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New Noise: In Conversation with Prison Behaviour’s Mark Greenwood

We sit down with the Liverpool-based experimentalist and talk about his latest album, ‘Secret Circus’.

Having performed live shows prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Greenwood’s Prison Behaviour project is indeed one of those bludgeoning encounters that leaves an inedible mark.

Other than fellow noise-terrorists and label mates, LONESAW, as far as the Merseyside landscape is concerned, you don’t come across such gale force intensity like this every day. Merging elements of Suicide and Swans, Prison Behaviour’s live performance is a welcoming change from what the majority of other local acts have to offer.

Prior to Greenwood’s involvement with Liverpool experimental acts, Kepla, Eyes, and – more recently – Cavalier Song, the Newcastle-born artist studied drama, which eventually led to performance art. Working in Norway and doing a residency in the United States in the city of Baltimore, Greenwood also worked alongside Serbian conceptual artist, Marina Abramovic.

However, it was music that would inevitably spark his desires and after dalliances with the aforementioned local luminaries, Greenwood conceived the Prison Behaviour project.

Prison Behaviour’s debut LP, last year’s Exertions (of Power), was a concoction of ideas that, at times, sounded like Kraftwerk engaging in an all in brawl with Mark E. Smith in some backwater boozer. The soundtrack of choice? A jukebox churning out underground no-wave classics.

Conveying everything that its namesake suggests, the Snake Fever EP followed earlier this year. Filled with dance-y earworms and cold-eyed observations, Prison Behaviour produced the kind of rigid juxtapositions that proved to be the perfect progression from its predecessor.

Which leads us to Secret Circus; further proof that Greenwood aims to push this project in new directions at every juncture.

It’s the most accessible set of songs Greenwood has produced under the Prison Behaviour moniker. Leaning on soundscapes of the past as the listener is showered with the sonic debris of ’70s/’80s experimental touchstones, Secret Circus is a 31-minute hybridisation of industrial, no-wave and pop.

The thinly barbed bedding of sound enables Greenwood to dispense his Machiavellian musings which have morphed and calcified over the past twelve months during lockdown – not least his frank observations of the Tory government which are firmly in his ire (the title track and the dub-inspired Clapping with One Hand).

On a Thursday morning earlier this month, Greenwood agreed to meet over a coffee on Lark Lane. Lasting just over an hour, we talked all things Prison Behaviour. Having not met Greenwood before, it’s an absolute pleasure to be in his company. His Geordie accent slightly blunted as a result of living in Liverpool for well over a decade, Greenwood is modest, engaging and thoughtful. It’s evident that he is very much committed to the cause and, indeed, always has been.

It’s refreshing to both see and hear.

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Sun 13: Sonically, Secret Circus feels like a pretty big departure from the Snake Fever EP.

Mark Greenwood: “Oh, really?”

S13: Yeah.

MG: “The songs were written in batches. Snake Fever was initially going to be the album, but the producer I was working with at the time said we should just pick the best, something like 10 to 12 [songs] and we should just pick the best and do an EP. So at the time we chose the best tracks that made the EP. But they were roughly the same process. Listening back to the EP, I did want to go more poppy, in a way, which I think the new album does. It’s certainly poppier than the previous album, Exertions (of Power), which was full on. Short, sharp. There are elements of that in Secret Circus, but for me it’s a lot more focused and it’s a lot cleaner in a sense, because I’m learning the instruments better and I’m learning how to record while I’m going along in the process. I’m surprised, because mainly I think the songs are from the same batch.”

S13: Interesting. I wanted to talk about Worms, because it feels like one of the darkest songs that you’ve written? How did that one come about?

MG: “I’ve got quite an eclectic listening taste. When I was a teenager, I loved thrash metal and heavy metal and I guess Worms is a result of listening to Slayer a lot. I was kind of listening to chord progressions on songs from Reign in Blood and thought they were all in a weird harmonic minor key. Sometimes it’s quite discordant and I wanted to write something with the same kind of BPM which is like 180 BPM, with these kind of really fast changes and structures.

“I find it hard to write about light things, really. People say, ‘Write something nice’, and I think on the new album if you look at the tracklist it’s pretty balanced in terms of light and darkness, so often it’ll go from a heavier, noisier one to a quiet, melodic one. I think lyrically as well on Worms, I wrote it quite quickly and I was writing about my cats. I’m kind of giving them voice about them bringing worms in the house.”

S13: It’s interesting that you reference industrial, because this could be like a pop version of a Godflesh song…

MG: “Yeah. I mean, I love Godflesh. I’ve seen them three or four times. I’m interested in a pop template, but I’m also interested in extreme music. Noise and industrial music, and kind of putting the two together, which I guess Kraftwerk we’re doing and in a way. Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle.”

S13: There’s a good juxtaposition with your lyrics, like you’re weaponizing pop by infiltrating that with your industrial influences of the past. That definitely comes through.

MG: (Laughs) “Yeah.”

S13: The title Secret Circus is an interesting one. It could have multiple meanings…

MG: “In some ways I think what inspired it is the current political landscape in the U.K. And to me, the present government, it is a secret circus. You know, behind number ten, which can be entertaining, but can also have a really horrific subtext with what’s happening. I don’t normally push political sides, but I do like to refer to it in some songs. Not all the songs, some of them are very surreal.

“I’m a big fan of Dada and Fluxus art movements and ways of writing that don’t necessarily involve narrative stuff. So not all songs have a particular political subtext, but the title of the album and the track, Secret Circus, definitely refer to the Tory party, I would say, and politicians in general, in terms of like… I think the public has a very warped perception of what actually goes on in those secret meetings.”

S13: Have politics always played a role in what Prison Behaviour does?

MG: “I think in terms of small P and big P politics. I wouldn’t say that I write protest songs. They are more like observations about power in general, and about surveillance incarceration, which I’m guessing you could tie to governments and political ideologies that alienate or exclude people.”

Prison Behaviour (photo credit: via the artist's Bandcamp page)

S13: Kind of like that violent power struggle Swans we’re kind of highlighting back in the ’80s?

MG: “Yeah.”

S13: I would say the title track is probably the poppiest on the record. It’s almost like, ‘Is this really a Prison Behaviour song?’ having seen you live, of course.

MG: “Yeah. I mean things are changing pretty rapidly on how I write and record, and I feel like I’m slowly progressing, but who knows what direction to go in next? I haven’t started writing a new one yet. I’m actually doing a kind of black metal side project at the minute, which I’m working on over the winter. Whether that will come to light, I don’t know, but it’s important to step back a bit. Then come the new year I’ll be coming up with new material.

“I’m definitely dedicated and committed to the Prison Behaviour stuff above anything. I think it’s good to take your foot off the gas a bit and let the process breathe.”

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S13: For me, the track Plastic Man underpins Secret Circus. Can you tell us tell me a bit about that one?

MG: “Again, that’s a pretty poppy song; very up tempo. But I wrote the lyrics when I was up in Newcastle, actually. I was talking to my dad, and we’d been to the pub and he kept nodding off. So there’s elements of my father in there. He’s certainly not a plastic man, but the plastic man refers to other musicians who are quick to jump on bandwagons. The term plastic man could be taken as an insult in a way, but it’s not for me. It’s about combining notes about my father and then combining them with being in the company of this musician who I thought had questionable motives around their music. So it’s an interesting one, more lyrically, I think. I guess I could be a plastic man, as well, in some ways. It’s cool how these things come together. It’s an interesting track.”

S13: Then there’s Listen and Repeat, which feels to me like Kraftwerk and Joy Division...

MG: “Yeah. That’s one that’s been hanging around a long time. The former producer didn’t want to work on it because it was too long, but I wanted to work on it and thought about adding lyrics. Then I added some vocals that seemed to detract from the song rather than add to it. I think it’s good to have an instrumental break on the album, so the listener can have a rest from my ranting! It was originally in French, Ecoute et Répète, which stuck in my mind from comprehensive school, because it’s the only French I could remember.” (laughs)

“A lot of the songs go back to that kind of age of being in institutions. It feels like a bit of a sunset in some ways. Like the end of a film when the credits are rolling, and I think it feels very French in some ways. I can imagine it being in a café like this, drinking coffee. It’s quite mellow, and almost fits Kraftwerk, also be a bit of a Jean Michel Jarre, hanging around in there.”

S13: What about Clapping With One Hand? There’s a Jackie Mittoo vibe here…

MG: (Laughs) “Yeah. Again, it’s about David Cameron, and the Tory party in general, you know, the clap for carers. But there’s a kind of narrative and a character assassination. “He used to be a diplomat / Now he wears a magic hat/ Setting off the fireworks.” Heralding in Brexit, which he didn’t really want to deal with himself, so whistling in the wind, and there’s actually whistling in the song.”

S13: It definitely fits in with the dub framework of the song.

MG: “I just pictured him being on some kind of tropical island somewhere enjoying all the money his made with all of his dodgy deals. I kind of just pictured him sitting on the beach in Bermuda with his costume and big spliff and setting the fireworks off.” (laughs)

S13: How did the alliance with SPINE come about?

MG: “In the very early days of Prison Behaviour, I had a show Jacaranda Phase One.”

S13: I think I was there. You were first on, I think?

MG: “Yeah. I kind of threw myself into doing gigs without really knowing what I was doing. It was really difficult, because I’d just become a solo artist, so there was quite a lot of pressure, but I think it sounded okay.

“Then SPINE approached me and said, ‘Yours is the kind of stuff we’re looking to collaborate with for gigs’. So I just met them through there. And then the relationship grew over the coming months. I ended up doing a show with them, but then lockdown happened. But we still maintained this relationship, so when they talked about doing the tape for the record label, they asked me and I said yes straight away, because it’s really difficult to find context for this kind of music. And I think SPINE provide that context, certainly for me where I have total control over the music and how it goes.

“I think the way the music industry is now, it makes sense to be a part of a stable, and feel like you have a community and a label connected to it. I don’t think prestige is the right word, but it makes it a bit more legitimate, rather than just being a solo artist and putting stuff online, because you just become part of a massive haystack.”

S13: Absolutely. With SPINE, they’re pretty much the driving force of what I would consider to be esoteric music in Liverpool. How do you see it pushing forward post-COVID?

MG: “Well, they are doing QUARRY and I think the things coming out of there are really exciting. It’s great to see these autonomous projects pop up. Like you say, it’s much more kind of esoteric, experimental and harsh sounding things to come out Liverpool, and that’s great to be a part of that. But it’s also great to see those guys growing and I’m happy to help out in some respects with that. Hanging around with Chrissy [Connor – label founder], he’s a great guy. Jez [Halewood-Leagas] and Ben [Bones]. Then Jack [Wait] does the sound. I worked with him when I was mastering the album and it was a pleasure to work with. They’re all great people.

“I’ve been doing this for years now, in the experimental scene, and what I have noticed is you get these autonomous projects. Very often they are temporary; they’ll pop up and disappear and pop up and disappear. Normally they disappear because the landlord puts the rent up, or the state decides to clamp down on them, or whatever. I really hope that’s not the case with QUARRY. I hope they can go on and have a good run at it and become the cornerstone of the experimental music scene in the UK.”

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S13: So you were in Cavalier Song. Given there were other band members, have your songwriting methods changed as a solo artist?

MG: “Lyrically, no. I still use the same processes when I’m writing. In Cavalier Song it was very different, because they were caught in the music and I wouldn’t have very much to do with the music. So I’d be providing the spoken word against soundscapes rather than writing songs and lyrics. So there’s a big difference there, but in terms of the process, for me, it’s the same. The process might be a little bit more immediate and playful with Prison Behaviour, but I would say there are elements of the Prison Behaviour stuff that kind of reflect back on the Cavalier Song stuff in some ways.

“I guess they are different. When I’m writing music or lyrics, the process is always the same. It’s mainly about words, stripping them down to fit into the format, or the other way round. I think musically, Cavalier Song were very different. Luke Mawdsley who went about writing music a very different way and probably a much more technical way than I do, which I love. His work is incredible. But I was always asking them to try and be a bit more poppy. I always used to say, ‘Come on, let’s write some more pop songs’. Those guys are way too serious for that sort of nonsense. (laughs)

“It was a very enjoyable time with Cavalier Song, with some fantastic musicians.”

S13: Someone said to me the other day when we were discussing Secret Circus that Mark Greenwood is a musical lifer. What would you say to that?

MG: “Well, you know, I’ve always made music, it’s always been the kind of primary thing and I’ve been in loads of bands over the years. I was even a Dubstar in the 90s for a very short time. They were called Jones at the time. We toured for a few months and then they kicked me out of the band and replaced me with a synthesiser, which is quite ironic. And then they became a Dubstar, and of course, they became massive and were on Top of the Pops.

“From leaving Dubstar, I was in a number of punks banks and toured Europe in the U.K.. Then I ended up leaving Newcastle in 1999 and moving to London to study drama. I studied that for three years and completely knocked music on the head at the time and studied performance. And then I went into performance and started to do performance art and live art shows but they still had sonic/musical elements, albeit, with a more experimental sensibility.

“When I moved to Liverpool, I met John Davies from Kepla. He’d heard some of my poetry and asked if I fancied collaborating, so I collaborated with him in this punk band called Eyes, with Sam Wiehl on drums. So I thought, ‘Oh fuck, I’m doing music again’. Through those guys, I got in touch with Cavalier Song and started working with them, and through Cavalier Song I started working with the Higher Authorities, so now I’m trapped back in music world! But I really don’t mind because the music allows me to bring text, performance and visual art together.”

Secret Circus is out now via SPINE. Purchase from Bandcamp.

Prison Behaviour plays QUARRY on Saturday, 30/10/2022. Tickets can be purchased here.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

4 replies on “New Noise: In Conversation with Prison Behaviour’s Mark Greenwood”

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