‘It’s like being offered to go by the hand with a stranger into the dark woods’ – MacDara Conroy talks to William Bennett, AKA Cut Hands and DJ Benetti, ahead of his Dublin shows on 29 and 30 December. Arguably the underground’s provocateur extraordinaire, William Bennett spent nearly three decades abusing ears and minds alike with his pioneering ‘power electronics’ outfit Whitehouse, distilling the harsh sound worlds created by the likes of Throbbing Gristle into pure cacophony, and courting controversy at every step with his (and his collaborators’) use of imagery across the spectrum of violence. It’s not for the faint hearted.
In 2007, Bennett set aside the Whitehouse moniker to embark on a new project he dubbed ‘Afro noise’, making sonic explorations inspired by the west African and Haitian percussion sounds he’d already been collecting for years. Recording and performing under the name Cut Hands, Bennett has since produced two albums of driving rhythms that conceal an intensity to match even his most abrasive former work. And in the meantime, he confounded expectations yet again by assuming the alter ego of globetrotting DJ Benetti to spin Italo disco records from his own collection.
Ahead of his shows as Cut Hands on 29 December and DJ Benetti on 30 December, MacDara Conroy talks to William Bennett.
You’re taking your Cut Hands live experience to The Twisted Pepper on 29 December. What should people expect on the night? It’s like being offered to go by the hand with a stranger into the dark woods; I mean that in a good way, obviously.
Cut Hands sees you in, for lack of a better term, a more ‘accessible’ realm than the work you’ve done over the years as Whitehouse. How deliberate was that on your part? The evolution probably isn’t as dramatic as it might initially seem. There was already quite an expanded use of percussion [in Whitehouse] going back to 2000, also stand-alone instrumentals too; that said, Cut Hands is undoubtedly more accessible and yet still (hopefully) retains most of the same mystery and darkness.
‘Afro noise’ is the name you’ve given to the music you make as Cut Hands – and the experiments you encourage others to perform – blending musical influences from west Africa with electronics to create new and interesting combinations and, in your own words, draw a line between it and “the utterly staid, conservative, conformist, and oh-so-boring ageing ‘noise’ genre”. Five years on from your first declaration, how is the project going? Good question which I haven’t thought about again until now! Rather than refer to any specific project, I would say that there are some fantastic projects around now such as Raime, Demdike Stare, Vatican Shadow, Holly Herndon, Andy Stott, Shackleton and many others that are seriously blurring boundaries between the underground and EDM in really powerful ways. At the same time, the staid strand of the noise genre to which I was then referring seems to have atrophied.
Cut Hands might be considered a big departure from the noises you’ve made as Whitehouse – instead of harsh power electronics and insidious vocals, it’s infectious African rhythms contorted into dizzying forms – yet beneath the surface differences both appear to have similar aims, only with Cut Hands you’re changing the focus from the mind to the body, perhaps? Yes, I think that’s a fair description – another way of seeing it is affecting the mind through the overloading of body responses.
Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but to me there’s a strong philosophical aspect to your work since the beginning, from the confrontational nature of the earliest Whitehouse recordings to the cultural complexity of Cut Hands. What way do you see it? I ask about philosophy because when I think about Whitehouse I think of De Sade and how his grotesquery seems so ridiculous compared to the things that really shock me, the little horrors that people experience every day, not even in war zones like Syria but in your own town, maybe even your own street. The stuff that we’re almost designed not to think about lest we become obsessed with others’ suffering and go literally mad. For sure! Those things we’re designed or trained not to think about are so great, like death itself – the curse of the creation of language itself allows for this consciousness which we in turn require protection from, [and] perhaps provides an explanation for the huge constructed belief systems represented by religions.
I also read a playfulness in what you do, an appreciation for the power of symbols and language and idioms and an interest in what reactions they provoke, almost like a long-term science experiment. Is that too far off the mark? I believe in the power of creative response primarily because it’s what I personally enjoy (and demand!) as a consumer; I love books or films or music where they’re fucking with your mind or body on some level, it’s stimulating.
Is there any specific meaning you had in mind with the title of your new record, Black Mamba? My partner is South African, and she has stories from her childhood in KwaZulu Natal about black mambas in the back garden, these seriously deadly creatures that are the same time so commonplace – it’s hard to get my head around because I’ve never had that experience but it’s obviously something others deal with so often as to make them inured to the situation. Is that reading too much into it? Just as with your partner’s childhood stories, animals such as black mambas provide such incredibly powerful sexual and/or life/death metaphoric potential; the wildlife we live amongst like hedgehogs and squirrels and field mice, whilst beautiful and lovely, don’t really offer that.
With an artist of your notoriety in the underground, there’s surely a sense of expectation among people who buy your records or attend your shows. With Whitehouse it’s people expecting extremity and depravity; with Cut Hands they might be expecting ‘Africanism’ or some such. How do you fight the temptation to play into that? The temptation for me is more often fighting the urge to offer a polarity response to the altar of expectation; really, I’ve got pretty practised in doing what I personally enjoy and hoping that there’ll be other people that like it.
Does it bother you if people appreciate your work in a manner that differs from what you intended? Or is it a case of, ‘once it’s made it’s out there and there’s nothing I can do about it’? Yes, sometimes you feel like you’ve lost control of something as soon as it’s released; just before a release date, I definitely feel the heavy stress a father whose partner is just about to give birth might feel (not that I’ve any experience with having children…)
You’ve expressed your displeasure before about musicians like Peter Gabriel working with African musicians, and I get the impression it’s the neo-colonial overtones of the notion that rankles you most – the appropriation, the bestowing of worth or worthiness, etc. But what of western musicians who take their music to Africa? I think of the Dutch punk band The Ex touring Ethiopia and collaborating with the saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya; they seem to be approaching things in a more respectful manner. Your thoughts? I guess it’s this smug attitude that somehow we’re giving bestowing to them with this kind of condescending patronage; that’s what makes Sting and Gabriel and others so annoying. The very term ‘world music’ really gets on my nerves. You get the same kind of condescension displayed in The Wire magazine, evinced by the kind of language they like to use; for example, their use of the term ‘ethnographic music’ which allows David Toop in this case to mix up all these sounds, as if they belong to a single groupable genre. On a micro scale, it’s the musical equivalent of the British Museum’s ransacking of the world for storage into an enormous Aladdin’s Cave of stolen property.
The examples you give, or a band like Antibalas, don’t operate like that – it’s an entirely shared experience based on passionate focused meaningful inspiration, and interpersonal relationship, which in turn is respectful by definition.
You’re also spinning Italo disco on 30 December at Forza Italo as DJ Benetti, which might be yet another leap entirely if one doesn’t consider the giallo visuals you use to accompany your sets. For people who aren’t much familiar with any of it beyond Argento movies and Goblin soundtracks, what are they missing? Um, a lot?! Be warned that once you take a step into those delicious waters, nothing will quite be the same again.
Thinking in terms of contemporaries in music or other arts – film, books, visual art – who or what do you admire today, and why? Musically speaking, many of the artists I mentioned above; I’m a voracious consumer of all of the above and regularly post at my blog the latest acquisitions, should anyone ever be interested.
Cut Hands plays The Twisted Pepper on Saturday 29 December, and DJ Benetti plays Forza Italo at Odessa on Sunday 30 December.