Interview

Ergo Phizmiz: decoding the latest album from the underground radio artist

From Mystic Meg to Paul Potts, digging into Fuck Men Winky Face

The forest floor of Spotify is littered with albums by zero-budget artists like Ergo Phizmiz; or would be if any other artist was like him, which they’re not.

In 2018, he dropped a new collection of tracks called Fstarstark Mstarn Winkyface onto streaming services. That it was missed by most (myself included until a CDR of it reached our office last month) can be levelled at Ergo’s prolific cross-medium output almost as much as his not being able to afford the sponsor spots and playlist inclusions essential for a successful release campaign.

It’s practically impossible to know how many albums of music Ergo has made since his 2004 collection of Aphex Twin covers in the style of a vaudevillian orchestra. Discogs counts 38, but excludes his most recent. As Ergo told Wire magazine in 2013: “My old website had a page that had endless hours of downloadable music… I really embraced the free music thing when it first started to happen on the internet.” It’s little wonder that he shared a 7-inch with R Stevie Moore in 2011, called Food And War.

The following year Ergo released the closest thing he’s had to a ‘break-through’ record: Eleven Songs encapsulated his ability to conjure a DIY project full of modesty and charm but also grand ambition, convincingly on this occasion in the vein of the late ’60s Canterbury folk scene. His latest record is far uglier, but we’ll get to that.

“Radio is my darling,” he tells me with a smile, at a pub close to the high-rise London flat where he made Fstarstark Mstarn Winkyface. And when you consider all the things that Ergo Phizmiz is (writer, composer, collagist, dada artist, surrealist, theatre and opera maker, “Paul McCartney’s favourite meat substitute”, as his blog has it), radio producer is his bread and butter, and his constant. He’s been making radio shows from scratch for his entire career, for art stations in the UK, like Resonance FM and Soundart Radio, the BBC on a couple of occasions, and a lot in Germany, where the medium is still well funded, fully appreciated and considered more than a stepping stone to television.

Of course, when Ergo says that he’s a radio producer, he doesn’t mean that he mans the desk for a host to play records and take calls every now and then from the listening public; he creates fantastical audio adventures bound only by his own imagination, full of uncanny stories and inventive sound effects – cosmic, mind-bending radio plays, like his story for the BBC’s Between the Ears about a man recreating the Paul Klee painting Twittering Machine in a town hall, only for Klee himself to bust in and take him on a hot air balloon ride through his artworks.

“I’ve got this theory about obsolete media,” says Ergo. “There are lots of art forms where their lifespan has been cut short… silent cinema is one of them, because I think it is a completely different art form to sound cinema. Radio is the same thing, because it’s the place where, without budget of any kind, you can say, ‘this scene is going to happen in a living room in Bradford, and the next scene is going to take place on the surface of Jupiter.’ With no money at all, you can do it. But because television happened when it did, the progress of radio as an art form got its head chopped off, so our perception of radio is where either DJs talk or there’s radio plays. I think radio should be more along the lines of how filmmakers work, creating visions. I’m a proponent of quick, cheap art, and I think radio is the optimum place of artistic freedom.”

Most recently, Ergo’s love for radio has manifested itself in his own “weird, avant garde community radio station”, on air for two weeks at the time that I met him, launched with his collaborating partner Lottie Depresstival Bowater. Wolverton FM is based at Wolverton Manor on the Isle of Wight, where Ergo and Lottie live in one of the out buildings. Its intention is to be “a radio station where it’s possible to do anything”, and it’s already attracting avant garde program makers from New Zealand and America, even if the local community is taking a little longer to embrace the station’s schedule. (Submissions for new shows are welcome here.)

It’s a lot to be getting on with, with or without Ergo’s childhood obsession with Gilbert and Sullivan manifesting itself into an ongoing string of weird and wonderful operas, written, performed and produced by Ergo. Made possible thanks to his and Lottie’s Avanthardcollective (a group of volunteers with members aged 10 to 67, “largely made up of autistic people, trans people, people outside the mainstream of the system”), Ergo’s currently working on a Gilbert and Sullivan opera that features Michael Winner at the lead character. Past works have included an opera in which Chris Evans is so tormented by callers on his radio show that he jumps out of the window. I could go on.

Surrealism, you’ve probably guessed, lives in all of Ergo’s work, including Fstarstark Mstarn Winkyface, described on his blog and bandcamp page in pointed hyperbole as a “blisteringly brilliant barnacled behemoth of a record, a grand Panjandrum of juddering, stamping, tear-yourself-apart-and-reconstitute-yourself-like-the-corned-beef-you-are hardcore axe wielding cockpop.” Its building blocks are an analogue drum machine, muddy, unimpressed, half-spoken vocals and digitally manipulated guitars that together make Ergo feel like an early incarnate Beck angry at the world. Within its bubbling broth of climate change, fascism, middle class values and nihilism, are a bunch of intriguing reference points, Easter eggs and mysteries that Ergo obligingly casts some light on.

Fstarstark Mstarn Winkyface

When I ask Ergo to explain what the hell the record title means, I don’t even know how to pronounce it, except for its “Winkyface” ending. He tells me: “It’s pronounced, F-Star-Stark-M-Starn-Winkyface. It’s because initially it had a different title and I tried to release it on the internet but it couldn’t get through any of the obscenity regulations on the social networks etc. Because it’s called Fuck Men Winky Face.”

This was poor research on my part: a cursory Google of the record will return a second of Ergo’s bandcamp pages featuring the album alone, where it still has its original title, as well as its original artwork – not the picture of Ergo’s four-year-old daughter sticking her middle finger up (“she’d hurt her finger and walked around with it sticking up like that for the whole day”) but a photograph of Donald Trump shaking hands with Kim Jong Un emblazoned Fuck Men 😉.

“Obviously it being a political statement rather than towards everyone who’s a man,” he says. “What the album, to an extent, is my detachment from the world of men. Obviously, it’s a very anxious record, and it’s like a soap opera as well, going through all of these archetypes.

“I wanted to do something that reflected the atmosphere of the time, because most of my work is engaged in fantasy, or putting together ridiculous or disparate ideas and making something new out of it, and with this I wanted to just do something that was really direct. We were also living in that flat, looking out of the window at all of the car crashes that were happening everyday; all the people that were screaming on the street, society crumbling. I wanted to make an album that sounded like the bits of the brickwork were falling out. The mess of it all.”

Walerian Borowczyk

The opening track on the copy of the album that I have is mysteriously missing from all streaming platforms, which is a shame, because ‘Walerian Borowczyk is Dead’ is perhaps the finest piece of collage pop that Ergo Phizmiz has made. You can at least hear it on YouTube, where its sample crackles like the type once mined by the Avalanches.

The deceased in the title, Ergo tells me, was a Polish animator-turned-pornographer, operating from the late ’40s until the late ’80s, indeed dead, since 2006.

“It ties together lots of strands of my work because I did loads of work about animation,” says Ergo. “Again, going back to my radio work, I do think the way to treat it is like animation – putting together small fragments of things to create illusions. Walerian Borowczyk is my favourite animator because even in his pornographic films there’s something kind of terse and removed in them. They’re more about looking at strange beauty.”

The track is “a gentle plea for people to have more fun than they’re currently having”, built around a dismembered choir and hook of ‘Walerian Borowczyk is dead/ And no one wants to have sex anymore’.

Paul Potts

Fuck Men ; ) also features a song called ‘Paul Potts’, who, I’m sure you’ll you’ll never forget, won the first series of Britain’s Got Talent in 2007. He was like a proto-Susan Boyle, who had a film made about his life starring James Corden. Potts’s track is a slimy electro number about mundanity and the love a man can have for his dog. An easy one to decode, this, or so I thought.

“Yeah, this is a coincidence,” says Ergo. “I liked the name Paul Potts because it sounds like [Cambodian dictator] Pol Pot. It granted the song some more weight when I found out about the Paul Potts you mean.

Ergo says the song is about, “just a guy that I’ve probably met lots and lots of times. The whole album has been attacking masculinity, but the song is about this guy’s actual gentle heart – he really loves his dog. It’s about finding that little light of humanity.”

Mystic Meg

At least it’s impossible to mistakenly identify Mystic Meg – the celebrity medium who was a household name in the early ’90s as the National Lottery’s official astronomer, these days scoring a similarly extra naff horoscope gig for Sun Bingo. Putting on his dada cap, Ergo pieced together the lyrics to this peppy number of nonsense by reconstituting Meg’s own words from a tarot book of hers that he had lying around the house.

“I’ve got a problem with the whole think positive thing,” says Ergo. “Because I think that thinking positive, historically, does not work.”

Lean in and you can hear Ergo babble, “Empty of feelings, your true love can grow, if your heart is still free.” Definitely sounds like Mystic Meg.

Meconium

Ergo admits that Fstarstark Mstarn Winkyface was not an enjoyable album to make; and you could say rightly so considering its overarching theme of toxic masculinity and its various subplots of social ills. A track like ‘John and Sarah Are Just Like You’ though, with its cranky indie guitar and call-and-response hook, is, despite being about climate change, danceable wonky pop, and positively euphoric compared to ‘Meconium Suicide’ – the album’s most aggressive moment; the sound of Suicide colliding with Atari end-of-level boss music.

I didn’t know what Meconium was until I Googled it. Don’t do that. And look away now if you don’t want to know that it’s the first faecal matter to come from a newborn.

“That track is a light-hearted song about aggressive arseholes,” says Ergo. “It’s aimed at people who go on stag dos in Kraków.”

Photos: Lottie Depresstival Bowater

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