While he might be curating an online archive for his maverick Severed Heads outfit, Tom Ellard is not a man to rest on his laurels. “Don’t you want to jump full-bodied into the future?” he asks

In 1981, I made a compilation,” begins Tom Ellard. “I asked anyone who had ever recorded anything to send stuff in. I made a set of three cassettes and called it ‘One Stop Shopping’, which was a stupid name. It featured 61 bands and sold for $6.50. It was like, ‘Here you go, here’s a fuckload of music’. What was interesting was how many of the acts who handed tracks in had really stupid names. And a lot of them were pretty funny.”

As stupid band names go, it’s fair to say that no one is more in on the joke than the Severed Heads’ long-standing ringleader. The idiosyncratic Australian outliers to the UK’s flourishing industrial scene began making music in 1979 as Mr & Mrs No Smoking Sign. Initially a duo formed by his schoolmates Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright, Ellard joined soon after, and their revised name, Severed Heads, stuck.

“It was supposed to be a joke that no one would fall for,” he laughs. “But the Americans got a hold of it, and Americans are true believers. They really believe in things.”

For a band with a cult-like status among fans of the weirder end of the electronic music spectrum, the story behind the name is part of Severed Heads’ folklore, but it’s one that bears repeating. What has always set the group apart from their English counterparts is the sense of fun ingrained deep into their strange tape loops, discordant synthesiser sounds, punchy beats and penchant for pop hooks.

“I take what I do very seriously,” admits Ellard. “But at the same time, if someone thinks it’s a bit of a joke, I’m quite happy to say, ‘Yes, of course’. It can be completely serious but completely tongue-in-cheek at the same time. The English always seem a little bit wistfully confused between those two extremes. And they seem to feel bad about being silly.
“Throbbing Gristle used to have this thing,” he continues. “They’d say, ‘Is the world as sad as it seems?’. And we thought that was bullshit. We always thought, ‘No, is the world as ridiculous as it seems?’. They wanted to convey angst, whereas we were much more interested in the ridiculousness.”

The story of Severed Heads stretches across four decades and more than 20 albums. It’s been a colourful journey for Ellard, who became the group’s frontman after both Fielding and Wright departed the band in the early 1980s. In 1979, he was still just a 17-year-old school kid who’d got into collecting tape recorders. At the time, the memory of disco was still floating about the Sydney suburbs but it was soon overtaken by coldwave, a sound that struck him as a completely different idea of reality.

“With some people, quite early in life, they think, ‘Is this all there is?’. The world is something you either have to take as being, ‘That’s what you get’, or you can try and change it. Some people become poets, some people become murderers, and some people become politicians. I think poets and musicians and people like that reinterpret their own part of the world into a pattern that suits them.”

Fielding had a synthesiser, and together with Ellard’s tape recorders, it was enough to form the backbone of Severed Heads’ first record, which they skipped classes to make.

“When we got to the studio, they asked if we had a record label,” he recalls. “The woman at the front desk was eating a sandwich from a white paper bag with a label on it. So Richard just ripped the label off it and said, ‘There you go, there’s the label’. So we were incredibly ignorant but also incredibly enthusiastic.”
Fast-forward to the mid-80s and Severed Heads had six albums under their belt. ‘Since The Accident’ and ‘City Slab Horror’, from 1983 and 1985 respectively, marked their first major label releases. There was a world tour where they were touted as “Australia’s most innovative electronic band”. According to Ellard, mainstream success was always elusive, though he does concede that “throughout the 1980s we became more popular”. What did that mean for the band?

“We had to become more sophisticated in the ways we irritated people,” he fires straight back, laughing.

In conversation, Ellard frequently refers to his music-making process in terms of turmoil, havoc and creating chaos, but part of the complex beauty of Severed Heads is that they were never averse to a pretty tune.

“I’m not afraid of popularity,” he agrees. “To become popular is a very good goal and it allows you to then be able to do things. In 1986, for whatever reason, my management got me a deal with a publisher. I was in America, in a hotel room in Atlanta, and there was a knock at the door. Somebody delivered an envelope and in it was a cheque for $120,000. But that immediately got turned into the creative tools that energised the next album. It was never squandered. We never just took it and drank the whole lot. It always came back into the service of the music.”

Severed Heads officially disbanded in 2019 following a farewell tour across Australia, Europe and the USA. Seattle-based label Medical Records have recently reissued three of the band’s 1980s albums – ‘Since The Accident’, ‘City Slab Horror’ and ‘Rotund For Success’, from 1989, with Ellard on remastering duties. He’s still very much in service to the band’s music but also resolute about looking forward.

“An argument I have with people at the moment is that everybody is so fucking fascinated with the past,” he exclaims. “They want retro. Everything is retro. And I’m going, ‘Don’t you want to jump full-bodied into the future and cause some shit with what we have now? Why do you want to live where things are already done?’. It’s all about comfort, and I don’t understand comfort in music. It’s not about comfort.”

So what does he think music should be about?

“It’s about blowing things up,” he says. “We started with cassette recorders and by the time we got to ‘Rotund’ I’d traded up to a 16-track recorder, which was just amazing. Sixteen tracks meant you could have an orchestral way of thinking about things. Technology is not the point, but you have to dance with it. It’s not about, ‘I can do this’. It’s about, ‘What can I do with this?’.

“Everything that came along with each of these records was like, ‘Here’s a door that’s opened, so what’s in this room? Here’s some potential for fun. This is really going to fuck people up’. When sampling came along in 1985, for example, I went to England and one of the electronic music magazines was reviewing the first sampler and let me play with it. I was excited by all the kinds of terrible havoc I could cause with this thing.”

There’s something in the way that Ellard talks about technology, nostalgia and the friction between present and past that seems to frustrate and intrigue him in equal measure. He’s pleased about the reissues and is eager to make Severed Heads’ back catalogue as accessible as possible. What he’s not quite so keen on is vinyl.

“Vinyl is a silly thing,” he declares. “It’s the idea of having to have an artefact that has nothing to do with the music. It’s like having something for your wall. I used to walk home past this house and inside I could see one of our albums framed on the wall.”

Which one was it?

“Ah, it was ‘Clifford Darling, Please Don’t Live In The Past’, which was particularly apt,” he laughs. This sort of nostalgia paradox is something Ellard is exploring as part of his current project, an online archive called Nilamox. With the tagline, “The Future Of Your Nostalgia”, the site hosts the Severed Heads Museum, which catalogues an array of music, images and videos. Does this make him a curator, and what kind of story does he want to tell?

“You’re a curator when you make an album,” he affirms. “An album is an exhibition and a way of making a museum of those years. So with this museum, I’m trying to be honest. Actually, ‘honest’ sounds like a very pretentious word. But I’ve seen other bands where the fanbase is in charge 
of keeping them alive. The fans will always put their heart and soul into it, but they won’t have the insight that only the musicians themselves can have. It’s a sense of duty…”

He pauses.

“Maybe the word honest is correct. That’s part of being a musician – you need to document.”

For Ellard, the impetus to commemorate and celebrate the band’s history is particularly apt at this moment, with the death of former Severed Heads member Garry Bradbury in January. Bradbury and Ellard worked together on four albums, beginning with 1981’s ‘Clean’ through to 1986’s ‘Clifford Darling…’ retrospective.

“Gary had this amazing collection of artefacts and he was still working on music, so I’m going to gather up all of the sound recordings he’s got there and preserve them all,” says Ellard. “I’ve had a lot of success with preserving the Severed Heads work. I bought a digital recorder in 1984 and started backing it all up. I’ve got this hard drive with everything on it, as far back as 1979, so that’s why I’m able to do all these reissues.”

As well as maintaining the Severed Heads archives, 
Ellard has recently got into video games, blurring the distinction between album and computer programme.

“In 1994, me and a couple of others said we were going to make a video game. Back then it got a write-up in Nintendo magazine. We were actually going to make a game based around JG Ballard’s novel ‘High-Rise’. And then ‘Doom’ came out with all the 3D shooter stuff and completely blasted our idea out of the water. I spent year after year trying to catch up with that whole thing. Why? Because I don’t think an album should be something which is a straight line from one end to another. I think you should be able to walk around it and be able to sit within it and navigate within it.”

In 2013, the dream was finally realised when he created a computer game called ‘Hauntology House’ for the Adelaide Festival. At the time, it was his vision of what an album should be, but with an ever-inquisitive mind, Ellard is yet again already one step ahead.

“The moment you use the word ‘album’, you’ve lost,” he insists. “The concept of an album is the thing that has kept us under the heel of history for all this time. We should stop talking about albums – they’re gone, finished. And once you do that, you’ve got a hope for the future.”

Instead, he’s now focused on a project called LUNA, a virtual architectural space inspired by early 20th century World Expositions and, in particular, the 1939-40 World Fair in New York.

“A World Fair used to be a huge thing,” he explains. “In the 1930s, all the countries in the world would come together and build a ‘white city’. It was the future, like ‘The Jetsons’. The thing they didn’t understand was that when you build the perfect place, the imperfect place forms next to it. Wherever you’ve got Jekyll, you’re going to end up with Hyde. And that’s what happened with all the World’s Fairs – you build something pristine and all the sleaze builds up too.”

He points to the poetry of yin and yang, or good and evil, as a part of human psychology he finds endlessly interesting. We spend some time discussing architecture, modernity and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection, ‘A Coney Island Of The Mind’. Which leads us, funnily enough, to talking about amusement parks.

“In Australia, we have two historic amusement parks called Luna Parks,” he says. “There’s one in Melbourne and one in Sydney. Luna Park in Sydney is a very beloved place. But Melbourne’s Luna Park took on a dark air. Around the Second World War there was a series of murders there. Amusement parks are the fulcrum of intense human psychology. What other topic would you want to talk about after you’ve learned about that? They’re fear and 
joy brought together.”

He has a point, as anyone who has been terrified on a roller-coaster will attest. It makes sense that a musician would feel a kinship with these places. After all, his journey through Severed Heads has been something of a roller-coaster ride itself. Yet it’s the dying out of amusement parks that fascinates Tom Ellard the most – and there’s that nostalgia factor again.

“People are nostalgic for trivial things,” he says. “If you’re going to be nostalgic, be nostalgic for things that are at the edge of their existence. And recover them.”

‘Rotund For Success’ is out on Medical. For Severed Heads’ online archive, visit nilamox.com

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