> STORMTROOPER ELECTRONICS: An Abridged Lesson in the History of WHITEHOUSE by Michael Moynihan
Whitehouse just could be the most extreme form of music ever created. They may be the most repellent as well. Regardless of whether or not you can stomach their brand of aural torture, they’ve maintained a unique form of purity that is unmatched in the world of pop sell-outs and media marketing rock ‘n’ roll whores. In fifteen years, and with that many releases under heir belt, Whitehouse have never even broached the edges of the commercially acceptable music business. Carving out a private niche for themselves, the band refuses to deviate from their trail blazed path of relentless, uncompromising deviant noise.
Beginning in 1980 as a phantasm in the mind of Essential Logic guitarist William Bennett, it wasn’t long before an electronic project called Come mutated into Whitehouse after a few singles. Fed up with New Wave and techno pop, William began to finally reach his goal of a veritable “electronic maelstrom” which would leave audiences either reveling in unbridled power or begging for mercy, depending on one’s predilections. Over the years Whitehouse has peripherally and directly involved an astounding number or underground luminaries, including Daniel Miller (The Normal), Kevin Tomkins (Sutcliffe Jugend, and now Body Choke), Philip Best (Consumer Electronics), Glen Wallis (Konstructivists), Stefan Jaworzyn (Skullflower), Jordi Valls (PTV, Vagina Dentata Organ), David Tibet (PTV, Current 93), Peter Sotos (of Pure magazine infamy, now publishing Parasite), and most recently, Jim Goodall (Medicine). On top of this cast of players, recent Whitehouse efforts have featured the production/engineering input of Steve Albini and the incredible artwork of Trevor Brown.
Since day one, rumors and innuendo have followed William and Whitehouse like the plague, and many of them are still bandied about over a decade later. In an effort to set the record straight, the following interview sheds light both on the band’s history as well as it’s controversies. In spite of an often frightening reputation, William Bennett is in reality a charming and personable fellow. Don’t let that fool you though, as the sheer determination and unswerving dedication of Whitehouse to their violent appetite, which remains unquenched after fifteen years, should warn beyond a doubt that they will not be denied in the end…
Michael Moynihan (MM): Daniel Miller, who founded Mute Records, was on some of your early releases, right?
William Bennett (WB): Yes. On the Come stuff, which was like the crossover, or the bridge between the two sounds [leading to Whitehouse]. He recorded things like The Normal and the Silicon Teens album in a little studio in London called IPS, and he kindly took me down there and did two or three sessions together, and he helped me mix it. I knew nothing about that sort of thing, and he also helped releasing it, as he’d just done The Normal single [“Warm Leatherette”] and he gave me contacts for distribution, where to get the sleeves done, the labels, and so on…
MM: What was the original idea behind Come Organization?
WB: It was essentially a record label for Whitehouse. I can’t really remember how the name came about, but the ‘organization’ part was inspired by a pornography company called “Private Organization”, which ironically is the one that publishes the magazine called Whitehouse. So there’s two things that got together a little bit there.
MM: And why did you choose the name for the band?
WB: It was just the idea that there was a pornographic magazine called Whitehouse, and then of course Mary Whitehouse, who I’m sure you’re familiar with, being the anti-pornography campaigner.
MM: Was that a coincidence that the porno mag had the same name as the censorship activist, or was it a deliberate effort of the publisher’s to rub salt in her wounds?
WB: That’s what I’m not sure of, I don’t know. But it seemed like a classic bit of irony, and I love things with two meanings or three meanings or more…
MM: Does Whitehouse, the magazine, still exist?
WB: I think so, but it’s a crap magazine-I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone!
MM: What fueled the ideas behind the Whitehouse releases at the outset?
WB: Bits and pieces. It didn’t really have much direction at the beginning I suppose. It was only later, with Erector. That was the first time when I thought there was a sense of direction.
MM: How did the obvious interest in the Marquis de Sade come about?
WB: Initially, that went back a long way, from about 1977, when I was at University in Glasgow, Scotland. I was very good friends with a guy called Alan, who’s now the guy from Postcard Records. At the time he wasn’t involved with music directly but he put out a punk fanzine called Chickenshit. The Marquis de Sade books were banned everywhere, but he had access to some special library where he could get a hold of a copy in French. He used to translate a couple of pages of it for each issue of his fanzine. And that’s where I was first familiar with it, and I really loved reading it. It was until a year or two later that I actually managed to get the Grove Press editions, and I’ve just been collecting his stuff ever since.
MM: Have you read it in the original language?
WB: Oh yeah, I do read the stuff in French. In fact, it’s much better in French. With the English, although they’re beautiful translations, there is a lot of embellishment to make it sound of the period [18th Century]. They use a very sort of floral language, whereas in the French it’s much more simplistic, and there’s a lot of humor that doesn’t seem to translate. I think they’re beautiful translations, but reading it in French makes for an entirely different experience. And he uses very simple sentences very effectively; it’s a very interesting style. The books certainly haven’t lost any of the power over the last two centuries. What people forget is how much black humor there is in it. They are serious books, but there’s a lot of black humor in there. Unfortunately they haven’t translated the [Sade] biography by J. J. Pauvert, three huge volumes that have come out in French. I don’t understand why they haven’t been translated into English, because they make all the other biographies totally obsolete, as almost works of fiction. He’s had access to all the letters from the Sade family’s mansion, chateaux, and some of the revelations in there are just extraordinary.
MM: Was there anything else that had impact on you like that of de Sade?
WB: Anything in that genre, things like Krafft-Ebbing, Venus in Furs, and I enjoy reading things like Naked Lunch-other books of that ilk.
MM: So whatever was explicit in one way or another.
WB: Yes. And then in the next year or two, having finished reading all that, I moved across to start reading more non-fiction books. I didn’t like any fiction after reading de Sade, it all seemed really tame. And then it was biographies of murderers and a lot of stuff on the two World Wars.
MM: True crime books must have been a lot harder to come by then, as opposed to the glut of them today.
WB: Yes, that’s right. It’s a big industry now. There was no such thing as a “true crime” section in a bookstore 15 years ago. Certainly not of contemporary true crime. The books about someone like Peter Kurten were very rare, but we just spent lots of time hunting around all the stores in London, hunting for the stuff, and you got lucky.
MM: Your interest in Nazi imagery was growing then as well.
WB: Yes. I read a lot of books about the concentration camps and biographies of people like Himmler, especially. It was an amazing period for that sort of thing, where there was seemingly a license for these guys to do almost what they pleased. And the imagery itself, the fetishistic implications of that as well…
MM: You didn’t hesitate then, to incorporate allusions to all these things in Whitehouse?
MM: You weren’t worried about what kind of reaction it might provoke?
WB: At the time there were already quite a lot of things put out which were pretty risqué, controversial. So I wasn’t frightened, I had the confidence to do just about anything, and I certainly don’t regret it now. But obviously it did cause an incredible amount of controversy. I find that a record like New Britain, for example-there’s no real political content in it at all, if you look at it carefully. It’s all imagery, really. There’s no real content to the imagery. It does appear very sinister, and Whitehouse has been more controversial than a lot of other groups, for the music as much as anything-being very harsh, electronic, and difficult music to listen to. But a lot of other groups have dabbled in that kind of imagery, like TG and Joy Division…
MM: Some the latter’s stuff is incredibly blatant…
WB: Yeah, I mean the very name itself! Death in June as well, but they’re rock bands so it doesn’t really matter so much. We got hammered a lot harder for two reasons: because the music was so harsh, and people didn’t really know where we were coming from-it wasn’t rock music- and secondly, we incorporated a lot of what could be called sexist imagery.
MM: You couldn’t arrive at a more unpopular combination of imagery for the liberal humanist types!
WB: Certainly, yeah, and especially with Rough Trade, who were responsible for a lot of our distribution at the time.
MM: Your distribution problems with Rough Trade were somewhat legendary.
WB: Well, they were being totally hypocritical about it. I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with that sort of imagery at all. But they banned the first Nurse With Wound album, some Stranglers records, and I think Blondie were even banned for awhile! They were very sensitive. The worst thing was, that while they’re in their rights to stop whatever records they want, of course, people would go into their shop in London and ask for Whitehouse records and they’d get a fifteen minute monologue over why they shouldn’t be looking for Whitehouse records! And that’s beyond reason…They should politely say, “No, sorry we don’t have anything.”
MM: Where was it that they drew the line? Was it a specific album that caused it, because originally they didn’t seem to have a problem.
WB: I know they disliked the Leibstandarte SS MB albums, and I don’t they appreciated the Für Ilse Koch compilation, but where they drew the line was actually the Right to Kill album. They literally picked up the box of records and threw it at me when I went down there. The legend is that I was wearing a Nazi uniform, which was totally untrue! The other anecdote with all this is that Doug P. from Death In June was working there at the time, and I wrote a letter to Geoff Travis [who ran Rough Trade], who I’d been good friends with since Essential Logic (who were a Rough Trade band), saying I think this is a bit hypocritical since you’re still distributing all the Death In June stuff. I wasn’t getting at Death In June-I was happy that they did distribute their stuff. I was just pointing out the injustice of it. But then because of that it started a feud with Doug P., as he thought I was trying to get them into trouble.
MM: Did a record like New Britain get any sort of reaction from extreme right wing types, or was it too obscure or bizarre for them to even notice?
WB: No, nothing really at all. Politically, there’s nothing there at all. I’ve no interest really in that sort of politics. And I certainly don’t think they would have any interest in that sort of music.
MM: Were there ever problems with anyone besides Rough Trade?
WB: They were the only problem. The records continued to be distributed, the thing with Rough Trade was more that they had taken a lot of them at that time, but we found other distributors. It didn’t really affect the sales, or the mail-order. I can’t really think of any letters that would come saying “This is wrong”…
MM: Weren’t there some similar difficulties in Germany on a recent tour?
WB: The second show we did was in Nuremberg, and for some obscure reason-I think it had more to do with Pure magazine than with anything else-something went out on the radio or there were some flyers distributed which threatened to cause trouble at the original venue, so they just changed the venue that night, and there was no trouble at all. There were like 150 people there, but it probably would have been a much bigger show at the original venue, ’cause that’s where all the promotion was for.
MM: How was the last US tour, which was the first one in many years?
WB: It went really well, from our point of view. Very diverse kinds of places. We tried making the songs sound like they are on record, for a change, and that worked really well.
MM: How does that compare with what you usually do?
WB: The songs used to sound very different live, I think, than they did in the studio-mostly because of the equipment that we used.
MM: Can you describe what’s used to create the live sound of Whitehouse?
WB: Last time we were in the States, which was a long time ago, we had the two Wasps [synthesizers] and the vocals, which were treated a little bit. But this time there was no treatment at all on the vocals and we used one Wasp and one tiny little Yamaha quasi-toy keyboard. And it worked really well, the sound was excellent-I think the best ever.
MM: Is it difficult to duplicate the studio sounds live?
WB: What we do is to put the Whitehouse sounds into the toy keyboard and then the Wasp is pretty easy to program. They are three basic sounds, which are modified occasionally.
MM: What are the songs you choose for performance?
WB: It’s quite a varied sort of set, actually. A couple of songs from the first album, and a new song that hasn’t been released, bits and pieces-all the classics really, a bit of everything. We finished most of the sets with “Shitfun”, which seemed to work very well.
MM: Looking at your tour itinerary here, I can’t help but wonder who would turn out to see Whitehouse in a place like Knoxville, Tennessee…
WB: Some real weirdos! There were about 35-40 people there, in quite a small club, but every one of them, I can guarantee, was 100% eccentric! But I’ve always felt that whether the audience is one or one thousand, it’s always interesting. There’s a different dynamic every time, so I’m not all that concerned about how many people are there.
MM: Did anyone show up who’d seen you on the last tour, ten years ago?
WB: Well, we played some cities where we hadn’t played before, but in the ones we had played two or three people came up afterward and said they’d seen us way back when. But it was weird because they seemed like really young people anyway-so you know, you start calculating… were they twelve when they saw the last show?!?
MM: That’s a scary thought.
MM: Philip Best, who played in the earlier incarnation of Whitehouse back in 1984, must have only been about fourteen years old then, correct?
WB: Yes. The first Whitehouse show he ever came to, which was, I think, Live Action 3 or 4, really early on, he had to run away from home! From a city about a hundred miles away!
MM: Were the shows fairly violent this time around?
WB: Yeah they were, some of them. In Chicago, for example, we did “Birthdeath Experience” which is a silent song-it’s just silence and us wandering around on the stage, inciting the audience in various ways. I couldn’t see very far out into the audience but I know from speaking to people afterwards, that three or four fights broke out. Exactly the same thing happened in London, when we did “Birthdeath Experience” for the first time. It seems to create a lot of tension in the crowd.
MM: But no one in the audience has tried to attack you on stage?
WB: Only once. It’s surprising with this sort of music, I mean I remember seeing the Birthday Party play live once and Nick Cave just seemed to be asking for trouble and he almost always got it-somebody would start hitting him or kicking him. I don’t know why-maybe the music’s more intimidating-but there’s never actually been direct violence towards us from the crowd, other than throwing objects. Except for once in Newcastle…
MM: Where the girl went berserk?
WB: Yeah, and that was because I severely provoked her anyway!
MM: Whitehouse disappeared for a number of years in the late 80’s-can you explain what caused this?
WB: It was a number of things. Logistically Whitehouse became very difficult. We did Great White Death, which came out really well, much better than I anticipated, but at the same time as that was recorded Kevin [Tomkins], who was a very important member of Whitehouse, moved back to the area where his parents lived. We’d just done a couple of shows in Spain, and I was sick of living in England, in London, at the time. And I thought, this is the place to live, I loved it so much. So I decided, more or less on the spot, to move there. A lot of other people were moving out of London as well, like Kevin, and David Tibet, Steve Stapleton got a house in Ireland. On top of that, after Great White Death, I felt we didn’t have a lot to say anymore, because that album seemed to encompass everything musically and otherwise.
MM: What did Spain have that England was lacking?
WB: It wasn’t a small-minded country, which Britain is. The people are very tolerant, especially because they’d just ten years before then moved from a dictatorship to a democracy. So things like drugs were virtually legal, pornography of every kind was suddenly available, and this is from a country that used to censor Elvis Presley songs. There was a great feeling of libertarianism-anything could be done as long as you didn’t spoil anyone else’s enjoyment-which is not like Britain at all.
MM: And you lived in the city there?
WB: Yes, in Barcelona for about three years. I loved the people, the climate, and lots of things, like drink was very cheap!
MM: Were you doing anything with Whitehouse during this period?
WB: Well I would have, but I just didn’t have any ideas left for songs. I just seemed like Great White Death said it all, and it was pointless doing re-hashes of that record. I would go back to London every six months for a couple of weeks, and meet people, so it wouldn’t have been difficult… But after about a year in Spain I just wound the Come Organisation down completely. And I didn’t think about it at all after that.
MM: And Kevin Tomkins stopped doing anything?
WB: Yeah, he got married apparently. I didn’t even have his phone number or anything, and he just disappeared.
MM: So the entire scene around Whitehouse died at that point.
WB: There was a big scene in London up to then, you know we’d do a show and whole crowds of people would show up. Another person who was involved, John Murphy, went back to Australia around then. There were a lot of people coming around to the shows at the time, like Crystal Belle [Steven Stapleton’s wife], she was called Crystal Clitoris then, and would appear everywhere with her slaves…
MM: Did people like Glen Wallis or Jordi Valls, who were involved with Whitehouse but also played or worked with TG and PTV, receive a lot of flak, since Genesis was always insulting Whitehouse publicly at the time?
WB: No, I don’t think they did personally, I mean Jordi is a very flamboyant character, so Genesis wouldn’t have had any influence on him anyway, although they always continued to be really good friends. But I think in addition to what we’ve already said, there was a lot of petty jealousy. The fact that Jordi and Glen weren’t just working with Psychic TV, I think there was a lot of that involved as well…
MM: Did you move back to England before going to Thailand?
WB: No, I stayed in Spain for about six years and then went straight to Thailand.
MM: And what drew you there?
WB: It’s a weird place, because something like Playboy magazine is banned there, and yet-
MM: -you can buy six year olds on the corner!
WB: Right, to do anything or to look at anything in real time-you know, I’m referring to live sex shows and things. So you can’t look at it on the printed page, but you can participate in it. It’s a weird sort of inversion of the West, in that respect.
MM: Was this any inspiration to start doing the Whitehouse stuff again?
WB: That had already started about 1988, when I was still in Spain. It was actually after Tibet came for two or three days to stay with me in Barcelona and we went out for paella, the traditional Spanish meal, in a restaurant, and started talking about this idea for “Thank Your Lucky Stars”. Having that song gave me a fresh new outlook on writing. And then luckily Pete [Sotos] managed to arrange a weeks’ recording with Steve Albini. Pete and me had already written a few more things together, but it took a long long time to get the single out. Bit by bit then the other stuff came out.
MM: And what was the next incarnation?
WB: I met up with Stefan [Jaworzyn] again, who’d played live with us a few times back in 1984. We’d known him since ’83 though, he was another one of these people who hung out in London and came to all the shows.
MM: Was he in Skullflower at that time?
WB: More or less around that time I think he actually stopped playing with them. So we did Twice is Not Enough. That was also with Dave Kenny and Glen Michael Wallis. Dave Kenny was the guy from IPS studio, which I mentioned before, and he did Great White Death, but this was a different studio-he works at a posher place now.
MM: What’s going on with the record label now?
WB: As far as Susan Lawly is concerned, I’m pretty much in charge of that. I hate dealing with money, and with CD manufacturers, but it’s no problem, it’s just a bit of extra work.
MM: Will the out of print stuff be re-released?
WB: I don’t like re-issuing stuff, I’ve got a sort of phobia about it. To me it gives the impression that you’re cashing in on stuff. I feel it’s better to use the resources that one has for new projects, rather than spend money on re-releasing old things.
MM: Can you explain the genesis of the name Susan Lawly?
WB: It didn’t come from anywhere, it’s just that name of the record label that I came up with. A lot of people ask if she’s a mass-murderer or something, or a sadist that people don’t know about.
MM: Was it just some perversity on your part to use such a normal name?
WB: No, there’s no perverse reason but that’s all part of the fun of having the name that people assume there is a reason for it.
MM: Some of the songs on Twice is Not Enough seemed to be based on a gambling theme. I heard there was also a particular book that inspired some of that.
WB: The Diceman-it’s like a cult classic amongst people in England, although it’s by an American named Rheinhart. It’s a classic book. The blurb on the back is quite funny because he says, “All my decision making was by the throw of the dice”, and it’s written sort of semi-biographically-you don’t know how much is true or isn’t. So he’ll say, “Am I going to stay home and watch a video or am I going to go down and rape the girl who lives downstairs? If it’s a six I’ll go down and rape but if it’s a three I’ll stay here”… and he throws a six. It’s amazing stuff!
MM: Any other current obsessions?
WB: There are bits to glean from all over the place, as I’ve said it’s nothing in particular. Apart from the three books by Brett Easton Ellis-there’s a rich train of stuff in those. And then bits from films, porno movies-I’m always on the lookout for ideas, since they don’t come up when you want them to generally.
MM: Probably the most common complaint about Whitehouse is that it’s sexist. How do you justify the constant use of sexually violent subject matter?
WB: It’s simply what I’m interested in, and what I like I reading about and watching and participating in, to some extent. I wouldn’t do things that I wasn’t interested in. It’s just personal interest, obsessions, if you like. Really nothing is sacred, as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t not do anything. There’s no taboo that I wouldn’t be quite happy to break if I thought it would make for some good music.
MM: And despite all the controversy and disapproval, there has always been an audience for Whitehouse?
WB: Yes, it sells consistently well.
(Article first published in EsoTerra #5, Spring/Summer 1995)