Matt Krefting plays in a whole bunch of the most routinely defiant northeastern rock and roll bands, including The Believers, Duck (who recently opened for Whitehouse), Shackamaxon, Face/Ass and Son Of Earth/Flesh On Bone Trio. His knowledge of the more ‘esoteric’ aspects of the David “Dave” Bowie, Asmus Tietchens, Klaus Schulze and Whitehouse catalogues is second to none, as is his poetry, prose and always beautifully applied nail varnish. He is one of the hardest-thinking, deepest listening and most aesthetically stupe sub-cultural linguists you could ever hope to meet, a truly beautiful man. Here he is on Whitehouse, a central long-term obsession.
"I've not much patience with mild or tidy pleasures." -Président de Curval, 120 Days of Sodom
Whitehouse is one of the most important bands in my life. Since the very first time I heard them, they have challenged and astonished me in a totally unique way. I was introduced (as with so much great music) over at my dear friend Scott Foust's late one night. I remember being struck right off at what an unsettling atmosphere the music had. There was a sense of tension and danger that was unlike any other music I'd ever heard, as well as an outrageously sick sense of humour. It all seemed so brave, intelligent, and sonically patient in a way that made it stand head-and-shoulders above much of the other noise material I was familiar with. This stuff wasn't just interested in shocking; it was interested in exploring and provoking. I spent much of the next year buying up the CD reissues of the older records, digging into the harder-to-find stuff over at Scott's, and playing it all constantly.
William Bennett has been mining the depths and pushing buttons in an astounding and completely singular way since the release of Come's brilliant "Come Sunday" single in 1979 (the year before this young Krefting was born, and when Bennett himself was only 17 or so -- he started Whitehouse in 1980). This music is massively confusing and aggravating on the one hand and hauntingly beautiful on the other. I find this stuff endlessly fascinating and affecting. How does it work? Why does it work? I'm a gentle soul, kids, and yet I find myself returning time and time again to these records about sex crimes, serial killers, genocide, depression, anger, and alienation. And none of it seems corny to me in the least. Despite the harsh noise and the disturbing lyrical content, this is still amazingly emotional, human music. Perhaps that is Whitehouse's greatest strength: to go head-on into the darkest places we know, and to stay there, to make sense there and only there. In "Mindphaser," (off the debut LP Birthdeath Experience from 1980), Bennett moans "The agony/ the ecstasy/ Feel the pain / the pleasure/ You like that don't you." Whitehouse understands that at their most extreme, these feelings can be so similar. Passionate hate can become passionate love can become passionate violence can become passionate acceptance and I'll be damned if once you're in there, once you're really in there, you don't have some kind of blinders on, and all that matters is that moment right there in front of you.
The nine (!) records Whitehouse cut for their own Come Organisation imprint between 1980 and 1984 are utterly amazing. These early records are so simple and so powerful. The title track to Erector remains an unfathomably huge musical influence on me. The simple coming and going of sounds, the almost subsonic rumble, and the fact that it is such a very patient piece of music (I know I've mentioned patience before, but I can't stress it enough -- Whitehouse has never been afraid of using space and distance to create atmosphere) all play into almost everything I record now. Through the use of reoccurring sonic devices (low, rumbling tones, the sounds of running water, high-pitching screeching feedback), Bennett lays the sonic groundwork for exploration of all manner of deviancy and degradation. I think it's easy to overlook sometimes how compositionally innovative much of this music is. Take New Britain for example. As the record goes on, the silences between the tracks grows longer and longer, so that by the end we feel like we're waiting forever for the next burst to begin. What a simple technique to build tension and expectation. Our most basic fears are exploited.
Whitehouse took a number of years off, but since starting the Susan Lawly label in 1988, Bennett has continued to evolve and hone his vision. While in many ways I think the early records create such a world of their own that it's hard to imagine anything even slightly approaching them, the records that have followed have all been worth checking out, and there are enough moments of pure genius scattered across them to make it utterly necessary to be a Whitehouse completist. The vocals on the version of "Just Like a Cunt" from Mummy and Daddy alone are worth so much more than certain noise careers as a whole that you'd be a fool not to go all the way with this stuff. I feel as though the last bunch of records are all improvements on each other, and that just seems so refreshing: a group mining weirdly specific psychological and emotional territory and still pushing it further, still willing to re-examine itself.
I realized, when finally seeing the band perform late last year that much of the vitriolic spouting done by Bennett and cohort Philip Best (who joined the group in 1982 at the tender age of 14) could just as easily be directed at themselves as at anyone. Tears came to my eyes during "Cut Hands Has the Solution" (from 2003's Bird Seed) as Best asked questions like "Have you ever hurt yourself to make somebody sorry?" or "Have you ever told on anyone? What somebody has told you not to tell." Think about it: who HASN'T done that at one time or another, who hasn't betrayed someone's trust in some way? Bennett and Best are not excluded from their own venom by any means. The music is way too emotionally complex for that. It's hit me only recently that part of the brilliance of Whitehouse is a strange, warped compassion. I have friends who can deal with Whitehouse for the most part but hate Buchenwald because of its Holocaust-based themes, but for me, what struck me right off about the record was the overwhelmingly mournful and melancholy tone it has, how sad it sounds. I love Dedicated to Peter Kurten because it is so willing to see things from Kurten's point of view, so willing to try and understand him on some level. Bennett makes huge leaps in order to see people usually viewed as monsters as humans. And I don't think that means he's taking their side, I don't think that means he's condoning any of these actions, I don't that means he's glorifying them or holding them up as examples, I think it's his way of exploring these things. Ah, shit, I said this stuff confuses me and it does, I don't even know if I agree with myself anymore here, but I'm asking these questions, I'm thinking in ways I hadn't before.
And so this is music that invites us to know ourselves fully, to go to dark places and have sick fun there, to be very frightened there, to lose ourselves enough that we come back changed. Who wants to be the same old boring fucking person they were yesterday anyway? So let's not reject the dark any more than we reject the light, let's use it all to learn. Let's use this art to understand more. I'm not satisfied, are you? I can't wait to hear the new record.
ps-While I've got your ear, I have to say that I'm ashamed to have left Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine off my “best of ‘05” for this site. Stupid Krefting!