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In Extremis

A Double-Headed Secret: An Interview With Cyclobe
Russell Cuzner , May 2nd, 2012 04:51

Cyclobe, the ex-Coil duo of Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown, have spent over a decade honing a beguiling blend of electro-acoustics and folk instrumentation. Ahead of their show at this year's Meltdown festival, they speak about current projects, the occult and their friendship with Coil

Not to be confused with the one-eyed giant of ancient mythology, the Cyclobe is an elusive, two-headed beast formed of ex-Coil members Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown. While a first sighting came in 1999 with the release of Luminous Darkness, there have only been a handful of other occasions since – three further albums and a single live performance – that have given the outside world a chance to witness their extraordinary anti-corporeal blend of electro-acoustics and folk instrumentation. Such a refined yet undefined sound is arguably born of a range of dualities that merge serendipitously and fork philosophically to weave a beguiling, and at times genuinely scary, set of propositions in sound.

Yesterday Cyclobe announced that their debut UK performance - their second ever - will take place at the Antony Hegarty-curated Meltdown festival at London's Southbank Centre in August. Part of a night themed Albion - Hypnagogue - Ghost: Hallucinatory Queer British Paganism, they will perform live alongside David Tibet's new project Myrninerest. Four films by Derek Jarman will also be shown, alongside newly composed and recorded scores by both artists.

In advance of that performance, Ossian and Stephen recently took time out to chat with The Quietus about their most recent album, 2011's Wounded Galaxies Tap at the Window, the complex paths that led to its arrival, their friendship and collaborations with Coil's Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson and Jhon Balance, and beyond.

The latest album took five years to complete, perhaps the longest gestation period of any Cyclobe album. Did you have difficulties with recording?

Ossian Brown: We very rarely start a piece and keep working on it until it's finished. After the initial sketches are laid down I find it's good to leave it for a while, so it can germinate in the back of our minds, release spores, so ideas about where we could take it come to us organically. It’s a slow process for us. It's almost like our recording periods operate in a different time altogether, scattered throughout a year… throughout years in some cases. It just takes time to really see clearly what path we should guide it down. It has to feel completely alive to us, to hold a magic and complexity we find compelling emotionally, so a lot gets added and then disregarded, until we find the key we need.

There were difficulties and it can be very stressful, exhausting sometimes… I can be very obsessive when we're working, and can hang on the most minute detail. Getting it right can become a huge issue. For instance, I don't like to think about instruments when I'm listening to our music, the experience has to be completely emotional, I don't want to think about what model of synthesizer’s being used. The magic cracks! It's spell-shattering. I want to make music that's timeless, almost as if it were found growing on a rock, inside a broken piece of meteorite, in a starfish’s stomach!

I feel these days, personally, we get bombarded with just about every thought anyone ever has, every scrap of sound gets uploaded the moment it's made, so much of it is unconsidered. There’s a storm of it all, a gigantic dirt cloud. The thought of it makes me feel claustrophobic. It seems to be the nature of things these days, and people are surprised when you don't play that way. It's so hard to navigate your way through it all and find really interesting work. I'm not saying music has to be complicated, or that it has to take a long time to make to be interesting, but I do think people need to take more time. The world is too 'now' orientated and we're littering, smothering each others’ minds with all this uncensored mundanity.

Stephen Thrower: I’m still a bit shocked that we took so long, actually. Some pieces were extremely difficult to get a handle on; they sounded almost finished for what seemed like an age, but every time we tried adding the finishing touches nothing worked... The title track actually started life during The Visitors sessions [their second album of 2001], but only came to a conclusion the year we released it. We both have a very selective attitude to what we do, and any new piece has to get past two very stroppy gatekeepers! There’s no casting vote (we’ve tried it - doesn’t work). Lots of arguing, lots of walking out in a rage, lots of banging your head against the studio wall. It’s rarely a peaceful process, but out of all the Tasmanian-Devil arguing, comes stuff we really think has its own unique identity, so I guess we have a method!

The Wounded Galaxies cover created by the American artist Fred Tomaselli depicts a seven-headed serpent, a symbol that enjoys a wealth of associations across several ancient mythologies and is even the badge of the Symbionese Liberation Army (who kidnapped Patty Hearst in the Seventies). What lead to you choosing it for the album?

OB: It’s a stunning picture, astonishing, and we just felt emotionally, abstractly, it conjured so much of what we wanted to express with this collection of recordings…

Fred was so kind to let us use it. It's a Naga, a nature spirit. In Tibetan Buddhism they're beings, snake deities sensitive and vengeful of mankind’s disrespect and ignorance of nature, sensitive to the pain of nature’s suffering and the gradual devastation of our natural world. They're also known in Buddhism to transmit ‘Termas’, hidden treasures of knowledge, concealed teachings in and out of the human realm. But it's the nature spirit aspect I really responded to. The Patty Hearst connection isn’t really of interest to me.

ST: I was unaware of the SLA usage until afterwards! I know of them, naturally, but I’ve never really studied them. For me, the pleasure of the picture is twofold; it suggests some sort of slithering, airborne creativity emerging from a tiny source (which would be us, naturally), and also it responds to the title rather than illustrating it. It’s a welcome committee for those wounded galaxies! Plus, snakes are just sexy. I’d make it with a seven-headed snake. Who wouldn’t?

You’re both published authors, with Stephen as a leading expert on horror/underground cinema and Ossian’s recent publication of his collection of antique Hallowe’en photographs, and you have both previously alluded to esoteric beliefs including paganism and magick. Indeed, your piece ‘The Woods are Alive with the Smell of His Coming’ (subtitled ‘A Hymn to Pan’) premiered in an exhibition at Tate St. Ives in 2009 that explicitly explored ‘Magick and Modernity in British Art’. Are you active practitioners of esoteric beliefs or do you enjoy a more scholarly or inquisitive relation to the spiritual side of things?

OB: We premiered ‘The Woods Are Alive’ alongside Mark Titchner’s excellent ‘Protection’ sculptural piece, Austin Osman Spare, work by David Noonan, and Graham Sutherland’s fantastic dark landscapes. Having our piece played in close proximity to such a great collection of work felt perfect to us. The Tate was being bombarded with coastal storms that day, with rain pounding the glass ceiling - it made quite an atmosphere when we played our piece.

I consider myself pagan – [Coil member] Jhon Balance used to call me a hedge witch. Well, that's me alright! My beliefs feed enormously into the work I do, the art I create, of course it couldn't be any other way. I'm not a member of any group though, I'm not interested in joining magickal organizations. I'm not following strict recipes. It's all very instinct-based for me, intuitive and personal, it's very nature-based. I think we become sensitive when we're working, it can feel like we're touching, conjoining with something magical that's expressing itself through us, that we're interpreters. When I work I like to think it has an effect, that it's active, very much so with a sense of invocation. I want it to be charged, to change things, to move people, transform spaces.

ST: Ossian and I have different takes on all this. He’s intuitively in sympathy with magickal ideas. I think we create these beliefs to explain the things that we do, and then we put it out there as an external force, partially to look at it and get a grasp of it through symbolism, and partly because it gets lonely in your own head. I’m sympathetic to the idea of hermetic or communal challenges to consensus reality, the desire to carve non-rational world-views, though I’m a bit more wary of them than I used to be. I’ve become more distrustful over the last ten years. We’re heading for a second dark age with organised religion as the enemy. ‘Exterminate all rational thought’ makes a good T-shirt, but you need to give a rat’s ass about who’s going to come knocking afterwards, when you’re lying in the irrational rubble. And with the various God squads on the march around the world, I have my concerns about what the real world effect of too much repudiation of the rational might be. I reserve my interest in these things to an appreciation of the poetics.

Paganism is a bit different though - less ‘esoteric’ and 'abstruse'. At the core is a desire to embrace and celebrate mankind’s place inside nature, rather than placing us outside it, as the sky religions try to do. I’m very much in favour of that... From the folds of the intestine to the spray of supernovae we’re as much embedded in nature as the birds and the insects and the galaxies. (I loathe that bit in the Bible where God supposedly gives man dominion over the animals, which epitomises the human race’s sense of entitlement and separation from nature.) There’s awe in the Pagan mindset, but it’s awe arising from contemplation of the majesty and beauty of nature and the universe, which works for me. And there’s still plenty of mystery at the edges of science - quantum, cosmological or psychological - to excite my imagination. As Ossian said to me recently, "Nature doesn't end where space begins!".

While your music remains among the most elusive to describe (let alone imagine how much of it’s made), it is often described as ‘psychedelic’. How do you feel about that oft-used term and to what extent have altered states defined your sound?

OB: We were amphetamine and mushroom boys! Listening to music and recording music was a huge part of the way we experimented with psychedelics and amphetamines, although it's not something we do any more, not for many years now. The neural pathways have been burnt in, though, they're permanent, so the doors are always open. Perhaps we have a magnified psychedelic sensibility now, which we intuitively locate and work with.

The word psychedelic has so much baggage, a lot of tired associations that in truth for me anyway were pretty disappointing in regards to music. I never really explored Terrence McKenna’s writings or found myself drawn to Timothy Leary. When I hear a lot of psychedelic music, my mothership starts sinking in the mud! Psychedelic music should be such an enveloping unearthly experience. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, that's psychedelic to my ears.

ST: I guess the fact that the word is still around means it’s the best we have to describe music that evokes altered states of consciousness. The best experience with music is transporting, where the limits of your room and your life and your consciousness lift away to reveal a wider vista that you have no control over, and you’ve never experienced before. Whether this chimes with your experiences with acid, or meditation, or fasting, or concussion, or hospitalization with acute schizophrenia, the point is that music can lift you out of your own head and show you other lives and other panoramas. A great piece of music can change the emotional temperature of the room in an instant (well, even a ‘bad’ piece of music can do it - it’s the most powerful medium for changing people’s moods, I think, more than any other art form, because it’s so damn quick).

I don’t take chemical ‘mood enhancers’ very much any more though. For the music that we make, I’m drawing on deeply imprinted memories and stored insight. If I try topping up the vessel these days, it leaks. One hit of a joint and I’m hopeless. The last time I took speed I ended up in agony. My balls shrank so much I thought my body was trying to eat them - try explaining that to a locum on night duty at A&E! The only things that still work as they were meant to are mind-wiping extremities like K, but I don’t go there very often.

In the eighties, you both upped sticks for London within a year of each other when Stephen joined Jhon Balance and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson of Coil, as they moved away from their work in Psychic TV, with whom Ossian subsequently became involved. Yet the two of you didn’t meet until 1993 in what retrospectively could be viewed as a kind of tag-team manoeuvre: Ossian moved in with Coil at the same time as Stephen was leaving the band, meaning that the two of you were never part of Coil at the same time. Was all this simply down to serendipity?

OB: Yes, I just missed Jhon and Sleaz when I moved into Gen’s [Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle / Psychic TV] house in London in the mid 80s. If I’d been there a couple of years earlier I'd have most probably left with them when they went their own way and formed Coil! In a way, subconsciously I was looking for them, looking for Steve, but I didn't really know it then. I think we were all looking for each other. I'd always felt estranged, somehow, until I met Jhon, Sleazy and Steve... That was really when I found my family so to speak, my queer family.

I was only 17 when I first started working with Genesis, I'm several years younger than Steve and Jhon. I was still skipping to school when they started hanging out together, with my stick and hoop. I was just drawn to that hive of activity, the feeling of a magickal arts collective, and to the music, very much so, which was largely influenced by Sleaz's contribution on those first two PTV albums, and the films like Sleaz's Polarvision and Terminus. John Maybury's hallucinatory short for ‘Unclean’ was excellent, mesmerizing, watching Leigh and Trojan, John Gosling swung upside-down naked. Derek Jarman’s involvement of course drew me as well. That's how I first came into contact with Austin Spare's visionary art, his magical ideas, he became a huge influence on me and I'm still an avid collector of his work.

Me and Steve met earlier than 1993, but that's when we became partners. I first met Steve at Jhon and Sleaz's, all of us having been up for several nights tripping on MDA. That must've been around 1990, just as I was about to move in, after they’d finished recording Love’s Secret Domain. On reflection it was odd, initially. Steve used to come around and work there, using Sleaz's word processor to make his magazine, Eyeball [a journal of ‘Sex and Horror in World Cinema’], in the room next to my bedroom. We'd talk a little, but relationships were getting raw between Jhon and Steve after LSD. Everyone was burnt out after those sessions. The very first time we made contact, though, was at a Butthole Surfers show. Sleaz was doing the films for it. Steve and Jhon were hanging around with the Buttholes a lot back then, and we met each other in the audience, not knowing each other.

ST: One of the things you get involved in music for, when you’re queer and living in some small town or other, is to mix with people like yourself, who share your sensibility, and also to try and find a life partner to share it all with. Coil were my family, really, when I moved to London. They brought me and Ossian together and for that and many other things I owe them a massive debt of gratitude. It’s still hard to believe they’re both gone. It’s almost as if they’re pulling some massive headfucking prank. With Jhon there were warning signs, but Sleazy… I feel as if huge parts of my past are melting away. So many of the people who were important to me in the 1980s are gone. And to think they used to lecture me about having a death wish and taking too many drugs - well I outlived you both, you nagging bastards!

Before the sad and untimely passing of Coil’s Jhon Balance at the end of 2004 and Peter Christopherson six years’ later, were there ever plans for all four of you to work together?

ST: We’d patched up our differences by about 1998 and got close again. Both Geff [Jhon] and Sleazy liked what we were doing with Cyclobe, and I was very impressed by their Moon Musick records. By 2002 we were discussing plans for a Coil/Cyclobe record called Wormsongs - but it remained more of a chance for us to swap ridiculous song titles and cover concepts, not so much a musical thing. We never got it onto the starting blocks, sadly.

You’ve just announced Cyclobe’s premiere UK performance as part of this year’s Antony-curated Meltdown Festival. How did it feel to be selected for the Festival and what sort of set are you planning?

ST: To receive the invitation from Antony was such a thrill - a great artist and a beautiful human being. My first instinct was to say yes loud and clear.

OB: We were so thrilled that Antony asked us to perform at Meltdown, really flattered. There's a very queer, very pagan current running throughout the evening, threading everything together, which is important to us and to Antony. The evening is called ALBION - HYPNAGOGUE – GHOST, and it'll be our first ever concert here, and only our second since we formed, so it's an important step for us creatively. We've been asked to play live many times over the years but it's rarely felt right. Looking back, I think we really had to finish Wounded Galaxies first - we needed to realise those pieces before we could consider expanding into new territory.

We'll be performing with our friends Michael J York, playing duduk and border pipes, and Cliff Stapleton with his hurdy-gurdy. We’ll be joined by Ivan Pavlov (COH) and Dave Smith (Guapo) as well, so it’s a close family supporting us... We'll be premiering some new Cyclobe recordings, including a beautiful, mesmeric piece with a very special guest - but our lips are sealed on that one! The theme of the evening was also an integral part of Coil, so that same spirit is there. We’re drawing our water from the same well, there's a strong feeling of shared ancestry, of our heritage. David Tibet's close friendship with Jhon Balance is the focus of the new work he'll be premiering with his group Myrninerest. We'll also be screening some rarely seen films by Derek Jarman, showing four of his magical and hallucinatory short super-8 films made in the early 1970s. Hugely inspiring and evocative work. Myrninerest are recording a new soundtrack for Derek’s haunting short film A Journey to Avebury, a meditation on one of England’s most important pagan monuments - it was Jhon Balance’s favourite Jarman film.

ST: Ossian and I are writing three new scores, for [Jarman’s] Sulphur, Tarot and Garden of Luxor - Derek would just play records when screening them, so they've never had specially composed ‘soundtracks’ as such. We’re so happy to be working on them for this event. For me it’s the first time I’ve put sound to Derek’s images since my Coil days, working on The Angelic Conversation back in 1985. I knew Derek very well in the 1980s and spent a lot of time with him, he was one of the first people I bonded with when I started to come to London and visit Geff and Sleazy. I grew so much and so rapidly thanks to his influence. Derek had that spark about him, he was one of life’s great energisers. There was never any wasted time in his company, he was alive in the fullest sense and a massive inspiration to me.

When he contracted HIV and developed AIDS, he took the path of most resistance and really pushed himself into the public arena, at a time when hardly anyone was speaking out in a combative way against the hate and ignorance peddled by mass media and government. He could have just retired and cocooned himself, but instead he went out and fought tooth and nail. He was right in there at the birth of Queer politics, attacking conservatism and conformity in both hetero and gay culture. He had the balls to stand up against the vileness coming from the gutter press, and the eloquence to deal with ‘educated’ but unsympathetic media types whose homophobia was couched in sneering sophistry. He could take your breath away sometimes - such a strong and intelligent man.

Being able to present some of his amazing short films is very meaningful to me; Derek was one of the vital forces in my younger life, so screening these beautiful films is a way for me to reconnect with that vitality, and share it with an audience who perhaps have never seen his Super-8 work projected before.

Are you perhaps now experiencing an accelerated phase of composing and recording and, if so, can we expect its results in the near future?

OB: We're more than halfway through the next album, perhaps even three quarters done. With much the same line-up as Wounded Galaxies… and also with Dave Smith from Guapo, who's been working on percussion for us. We’re extremely excited about some of the new pieces, they're all just uncurling slowly, although I do think we’re working a little faster now. It is difficult though, ideally we'd like to spend more time recording, but we get distracted by other projects and necessities. We're hoping to have it released for spring next year.

In the meanwhile this year we're going to release an expanded version of The Eclipser on CD and vinyl. We felt we could go much further with those pieces and didn't want them or Alex's [Alex Rose who designed the sleeve of the original 7” release] incredible work to vanish in a limited edition. We also have recordings made to accompany my book Haunted Air, which will be played at some exhibitions I'm planning… And our soundtracks from Derek's Sulphur, Tarot and Garden of Luxor. There's a plan to make The Visitors available again on CD and vinyl as well. I'm hopeful we'll find the time to do all that.

ST: I believe the new album contains some of our best ever material. I’m very excited about a couple of pieces we’re close to finishing. One track called ‘Arc’ we actually played live in Austria a few years ago. The studio version is a monster, and we’re planning on doing it live at the QEH [London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, where much of the Meltdown Festival will be staged]. I think it will cut a few heads off when played nice and loud!

Cyclobe perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 4th August as part of Meltdown, alongside Myrninerest and films by Derek Jarman.

Header photo by Ruth Bayer