Whitehouse article and interview by Tom K Bailey (1996)
William Bennett and his creative outlet, Whitehouse, are not ones to mince words or waste one's time with pretension and stylized gimmicks. Over more than a dozen albums after the inception of Whitehouse in the early 80s, they stand as the antithesis of a pop culture often too cultivated and easily swallowed for its own good. Throughout the years Whitehouse has crafted music which caters to only the most extreme of emotions, shreds taboos and most importantly, operates at decibel levels which can at times cause genuine pain. Whitehouse subject matter delves into the spheres of cruelty and sadism with unforgiving, surgical precision- yet upon listening to their records, their harsh sonic blasts can be interpreted in a number of ways. They are not your farcical heavy-metal serial killer adulation or tired self-pitying, raving suburban boys.
Whitehouse long and often perilous history is one that speaks for itself; 14 or so albums of curt, to-the-point electronic destruction, along with over 80 live actions, which have tested the artistic and aesthetic limits of even the greatest connoisseurs of avant-garde sound. Whitehouse live events have been known to destroy huge P.A. systems, incite the throwing of razor blades and other harmful objects at the band, and in the end tear away that middle ground, that apathetic gray area which the mechanized urban lifestyle seems to implant in us, replacing it with either a sick state of delirious enjoyment or outright repulsion. No matter which of these sides you choose to take, it's clear that Whitehouse does something that so many exhibitionists and would-be cultural art terrorists strive for; they make an impact. In accomplishing this feat they manage to avoid all aspects of rock music other than the aural damage and the adrenaline rush.
I had a chance to hook up with William Bennett via the Internet (not the greatest one-on-one medium, that's for sure) to discuss a few things, namely the state of music today and where Whitehouse fits into it. When asked about the current state of industrial music, his immediate response was "it just sounds like fucking heavy metal to me". Here in Chicago, however, Whitehouse records can be found in bins loudly labeled Industrial/Ambient/Experimental. Again, the objection from William, "[It] would probably be the most obvious location, and I'm not offended by that. I'm not so sure about ambient though." So what, then, would warrant a Whitehouse record being placed next to, say, a more hard beat or EBM album? "Both of them have a thing for dark, growling electronics, for one, and both have some degree of none-too-softly voiced opinion involved", said William.
However, Whitehouse creation techniques differ tremendously from that of industrialists who are newer on the scene (lest we forget that Williams first synth was modified by none other than original Throbbing Gristle member Chris Carter.) Much industrial music tends to rely on sequences, patterns, and the like. In contrast, Whitehouse electronics roar freely without being hinged to any type of beat or song structure. Bennett's compositions are surprisingly varied in texture for a band that many critics have bemoaned as white noise. Whitehouse material, while not beat or melody-driven, does differ in the sounds produced. At some points the synths become percussive instruments, only to follow by emitting an off-the-register high frequency that blends with Bennetts indulgent screams in a manner that makes you wonder which sounds are being produced by human or machine. The sounds are hissing, boiling, ripping, roaring- a huge array of onomatopoeias all synonymous with loudness. Casual or chance listeners will be immediately disappointed at the ignorance of rhythm and mid-range in the Whitehouse ouvre. But it isn't the song that Bennett and his co-conspirators are after: the goal remains to tear out emotion through an overload of distorted, undiluted soundscape. William Bennett admits to finding much electro music enjoyable, but virtually nothing inspiring seems to come from any media other than music these days. "[Whitehouse albums] are always going to be catering to a minority taste, whereas normally most music is potentially at least wide-reaching in musical context." While William and co. are uninspired by modern music, it's ironic that Whitehouse was listed as one of the top 100 influential bands of all time in Alternative Press magazine, and was listed among the many influences in a recent Frontline Assembly album.
Still, Bennett laments that inspiration seems to come from media other than music these days. A good listen to Bennett's abrasive dictations and song lyrics is the initial clue that Whitehouse has spent more time tuned to the literary worlds of people like De Sade than to the latest musical fits of popularity. The band has remained intent on its own fetishes and shocking individuality, and perhaps this is why Whitehouse retains its original sound today. As one of the original bands that could be given the industrial nameplate, Whitehouse has not morphed into a subversive techno act in the way that some, including SPK, Cabaret Voltaire and certain records by Coil and Psychic TV have. While these bands certainly have their own agenda and reasons for dropping their metal-bashing, feedback-laden exorcisms and moving on to more fertile ground, William Bennett has his reasons to keep his sound planted where it is.
"It wouldn't work!", he says of dance and techno-related music forms. "Dance music functions well for people to dance to- but that would only dilute the potency and purity of a sound that aspires to more extreme emotions. Also, dance music dates very, very quickly- I want music to be timeless."
The general public still steers clear of the Whitehouse sound, even in this day and age when Satanic teen angst purveyors Marilyn Manson can sell records in the millions. Yet there are people who can't get enough of their sound. Their earlier works, scathing albums such as New Britain and Total Sex, sell out of their CD-reissue format within just a short time after their introduction. Whitehouse has gained fanatic support from some Japanese listeners, who have started a fan club releasing Whitehouse material which also sells out nor fetches high prices shortly after its introduction. A testament to the timelessness of their music, maybe? William Bennett seems to think so, "There has always been a demand for it without it ever being fashionable or likewise unfashionable", he says. Since the inception of the band, though, certain things that the band has made a heavy subject matter focus, like submission and dominance practices (not all of the sexual variety, mind you) have found their way into night life and club culture- gaining a glossiness that the band has never shown in its music. Although it doesn't bother him, Williams answer to whether he found any of the current bondage culture exciting was NONE. No vinyl and latex outfits for the Whitehouse camp any time soon, I'm afraid.
Timelessness, extremity in emotion, leaving fashion at the doorstep- all these things fit into the Whitehouse equation, but that equation hasn't always brought them loads of fan mail and rave reviews. In fact, the band has experienced more personal danger than any I've heard of in a while. Physical threats to the band members lives have caused them to cease performing in the USA or UK, and other Whitehouse members other than William have felt the repercussions of their interest in the dark side of life. I cant believe I've made it this far without even mentioning Peter Sotos, Whitehouse member and Chicago writer. His terrifying, endurance-testing prose is a nosedive into the world of pain, gutter whores and psychopathic behavior which is more often than not veiled from our sight. His taste for unflinching, uneasy reality almost earned him time in jail (for the publishing of some true crime journals which were deemed too graphic.) He has survived that fiasco to put together a collection of writing (Total Abuse) which of course can't be purchased by anyone under 18. Putting an age limit on this book is silly, though, as the content will make 18 year olds and mature adults alike quiver from the brutality of its contents. Sotos writings are in many ways a mirror of Bennett's darker visions, and both of them know the experience of running from an audience driven to violent impulses by their band's set.
Whitehouse is clearly not the band for everyone. People who have been sheltered and comfortable all throughout life will certainly have the most difficulty sitting through even a few minutes of their music. Yet, even though Bennett claims the band has no missions or crusade, they rage on toward some unknown point, which for them should be neither burning out or fading away, but an explosion. With Chicago noise producer-laureate Steve Albini in tow, they continue to put out new works such as Halogen and Quality Time which deal with those all too dominant urges of power, sex and pain which we heap upon each other. While it's understandable that people choose to eschew Whitehouse like the plague, they're not going away yet, and they are still the same jolting voice from a pitch-black reality that they were over a decade ago. It makes you wonder what people like William Bennett would do if it were not for the outlet Whitehouse provides. He's admitted his interest in having a talk show, like Jerry Springer or Geraldo. American trash TV fans beware.
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