Film and TV

Industrial Music for the Urban Decay Chronicles Controversial Genre's Roots

“Two words: Margaret Thatcher,” replies journalist and film director Travis Collins, “Sometimes a swear word is included in-between.”

The question was what facets of British society inspired industrial music, the topic he and co-director Amélie Ravalec (Paris/Berlin: 20 Years Of Underground Techno) explore in their new documentary Industrial Soundtrack For The Urban Decay.

Collins continues, “As Prime Minister of Britain, the Iron Lady’s government crushed trade unions and forced the closure of majority of Britain’s mining pits, leading to mass unemployment across the UK. Although times were tough, this actually gave many people in mining towns the opportunity to focus their efforts on something other than work and was instrumental in the emergence of industrial bands like Test Dept and Throbbing Gristle.”

The film features interviews with the members of the above bands and other major players in the genre, including film composer Graeme Revell, who founded the Australia-based industrial noise metal group SPK. It’s the first movie to chronicle the influential style, which recently held its world premiere in London on May 8 at the British Film Institute. The film is touring throughout Europe and North America. Collins took a few moments to answer some questions about his first co-directorial effort, which will screen at FilmBar in Phoenix next week. 

Do you think American audiences will be as receptive to the film as British audiences? The genre seems more underground in North America.

Industrial Soundtrack is not intended to be a film just for industrial music fans or UK audiences. I hope it will appeal to a much wider audience. It’s a film that any music, art, or documentary lover can enjoy.

There is a long history of industrial music in North America, especially with labels like Wax Trax, but there is a whole documentary on that scene coming out so we didn’t cover that in our film.

We also document the emergence of industrial music in UK with interviews from Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Test Dept, Clock DVA and many others. The film also reflects on art and music influences, the emergence of sampling and tape loops, and the politics of the era when bands like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire emerged.

Why do you think no one has attempted a documentary about this genre before? Is it the potentially uncomfortable subject matter?

There are some aspects of industrial music that were taboo at the time. The genre is also quite controversial in terms of political views and uncomfortable subject matter, but it's certainly not as shocking now as it was in the ’70s. As Cosey Fanni Tutti said at the Q&A of our world premiere, there have been numerous filmmakers contact them over the years to tell the Throbbing Gristle story, but they declined these offers because the filmmakers and producers had commercial interests. Their films would not stay true to the DIY ethos of industrial music. If BBC or HBO wanted to make a film about industrial music, they would not have told the story the same way we did. It would have been more general and accessible, which wouldn’t appeal to industrial music fans. The film has definitely been a labor of love for Amélie and myself, and I hope it shows in the film.

There seems to be a wealth of music documentaries this year but trouble finding an audience for them. Why do you think it’s so hard for films like these to get a wide release when audiences for them seem so hungry for them?

The Nirvana documentary will not have difficulty finding an audience. It premiered at Sundance, was funded by HBO and is distributed by major film companies Universal and Sony. I agree with you that music fans love to see music documentaries in cinemas, but they rarely receive the same attention as feature films and often have a shorter cinematic life. This is why documentary filmmakers are now opting for releasing on digital platforms first. It’s easier to reach a global audience using these platforms.

As with Searching For Sugarman, DVDs and soundtracks of these major music docs will be available in every supermarket, petrol station and retail chain store around the world in a few months,, so I’m sure producers will get a healthy return on investment. What Happened, Miss Simone is another documentary I’m looking forward to seeing and this is going to be exclusively released on Netflix, which funded the film. A few years ago, an independent film like ours without distribution would never have been picked up theatrically. Thankfully, it's a different marketplace now.

The digitalization of cinemas and the rise of social media marketing has made it possible for independent films like ours to compete in the marketplace. To be honest, it’s better if the major funded music docs go straight to digital because it gives independent film makers like us a chance for a healthy theatrical release and control our own distribution and marketing.

Has the DIY/social media aspect of marketing the film help you form a connection with your potential audience?

We set up a film page on Facebook before we first started shooting interviews in 2012, and we have involved our audience in the film making process every step of the way. We have connected with industrial music fans across the world which has also helped us generate quite a substantial audience and had great success with international press and screenings as a result. We have received great feedback from our screenings and met some of the people we connected to online for the last few years. Our exclusive mixtapes series has also been extremely popular with mixes from Test Dept, Stephen Mallinder (Cabaret Voltaire / Wrangler), Scanner, Orphx, Ancient Methods, Imminent, and ourselves.

Did you find that most of the musicians you spoke to were pleased with where they ended up?

Many of the musicians we interviewed still make music, even though they reflected on the past in the film. They are also proud of their current music projects. Throbbing Gristle’s Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti have been making music for almost 40 years, yet they are still passionate and enthusiastic to go in the studio to make music. You have to respect that. SPK’s Graeme Revell is possibly the biggest success story from the people we interviewed. Graeme went on to produce more than 100 film soundtracks after his days in SPK and there is so much diversity and emotion in all of his recordings. It was an honor to interview Graeme in the film and to have him reflect on his early SPK years.

Do you think there would be industrial music without Throbbing Gristle?

It's hard to say. There were musicians all over the world experimenting with similar ideas in the late ’70s, but Throbbing Gristle were very smart with how they went about their business. They were not just a band but also a DIY label, performers and artists. They did everything they could to provoke, challenge, and inspire listeners to think differently while experimenting with noise and home made electronics. It's important to note that the band did not get much recognition at the time. Guitars were still king and they were far too noisy and experimental to get exposure on Radio 1 or MTV.

Industrial Soundtrack for the Urban Decay is scheduled to play Wednesday, May 27, and Friday, May 29, at FilmBar.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil