Test Dept

Test Dept, Studio 9294 - pic Terry Tyldesley
Test Dept, Assembly of Disturbance, Red Gallery, London 2017
Test Dept, Studio 9294 - pic Terry Tyldesley
Test Dept, Amersham Arms, London 2016
Test Dept, Miners March 1984

Sonic agitators Test Dept forged their electrifying sound amid the decay and anger of the 80s, transforming found industrial items into percussive sculptural instruments, which they fused with experimental electronics to create visceral walls of noise. A series of iconic shows, giant audio visual spectacles, many in cathedral-like train stations - put them on the musical, political, and art provocateurs map.

Now the industrial pioneers have released a brilliant and incendiary album ‘Disturbance’ - their first in 20 years. It’s a sonic assault on the status quo, a new suite of dark, disturbing, dance-led sounds that confront the chaotic times we live in. Tracks like ‘Speak Truth To Power’ and ‘Landlord’ eviscerate current political cruelties. We interviewed Graham Cunnington and Paul Jamrozy about their new work, ahead of the official album launch show. Test Dept tour the US from 12th September, finishing at Coldwave VIII in Chicago on 21st September.

One Little Indian

New album ‘Disturbance’

What spurred your return to recording after 20 years

It started with the re-investigation of our archive and projects such as the DS30 Installation and film and the Total State Machine book. This led to us looking at the audio archive and on to re-imagining early material and its relevance to today’s political and social situation and climate – the link between the start of the neo-liberal consensus during Thatcher’s reign, its spread worldwide and the consequences of those policies’ end-game today. GC

Our work seems even more relevant now in the face of ecological disaster, rampant corporate greed and xenophobic nationalism. PJ

How did you go about creating and writing the tunes on the album, what was your process from writing to demos to recording

The album developed through a few different incarnations, over quite a period of time. We had been playing the songs live for a while, blending an electronic base with live percussion and vocals. We then took some of the samples and electronic elements we had been working with and recorded live drums, percussion and some vocals over this We took these and worked with them; overdubbing the main vocals and extra elements. We then worked intensively to shape the album into the finished article. GC

The lyrics are powerful and incisive - how important is it for artists to question what’s going on in the world

We seem to be gravitating towards a dystopian world-view that can only predict a future veering between moments of chaos and periods of ever greater control, and the fear is that we are moving into ever darker terrain. There is a lack of a utopian vision for people to dream of. It will of course take a concerted effort by those who oppose the current direction if this period in our history is to pass and we are once again able to access a bigger vision, which looks to tackle critical issues of poverty, corporatism and climate change and address the real causes of todays imbalance. PJ

You cannot separate art from life. Art is an expression of the world in which it is made, so artists should seek to use their voice and speak out against injustice and oppression in all its forms, while there is still the ability to do so. GC

We continue to fight to retain our hard fought rights at a personal and local level and seek to influence events on a higher level. It is important to maintain our humanitarian and egalitarian values in the face of populism and reactionary forces. PJ

How long did the album take, have you been working on it for decades or is all the material very recent

Everything we do is a gradual process of transition that can manifest as a physical release or performance at any given stage; but it never stops developing. We work in a continuum of ideas (hence the title of our hybrid electronic/DJ set – Kontinuum). The album was created in stages over a few years. It started as a remix project, then grew to a live iteration, and then developed away from re-mix towards re-interpretation; looking at the relevance of subjects on our early material, sonic expressions and even some lyrics to the situation around us today, and then re-imagining that as a new work. GC

A lot has changed about the recording process since your last release. What differences did you encounter, and what were the pluses and also any minuses

Percussion is still a central element, the beating heart of TD, but there are a lot more possibilities for modern software to shape and manipulate both the live percussion and the found sounds and electronic elements that were a lot more difficult back in the day. We have always tried to use the studio as an instrument, we look to work with a far wider palette merging raw material and new technologies, hardware and software as a key part of our creative process. GC

Test Dept, Studio 9294 - pic Terry Tyldesley

Some of the tracks are dance orientated in feel, some more dub orientated, did you enjoy experimenting with pace and style

We have always experimented with pace, style, genre, sound, etc, in everything we do. We do not hold with pigeon-holed descriptions of our work, be it industrial or dance or whatever, but our music has always had a dance element to it; hard to avoid with heavily percussive music. A large part of our work was about rhythm and the effect it can have on the mind and body, as a tool for ritual, release and even control; so it was natural or us to absorb that element into our work. Dub has been a constant influence on us since the start, from growing up surrounded by it on the streets, squats and at Jamaican Blues parties in South London to listening to Don Letts’ Reggae and Dub sets at London’s seminal Punk club The Roxy. GC

It sounds like you have used field recordings on the album, what kind of things did you capture

Our mantra was ‘Use your environment’, our utilitarian use of sound and image were shaped by that environment and we have always used recordings of our surroundings as percussive or atmospheric elements. We also use our media environment to collect and research audio samples to emphasise a mood or to give a piece a social or political context. PJ

Environmental sounds. Sounds of protest: Housing demos; the Square protests; the Anti-Capitalist and Standing Rock movements. Political figures feature of course, hi-lighting their own contradictions, stupidities and madness… or occasionally inspirations and aspirations. GC

What was your go to music equipment and software for Disturbance

Ableton Live for development and Logic Pro for production and mixing. Too many different plug-ins and processes, to mention here. GC

You use unique objects, what kind of things did you play on the album, which has some very otherworldly sounds. Can you tell us the story of some the pieces and how they were made or found

Our recent metal percussion instruments have been purpose built from scrap metal by Giles Walker, formally of the Mutoid Waste Company. We play them on all tracks and use them in different ways. They can be hit, ratcheted, strummed, plucked and bowed. We have a large vicious looking wheel with spokes sharp as knives which spins and rings and clatters; A large spring stretched taught to give deep bass explosions; A saw of dubious sonic value; various sheet metal of different amalgams. These are scavenged or happened upon, but, increasingly in these post-industrial times, also found on the web. GC

The amazing Zel Kaute is on drums, what has she brought to your sound

Power, rock steady timing and a solid base. An amazing force to be reckoned with! GC

Test Dept with Visual Director David Altweger, Drummer Zel Kaute, Producer/Engineer Lottie Lou

How important was it to you to have a track dedicated to the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign

The UK Miners’ Strike was the pivotal campaign in the resistance to the system of individual and corporate greed which has led, over the subsequent years, to todays political, social and environmental mess. Thatcher knew if she could break the miners, she could break the unions and thereafter allow the implementation of corporate hegemony and diminished workers’ rights. This model subsequently spread across much of the globe. There was fake news back then too, as the established media provided ‘alternative’ versions of what was actually happening, thereby keeping much of the population in the dark and on-side. The track GBH84 refers to what happened at Orgreave, the BBC’s ‘re-cutting’ of reality, the mass arrests and the falsified police statements by the same police force who carried out the Hillsborough outrage. Redress for this is still being sought today by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. GC

Test Dept, Miners March 1984

Visuals, sculptures, and even machines, are key parts of your live performance, what can people expect from the album launch show in April

We are now working on a re-designed set of instruments merging industrial hardware and software with contact mics and triggers set in large frames that form the set, complimented by a new visual and projection design. We are still largely influenced by and are a product of our shifting environment. The old metal pieces are harder to find and, ironically, cheap electronics are more likely to be todays detritus. Also, in these days of budget airlines, it is not possible to transport huge metal tanks around as instruments, so we improvise in different ways. GC

Test Dept, Assembly of Disturbance, Red Gallery, London 2017

Test Dept, Return to New X, Amersham Arms, London 2016