and relive the moment to make it acceptable now. You just can’t do that, and if people don’t like it, then it’s too bad because this is what my life was like. I’ve lived through it, and that’s all I’m delivering. They can make of it what they want. I’m not interested, really. ”

I wasn’t suggesting changing the facts, just wondering if it might have affected how you present things. Perhaps thinking ahead about the trolls?

“There’s always that awareness there; it’s like that all the time. But yes, it’s much more concentrated now with the internet and all the trolls that go along with it. That’s the trouble, isn’t it? That’s the biggest problem with the internet at the moment.”

The internet has certainly changed the way independent artists and musicians can work and connect with audiences. Looking back on how you were doing things early in your career, what are your thoughts on this shift?

“I think it’s very difficult to look into the future, to think there’s even going to be an internet back then. We were still into posting newsletters and having them printed up and going to the post office and very mundane things like that. But it was part of the commitment to communicate with people and to reach out to everyone. Yeah, it’s much easier now and it doesn’t cost you anywhere near as much as it cost us then. So, you had some obstacles back then that you don’t have now, and I think because of that, there were times when you’d really consider what you were going to do because you’d be sending something physical to someone. You’d have to go out and pay to do it. Whereas now, it’s like instantaneous comments on the internet and I think sometimes there is not a lot of thought or consideration for other people put into it.”

But it does allow people to more easily access the art and music.

“I think it’s the same old same old, isn’t it? Where everyone thinks everything is free, so why can’t they have it? You want to remind them that if they continue taking things for free, there’s going to end up not being anything new because no one can afford to live like that and have their work valued in that way. Creativity comes at a cost for the person doing it, and I’m not just talking about the financial cost. I’m talking about their emotional input to what they do. It’s not an easy thing to do. So many people have discussed this over the years, about streaming and all the rest of it. It’s just a new form of the record label getting most of the money and the artist getting very little. You’re biting off the hand that feeds you and you’ll end up being fed by corporations and mainstream stuff. Having said that, it was like that in the late 60s and 70s, and people came up with a counter culture that enabled things like punk and industrial music and everything because we were so sick of the music that was out there. ”

It seems like it would inspire people to come up with unique live experiences, things that you can’t get online.

“Hopefully it will push people to interact with each other, one to one, which I think is really missing now. We’re human beings, we’re not machines, and I think that’s a really sad thing. There’s nothing like going to a gig and the physicality of a gig, the music, the people around you. You can’t buy that moment; you need to experience it.”

What other projects are you working on right now?

“I’m working on a solo exhibition that’s opening in September at Cabinet Gallery in London. I’ve also been working on some music in the studio that will be released as an album.”

Can you talk more about the new music?

“Not really, because we, um …. No! [laughs].”