Into The Subconscious: Fields Of The Nephilim Interviewed
, April 18th, 2012 11:34
Ben Graham talks to Carl McCoy about Fields Of The Nephilim, magick and the importance of keeping a sense of humour
Say what you like about Fields Of The Nephilim, but they never had an easy ride. Emerging from the unhip provinces of Stevenage in the mid-1980s, the band built up a following the hard way: through constant gigging and word of mouth, opening for any act who would have them and gradually winning over more and more converts around the UK with their powerful live shows. Without the support of the press, radio or record or PR companies, they put out their initial EPs themselves and never tried to fit in with any prevailing musical trends. Nevertheless, the Nephilim were soon embraced by the less fashion-conscious elements of the UK post-punk and gothic scene, and were probably the last major band to identify with this subculture, which by this time was already on the wane in terms of popularity. It certainly wasn't a scene any band with a cynical career plan would look to for support.
By the time they signed to indie label Situation Two, readers of the weekly music press were already talking enthusiastically about Fields of the Nephilim, forcing the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker to sit up and take notice. Classic goth dancefloor fillers like 'Power' and 'Preacher Man' found them compared - usually unfavourably - with the then-recently-sundered Sisters of Mercy, with whom they shared certain undeniable similarities and influences and, as a result, large parts of their fanbase. Yet to accuse the Nephilim of ripping off the Sisters is to miss the point. While Eldritch's crew played with the very medium of rock music, the Nephilim went straight to the dark heart, more concerned with atmospherics and energy than with irony or artifice. Where Eldritch was detached, his gonzo rock fantasies forever held in inverted commas by Dr Avalanche's mechanical thud, the Nephilim were all power and passion, inspiring a genuine fervour and belief that would see their live shows ascend to the level of ritual or shamanic gathering.
The Nephilim's sound was initially a combination of dark, visceral hard rock and atmospherics culled from their favourite soundtrack composers- Ennio Morricone, John Carpenter, Goblin- topped with an impenetrable flavouring of mysticism and occult mythology, all delivered in singer Carl McCoy's unmistakable guttural growl. While the original band were an impeccably tight musical unit, it was McCoy's vision that drove them, a vision rooted in an unusual religious upbringing that left him with deeply held, if private, spiritual beliefs and an abiding interest in all things occult and esoteric. A working class iconoclast and autodidact, he seemed as happy drawing on the stories of HP Lovecraft as the writings of Aleister Crowley, studying obscure Biblical apocrypha one moment and immersing himself in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Name of the Rose the next.
The band's second album, The Nephilim saw them develop their own sound further into slow-burning, melancholy, dramatically beautiful epics like 'Celebrate' and 'Last Exit For The Lost', forcing even their harshest critics- those who bothered to listen- to grudgingly admit that they'd created something lasting and unique. The single, 'Moonchild', reached number 28 in the UK charts in May 1988; a spiralling masterpiece of taut descends and howling choruses, artfully arranged and layered like a goth-rock 'Good (bad?) Vibrations'. Yet much of the media still persisted in regarding Fields Of The Nephilim as a poor joke - best known for dusting their western-inspired hats and trenchcoats with flour before going onstage, and for being stopped and searched by customs police convinced that the bags of said white powder on their tour bus were in fact cocaine. Melody Maker featured a long-running weekly humour piece, 'Nod's Corner', in which drummer Alexander 'Nod' Wright was portrayed as the good-humoured if none-too-bright butt of Carl McCoy's increasingly pretentious demands and practical jokes by the rest of the band. At least, however, it kept them in the public eye.
The ten-minute, non-album single 'Psychonaut' was another step forward, recalling Pink Floyd or Tangerine Dream while sacrificing none of the Nephilim's intensity or darkness, and acknowledging the emerging trance techno and industrial dance scenes in its relentless, sequencer-driven beat. Promoted by another of the magnificent mini-horror movie videos the band had become infamous for - and which actually constituted a continuous narrative - it climbed to number 35. But by the original band's third and final studio album, Elizium in 1990, the media had moved on, despite the fact that it was both their most accessible and their most experimental work, concluding and consolidating the Nephilim's five-year shamanic journey. Lead-off single and opening track 'For Her Light' featured a lengthy mid-section that anticipated the apocalyptic post-rock of Godspeed! You Black Emperor (unsurprisingly, it failed to chart), and the album featured some of the band's hardest rock in the wah-overload of 'Submission,' as well as further incorporating dance elements - more successfully and organically than many of their peers, it must be said - on second single 'Sumerland'.
Carl McCoy quit Fields of the Nephilim in 1991, the rest of the band regrouping, with new singer Andy Delaney, as the largely unsuccessful Rubicon. McCoy himself wisely lay low through the musical watershed years of the early 90s, before releasing the brilliant Zoon in 1996 under the name of The Nefilim, and aligning himself more with the progressive metal and industrial scene of the day than the gothic rock of old. A reunion of the original line-up was mooted in the late nineties, but when Fields of the Nephilim reappeared in 2000 with a reworked version of early EP track 'Trees Come Down', McCoy was the only founding member. He publically disowned the unimpressive 2002 album Fallen, claiming Jungle Records had released unfinished tracks without his consent, and in 2005 put out the critically-acclaimed Mourning Sun album - the first official Fields of the Nephilim studio LP for fourteen years. Intermittent live shows followed, at European festivals, the London Astoria in 2007, Shepherd's Bush Empire in 2008 and opening for The Mission at their 25th anniversary show at Brixton Academy last October.
Now Fields of the Nephilim have returned in a big way, with the backing of EMI label services and a double live album/DVD recorded at the aforementioned 2008 Shepherd's Bush shows and painstakingly edited by McCoy himself. Ceromonies (yes, that's how they've spelt it) is subtitled 'Ad Mortem, Ad Vitam' (“to death, for life” for those, like me, what never 'ad the Latin), and is an undeniably powerful testament to the band's still inspirational live show. McCoy claims that it's about closing one chapter for Fields Of The Nephilim, and paving the way for what is to come. Yet, when I spoke to him before a screening of the DVD in a Soho hotel, McCoy rejected suggestions that he was “resurrecting” the band, insisting that, despite appearances, they'd never really been away. “It was more a case of continuing on the path when the time was right,” he said. “It's just another cycle.”
Is the current incarnation of Fields of the Nephilim a band with a fixed line-up, or is it more of an assisted solo project these days?
Carl McCoy: I like the idea of having a solid band unit. I had such a strong original band but obviously that has to move on anyway, it's never going to stay in the same format if you're going to be able to continue to broaden your horizons musically. Even if the original band were working with me now, I don't think it would be a good thing. I think creative people have to try new things; I like a challenge, so that's all part of it. But the idea obviously is to get a band together, and the band I've got now is really rocking, so we'll see how far we can take it and see what happens. I'm open-minded about it, you know. Sometimes it might be unfortunate and we lose members but it's not always… through no fault of my own, they've got to be suitable for the whole concept of what we're about. Some people are not as strong-minded about it. So it does change, and I dare say it'll change again. It's not ultimately what I want, but it doesn't really matter. So long as it's Nephilim. It's about doing the right thing, delivering the goods.
You mentioned members not being suitable for the concept. What would you say the concept is?
CM: The concept? That sounds a bit corny, dunnit? Well, it's about what the band's philosophy is, and what we stand for and where we've come from. It's hard to explain that in words, really.
To put it another way, what would a band member have to do to demonstrate that they weren't right for the concept, after initially seeming like they were?
CM: Well, I've had that. I've actually had that experience. I think if it's a rock & roll trip attitude, and a solo artist attitude, or guitar soloist attitude, I think that's all wrong, because we've got to feed off each other and work together. I'm a vocalist, but I hear everything. I have to absorb everything that's going on, I'm not focused on one particular thing. Without that, I can't hear what I do. So, musicians need to concentrate on the whole thing. And the audience is the most important thing, as well; without that you have nothing.
Is the line-up of the band on the DVD the same guys you've got with you now?
CM: Yeah, they've probably been working with me since… blimey, way back really, quite a few years. Especially in the live situation. I've had to find new ways of working, with how we release product, stuff like that. Which is what we're doing now, we're releasing this live album to kind of conclude a few things and pave the way forward for ourselves. But more than anything else what I'm interested in is releasing fresh material. That's where I'm at, at the moment.
What sort of direction do you see it taking?
CM: So long as it's different from the last album, and different from the one before that, then I'll be happy. I've been writing anyway, so I've got an idea of where it's going. At the moment it's quite raw, so it could be a very earthy, raw album. But I can't say at the moment, I'm still crafting it. It hasn't spoken to me yet, because there's not enough of it. But I'll get an idea when… after the next month, that's when I'll be getting back on with it.
The thing about the Nephilim is that you really do fit the definition of being a cult band. You have a really loyal following, but, in this country at least, you tend to be ignored or dismissed by the media. Is this DVD and album almost valedictory; to show these people, who haven't seen you live, what you've achieved, and to demonstrate it in the live arena, which is what the band is all about?
CM: Yeah, our reputation is from live shows really. Our studio albums have some good songs, but other than that, production-wise it's quite basic. Our important goal has always been to do what we do live. We're a bit old-fashioned like that; if we couldn't do it live, then what's the point, you know? You want to inspire people, and that inspires you, that's what it's all about.
You did the show with The Mission just before Christmas, and you were quoted as saying that you saw it as a celebration of a scene, or a subculture, rather than just of two bands. Is that right?
CM: I would feel that, yeah. I think it was a good moment for the whole subculture, the whole darkwave/goth genre, I think it was quite special for them to witness that, because it hadn't happened before. And the Mission were quite rightfully known for their place in that scene, as well as us, and I think to team up and give them a big party, it can only be a good thing.
So you're reasonably happy to be associated with the goth genre?
CM: That's the terminology that the press generally label the fans with, they put them in categories without them knowing, and they're the people who come to our gigs and they don't take the normal path, and without them we couldn't do what we do. So yeah, if they're called goths, then I don't care. What's wrong with that?
Yeah. That was the subculture that I was a part of, as a teenager, and it was always slightly annoying to see the bands you liked and went to see denying that it was anything to do with them. Nobody likes to be labelled, but even so…
CM: Yeah, that's right. And it's grown, it's a huge scene. It's all integrated into the metal scene as well, and that's quite a healthy thing, isn't it? It crosses over, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's not just this narrow clique that the British press used to point at and take the piss, it's actually outgrown them. A lot of it became suppressed and underground, but then you go into Europe and they do festivals where they take a whole town over for a week; the whole town is dedicated to those kinds of people. Leipzig and that, fantastic! I've never seen anything like it. We wouldn't be allowed to do that over here.
Do you feel that this time around, you're also starting to be accepted by the mainstream media? It seems as though you're finally starting to get some of the attention and respect they never gave you in the past. Why do you think it's changed now?
CM: Probably part of it is that I'm not a youngster anymore, and probably some of the people who work for the press now are people who used to come to our gigs when they were younger. Everyone's moved on. I'm not surprised; we have been around for a number of years, and if it's taken that long for people to come around, then… why not? I'm not one of those people who go, I'm not talking to them, I'm not talking to them… I mean, I don't particularly like doing interviews, but if you're going to do it, do it fairly. Give everyone a go.
Back in the day you were constantly compared to the Sisters of Mercy…
CM: I think there weren't many bands like us around, and they were doing what they were doing, similar audience, they had smoke on stage, similar dress sense- which was black clothes, basically… so I think they were bound to do that. But now there are lots of bands in that vein, so…
You also came along at a point when the original Sisters of Mercy had just broken up, and so maybe inherited a lot of their fans.
CM: I don't know… They were never a threat to us, there was no competition. We were a very uncompetitive band, we weren't competing with anybody, never have been. So long as people like what we do, we're quite happy. It's only when people put you down for it. But you expect it from the press. We always expected it. We loved it! We used to like getting slagged off; it used to make us laugh on the tour bus.
Did you used to follow 'Nod's Corner' in Melody Maker?
CM: Yeah, we used to like that! It was great, it was good fun. That's all it was, it was just fun. I don't know if Nod enjoyed it so much; I think he took it a bit personally, but probably now if he looks back, he'll say… He was quite young in the band at the time, compared to us. He thought they were picking on him.
Of all the studio albums you've done, what's your favourite; which do you think comes closest to realising your intentions or vision?
CM: My favourite albums are probably the second album we did, and Zoon. The Nephilim, being our second album, was the first album where we really concentrated on crafting our sound, and creating an album with a constant theme running through it. Whereas the first album was an accumulation of loads of songs we'd been playing live for a couple of years, and we just bunged them on an album. So there was no real flow. But the second album I think was quite an important marker for us. I have good memories of that time; of what we were feeling, and what we were doing in the studio, and live. That was an important era I think, for me, and I think the other band members would probably agree. But other than that, I think Zoon, because it was another approach, and it allowed me to express some of my ideas without boundaries. I needed to do that.
What was the music that first excited and inspired you?
CM: I was into soundtracks. Anything that painted a nice picture in my mind. Music you could explore, layered music… So yeah, I think soundtracks were the thing that got me going as a kid, with the sound effects and everything going on. That's all I was interested in, sound effects and recorded sound. I think if I'd had a bit more understanding, been a bit more forward, I would have probably taken that route. I think if I'd had the opportunity or the option - but you find your feet and you end up doing what you do. But that was always an inspiration. I can listen to a movie without a picture on, and I think it probably shows in some of my earlier tracks.
You've worked in cinema as well, and you obviously have a strong visual sense.
CM: Yeah, they go hand in hand. Anything artistic or visual I produce, I always have a soundtrack for it, and vice versa. If I create a piece of music I always have a picture in my mind for that as well.
Another thing that runs through your work, and seems very important, is the occult imagery and mythology. To some extent you seem to take that quite seriously, but on the other hand you seem to have a self-aware sense of humour, and speaking to you now you seem like a pretty down-to-earth guy. So what is the balance of that?
CM: It's just kind of the way I was brought up. I know everything, that's how I've always been. That symbolism, and studying when I was a child, right through a religious upbringing, it just goes hand in hand with the person I am. So it's all integrated into my whole thought chain, really. I've used it, because that's what I know. It speaks to me. I don't really do it for art's sake - you know, that's a nice symbol. There's always a method, and a lot of it can be personal, it doesn't really need explaining. But I think integrating the words, the music… you can't really take one away from the other. But there's a real personal, deep level to that. I am quite serious about that side of it - to me - but that's as far as it needs to go, really.
What was the nature of your religious upbringing?
CM: It was through my mother's side. She was a very strict Christian, some sort of spin-off group, I don't want to say too much about it, but yeah, very strict. Very, very strict. But that's just the way things are sometimes. It's probably helped me find my feet, 'cos I'm very grounded, and I think it's helped me achieve what I'm doing now, as an artist. To have some sort of experience or understanding which is quite different from other people. It's made me quite spiritually aware, I think, which is not a bad thing.
So still within a Christian framework, but in a kind of gnostic way?
CM: I suppose so.
I know that you maybe don't want to give too much away, but it does seem a very important part of the imagery and the lyrics and the whole mythology of the band, so it's hard to ignore.
CM: Yeah, but it's quite an individualistic approach I've got. It's not something I inflict on other people so much, and say, this is right. I keep my opinions to myself, but I'll suggest, through what I do, my thoughts, and people can paint their own picture and make their own mind up. That's what it's about really, inspiration.
Would you say it's spiritual rather than magical? Are you a practitioner of magick at all, or is it just a philosophy?
CM: Magick is a philosophy, but the spiritual side of it is more practised, and the ritual side of it comes in many ways, doesn't it? I mean, you could look at a live performance as ritualistic, and I do feel that; I go on stage and I pretty much empty my mind. If you asked me one of my lyrics before I walked on stage, I wouldn't be able to tell you. I go on completely straight, and I've always felt like I'm kind of channelling. I don't know what you'd say that is, but that's how it works for me, it's the only way I can do what I do. It's not something I have to practise.
In my mind, I always associated Fields of the Nephilim with Chaos Magick, partly because you were both coming into public consciousness at about the same time, in the mid-to-late eighties, but also in the way that you seemed to borrow from all different sources and belief systems, in the sense of whatever works for you at any given moment; whether it's Enochian magic or Crowley or even something from HP Lovecraft or a horror movie…
CM: Yeah. Well I think that's how it should work really. As you say, everyone can obtain what they want for themselves, and create their own philosophy, and their own way. Especially with Chaos Magick and that, it's all about the individual. I wouldn't ever say this way is great; you've just got to derive your own snippets, and choose what works for you. But that's a completely different subject to talk about, really.
So you've never had the attitude of someone like Genesis P Orridge, with Psychic TV and Thee Temple ov Psychic Youth, which did provide a lot of reading lists and point people in specific directions, saying if you're interested, these are people you might want to investigate. For you, it's more of a personal thing.
CM: I would say so, yeah. I've got a bit older now and your understanding changes; you're not so innocent and not so blind. Everything comes in cycles, and it changes for me all the time.
What about the influence that the Nephilim may or may not have had on the black metal or extreme metal scenes? When you were originally about, it was before all that had started, or at least it was quite underground, and you were bracketed in different areas. Do you see much influence by yourself on the work of black metal groups, and what are your feelings on that whole culture?
CM: They've paid many compliments to the Fields of the Nephilim; we've had many compliments from band members in that genre, which I think is great, it takes you aback. I've noticed it more in the last three or four years, people have come forward and said they've had inspiration for their band, and I think that's fine. I don't like to pigeonhole bands with labels or categories, but yeah, it didn't really exist back when we were first going, I don't think there was anything quite like that. So maybe we've shown them a new doorway. It's quite dramatic isn't it, a lot of that? I don't think there's anything wrong with that, a bit of drama. Especially in Europe, they still like that. Especially in the alternative scene, they're quite dramatic people. And I think there's a certain amount of that in what we do. It's not quite Rocky Horror Show, I don't mean that! But I think it's quite healthy.
Philosophically some black metal bands seem to be taking a more negative approach; using similar occult imagery to the Nephilim, but with a more negative, consciously evil, Satanist approach. Some of them have quite dodgy far-right politics as well.
CM: Yeah, I see that. I don't know how serious some of that is, or whether it's intended to provoke a reaction. I think you've got to have a balance; you can't have one without the other. My philosophy is… I dunno, I think it'll change. You can't have one without the other. They're allowed to do it though, in the end they can do what they want, can't they?
Can you see someone getting into that as a first step to a more serious understanding of the occult?
CM: I don't really see it like that, 'cos I think it's the wrong way to deliver it. Anything magickal and violent, it's too strong. It's quite a different delivery to something that would work seriously.
It's a very different approach to yours; it's a lot more dogmatic and definite, almost propagandising, or preaching…
CM: Yeah, and that would turn me off. I think you can't just put thoughts into peoples' heads; you've got to get into their subconscious, and let them become their thoughts.
To what end? Just to make them into Fields of the Nephilim fans?
CM: Well, why not? That's what I say, I'm here to inspire. If you ask me about that, then who's going to say it shouldn't be good for us? But at the same time, if you're projecting loads of negative energy, that's going to come back on you too.
The Ceromonies live album and DVD package is out now