Artist Spotlight: Nurse With Wound

Nurse With Wound is the main musical project of Steven Stapelton. Originally formed as a trio with John Fothergill and Heman Pathak in 1978, the ‘band’ was quickly whittled down to Stapleton by 1981. Since then, Stapleton has worked with a large ensemble of various rotating English weirdos under the banner. Frequent collaborators include David Tibet of Current 93 and other members of what David Keenan termed ‘England’s Hidden Reverse’ in his 2003 book of the same name. But Nurse With Wound has also released music with Stereolab, Jim O’Rourke, and Sunn O))).

It would be inadequate to explain Nurse With Wound in terms of the sound that the produce. It would also be fairly difficult. In general, describing them as part of the ‘industrial’ idiom seems most convenient. However, they frequently veer off into more formal musique concrete sounds, or more drifting ambient pieces. Experimental, broadly, as useless as that is. In any case, that’s not really the lure. Similar to acts such as Sun City Girls or the aforementioned Current 93, it’s not so much about a sound as it is about an aesthetic. In the case of Nurse With Wound, that aesthetic is firmly rooted in dada and surrealism. Beyond that is the clearly unquenchable soul of a truly outsider auteur. Nothing captures that point better than this 30 minute documentary from 2004 by Brainwashed:

Here, you can watch Stapelton’s own version of cribs, as he takes you around his sprawling estate, showing of the buildings he cobbled together by hand, his children, and attempts to hypnotize a chicken.

Nurse With Wound, like apparently everything else I do for these, does not lend itself to a concise description. I’ll focus on a few key albums, and then wrap up with a couple bits and bobs, and then leave it to you to sift through Stapelton’s vast discography if you’re so inclined.
Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table Between a Sowing Machine and an Umbrella

Several important points of interest about Chance Meeting.

a) The backstory to this record is an important bit of Nurse With Wound lore. Stapleton was working as a sign painter at a studio when he got to talking with the engineer, Nick Rogers. Rogers expressed frustration that he studio was only pulling in radio spots for recording, and said he wanted to work with more experimental bands. Stapleton said, hey, I’m actually part of an experimental band! Oh great, let’s book something for the weekend. Stapleton, however, was lying. He grabbed a couple mates, presumably all unapologetic music nerds, told them that they were going to go record over the weekend, and basically cobbled something together by pure passion in six hours. And it’s a strange thing.

b) They published the record under United Diaries label (which they started specifically for the release) pressing 500 copies. They shopped it around to various record stores around London, Virgin apparently being a big buyer mostly for the cover. According to Stapelton, he brought it to one record store and the buyer said, ‘Well what kind of music is it?’ ‘Well,’ Stapelton answered, ‘It’s just kind of weird.’ The buyer put it on listened for a bit and said, ‘That’s not weird, it’s shit.’

c) The UK magazine Sounds gave it five question marks instead of any stars.

d) The title is from Les Chants de Maldoror. In context it’s part of simile used to describe the beauty of a young boy. From my version, which has a slightly different translation:

He is as handsome as the retractibility of the claws of birds of prey; or again, as the uncertainty of the muscular movements of wounds in the soft parts of the posterior cervical region; or rather as the perpetual rat-trap, re-set each time by the trapped animal, that can catch rodents indefinitely and works even when hidden beneath straw; and especially as the fortuitous encounter upon a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!

This might be the one of the first times that I discovered the pleasure of encountering a striking phrase as an album title, only to discover it years later in some esoteric tome.

e) That cover, though, right? That, like almost all Nurse With Wound art work, is by Stapleton. Often he works under the pseudonym Babs Santini.

Homotopy to Marie

I can’t think of a more uncomfortable sound that opens a record, than whatever the hell it is that scratches its way out of your speakers for the first three minutes of ‘I Cannot Hear You for the Dogs Are Laughing and I Am Blind’. It’s probably a chopped up type writer, but it sounds like something burrowing directly into your skull.
And so it goes for 1982’s Homotopy to Marie, what Stapleton refers to as the first real Nurse With Wound record. This record is just damn creepy. The second track centers around the repeated sample ‘Don’t be naïve darling!’ and various musings of a small girl, all set to gongs and feedback. It doesn’t really get much more comfortable from there.

Soliloquy for Lilith

Soliloquy for Lilith was released in 1988 as a triple LP box. It lasts about an hour and forty-five minutes, and is entirely composed of slowly shifting and evolving ambient tones. Stapleton said that it was produced by creating a feedback loop of effects units, and slowly changing his proximity to them, in a sort of makeshift Theremin. In any case it produced a dark, looming and enduring work.

Thunder Perfect Mind

A ‘sister album’ to Current 93’s Thunder Perfect Mind (a completely different sounding record, though one that is also worth checking out), this record might ultimately be my favorite. The track titles have always seemed especially evocative here (which is saying a lot, considering how evocative most of Nurse With Wounds’ titles are). ‘Cold’ and ‘Colder Still’. When an album is made up entirely of two pieces, and you call the first ‘Cold’, you would expect the second to be called ‘Hot’, or, perhaps, ‘Warm’. But that’s not how this album works. It starts out Cold and clinical, and it gets colder from there. ‘Cold’ is certainly the more propulsive of the two. It keeps a consistent percussion throughout its 20 minutes, pitch shifting or stopping every now and then to introduce some new odd sound. ‘Colder Still’ is really where things get interesting, though. It starts out with what sounds like a Vangelis sample, before queuing it up again pitch shifted down, down, down into cacophony. As if you start out in the heights of Blade Runner’s skyscrapers before falling through the streets into the center of the Earth. And it’s cold down there.

Bits and Bobs
I’m stopping at Thunder Perfect Mind, even though Nurse With Wound has a good 50 releases in its discography since then. To be perfectly honest, things blur into a haze, despite stand out albums like Rock ‘n’ Roll Station, Who Can I Turn to Stereo, and An Awkward Pause, all released in the 90s. The 00s, saw the Shipwreck Radio sessions, a residency in Lofoten, Norway that produced interesting radio broadcasts. The 10s, seemed to focus more on collaboration. Particularly notable is three releases with Graham Bowers. Notable, I say, because a lot of people seem to love them, though they do nothing for me.
Here are a few tracks not included on any of the above covered albums

(I Don’t Want to Have) Easy Listening Nightmares from Alice the Goon (1995)

You may not want them, but you’re going to get them. A simple lounge groove repeats into insanity, as feedback builds and builds. Like an oral rake joke. Starts out groovy, gets annoying, gets weird, gets weird, and then ends. ‘It’s so easy, baby, it’s so easy….’

Coolorta Moon from Coolorta Moon 12” (1989)

Based around a sample from The Wolfgang Dauner Quintet’s version of ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ off of The Oimels, ‘Coolorta Moon’ is probably one of, if not the easiest thing to put on from Nurse With Wound. Radio friendly, but still weird.

Simple Headphone Mind with Stereolab, from Simple Headphone Mind (1997)

This is the second collaboration between Stereolab and Nurse With Wound. It sees Stapleton take elements of an original Stereolab composition and twist and turn it to no end. Definitely in line with the groovier tracks above.

Two Shaves and a Shine from An Awkward Pause
This is an interesting piece mostly for its structure, the parenthetical note in the full title says “Concerto For Bouzouki And 3 Piece Rock Group In 93 Six Second Segments,” and you can amuse yourself throughout the ten minute run time by keeping track of each six second segment. David Tibet has to blurt out his lyrics even more manically than normal to get the whole verse in before the next section starts.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’ (Bacteria Bitch Remix) from The Bacteria Magnet 12” (2008)

In 2008 Nurse With Wound released Huffin’ Rag Blues, which was a rather drastic departure. Centered heavily around easy listening and lounge grooves. In some ways, it’s kind of similar to a DJ Shadow release of all things (though weirder, of course). It was fairly maligned in some circles, which is too bad, because it would be interesting to see what Stapleton would’ve done had he leaned more heavily in that direction. Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’ originally appeared on Huffin’ Rag Blues, but this remix is from an EP that was released afterwards. The remix adds about a million more car crashes, turning it into a nightmare version of DJ Shadow’s ‘Mashin’ on the Motorway’.

Dueling Banjos from The Ladies Home Tickler (1993)

This is one of my favorite tracks, if not my favorite. Extremely harsh noise, and samples from Mike Nichols & Elaine May’s comedy album Examine Doctors. I love this particular track because of how disorienting the sampling is. Mike Nichols and Elaine May’s conversation seems to loop back and forth in time, never going forward or going back, in some sort of weird stasis.