No one, I mean no one, has a resume like J.G. Thirlwell’s. These days he’s doing what he calls “serious” composing, for groups like the Kronos Quartet, but he’s also about to start writing music for season six of the dark animated comedy “The Venture Bros,” on Adult Swim.
Decades before that, he made music in a dozen different iterations. Thirlwell is best known for Foetus, a genre bending ′80s synth/big band project, and he’s put up shields of aliases for other projects, each one unlike the last: Clint Ruin, Frank Want, a quartet called Manorexia. He’s crossed musical paths with Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Some of his fans don’t know his other projects exist.
Thirlwell is just one of about two dozen artists who are playing the New Media Art and Sound Summit this year, at Salvage Vanguard Theater in East Austin. He plays two sets, one with ex-Austinite Sarah Lipstate’s highly regarded experimental guitar project, Noveller, and a second with the Austin version of his string project, Manorexia.
This is the sixth year of NMASS, a festival of experimental music, interactive art, video and electronics that’s presented by Church of the Friendly Ghost and the Austin Museum of Digital Art.
Even the most obsessive music collector eventually stumbles on some heretofore unknown pocket of culture, and the Friendly Ghost has a way of making you feel like that pocket is deeper than you’d ever guessed. It’s less a pocket, than a black hole.
The Friendly Ghost’s George Pasterk says with all his different personas, “it’s really hard to describe J.G. … it’s really over the top.”
“The music runs the gamut from rock ’n’ roll to big band music to just noise. And he’s doing chamber music at the show.”
For three decades Thirlwell, who was born in Australia, never travelled home.
“I moved to London in 1978,” he says from the loft in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, where he’s lived for 27 years. “I hadn’t been back (to Australia) in 32 years,” Thirlwell says. When he finally returned a few years ago, it was because he wanted to see his father, who “was on the way out.”
“When I was a kid I never wanted to be there,” he says. “My mother was Scottish. I felt like I was in the wrong hemisphere — I felt like Scotland was my spiritual home.”
“When I returned home I think it impressed upon me how really weird that is,” Thirlwell laughs gently.
Since then he’s returned again, with his chamber ensemble Manorexia at the Adelaide festival, opening for the Kronos Quartet.
Thirlwell is a natural storyteller who waxes effortlessly with insights about his own life. After that initial return, his father, he says, “did die a couple of weeks later.”
“When I went back, my mom had kept a lot of my drawings from art school, and paintings and screenprints and stuff like that,” he says, “and going through that was really weird; Re-seeing them through the cobwebs of time. And I realized that I wasn’t quite far from it.”
He saw color palettes that he’d been using on album covers as an adult — red, white, black and grays — in his early art school experimentations. He saw early uses of numbers as a design element. “I thought that was actually something new, but I’d done it over 30 years before.”
And Australia is where he first learned to play music. A little cello, a little percussion, both of which frustrated him, until he picked up a bass guitar in London and started making his own recordings, learning what he needed to play all the instruments.
Sometimes he hears the entire piece in his head.
“Often I’ll start writing something, get as far as I can with an idea or a sequence of notes,” Thirlwell says.
“I see them as cells — might be two bars, or 27 bars long. “I can’t describe how one idea leads to another,” he says, but he puts these cells together to see what works, “or sometimes this cell will organically grow.”
Then he might gather a live quartet. “ ‘OK, bar 61, viola, can you play that down an octave … bar 102, can we play that three times?’ By the end, we’ve done these adjustments.”
NMASS has a lot of musicians and artists who are similarly compelled to make sounds or art materials for their purposes.
This year’s fest also has Austin musicians and artists, who are given something like a carte blanche.
“There’s a lot of names I recognize here,” Pasterk says of this year’s schedule. “But I don’t know what they’re doing.” So this is a discovery process for everyone, organizers included.
There’s a synthesizer building workshop from Bleep Labs (“where you’ll actually get to build a tiny synth … and then play it,” Pasterk says), a large scale art project you can walk through, another that responds to hand gestures and also “unleashes Easter eggs.”
Then there’s some tech. Canada’s Clint Enns has a video project using hacked cameras. Kyle Evans of Cracked Ray Tube experiments with visuals from old TVs, by shaking them, among other things. (“We hope that he doesn’t electrocute himself,” Pasterk laughs.)
The festival, says Pasterk, “It’s so small, you’re going to run into the person who just performed, or is about to perform and have a conversation with them.”
Back in his apartment, J.G. Thirlwell’s polishing two chamber pieces, one for the Kronos Quartet, and another that he’ll premiere in Austin, a 12-minute standalone work. These days he has quartets formed to perform his music in London, San Francisco, Stockholm.
“There’s different players coming through all the time,” Thirlwell says, “and they make me sound brilliant!”
Fans who know his music from the animated comedy, he says, “I’m sure they’re not particularly interested if I’m doing a sound installation in Budapest or something.”
“At the same time people in Budapest have no idea what the ‘Venture Brothers’ is.”
New Media Art and Sound Summit
When: 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, 1:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday
Where: Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Road
Cost: $20 one day pass; $45 festival pass