Recently, I introduced S4E readers to Purest Spiritual Pigs, a collective of artists involved in a number of audio / visual projects and spearheaded by Helena Thompson. While I previously concentrated on the music side of things with the darkly seething album Body Misses, with such a vast array of contributing artists and projects to its credit, I definitely thought it was worth investigating a little further into the world of PSP.
Helena was kind enough to grant S4E the following interview so that I could learn more about how the project came about, where it’s going and everything in between.
Helena Thompson : Photo by Jaime Carrera
S4E: Can you tell us a bit about your background, when you first started playing music and what (or who) inspired you to become involved in music?
Helena: I began really listening to music as early as the age of 5. It would take me to another place and, at times, would help me to fully feel where I was. I’d find a song that I really liked and play the record over and over, singing and sometimes acting it out. It was something I did alone. The school I went to as a kid didn’t have music classes and nobody in my family played an instrument, so it took a long time for me to realize that I could actually make music myself. I started to see it as a possibility around the age of 14. I bumbled my way around trying to understand music and different instruments. I started out thinking I’d play guitar, but became more interested in drumming. I didn’t really start performing until I was about 20. I was doing a solo thing called One Human. I’d play all these different instruments and sing. I used visuals too (projections, props etc.).
S4E: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote – what was it about and do you ever still play it?
Helena: I was 15 when I wrote it. It was a bit new wave, and about not getting what I wanted out of a relationship, so saying, well piss off then. Believe, me you wouldn’t really want to hear it now.
S4E: How have your experiences with other projects (such as Her Majesty The Baby*) affected the way you work now?
Helena: Spending several years in different bands helped me to understand different ways of composing and helped me hone my skills as a drummer. Now, when I begin writing a new song for Purest Spiritual Pigs, more often than not, I start from the drums up, then add melody. I think writing that way has an influence on the outcome of the sound.
S4E: On Body Misses, you take on a variety of roles, including vocals and percussion, do you favor any one in particular, and are there any other instruments you’d like to learn / master?
Helena: Drums are my obsession and I’ll always work at furthering my skills as a drummer. Singing is very satisfying to me. It’s very cathartic. I’m still discovering what I can do with my voice. I don’t feel like I have a single voice. I feel more like the song content manifests it’s own voice. As far as my guitar and bass playing, it’s more of a tool for me to write. I don’t consider myself a bassist or guitarist by any means, and often use effects on them to turn them into something different. On Blood-let, I put the bass on my lap and played it with a stick. I’ll continue to mess around with them, but when it comes to playing them with any depth, I’d rather leave it to the other “pigs” that have more to offer. As far as wanting to learn or master any other instruments, there’s always an intrigue, but I’ve had to ignore it, because I’ve learned that spreading myself too thin makes it hard to complete any one thing.
S4E: I’m intrigued by the concept of different voices. Do you find that each voice is unique and distinct from song to song, or are there certain voices that you recognise reappearing for other songs?
Helena: In the beginning stages of writing the vocals melodies, it’s more stream of conciousness. Once I really start to structure the song, then I may fine tune the vocals. To answer your question, I do think there are ways that I express myself vocally that will reappear from song to song, but it does feel pretty unconcious. It usually begins with a melody in my head, either triggered by a thought, if I’m out roaming around, or triggered by something I’m musically working on in the studio. I’ll start singing it out loud, and that’s when the tones and inflections appear. As that forms, the character of voice will manifest. At one point, when I was practicing the vocal part to record DAMN, I felt like I was a singer in a gospel choir. I had no idea where it came from. That’s not in my background. I even questioned if I should go with it or not, but then, I thought “screw it“, that’s what’s coming out, let it go. Looking back, it made sense that the vocal turned out like that. I began writing DAMN while riding alone on my bicycle across the US, through the Cascade mountains in washington. It’s about being overwhelmed by the natural beauty there.
S4E: Where did the name for Purest Spiritual Pigs come from?
Helena: About 15 years ago I was having a conversation with Dorothy (Wang). She was talking about someone and said, “they think they’re the purest spiritual beings”. Initially, I thought she said purest spiritual pigs. I filed that one away. I decided to use it for this project because it has no specific meaning. It vaguely lends itself to many interpretations. It makes me think of a few different things: one being the hypocrisy that exsists in religion, another, the idea that a pig could actually be more evolved than a human.
S4E: PSP encompasses a variety of artistic disciplines, can you tell us a bit about the other projects PSP has been involved with?
Helena: In addition to music, I’m very interested in visual, performing and conceptual art. I started Purest Spiritual Pigs as a means to explore all of them. Back in 2007, we worked on a performance titled SHREDS, In Shreds, I gave one to two minute pieces of music, to a group of choreographers. The music came from remnants of PSP songs. Just the same as a tailor has bits and pieces of fabric left over when making a suit, I had remnants of music. The choreographers then created work to the “shreds” of music and performed them in a theater. I’m also working on a sound intervention titled FOR PEOPLE NOT ON PHONES. The first installation of it took place in Providence, RI. The process is to record the sounds of a public environment, take them back to the studio, turn them into soundtracks and discreetly place the soundtracks back into their original locations (via a playback device). The volume is set very low, and audible only to those who are present in their environment and not distracted by their gadgets. It’s my response to the oblivion created by the use of portable technology, i.e. cell phones etc. The plan is to do this in multiple cities around the country and eventually in other countries.
S4E: What does a full-blown PSP show involve?
Helena: The show we’re working on right now involves some of the different genres that PSP works in. It will bring in: live performance of the songs from Body Misses (performed by me and Natasha Hassett), the second installment of SHREDS (which in addition to choreography will involve video as well), improvised soundtrack to video, and some performance art.
S4E: Do you have any pre-show rituals to prepare yourself for going on stage?
Helena: It depends, usually some drum rudiments and vocal exercises. I like to do something that’s physically exhausting too, if I can, like run around the block, or do a bunch of pull-ups. That helps take the edge off the adrenaline.
Photo by Jaime Carrera
S4E: Does the visual side of PSP play an important role in the music, and / or do they inspire one another?
Helena: It really depends on the piece. Sometimes the visual aspect can be more of a textual backdrop. Other times it can be an improvisational tool, like the piece that Dorothy, Anita (Bowen) and I did in San Francisco at Black and Blue Tattoo. I took Anita’s photos, blended them with some of my video, and Dorothy and I played a live improvised soundtrack to the video. I’ve also started working with Sarah (Gordon) to work some choreography into my own performance. In this case, the visual of my movement would be used to fuse the audience with the content of the song.
S4E: The bio mentions that ultimately, the goal is to amass many artists with which to collaborate, how did that idea develop?
Helena: I wanted to have a project that I could work on all the time, no matter what. This project enables me to collaborate with other artists and work alone. I love both, and this makes it possible.
S4E: What would you say are the main benefits as well as drawbacks (if any) for working with different artists on different songs?
Helena: I love the new energy that comes with working with multiple artists. You never run out of fuel to feed the fire. There are lots of great artists that for different reasons, usually financial, don’t have the means to get a lot of their work out there. I love being able to expose that. I also learn a lot working with different people. As far as drawbacks, In terms of music, the only thing that could potentially be a drawback is the songs all sounding like different bands. I’ve tried to counter that by inviting artists who have some common threads. I also think that vocals are the first thing that most people recognize, so I’ve made it a point to be the main vocalist. On Shenti (Body Misses) N.G. (Yrizarry) does a back up vocal in the intro and from the last chorus on. I love what he does and wanted to have him even more present on the song, but I think at least at this point, I need to keep that consistency. I’ve also done that with the drums. I do all the drumming on the CDs.
S4E: Do the ideas – for songs or otherwise – develop first, or do you find someone to collaborate with and let things evolve from there?
Helena: On Body Misses, Lenny (Gonzalez) and I wrote UNSTEADY and YOU INSPIRE ME. I’d sent him a drum file, he’d mash it up into a sample, or work up some magic on his guitar, I’d stamp it with some vocals and send it back, he’d chew it up a bit, spit it back, I’d mess with the structure, he’d mess with the structure and eventually we had two songs. That was the first time I wrote any of this material with anyone else. It was great. I love working with Lenny. He’s a brilliant artist. I know I can always trust what he’s going to do. With the other material on Body Misses, I had already written the songs. Dorothy, Natasha (Hassett), N.G., and Cody (Bourdot) added their parts later. The next album will have more collaborative song writing. I’ve written with both Dorothy and N.G. in former bands and have been working with Natasha on live stuff. They’re all strongly creative, so I’m looking forward to writing with them too.
S4E: Is there anyone in particular you would really like to work with given the chance, and / or do you have a concept (musical or otherwise) you’d like to bring to fruition if you found the right artist?
Helena: Why, do you have an in? If so, the list is going to get very long. Any members of: Neubauten, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Legendary Pink Dots, Skinny Puppy, Swans, Patti Smith, Type O Negative, Marianne Faithfull, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Echo And The Bunnymen, Psychic TV. That’s just a few and doesn’t even include the visual performing and conceptual artists.
S4E: Do you have a favourite cover song to play live?
Helena: As of yet, PSP hasn’t done any covers. I’ve been thinking about it though.
S4E: PSP is descibed as being on the dark side of rock, and lyrically Body Misses takes a look at some dark subject matter, is it a conscious decision to highlight those sort of things?
Helena: It’s more that those are things that make me want to write. To a large degree it’s a therapeutic outlet. I tend to write about things that really move me emotionally.
S4E: Do you think women in rock have anything left to prove?
Helena: I definitely think that women have proven to be just as competent in this arena. I think the numbers are imbalanced, but I see that as a societal problem, not a matter of there not being able women. The mainsteam media doesn’t like to see pretty women spilling their guts and thrashing about stage. They want them to pose like models and sex kittens. The media has a lot of impact on what boys and girls grow up like. As an 11 year old, I was lucky enough to have caught one of the few moments in mainstream media where they portrayed a woman as something other than a toy. I happened to see Patti Smith on Saturday Night Live doing songs from Horses. I know that had a huge effect on the way I was able to eventually perceive myself.
S4E: You mentioned Patti Smith, who is noted for poetry and visual art as well as music, as someone you’d like to work with; would that be in any particular capacity?
Helena: Any capacity, I’m more familiar with her literature and music. Thus far, I’ve done all of the lyrical writing in PSP, but I’d love to see what would come out of me singing words that she wrote. Or doubling up on vocals on a song. I guess I could break my own rule about being the main voice if she wanted to sing with me.
S4E: Can you tell us anything about what the future might hold for PSP?
Helena: To be the largest band ever! But seriously… Ideally I’d like to work with a record company and or distributor. I’ve been doing all aspects of releasing this CD and the last EP. Although it’s an interesting process, I’d much rather leave that to the professionals, so I can focus on new material. In addition, now that Natasha and I are starting to play songs live, that will open the doors for touring. European’s seem to be responding well to this project, so I’d like to bring it there as well.
S4E: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know, about yourself, PSP or otherwise?
Helena: Because of the scope of Purest Spiritual Pigs and all the people involved, sometimes it’s difficult to give a thorough idea of every artist’s contribution. I’d like to be clear that although I direct the thrust of this project, that it is the way it is, because of every collaborator. I’ve asked them to work in this project because I love what they do and I know that what they will contribute will make this a better thing. You can find detailed information about the other “pigs” on the Purest Spiritual Pigs web site and on the liner notes of the CDs.
On that note, S4E extends particular kudos to the following artists who contributed to the album Body Misses, linked to respective websites where available. Find out more about all artists involved in various aspects of PSP here. You can also check out a number of performance videos here.
Lenny Gonzalez • Umberto Crenca • Dorothy Wang • Natasha Hassett
Cody Bourdot • N.G. Yrizarry • Susan Clausen
I’d also like to thank Helena Thompson for granting this interview and taking the time to give such extensive insight to her work with PSP and beyond.
The album Body Misses can be purchased on CD or in digital format at:
All images are used by kind permission and are subject to ©
*Her Majesty The Baby were a popular San Francisco rock band in the 90’s. They worked with producer Lenny Kaye (former guitarist of The Patti Smith Group), played SXSW, SF Battle OF The Bands and opened for several major acts such as PJ Harvey, Fugazi, The Pixies, and Throwing Muses.