Whitehouse - Inside the 'House of pain' interview and article by Chris Chantler published in Terrorizer issue 85

For twenty years Whitehouse have been consistently pushing the boundaries of extreme music with their power electronic noise attack and deeply disturbing lyrical content. Chris Chantler spoke to William Bennett, Peter Sotos and Philip Best, and was only moderately daunted...

On my way to interview Whitehouse, I can't help feeling there is a strange sense of something coming full circle. I first heard of Whitehouse in this very magazine in March 1996-Nick Terry's first issue as editor. Fast forward four years and I am interviewing them on Nick's final day, for the magazine that introduced me to them in the first place. And it's Friday the 13th...

In a world of moral confusion and hypocrisy, where violence and mysogyny are made glamorous by multi-million-selling playground heroes like Eminem and Limp Bizkit, where Cannibal Corpse and Gorerotted reduce sexual sadism to nursery-rhyme levels and where a Merzbow box set warrants a front page of The Wire, Whitehouse still exist beyond the pale. With music made up of layers of white and pink noise, distorted effects and hysterical shouts and screams, the lyrical content revolves around extreme sexual violence, oppression, perversion and murder. It is tempting to assume that it's all about shock value, something immediately refuted by William Bennett, the founder and guiding light of Whitehouse since its inception in 1980.

"In many ways I think ironically we've avoided [$italics] shocking people, because we're dealing with very specialist subject matter which could actually be very explosive and dangerous if it was brought to the attention of the mass media. We really need to stay underground to exist at all." But then isn't there a concern that the band are simply preaching to the converted? Isn't there a desire to shove it in the unsuspecting faces of the public at large, and if not, isn't that playing it a bit safe?

Bennett: "I know what you're saying, it is very tempting and would be very enjoyable to play, as we did in the early Eighties, concerts to people who are totally unsuspecting, because it's a totally different kind of reaction."

There seems to me to be a parallel here with extreme modern art. But while images of Myra Hindley made from children's handprints are extensively covered and debated in broadsheets and 'Newsnight', Whitehouse's confrontational noise is sold via underground websites and performed in back rooms to people 'in the know'.

Bennett sighs. "It's true. We've talked about this, how in art there's a certain acceptance... I think it is interesting if you compare literature, films, music and art, it's very different what you can get away with, what is acceptable and what is shocking, within each media."

Sotos: "The main difference is that all this other stuff seems to be based on shock and what's allowable, and that's actually the point of it, but Whitehouse has always been much more personal."

Throughout the conversation, the band repeatedly insist that Whitehouse stems from their personal interests and tastes. While I and many others see Whitehouse as an ultimately sobering experience, grinding the listener's face in the ugly reality of the dark side of human nature, their reluctance to confirm (or deny) this intent leads to ambiguity. Such ambiguity leads to confusion, and armchair moralists (and their tabloid bibles) are most likely to react to something with self-righteous force if they can't reduce it to black and white. Is there, I wonder, any element of morality in Whitehouse? "I've always thought that morality doesn't have that much meaning to it," says Bennett. "People turn to 'morality' because there's no logic left in their argument."

Anger, hatred, spite, callousness, disgust, despair, fear - the Whitehouse rollercoaster plunges you into the deepest black you'll ever encounter. This emotional intensity crossed with such fervent nihilism makes for a truly unnerving concoction. It seems entirely negative, is there anything positive in it?

Bennett: "I think it's all positive! Maybe to most people it comes across as being unacceptable, and nobody's going to use the adjective 'uplifting' to describe it...but I would! That might surprise a lot of people..."

I suspect many, perhaps most of the group's fans are attracted to them because of that negativity.

Bennett: "Sure, and I think with a lot of groups working in similar territory that definitely does exist, however I would say with us it's not as simple as that."

Sotos: "I think with the imitators the problem has always been that these people are basically all dour little fuckheads..."

Bennett: "This is the type of music that's going to provoke intense reaction one or way another, and it's going to be affected enormously by people's own preconceptions."

Is it a form of catharsis?

Bennett: "I wouldn't use that word. We all operate as fully functional human beings in society. We have no problem with that, we're not misfits or anything."

Sotos: "In many ways Philip and I are in rarified positions, because this is William's brainchild and we've been allowed to come along, and it's incredibly exciting doing the shows. It's nothing to do with getting rid of negative emotions, quite the opposite. I feel incredibly lucky, actually."

So on stage and when recording, it's not unusual for you to be feeling quite...happy? Whitehouse laugh.

Best: "I wouldn't say we're necessarily in a state of absolute bliss when we're writing songs but it's not any deep unhappiness that causes us to go there in the first place."

Bennett: "I mean, and this is coming from an absolute hardcore fundamental atheist, but there are moments within the music where you reach an element of spirituality. It's reaching some sort of higher level, it just makes you want to clench your fists and grit your teeth, it creates an incredible excitement."

An interesting observation, and one that Electric Wizard made a few issues back. It makes me reflect that, across genres and subgenres, if 'extreme music' means anything it is perhaps that fist-clenching, teeth-gritting sense of excitement, that the music is taking you somewhere, provoking intense sensations and reactions.

Bennett: "Without sounding too corny, it really comes from the heart. A lot goes into it. These lyrics take a lot out of me, a lot of people probably think that this music is just someone flicking a button-it's not like that at all. Those songs actually evolve over a couple of years. It's a painstaking process."

The drawing of comparisons across genres invites the question, do Whitehouse themselves feel they share any headspace with the more extreme end of the metal spectrum? Particularly because Bennett has been outspoken in his condemnation of guitar-based music in the past...

Bennett: "I haven't got anything against metal in particular, it's just with 'rock'. It's like being a croupier at a blackjack table watching the gamblers come and go, you see them every week in the magazines, new faces lining up in front of the cameras trying their luck. You see them at the soundchecks with the same drum beats, it doesn't matter what sort of music. It's the same old thing, it's tired, it's conservative."

In the mid-Eighties Whitehouse were supported at a San Francisco show by Slayer. Was there a feeling then that they had more in common with thrash metal than most electronic music of the time?

Bennett: "I remember we picked up some of their lyrics, and it was amazing at the time that there was a group out there doing that, I can't remember the song, it was about Josef Mengele. At the time that subject matter even for a metal band was pretty incredible."

Sotos: "Way back when there was Venom and Slayer and all these rumblings that these bands were going to be genuinely extreme and dangerous, you're a sucker for it, it was the same thing with death metal. But the truth is after you look at it you find them wanting. You're always disappointed. The bluster is always better than the reality. There's this incredibly rigid structure, even every fuckin' death metal band has chorus, solo, bridge, it is unbelievable that these people still follow that formula." (In a later unrecorded conversation, Sotos did confess an appreciation of 'Reek of Putrefaction'.)

So what's the Whitehouse vision of the future of music?

"You should all sound like Whitehouse," Sotos intones drily.

Bennett: "There is a big lack of imagination. If you compare it to art, we're very much in a renaissance period where everything follows a format, you have to use oils, you have to have a frame. I think art is interesting because I think it's the way ahead for music in terms of structure. It doesn't have to be less commercial, but I think you can use a more abstract point of view."

Sotos: "It should be said that Whitehouse exists outside of music. Outside genres and trends, Whitehouse has always been there."

Bennett: "I think there's enormous scope for people to do all sorts of things, way beyond what we're doing. There's a huge amount of stuff that we haven't done. When you think 'you can't go any futher', it's never true."

Which brings us nicely on to the forthcoming Whitehouse album.

Bennett: "I've been experimenting with this sound, the evolution of our sound, which involves really trying people's patience. It's really unremitting and relentless. A lot of people are going to have a hard time getting to the end of the tracks, it's going get on people's nerves."

Even the hardcore Whitehouse fans?

"Absolutely. A lot of the present people who are interested in Whitehouse will drop off. They won't like this new record. But that's not to say that lots of new people will like it. On the contrary, I think we will lose a lot of fans with this new release. One of the reasons for choosing 'A Cunt Like You' on the cover disc is that that's really the direction it's going in, but two or three leaps on from there. It's covering all sorts of new areas. It's pretty strange, but it's very, very sinister stuff. More than people would believe. This will just go well beyond what would normally be tolerated."

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