For Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter, self-expression has been at the heart of an incredible journey over the last four decades. They started out around 1970 as part of the notorious COUM Transmissions, a nebulous ensemble of subversive performance artists. (Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn would memorably refer to them as the "wreckers of western civilization" after a particularly controversial show in London.)
Carter and Tutti, along with Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson and COUM's progenitor Genesis P-Orridge, would soon found Throbbing Gristle, one of the first and most vital proponents of what became known as industrial music.
Formed in 1976, theirs was a particularly bleak, if honest vision of the times in which they found themselves, all discordant guitar and alien synthesizers. As musical explorers of the darker corners of human nature, they were peerless. As artful critics of Britain’s social hypocrisies, they were electric and impossible to ignore.
Thirty-two years after that band initially imploded, Carter and Tutti continue to produce new work out of their home in Norfolk, most of which is a long way from the harsh industrial sounds of Throbbing Gristle. They remain fiercely imaginative critics of the world around them, particularly as it pertains to art and self-expression and, though they are advocates of Twitter’s “fantastic immediate communication”, the pace of cultural turnover today is one of their primary concerns.
“It never gives anyone a chance to sit down and think about the ideas and the sounds before moving on,” says Tutti. “I think in the long term, that’s going to be quite damaging because the whole point of . . . being creative is that you take time over things.”
Their worry is that this speed makes it easier for potentially subversive ideas to be co-opted for commercial purposes. “The internet has greatly contributed to the speed at which alternative ideas, critique and subversion is able to be appropriated and assimilated by mainstream culture then turned into a ‘product’ and, consequently, impotent,” says Tutti.
“You could almost come to terms with people using your ideas years ago because it would take a year or so, but now it’s like it could be within 24 hours.”
Although their last project, the final Throbbing Gristle album Desertshore/The Final Report, managed to unexpectedly creep into the British charts, Carter says the pair face the same problems as every other musician in the digital age. "There is always going to be the age-old dilemma of every 'struggling artist'; how do I pay the rent?" he says.
Tutti latches on to the point. "I have a really big problem with free downloads and torrent sites and free access to music," she says. "If the artist's work is devalued to the point of zero, that's bad enough, but then they don't make a penny to cover recording the next album . . . It's that thought process that's lacking in people nowadays. They don't think it through."
Nostalgic? Who, us?
While most bands who get back together in later years seem happy to take cheques from big festivals, Throbbing Gristle went straight back to work on new material after reforming in 2004. Despite that, says Tutti: "We're all nostalgic. I mean, having seen Blondie going around now and doing some of their old songs . . . I can appreciate their music now and they evoke in me a really nice feeling of that time in my life. [I can empathise with] the bands that want to go out there, especially if they've been ripped off by record companies. This might be the only time they would make money out of their music."
The reformed band became X-TG in 2010 when P-Orridge left again, and then ended permanently with the death of Christopherson a few weeks later. One of Carter and Tutti's most intriguing projects since was the Carter Tutti Void collaboration with Nik Void, guitarist from London band Factory Floor. This culminated in Transverse, a startling live improvisation from London's Roundhouse in 2011.
As well as Factory Floor, acts such as American group Emeralds and London-based industrialist Powell have connected with the pair’s ideas and are helping to bring them to light again.
“There’s the beginning of a swell of interesting work now by numerous people and it’s very exciting to feel that energy,” says Tutti. “Personally, I think there is definitely an upswing of what I would consider ‘interesting music’ at the moment, particularly in the UK,” adds Carter.
Making politically-charged art in the information-saturated modern age is never going to be easy.“I think there’s almost too much information so you can’t focus on the now,” says Tutti.“Your sense of what’s going on and what should be right is constantly being distracted with other issues . . . but the problem is that if you figure out what’s wrong here, going right back to the person themselves, then that butterfly effect goes on. You’ve got to sort things out one thing at a time. The whole world is absolutely crazy at the moment. And don’t ask me for any answers; I have no idea what the answers are,”
Amid all this, Carter and Tutti retain a wilful belligerence that has made them such a lightning rod of discontent within the music world for almost 40 years. Their renewed presence at the vanguard of "alternative music" is a reminder of the power that intelligent, personal, political art can possess – if it's given the time of day.
Chris & Cosey play Triskel Christchurch, Cork tonight, as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. corkmidsummer.com