One of the most exciting developments of the Adelaide Festival has been the inclusion of the Unsound Music Festival within the program, to be held over three nights – an experimental electronic music & related visual arts festival traditionally held in Poland, but making a welcome presence in the antipodes for the second year.
One of the major name acts secured for the Australian performances is pioneering avant-garde soundscapists Nurse With Wound, primarily led by Steven Stapleton, whom have over forty collected releases under their name over more than thirty years of creativity.
Absinthe.com.au were fortunate to spend some time with Steven to learn more about his approaches to the experimental music genre.
There was a considerable absence of live performances up until 2005 but there hasn’t been a lack of creative output. Do you have a preference between studio versus live performance, and do you see them as very different medium for different purposes?
They are completely different. Both are fun in their own ways and both are creative and rewarding, but the experience is very different. I prefer studio work, but recently in the last 4 -5 years we really got together as a band and enjoyed each others characteristics – it’s actually working out quite well now. The little bit of telepathy that happens between us makes it interesting, and we’ve done about 50 gigs now. We’re quite a hot little combo.
Is there a major change in approaches to improvisation as used between the studio and live performance?
Yes, its completely different. Live it is always improvisation and I have very little control over the direction of it – we have guests with our gigs, one to two persons per night, and they are usually people that I meet an hour or the day before the concert. People come up and we get talking and they tell me they are a performance artist – a poet or juggler or whatever, and they usually end up on stage with us. So hopefully the night or day before the gig in Adelaide I’ll meet some interesting people and they’ll come up and do some stuff with us. Take us off into a different direction.
Because the history of the band has been significantly marked by collaboration, is it just good synchronicity or is it something you actively seek out?
No, I really enjoy working with somebody. Again, I get fun out of doing it myself, and other people always bring interesting aspects to what you are doing – sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees yourself. I love collaboration, recently I have been collaborating with a lot of people. In fact in the last few years there hasn’t actually been a purely Nurse With Wound album, they have all been collaborations. But working with Andrew Liles is a real treat. Eberhard Krannemann from Neu! and Kraftwerk, working with him has just been a wonderful high, because I have always been such a fan of those bands.
So what music was significant in your own younger formative years?
Before I discovered the German electronic music scene I was into English psychedelic like the Pink Fairies, and bands like The Groundhogs. Stuff like that.
There used to be a club just down the road when I was a teenager, and it was a hard rock place called The Lord Nelson, just a pub but it used to have amazing bands playing there – in one week I would see Judas Priest, UFO, all these bands which are now really huge would be playing there before they had their record contracts. I really grew up on early heavy rock before I heard the first thing that changed my life and that was a German album, a Kraut Rock album called Psychedelic Underground by Amon Duul which just blew me away and still does blow me away to this day.
So what sort of music catches your attention these days?
Nothing. Really, I have tried, I have people around all over the world who send me anything new that they think I might like. I just eat CD’s, I just go through so many. But no, I can’t think of anything in the last 10 years or so that I’ve enjoyed.
I keep going backwards. Like for the last few months I’ve just been listening to Frank Zappa because I realise there was a point in his career that I lost interest in what he was doing and blanked him out. But I love his early records, they are a great influence on me in Nurse With Wound. Things like “Lumpy Gravy”, and “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” and those amazing records, and I discovered there were over 50 records of Frank Zappa that I had never heard. So that’s what I have been playing for the last year really.
I certainly relate – I used to be doing a dark ambient radio show in Sydney and my introduction point to Nurse With Wound was “Soliloquy for Lilith” , but having lost contact for a while and coming back and realising everything of Nurse With Wound that I have missed in the meantime.
I personally think the stuff I am now doing keeps getting better and better, but you know, I can’t really be objective about it!
Considering how many decades you have been going, how have you viewed and experienced the issues of copyright with regard to sound samples – how has this issue impacted you artistically over the decades?
Well, it hasn’t at all really, because it used to be called ‘stealing’ and then it became ‘sampling’, and it’s exactly the same! You know if a sample if used artistically, I have no problem with that. I’ve never bothered to think about it to be honest.
Music that touches on surrealist and avant-garde expression, is arguably cyclic and may be even geographic – certainly here in Adelaide, having something like the Unsound Music Festival as part of Adelaide Festival wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar until probably the last few years and it certainly has found a receptive audience. Have you found that over the years that there seems to be a right time and right place for experimental music?
I have noticed that, that certain areas in countries become hotspots for a little while, and then the activity moves elsewhere, certainly. But we as Nurse With Wound, and certainly me, as I don’t have a computer and I don’t access to the internet I have never seen the Nurse With Wound website and I have never looked at the Brainwashed website. Indeed, I have never seen the film that John Whitney made of coming over to my house – I’ve never even seen that film. So I don’t know really much about what is going on out there, but I do have a whole bunch of people sending me interesting things continually. But I kind of like to live a very private life, out here in the country side.
How much of your work do you consider to be moments fixed in time, are they works you are happy leave as they are when they were composed, versus resurrecting them in a live context or reworking/remixing them.
It’s all down to whim, you know? One day I will say one thing, and I’ll mean it, but the next day I’ll change my mind. I just look upon my back catalogue as ‘that’s what it is’ – I’m not going to fuck around with it, I might put a release with an extra disc or something, but I’m not going to remix anything.
I did notice a couple of years ago you did a ‘Sleep Concert’.
I’m still doing them!
It’s a format I’m more familiar with the likes of artists like Robert Rich and his album Somnium, with that deliberate intent to manipulate brain states. And while your music is often driven to trigger cognitive dissonance anyway, is sleep state & brain function manipulation something you are really interested in musically?
It is, yes, and I love doing those gigs. There is no better way to just space out to music then to be in a nice warm bed with 100-150 other people all going through a similar experience. And being able to just sit there and manipulate sounds, to even point them in different directions to think or dream, it’s fascinating, I love it. It’s a bit of a gruelling thing though, after about 5 hours I am really failing, so normally end up doing them for about 6 hours.
I’ve got one coming up in Ireland – it is the first sleep concert in Ireland, that’s in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to that one. And also its great to have them in unusual environments you know, an aquarium, or a train museum recently in Berlin – just all kinds of very relaxing environments. I would have loved to have done one in Australia, that would have been so good.
Perhaps the good folk at Adelaide Festival will take note for future possibilities!
Who will be in the Nurse With Wound line up for the Australian concert?
Me, Colin Potter and Andrew Liles – just the three of us. But as I said, hopefully if we meet anyone that shares a spark and would be interested in doing something with us, if I meet them they might end up on stage with us.
I noticed that Duplais Absinthe released an absinthe with some of your artwork on the label – how did that come together?
Yeah, they did – and in return I got crates of absinthe! In fact they did a presentation box, maybe 50 or something, and they gave me a half dozen of them. I’ve spent months painting these things up and I’m going to put them on Ebay soon, so anyone who wants an elaborately customised absinthe box with Nurse With Wound CD’s and a bottle of absinthe – look out for them!
Nurse With Wound play the Queens Theatre, Friday 7 March 2014 with Morton Subotnick, Lee Gamble & Cut Hands
The program for Unsound Festival, part of the Adelaide Festival can be found by the following this link.