When the history books of Canadian underground music are written in the distant future, there better be an entry on Phÿcus.
The East Coast industrial agitators were spawned in the Sydney, Nova Scotia bedroom of founding member Brian Meagher (a.k.a. Brian Damage). Inspired by the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Nash the Slash, and future collaborator Istvan Kantor (a.k.a. Monty Cantsin), the project began to take on multiple shapes when Damage moved to a Halifax dorm room in the late 1980s. Various early incarnation with singer James Bain (a.k.a. SPK-553), guitarist Bruce X, and drummer Scott Righteous would later spread their gnarled roots into a network of over 50 contributors in a dozen locations.
The prolific output of Phÿcus from 1988-2000 has now become the focus of a deep-digging archival project, not unlike Scott Thompson’s art-punk band Mouth Congress. What started as a MySpace page has since moved to a Facebook group and jam-packed Bandcamp where you can revisit hyper-limited cassette releases like Leonomorphic, Bring Me The Brain of Kurt Cobain, or the cover album Buttmower.
If you’re diving in, the best place to start might be Phÿcus’s 1988 debut TREE, which includes ominous mood-pieces like “Burning Electricity”, the pummelling drum machines of “Sludge-O-Rama”, and two different covers of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Here, the group’s uneasy mix of horror, humour, and complete deconstruction are crystallized on opener “Locked Out of My House.” Armed with sequences, drum machines, strobe lights, and scrap metal percussion, Phÿcus live shows became a disorienting blitz. Later on, they would cover everyone from Devo to The Smiths to Rita McNeil and write their immortal anthem “Destroy The Earth.”
At the urging of Alex Moskos (a.k.a. Drainolith) two different line-ups of Phÿcus are now reuniting for a pair of performances at Toronto’s Double Land Land on Sunday, June 5th and Montreal’s Casa del Popolo on Sunday, June 12th. Founder Brian Damage answered some questions below in an attempt to shed light on the fables of Phÿcus.
AUX: I understand the band’s first sessions took place in your dorm room in 1988. Where and what were you studying?
Brian Damage: At the time, I was at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, an engineering and computer science university which is now part of Dalhousie University. As you can imagine, the engineering crowd is pretty conservative culturally, but by some stroke of magic, one floor of the dorm was reserved for students from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). The first sessions were with Bruce X, who was studying sculpture at the time, and a couple of his friends. The first gig was at a NSCAD Performance Night.
Who were the original members?
In a way, Phÿcus was the confluence of three different projects. I am originally from Sydney, NS, where there was a small band of misfits that included Art Damage and Bill Abominog. Recordings from this era exist and will be added to the Phÿcus archives eventually.
The second was a project called ΘΕΛΗΜΑ, which was James / SPK-553 and I. James was doing a show on CKDU FM which incorporated industrial music and philosophical rantings. There’s this great quote about Throbbing Gristle that goes something like “Being a TG fan meant getting schooled in the history of subversion.” Hanging out with James was basically the same thing.
ΘΕΛΗΜΑ started a few months before Phÿcus and co-existed with Phÿcus for a while as well. Then there was the collaboration with Bruce X, which was the official start of the band. Scott Righteous, who we knew from CKDU as well approached us saying that he would be part of the band, so how could we refuse? The original members, then, were Bruce, James, Scott and myself. Bruce brought the anti-rock attitude, James brought the philosophy and the cut-up style of lyrics, Scott brought the beat and I had the gear. Art and Bill contributed regularly starting in the summer of 1988, and there were always people who would join us for a gig or two.
What were your musical inspirations, motivations, and intentions at the time?
We listened to lots of the industrial music that was happening at the time, particularly stuff like Swans, Laibach, Skinny Puppy and Front 242. We figured we could do this, too, but do it our way. We were also listening a lot to Monty Cantsin’s LP Ahoura Neoismus. Monty sung about the nature of art, something that we were also interested in. This album was hugely influential to us.
Another big influence, personally, was Nash The Slash. He was my rock ‘n’ roll hero since I was a teenager, and he came to Halifax for several days around the time of the formation of Phÿcus, so he and I got to hang out a bit. One thing he said really impressed me: “Once a line has been drawn, and you know you’re going to cross it, then you might as well go all the way”. If you want a one-line summation of the Phÿcus philosophy, there it is! And, of course, there was this underground scene associated with industrial culture: Survival Research, the two Wilsons, Richard Kern, Crowley, Re/Search, etc.
You mentioned Monty Cantsin above, and I understand he eventually became a member. How did that come to be?
Bruce, James and I were obsessively listening to his Ahoura Neoismus LP, and Bruce was in contact with him via the mail art scene. When I moved to Montreal in the fall of 1989, I got in contact with him, and we worked together on many audio and video projects. We were even roommates for a time at the Neoist Embassy in Outremont. It was a time of intense artistic activity! When the reunion show was announced, Monty emailed me saying that he wanted to be part of it, which was great!
Can you briefly explain the concept of Neoism to anyone who might not be familiar, and how it applies to Phÿcus?
Neoism, by its very definition, is undefinable, but we understood what Monty meant by it being a “cultural fuckoff”. It didn’t just oppose “the man” or “the system”, it was against everything – to the point of contradiction. We could identify with that, and working with Monty was always fun and unpredictable.
Phÿcus live at Foufounes Électriques, 1990.
On your Bandcamp page, you explain that “Phÿcus transformed from the traditional band format into a network that included over 50 contributors in a dozen locales, with Montreal as its centre of operations.” Can you explain how that worked?
We always had a semi-permanent lineup of regular contributors, and many guest contributors right from the very beginning. Everyone was on the move and would drop in and out of the lineup as time and place dictated. We would recruit new members wherever current or previous members ended up. While I was in Ottawa in the late ’90s, we had different (but overlapping) lineups in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal.
People who contributed to Phÿcus generally weren’t conventional musicians or conventional citizens. They became part of Phÿcus because they believed in the cause. People dropped in and dropped out. There was no chance for us to ever be a “regular” band, one that had a stable lineup, that did tours or got record deals, or any of the other things one usually associates with a “band”.
In a pre-email world, were people still contributing to the recordings remotely via snail mail?
Occasionally yes, but more often, these types of contributions were done in person. Other types of contributions were easier to do by mail. For example, Bruce and James both contributed to the artwork and propaganda even when distance prevented them from contributing to the sonic output.
On Thee Outernet, Alex Moskos wrote that the members of Phÿcus include “a Governor Generals Art Award winner (Monty Cantsin), a convict, a surrealist librarian, the big guy Corpusse Himself, a Canadian noise legend (Knurl), Anton Levay’s daughter and so on…” Can you named the unnamed there, and explain how they all joined the collective?
Well, it’s fairly clear who is Monty, Corpusse and Knurl. The surrealist librarian would be William Davison. Scott knew William from our Halifax days, but he and I first met in Toronto at an Einsturzende Neubauten show in Toronto in 1991. He became an important contributor to the band, playing guitar at most of our Toronto shows (including the upcoming one!), and being the principle collaborator on the second CD, which was recorded in his home studio.
LaVey’s daughter is Zeena Schreck. Phÿcus were interested in Satanism as a cultural phenomenon, and we liked her satirical take on the subject matter. We wrote to her when we were recording “X”, and much to our surprise, she was into contributing vocals to it. She was actually quite reasonable and polite. As for “the convict”, I’m not sure – that could have been many of our members!
Your early releases like TREE, Leonomporphic, and rench/reck came out as ultra limited edition cassettes in runs as low as 10 copies. Why did you decide to make them so exclusive?
We made a handful of special editions of TREE in elaborate packaging, and a few more in regular cassette cases. The original version was short – about 30 minutes – and I think we only had so many 30 minute cassettes lying around. Probably about 10 or so. There was an expanded edition that came out a few months later that was 60 minutes long and we made as many as we could sell, about 20 or so.
The next two cassettes were in editions of about 30, and again, that was about as many as we could sell at the time. There was no plan to make them exclusive, there was just a limited audience for our material. These two were eventually re-issued a couple years later as LOAF. Some of the other cassettes were done in larger editions of 50 or 100.
When your first CD Brainmower came out, it was rejected by two different labels and instead came out as the first release on your own Musicus Phÿcus label in an edition of 666 copies (naturally). Can you remember any information about why it was rejected?
We were approached by Raw Energy Records. They were mostly releasing punk music. I think they saw Phÿcus as a way to broaden their scope, but after sitting on it for a long time they finally said no. After that, we approached Death of Vinyl (DoVe), but they were having money problems and were more interested in releasing techno, so no luck there, either. I think that brainmower may have had more of an impact if it had come out in 1993 rather than 1995, but releasing it ourselves meant that we could do things on our own terms. In the end, this was better for us.
How have your relationships with record labels been over the years? Have the majority of your projects been independent?
All the Phÿcus material was independently released. A couple of the Unireverse releases came out on small labels. During the Phÿcus era, I was rather bewildered by what labels would rather release instead of Phÿcus. This is partly why my own label, Musicus Phÿcus / Total Zero decided to release artists that I thought deserved more attention.
It’s also interesting to see the way covers have been part of your history. I understand everything started in 1987 with you covering Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” in response to the covers you heard on the radio show of your future bandmate James Bain (SPK-553). 10 years later, your Buttmower tape would include covers of Rita McNeil, Devo, Throbbing Gristle, The Smiths, and more. What do you enjoy about creating these radical reinterpretations?
Even the final, unreleased Phÿcus album Ultra-Nothing (which will eventually get the digital restoration treatment) has several covers on it. Phÿcus’ covers generally fell into three categories: Songs that we loved that we paid hommage to, like the Devo cover; songs that we felt would gain new meaning from a Phÿcus interpretation, such as the Rita McNeil cover; and then there were songs that just needed to be destroyed! The Smiths fall into this category. Beyond that, doing covers gives you a chance to experiment with song structures and arrangements, which is a useful exercise.
These days, it’s fairly astounding to see the amount of releases archived on your Bandcamp page, though many of them seem to be live recordings. What initially inspired you to begin documenting the history of Phÿcus, both here and on your Facebook group?
I am an archivist by profession. I work for an organization called Archive Montreal, which is a non-profit dedicated to preserving and promoting independant culture. It’s a one-of-a-kind organization. We have zines, posters, recordings and lots of other things going back to the ’60s and earlier.
The Phÿcus archives began as a paper I wrote while in school on planning and managing a personal archiving project (check out my slides here). Working on the Phÿcus stuff is great because there is a lot of different material to work with, and I like being able to listen to this material and share it with the other members of the band.
What led to the next step of these live reunions? Was the interest generated by the online communities a big motivation?
For the longest time I felt disconnected from the Phÿcus material, and the idea of revisiting it was anathema to me, but once the archiving project got rolling I saw it in a new light. The Facebook group was also useful in getting people who had contributed to the group to fill in the gaps missing from my memory, and it served to have the original members of the band contributing to a shared dialogue.
In 2015, Alex Moskos invited us to play the Suoni Por Il Popolo festival. That was the first time I actually considered doing a reunion. The momentum wasn’t quite there for it to happen in 2015, but when he asked again this year I made more of a push for it to happen. For many reasons, 2016 seemed like the best chance to make this happen successfully. We felt ready to bring it and there seemed to be more interest in the music scene in what we did, and in industrial culture in general.
What can people expect from these upcoming shows?
We’re gonna rock it as old-school as possible. At both the Toronto and Montreal shows we have three of the four main Halifax-era members in James, Scott and myself. The Toronto show also features William Davison on guitar who contributed to most of our Toronto shows back in the day, and the Montreal show has our first Montreal-era guitarist, Thierry Gauthier, and Daniel Nodor who played at some of our first Montreal shows on metal kit.
The material we will be playing reflects the era represented by the members, from TREE to brainmower, mostly, with a stage setup similar to the way we played it back in Halifax: no sequencers or drum machines, lots of noise and scrap metal. Some people may be disappointed if we don’t play their favorite track, but no one will be disappointed by the show.
I see Monty Cantsin is back, alongside newer acts like Gashrat from Montreal. Are you hoping to pass the baton to the next generation of weirdos?
I made some iron batons that we will use on the metal. I’ll pass them on after the Montreal show to anyone who will take them! We have three objectives for these shows. First, no one keels over on stage, because that would just be lame. Second, we want it to be a great, life-affirming show. Third, we want it to be inspirational. Man, next year, I want to be the guy sitting at the bar while some other group bangs metal and sings about squid and art.
Is this the only return of Phÿcus for the foreseeable future, or can we expect to see you again?
It would be fun to do another show of our late ’90s material featuring members from that era, but logistically, it’s not going to happen. So, never say never, but for the moment, this is the only return we have planned.