Sixty-eight-year-old artist and musician Genesis Breyer P-Orridge went from the forefront of Britain's culture wars in 1973 with the performance group COUM Transmissions to starring as a model for Marc Jacobs's fall campaign this year. In between, he helped to create, and continually redefine, the genre of industrial music through his work with the absolutely brilliant bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV.
This is a high profile time for the once-reclusive artist. In addition to the Jacobs campaign, P-Orridge was recently profiled in a lengthy New Yorker piece, is preparing to reissue the long out-of-print first Psychic TV album Force the Hand of Chance, is the subject of a solo exhibition at the Rubin Museum in New York City right now (Try to Altar Everything), and just released an acclaimed new Psychic TV album, The Alienist, that embraces their acid-house heyday vibes. Whew.
Forced out of London by a manufactured media scandal in the early 1990s, P-Orridge moved to New York City and married Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge. Together they embarked on an attempt to unite as a "pandrogyne," or single entity — it's short for "possible androgyne." This involved the use of surgical body modification to physically resemble one another. P-Orridge continued with this project after Lady Jaye's death in 2007. P-Orridge prefers to be referred to as s/he, and to this day frequently refers to the two of them as one entity, in the "royal we" tense.
Metro Times spoke with the innovative artist in advance of Psychic TV's July 23 performance at El Club.
Metro Times: How did you meet Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge?
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Jaye used to love to piss outside, on fire escapes and things. Her first nickname was Jackie Pissoix. She did this amazing thing early on in our relationship when we were bicoastal and she had this slave from the dungeon who was treating her — and somewhat reluctantly me — to this amazing meal. She was sitting in the middle.
He was there and we were on this side and all of a sudden, she gently got hold of my left hand and put it on her crotch and she wasn't wearing any panties and then she peed through my hand and just grinned at me really mischievously. And then we looked down — there must have been a slight slope in the restaurant, because this pool started to come from under the table and go across the floor. Because it was all candle-lit, nobody noticed it. So the waiters were going up and down and trailing it, tracking it all over the restaurant. And I thought, 'This is my kind of woman!'
MT: And you were never apart again?
P-Orridge: Well, it was a bi-coastal love affair for a while. We would speak every night on the phone, two or three hours often. It was after the fire that she moved. She was in New York and somebody rang her up and said, "There was just a newsflash on MTV about Gen; Gen is in intensive care after a fire." She found out where the hospital was and rang up. And they wouldn't say anything because she wasn't a relative. They just said that we were in intensive care, so she bought a plane ticket and arrived and because she was a nurse she showed her ID and everything and they let her come into the ICU with me.
And she immediately climbed into the bed and masturbated me. It was brilliant. There were all these tubes and things going beep, beep. At one point, of course, another nurse came in and went' "Oop!" But they weren't upset; they just thought it was very funny. And she just said, "I can't trust you to be on your own. So I'm going to have to move out here." After about a year or so we went back. She was kind of sick of California, so that was another impetus to come to New York. We love it here. We've lived here longer than anywhere else we've ever lived.
MT: You must have a very high tolerance for pain.
P-Orridge: So they say. We used to — I mean, with the surgeries.
MT: Not to mention the aggressive atmosphere of the school that you attended as a child, which you've spoken of before. Do you think that the sound of post-World War II England being rebuilt affected your music? I mean the sound of construction, the sound of building, the sound of industry.
P-Orridge: Not directly. We mainly grew up in the Manchester area. We remember the steam engines being phased out and cut up for metal. All the empty and burned-out buildings. And then the cotton industry, being the main industry in Manchester, died out when America got really productive. The war killed that. So we saw the whole industrial England disintegrate and that definitely affected my vision of the culture. And that was part of what became the industrial music concept — this very strong sense of seeing the empire and the culture and the arrogance of Britain decay and fall apart, and there being no real expression of that in music or the arts or anything.
MT: Do you view pandrogyny as an art project?
P-Orridge: Well, yes. But also it's other things, too — an evolutionary concept. Everything we do is art, philosophy, mysticism, cultural commentary. They're all like that. We're always very open to go to where they lead us. It didn't begin like that.
MT: How did it begin?
P-Orridge: It began just purely for our own private exploration and pleasure, the whole pandrogyny thing. And really, it began with Lady Jaye. Because the first time we met when we went to the slave auction, she said, "We can't take you out looking like that," because we were getting lots of free clothes from rave places in San Francisco. We were in baggy jeans and big baggy hoodies and she said, "I can't be seen with you wearing that!" And so she started putting her clothes on me, you know? A skintight velvet jumpsuit with high heels and a leather skirt. That was when we had dreadlocks, too.
MT: How did it grow outside of your personal world into a more public sphere, or was it just that?
P-Orridge: It grew accidentally in that we got more and more consciously into the idea of dressing similarly. At some point we were talking about when you make love, as opposed to just having sex — when you're actually making love, it's transcendental, and when the love is unconditional in both people, something unique happens where the sense of being individuals just disintegrates and you actually become one being. That's not just an amazing moment in terms of the integration of two people, but it's also a very potent, magical time, and that's when you can post messages, sigils, and potentially change your behavior, reprogram your behavior. We were both fascinated with that.
Meanwhile, the world outside, our social circle and passers-by, were seeing the result of that exploration. We thought about the endless problem of human beings, humankind. They have a basic flaw of some sort, which leads to violence. We were thinking about binary systems, either/or, how destructive they are. Innately destructive, because you've got, you know, black/white, male/female, Muslim/Christian, different countries. Everything in our world tends to be built on either/ors, and either/ors inevitably make enemies. There's this basic formula that keeps on happening with human beings. How could that be changed?
Until we change as a species, we can't really evolve onto another level. We found that by blurring, by becoming one, all sorts of issues just vanished. So surely this could affect the world outside. What would happen if we took this further and represented the idea that human beings aren't finished, and the human body isn't finished? What would happen if we were all hermaphrodites, male and female — if we were no longer different? Would that change the way we perceive things? Inevitably, we thought, can we break these archetypes? We decided that we would focus all of our creative intent on trying to find a way to at least represent the end of either/or and discuss the biggest issue of all in the world, which is: Is it ever going to be possible to get people to stop attacking anything they don't understand or that's different?
MT: It was a sensual exercise that blossomed to include others into it, then?
P-Orridge: The very first thing we did was get me a vasectomy because we then started thinking about [William] Burroughs and [Brion] Gysin. They were huge influences [with their] concept of the third mind. By both of them collaborating, and cutting up things that they'd both written, a new piece of writing would appear that didn't belong to either of them. It was the result of the two becoming one, and they called it the third mind. So we thought, what if we take that into the material world with a physical person, the body, and we start to cut that up and reassemble it? Can we create a third being? So, that became the pandrogyne, the possible androgyne.
And we thought about DNA. Writing is a recording that you can cut up and reassemble. Sound is something you can cut up and reassemble. Film, video, you know, the main tools of culture can all be cut up and reassembled. So DNA is the recording hidden within the human being; it's got a programming that dictates how our bodies change. How they evolve and become a final shape. Which gender we are and lots of other much more secret aspects of our being that we don't always discover. So that program, is there a way to cut it up, and reassemble it too? And that was why we did the vasectomy to cut the continuity of the DNA as a declaration of a rejection of the program that we've inherited.
MT: Then you decided to expand on that.
P-Orridge: Then we decided to go into the surgeries. Not so that we became female or Jaye became male or anything — to become, as far as we could be, hermaphroditic.
MT: Nobody ever uses the word trans in reference to pandrogyny.
P-Orridge: No. Well, one reason that we were glad to have that word was 'cause it didn't have any baggage. It can be defined by what everybody is thinking of it. It's an umbrella that's open-ended at the moment. On Valentine's Day 2003, we went for our breast implants together. It was so liberating.
MT: Why was it liberating?
P-Orridge: Well more for me, because for me it was this whole rejection of all that masculinity that we experienced in public schools and British society in the '50s and '60s. It was this really beautiful way to say: No, I'm not gonna be part of that! Fuck that! To separate myself from the masculine trajectory, which is so archetypal, and to me has so many negative connotations. It's very much the masculine trajectory that is responsible for war and violence, generally, and rape and suppression of other beings, women especially. Neither of us felt comfortable with the idea of masculinity itself and so as a private, personal emotion it was just good for me to say, 'Thank God I got rid of that.'
MT: Will there ever be anyone else for you? 'Cause no one can live up to that! [Gesturing to a large framed poster of Jaye with sunglasses, holding up her middle finger, hanging on the wall over Gen's desk to the right of Gen's shoulder, overlooking the interview.]
P-Orridge: It's unlikely. And, I mean, who would you find that was happy to know you're already in love with someone else? It's not really fair. There may be someone who's happy to be a companion instead. We've got a lot of people here. But they're not Jaye.
MT: Why did you want to seek out Brion Gysin?
P-Orridge: He was the one who developed the cut-ups and allowed William [Burroughs] to use them. He was the one who created the dream machine, and William used the dream machine as well and did the tape-recorder experiments. So, all of those breakthroughs were Brion. And William had always said so. But for me the ideas have been just really vibrant, exciting. We wanted to go to the source of the ideas. It was Brion that took Brian Jones to hear Joujouka. And because of the record that Jones recorded, Joujouka became well-known to rock music listeners. So, he was this catalyst for so many important moments in the Beat era, and a great artist too. We wanted to find out what he was like, and he was fun. He was sweet. Have you ever heard of Cadbury's Chocolate Fingers? He would always have a packet of my favorite biscuits in his cupboards for when I came.
MT: He must've been very fond of you.
P-Orridge: Yeah, they both were. Got lucky.
MT: Well, Burroughs didn't want you to go away. That's why he wouldn't give you Gysin's contact, initially.
P-Orridge: Right. And how we came to America in the first place, when we [found out we were being persecuted] in London, we received a postcard from Michael Horovitz, who was the person who hid Timothy Leary's archives, and later was imprisoned, and also had the biggest library of drug-related literature in the world. It said on this postcard that "We were at your concert at Dingwalls in London and it was the most psychedelic thing we've seen since the Acid Tests in San Francisco." And then it said: "If you ever need a refuge, call this number." So we walked back to the phone and rang up and Michael answered immediately, and we said, "We need a refuge!" Then one day, Leary rang up. We didn't know him, but Michael came and said, 'there's someone on the phone who wants to talk with you.' And it's Leary: "Genesis, how are you? It's Timothy Leary. Come to LA, stay with me. My house is your house!"
MT: My acid is your acid! Do you prefer psychedelics to other drugs?
P-Orridge: Yeah, but we're old-fashioned. We see them as tools, to be used for thought. Jaye was really into psychedelics and we did a lot of psychedelics together. A lot of the ideas for pandrogyny grew out of those long discussions that we would have. She liked DMT. She called it the sparkle.
MT: That's the thing about doing psychedelics with another person, especially when you have a certain comfort level and a certain intimacy. It's almost as though your minds are touching.
P-Orridge: Which is why it was so perfect for thinking about pandrogyny. We had this friend Timothy Wyllie, who writes some really interesting, slightly New Age books. He was one of the five founding members of the Process Church. He came up to visit, to the old house in Ridgewood, and we were talking to him and he was saying, "Have you ever tried ketamine?" And we both said no, and he said, "Well, I think you would really like it." John Lilly, who did all of the dolphin intelligence with it, he used ketamine a lot. And Timothy too said at the time, "You have to do it 300 times before you get it." And we thought, "Well, that's stupid." But as intrepid psychedelic people, we decided to start working with ketamine. It was definitely the most potent advocate for pandrogyny. We decided to do it methodically, so we were doing it each and every day for nearly three years. And after about 300 times, we suddenly got it! We did a hell of a lot of thinking and theorizing with that. One day we just thought, "Well we've got everything we can out of that," and we stopped.
MT: With a lot of the emphasis on trying new psychedelics, it feels a spiritual element gets lost.
P-Orridge: It's become psychedelic tourism, which is a dubious thing. If you imagine that, there's nothing to argue, that it's completely possible that where you go is a real place, as far as anywhere is real. Imagine how annoying it would be to have these tourists, you know, turning up, making a big mess in your dimension, then leaving it. Wouldn't that drive you crazy? Also, if you're ripping holes in the core, the veil between that dimension and this, it also means that things could come back either way. Now, what are you bringing back?
Psychic TV performs at the El Club on Sat., July 23; Doors at 8 p.m.; 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; $20.