Severed Heads

By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1996

Australia’s Severed Heads have always been pioneers in creating art through electronics. Formed in Sydney in 1979, the group is widely recognized as one of the innovators behind the growth of electronic music. In addition, they’ve been experimenting with “multimedia” since before that term was even in wide use. Video has played a big role in Severed Head’s work. They’ve used it for on-stage visuals and have also created many creative promotional clips (which often combine “real” with computer-generated footage).

Over the years, the sole consistent member of Severed Heads has been Tom Ellard. The most recent release is “Gigapus,” which is now finally out in America on Decibel. The following is an email interview with Ellard.

There was a gap between the original release of “Gigapus” and its release in America. What have you been up to since completion of the album?

As you may know we were attached to Nettwerk Records for a long while.
Nettwerk started to move away from the kind of music that we represent in the early 90’s and it was time to leave when they decided against ‘Gigapus’ even after lots of remixes. So we had some time trying to find another more enthusiastic label in the USA. Electronic music is currently unfashionable stateside so the search was long and we’re happy to have ended up with Decibel.

Why aren’t you releasing through Nettwerk in North America anymore?

Nettwerk had a period where they had to rethink their survival. When I first met them they talked about music a great deal. Much later on they talked more about success. Severed Heads wasn’t keeping them clothed and fed and they had to find things that would. I can understand that, being hungry is a convincing argument to being experimental.

Can you describe the CD Rom? Will it ever be available in Macintosh format?

It’s a history of the band in music, pictures and video clips. There’s lots of funny, twisted, sometimes nostalgic material when you consider that the band spans the late 70’s to now. We always worked visually alongside the music and the ROM is able to bring that out. Sometimes it makes more sense when you see it as well as hearing it. About the Mac – yes, the whole thing is being rewritten for Macintosh by DataPanik in Toronto. We want it to be really good, cheap and everywhere.

What’s your approach to songwriting? Do you usually have melodic ideas before starting to work on a track, or do songs tend to evolve out of experimenting with the equipment?

It’s changed over the years. Often it’s based upon a loop, which was once a tape loop but now a sample. The length of the sample tends to define the tempo of the track and the placement of the elements. I always think of it as a jigsaw puzzle starting with one piece and working out from there. Like some of the stuff I’m doing now I blast a bit of radio and loop it – the period of the sample will shuffle the rhythm and restrict the melodic structure. But to be honest there is a definite language in place in 1996 that overrides much experimentation. A ‘four on the floor’ kick drum must be there to get much interest from the audience, as does certain sounds and phrases – the drum roll, the shuffled sequencer. We can’t escape that without alienating the audience, which makes the whole release pointless.

How has the evolution of electronic musical instruments over the years affected your approach to music?

It used to be that we had to hand play everything – we come from a pre-MIDI time, where a hundred note sequencer was a costly item. Then there was years of using open reel tape – 4, 8, then 16 track. The process of layering and bouncing tracks on tape creates a different sound – you can use the same series of effects over and over again – even have 16 of the same thing – where MIDI requires you to create an orchestra of different machines playing under a sequencer. One box tends to get bass duties, another is the ‘voice’. I miss cutting and splicing tape and looping it around bottles but any attempt to do that now seems contrived.

Do you try to keep up with all the latest equipment, or do you try to
keep things simpler?

I have no idea what the latest equipment is. As soon as I had a sampler that didn’t suck, I had it all really. Get the old sounds off the modular synthesizers, and some radio noise and maybe fart my armpit…. what has come recently that does more :-)?

Have you ever done any side projects, or do you only release music under the name Severed Heads?

Lots of things. Right now I’m working with two guys out of Tulsa, OK as ‘CoKla Coma’. We do weird stuff, sort of nasty lounge music. Then there’s Fussball, which is a German techno country and western band. I’m also having nice chats with Download right now. These are things that keep me happy, when Severed Heads gets asked to do ten more variants on Dead Eyes Opened. Nothing WRONG with Dead Eyes Opened over and over but it doesn’t make me feel inspired anymore 🙂

Severed Heads is kind of a gruesome sounding name – do you ever find that people unfamiliar with the band are surprised when they hear/see you and discover you’re not a scary band?

Yeah, we always end up in the Heavy Metal bins in suburban record stores. I hate the name, I didn’t come up with it but it stuck and I got lumbered with it. Balls to Severed Heads. And it sounds like Talking Heads too, which is worse. CoKlaComa is a much better name.

I’ve read that you use video tape at live shows to have visuals in synch to the music. Do you think you’ll ever get into real- time manipulation, with visuals synched to music by MIDI?

Ah, geez. Well, we used to use a video synthesiser which responded to control voltages. One time we tried to MIDI it up and got somewhere, but I guess you’re talking video samples. This just isn’t easy, or affordable. We have played around with MPEG video with the sound attached to that and being able to call up tracks instantly but there’s no way you can just jump around a slab of video like playing a sampler – you get delays from the reseek and the fact that video is 25 frames a second and a frame cut makes a nasty snap in the music. You’d need a computer with MJPEG card, probably a disk array…… we just decided to drop the live visuals for now :-

Are there any plans for lives shows in America?

Maybe but not by us! Got to learn the guitar to play in the states I hear. Got to get my hair long. One day we’ll get out of this 70’s nostalgia trip and then perhaps some progress might be made. Who knows maybe 97 will be an antidote to the rest of the 90’s….

…. over to you. Cheers.

You might also be interested in:

See all interviews →