Time Machines: Drew McDowall On Coil’s Drone Legacy

As Dais Records re-releases a remastered edition of Coil's Time Machines, Drew McDowall talks to Richard Fontenoy about life with Jhonn and Sleazy, and how this most time-changing of records was created, has endured and evolved

Drew McDowall was a key member of Coil in the latter half of the 1990s, when he joined Jhonn/ John Balance (also known as Geff Rushton) and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson as the group made the transition from their earlier industrial and techno-influenced sound into still-wider experimental releases and a slew of immersive live performances.

McDowall also contributed to several Coil side projects such as Worship The Glitch (released as by ELpH versus Coil), Black Light District and especially Time Machines. The latter was an album of four deeply mood-altering soundcapes, originally released as a self-titled CD under the name Time Machines in 1998. Each piece on the record is suffused, as are all Coil releases, with psychotropic and esoteric significance, referencing occult tradition and imagery, and Time Machines has become a touchstone of late twentieth century drone music, one whose influence persists today.

Now resident in Brooklyn, Drew has recorded with Tres Warren of Psychic Ills as Compound Eye, and he released two acclaimed LPs for Dais, Collapse in 2015, and Unnatural Channel this year. He recently undertook Time Machines performances in Los Angeles and New York to mark the label’s tenth anniversary celebrations.

When and how did you join Coil?

Drew McDowall: I had met Balance and Sleazy through David Tibet in around 1986, maybe, and got on with them incredibly well. We became really close friends pretty quickly and slowly, as we realised that we had a lot in common, that we had similar set of interests, that evolved into some tentative collaborations, just feeling each other out. I think the first collaboration was probably around 1989, and it never saw the light of day. I don’t think we really intended anything, it was just getting together and improvising some things. We had a lot of shared references, La Monte Young being a major point of connection that we felt that we could start off from.

Then Geff and Sleazy wanted a change in direction from what they were doing in Coil, and they felt that I would be able to help facilitate that, initially towards a more minimal kind of thing with Worship The Glitch. I was very interested in how much you could take away from something until it would still stand up as a piece.

There was an interest in ritual music and ritual performance in Coil that came to the fore in Time Machines.

DM: Very much so. I felt, and I’m sure that Balance and Sleazy would be very much in agreement with this: there was nothing that we did that wasn’t ritual music. There would be no point in doing something if it didn’t have a profound effect on one’s psyche, or didn’t advance you to some sort of liminal state. The music always had an intent, though the idea would also be that the music absolutely could stand up on its own as music.

For the audience, Coil’s music was very much a ritual to be participated in at a distance through the recorded sound and then more often through the live performances, where obviously the ritual becomes part of an immediate feedback system.

DM: There’s no question about that. I tried to stay true to this with the two Time Machines performances in Los Angeles and New York. It’s really really important that it not be perceived as me the performer with the audience as the passive recipients of what I was doing, the idea instead being that it was a shared sacred space. I feel from the feedback that I was getting from people afterwards that I managed to be psychotropic. That’s something I’ve always carried on from Coil anyway, in my performances separate from Time Machines, that it should never just be me getting up and playing on stage; that’s boring, I don’t want to do that, I always want it to feel like a ritual. It doesn’t necessarily have any of the trappings of ritual, but I think the sound can do most of that work.

You’re not tempted to wear furry costumes with reflective scrying glasses on their chests, like Coil did when performing Time Machines at Julian Cope’s Cornucopia festival at the Royal Festival Hall in 2000?

DM: It was so beautiful – that was really stunning, and also I think it taps into something about Balance and Sleazy that I’m not sure that everyone really gets. Serious as they were about everything that they did, they always had a sense of humour, more like a sense of the absurdity of everything, that manifested itself in a sense of humour. They were two of the funniest people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with. Some people get it and it comes through, but some people ask me, "What was it like being in Coil? Was it really dark? Did you sit around doing strange rituals?"

Because there was this air of mystery about Coil, a sense of people doing things away from the norm, some people seemed to take Coil so seriously at the time that if you’d dared to suggest to some fans that anything was wacky, or a bit funny, they’d say, "Oh no, they’re deadly serious magicians!"

DM: That’s the thing; it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. You can be deadly serious about your work and what you do and not take yourself seriously. I think that’s the key to humility that they both had, humility about who you are as a person and what we are as people. I guess it boils down to being serious about life, but also treating it with humour. That’s part of the goal.

One particularly good example of that is having the theme from Are You Being Served redone as ‘Going Up’ on The Ape Of Naples in 2005 in tribute to to Jhonn Balance after his death. It was an astonishing moment of a) I can’t believe I just heard that and b) that’s so magnificent – it encapsulated so many ideas into that one interpretation, and of Coil’s sense of humour coming though in a time of grief and bereavement as well.

DM: Yes, and I think obviously things got very, very dark for Balance. When someone’s in the depths of addiction, there isn’t much to smile about, and with everything that happened with Balance – a lot of his friends, if we were being honest, we half-expected that phone call at any day, it was still really overwhelming when it actually happened. After a time, I think Sleazy regained his essence, and he just had a wonderfully humble, cheerful composure in life, right up to the end.

For people who knew Balance, it was a spiral. In some part of our unconscious, we knew that it was coming, but his death was a tremendous blow, a tremendous physical blow. I remember the physical sensation that, because he died so young, that we were being short-changed, there was so much left for him to do. I mean, I honestly felt like Jhonn was only getting started. He was such an insane fountain of genius creativity. You couldn’t sit with Balance for more than ten minutes without being awed by his brain. Apart from the personal loss, there was a greater loss to the universe.

I’ve often speculated that if Balance had been able to come to some kind of negotiated settlement with his demons, what could have ensued from that.

It often seemed like from Balance’s lyrics that they were his way of dealing with those demons, balanced between riding the chaos and drowning in it.

DM: Yeah, to gain inspiration from it, but not to be devoured. I think that’s the goal of any artist who takes inspiration from quote-unquote "the darker side of their psyche", or the darker side of life, of the universe or whatever, to allow it to feed you and maybe allow it to feed on you a bit, without it devouring you. There has to be a reciprocal arrangement with those demons, but not to let them eat you alive is the key.

It seems like every ten minutes these days there’s a new Coil re-release – Time Machines, being a particularly fine example, Sub Rosa are releasing a couple of tracks (‘Another Brown World’ / ‘Baby Food’) on vinyl, there was Backwards that finally appeared in 2015, and Astral Disaster is now making a re-appearance – what was your involvement with that album?

DM: I’m so happy that Astral Disaster] is being reissued, and on the original label, that’s great that it’s not just someone random. There have been some opportunistic offers been made to some of the surviving members, and it just seems like, oh my god, that’s so cheesy. I would rather that it would never, ever be reissued than take you up on what you’re suggesting, so it’s nice to see Prescription do it.

Astral Disaster was amazing. There was something about that session that was so special, because we were doing it in Gary Ramon’s studio on the banks of the Thames. It was in a basement so it was literally under the level of the river, it was under the Thames. It had an incredibly weird feeling, knowing that on the other side of this wall is the Thames. Coil had that fascination with ancient London, with ‘The Lost Rivers Of London’, we were all fascinated by that, so to be actually in a recording studio in one of the oldest parts of London, in Southwark, literally feet away from where the Globe Theatre was, we felt like we were in the actual bones of the city, creating this strange, hallucinatory work. I think we recorded it in about eight hours, that’s definitely one of my favourites.

It seemed like Jhonn Balance was on a far-out trip lyrically, talking about the Aztecs on the sea coast of Tibet on ‘The Sea Priestess’.

DM: You can take that on so many levels, on one level it’s a joke, on another it has a whole metaphorical meaning. That was one of the things that we loved about Balance, there was never not multiple meanings to anything that he did, any title, any line, it was always deeply folded in on itself, and nothing was ever as simple as it seemed.

It’s magical thinking in a way, but it has an effect that’s rich – just the name Coil itself has so many possible interpretations and resonances.

DM: Yes. Balance was so deeply layered, having multiple, on the face of it contradictory, things existing at the same time.

How did Time Machines come about?

DM: It was something that Balance and I had talked about a bunch, about the possibility of creating music that freed you of time, that basically allowed you to escape time. There were certain pieces of music that we felt did that, that we wanted to explore even further. We didn’t have any strong plan, it was more just an idea that this was something that we would do at some point.

I was in my home studio, just playing around with some drones on the equipment I had there and then at one point I lost track of time, but also of myself as well. I had a moment of just egoless existence. So I recorded this stuff to DAT and went over to Balance and Sleazy’s place in Chiswick where their home studio was at the time, and said to Jhonn, really quietly and shyly, because I wasn’t sure. I said, "Geff, listen to this, I think this might be what we were talking about", and he was like, "Yep, yeah, that’s exactly it!"

So I brought the equipment that I was using over to their studio and we spent a day just recording these drones. Sleazy, I think he was working on a film shoot at the time, so he came in later in the day. His initial reaction, and I always remember this – we were very excited – he said "Is it all just going to sound the same?" and we were nodding and said, "Yeah, yeah!" so he said, "Well, OK." [laughs]

Sleazy’s aesthetic at times could, and don’t I say this in a bad way, it could lean towards the elaborate and the baroque, slightly. He could be more into complexity than just simplicity, so it took him a couple of hours to get his brain fully meshed with where we were, and then he was fully on board with it. If it had a powerful psychotropic effect on us, what we were doing, then it stayed.

Did you use those recordings for the final album, or did you develop them more?

DM: If you listen to it really forensically you can hear these tiny imperfections that, if you were recording a regular track, you would just do again, we kept. On the cover of Time Machines, there’s a little disclaimer that says "Artifacts generated by your listening environment are an intrinsic part of the experience."

I love the imperfections. Some of the best recordings in the history of music have been some of the most imperfect. I think it’s in the imperfections – that’s where the real joy is.

That was and idea behind things like Worship The Glitch, wasn’t it?

DM: Yeah. That was a huge part of it. We played with this idea, which is not to say that we didn’t fully believe in it, that it was through the imperfections that something else spoke to us. We felt like we were channelling some kind of entity on Worship The Glitch that lives in, that hides, in the imperfections.

Was that influenced by someone like Terence McKenna’s idea of self-transforming machine elves?

DM: Terence McKenna was a huge influence on Coil, so it would have played some part in it. The entity didn’t feel like it was a McKennean entity, but his work continues to be inspiring. But to even talk about it in terms of whether it was real or not isn’t even germane or appropriate. It’s really important to access these other states , so that we can get a glimpse of other entities – and those other entities could just be another part of ourselves, another voice that’s speaking to us, that we need to give proper respect.

Did the hooking on of the drug formula titles to the individual tracks of Time Machines come as an afterthought.

DM: There was no correlation during the writing or creating process between the substances that gave the tracks the titles. So, the idea that you could create these sounds these pieces of music that would have just as powerful an effect as traditional psychotropic substances.

Looking at the design of the packaging of Time Machines where the Elizabethan magician John Dee is obviously very much a reference point, with the obsidian scrying glass on the cover and his hieroglyphic monad design the centrepiece of one of the cards that come with the album. Dee spent a large amount of his efforts on searching for Enochian communication with angels and so on, and Dee was a big influence on Jhonn Balance. It seemed a proper part of many of the ideas being expressed on Time Machines, not just through those four pieces of music, and it’s almost like you were saying, here’s a set of tools.

DM: Exactly, yeah. And that was goal with the pieces, not just to free you of time, but also the idea was that these pieces would be like vehicles that you just hang on to and they take you, they pull you in and down somewhere, and you don’t get to steer them, they take you, and this is what it felt like for us as well, it was like these pieces took their own form and dragged us along for the ride as well, where you become a vessel, like a horse, which is very important in Coil’s mythology as well..

Coil were very good at slogans, such as "Music cures you of time", which applies to Time Machines in particular.

DM: Oh yeah. That’s the thing; we are so bound by our anthropocentrism, what also relates to our awareness of time, that’s one of the curses of being human, is this awful awareness of time. Awful, and awfully flawed as well, because we’re stuck in this infinitesimally tiny little sliver of time, and we create our whole structures around that, without any real acknowledgement of how fleeting or transient it all is, all of our cultural and physical edifices are so essentially ephemeral.

The choice to release the album just using the name Time Machines with no mention of Coil as such, was that taken as a conscious decision to distance it from previous releases?

DM: Yeah, I think that it was. Sleazy and Geff saw it at the time as – this sounds weird for something that people have come to view as such a important part of the Coil canon – more of an exploration. It was the same with Worship The Glitch and the Black Light District album A Thousand Lights In A Darkened Room, those records were also seen as that. While they were part of Coil, they were sideways explorations, but I don’t think that’s good or bad, it was the way it was. Initially, if I’m being honest, at first Sleazy was humouring me a little. I think later they both – Sleazy certainly – viewed it as legitimately part of the Coil canon.

With any part of the creative process, when sometimes you’re going out on a limb or the thin ice, you’re not entirely sure of what you’re doing or even if it makes sense or even a legitimate avenue of exploration. It’s not going to stop you, you’re still going to do it, but you’re like, "OK. Part of you is like, this is just an exploration, this might not really lead to anything; and then once you’re further on, with the benefit of hindsight, you’ll look back and think: "That was the key, doing that thing that I did, or we did, that was the key part in what became the records."

It’s been nineteen years now since Time Machines was released.

DM: Yeah, I always think of this as the twentieth anniversary of it, because it was created twenty years ago. I’m much more interested in marking the anniversary of its creation than its actual release. It was released in January 1998, but we created it in 97. When I talked about reissuing it with Dais Records, I wanted to get it out in 2017.

Dais have done a fantastic job in reproducing the original album – was the original design by Sleazy?

DM: Yes, Sleazy did the design with Balance hanging over his shoulder, Sleazy doing that wonderful font, that wonderful typography and the layout and everything. I’m just awed by the job Dais have done on the packaging, on everything. I think it’s beautiful. The original album sleeve was a photographic reproduction of card stock, so for the re-issue they used real card stock – why use a photograph when you can have the real thing?

In terms of the construction of the four finished tracks, they weren’t individual tracks that were recorded as is? There was presumably editing involved, combining, layering and multi-tracking?

DM: Yes, so on each of the tracks there are not a whole lot of discrete, separate tracks, because there might be two or three elements combined on a DAT that then made it into Pro Tools. So when you listen to it, even though it does sound really dense, there’s not very many different elements. Things come in, things stop, go out, other elements come in with subtlety, so it’s not exactly obvious that’s what’s happening.

Sleazy’s role in it wasn’t so much creating the drones. About 80% of the drones were me, and then the remainder were me and Geff. Then Sleazy basically put everything together, that was his role, taking this raw material and turning it into what everyone now knows as Time Machines.

Any form of recording is a sort of chemical brew, and when you add in the esoteric, it becomes a form of alchemical production. Like you were saying earlier about the interaction between yourself as a performer and the audience: you have the interaction while you’re recording the music, then between the members of Coil while brewing it into the finished result on record – what about the interaction between you and Geff and Sleazy with the instruments themselves?

DM: Oh, on Time Machines, there’s no question. On everything we did I really believe that a lot of it is inherent instability in the way that everything was just cross-patched. In doing it again for these live sets, there was insane amount of patching. I used my modular system, different machines, but the same process, and I’m looking at this tangle of wires, and it was like it was a neural network or something like that. All of this cross-feedback just balanced on a knife edge of instability, that’s what creates these tones and timbres, these weird shifting frequencies. It was a communication between me and Balance and Sleazy, what we were doing and the machines that we were using.

When recreating Time Machines live now, did you feel that the individual instruments that you were using at the time twenty years ago had a specific role – would you think, oh, I need a specific synthesizer, or is it more to do with a feeling?

DM: That was the thing with doing these two live shows, I wanted to – I had to – give a lot of thought, to how much do I stay true to the original, and honour the original and the effect it had on people, or honour the spirit of the original. The two things don’t necessarily align, in the literal sound of the original or the idea and intent of the original.

It’s a bit of a balancing act, because I definitely wanted to have some of the familiar sounds come in, especially one in the first piece I played, the second track on the record, ‘2,5-Dimethoxy-4-Ethyl-Amphetamine: (DOET/Hecate)’, there’s a particular refrain that sounds like a dying animal, it sounds like a mournful animal, that tone that dips and rises. I love that, it’s always one of my favourite things on the record, and I definitely wanted to do that, just as a kind of nod, paying respect to the original record. At the same time, I wanted to give myself a lot of freedom to absolutely do what Time Machines did, but with different equipment, making different sounds that have the same effect.

I had several people say to me, "I can’t believe how close you came with the effect, it was the same", and that’s OK, you know, it felt like the mission was accomplished at that point. I did take a lot of liberties with it, just because it wouldn’t be interesting. I really dislike when people play live and revisit a well-known LP, when so-and-so does their classic album. It’s not interesting for me, I think it’s cheesy, I wouldn’t do it – so it was really important for me to use the original work as a springboard and as a stepping-off point.

When Coil performed at Cornucopia, it was very different to Time Machines – it wasn’t a performance of the album at all, but it was very much using that same jumping-off point.

DM: That’s the whole point, just use it. Again, that metaphor of the horse that you’re not in control of, just use it, harness yourself to it and see where you go. I really always felt that this process was a living thing, that it was an entity, and you have to respect where it wants to go.

How would you say that the performances of Time Machines that you’ve done connect to not only your own solo albums, but also your performances? Did you perform live as Compound Eye too?

DM: We did a handful, I think we did four or five performances. I see it as a continuity both with Compound Eye and with my solo thing. I felt like Time Machines got into my DNA, or maybe it was part of it anyway, and has informed everything that I’ve done, and my whole period with Coil – how could it not? To be so fortunate, to be part of something so unlike anything else, two collaborate with two people who were so unlike anyone else, so if that didn’t inform the rest of your life, then you weren’t paying attention.

So many of the musicians who’ve been in Coil, that came out of that crucible, they all seem to have have a certain feel to their music, while still being all their own – such as you or Cyclobe, for example.

DM: Cyclobe’s records are beyond stunning. I almost can’t get my head around how beautiful they are. I was really disappointed when they were supposed to play a couple of shows in the US this year and it fell apart for whatever reason. I haven’t seen them play live, they don’t play very often, and when they do, it’s a very special occasion. It’s one of those things that the next time they play in Europe I’m going to try my best to have some reason to be in Europe to see them as well.

It’s not like there was the great Coil plan for world domination; but it seems to have happened, nonetheless, in some manner.

DM: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m always really astonished and just blown away and weirdly humbled by how many people that I’ve come across that have referenced Time Machines as in important part of their musical development, either as people who just like it and listen to it, or who went on to do other things. I find it really touching to see, especially people who are making music that I really like, and they say that Time Machines was a huge influence on them.

There was also the Time Machines II album that Sleazy came out with, what do you think about that?

DM: Again, it was about coming to the same result with different process. By that time he was mainly doing everything on computer, and I think it definitely stands up.

It’s very much a digital counterpoint to Time Machines, which seems to be much more of an analogue synthesis process than a digital one.

DM: I think so too. The whole analogue versus digital debate doesn’t really interest me as a discussion, because people do incredible work, no matter what tools they use. For me, Time Machines, just from my perspective and for my purposes and how I approach it, I think that it has to be an analogue process, because part of how it works is the process of entrainment, that your brain cycles, your brain waves are actually being brought into sync with the tones that are happening in the record or the performance. It’s important that those tones do vary, that those cycles are not perfect, because the process of entrainment can be disruptive if it’s too exact.

A lot of what’s going on with Time Machines is cyclical, but it decays over time if you listen to it. There’s no perfect loop, there’s something that just continues these processes of decaying and then re-energising and then decaying. There are low-frequency oscillators that are driving it, but we were also modulating the LFOs with other LFOs, so nothing was static.

Anything cyclical in nature has that power to entrain your brainwaves, whether it’s cicadas or the wind causing something to flap back and forth. If it’s a digital recreation, and it’s too perfect, you start to come out of it and your brain has the feeling that something’s not right. For the purposes of Time Machines and what it’s about, I just prefer analogue.

For my own work, I’ll use the modular as the springboard and then I’ll shape things digitally, it’s definitely a marriage of analogue and digital, I really appreciate the joy of working with both. There’s the inherent unpredictability of analogue that always keeps drawing me back. Obviously, with digital you can create pseudo-randomness and you can set up algorithms that mimic aperiodicity, but at some point, your brain is saying: "Wait, wait – you’re getting one over on me – someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes!"

Is it to do with pattern recognition, seeing patterns in something aleatory?

DM: Yes, exactly. What goes hand in hand with pattern recognition is that part of your brain that creates patterns where there are none. I think that’s where a lot of the fun lies as well, allowing your brain to create illusions of patterns where there is nothing, where we can listen to white noise and start hearing things, creating patterns and conspiracy theories! [laughs]

What’s coming next for Time Machines and for you?

DM: There are no plans right now for any more shows in North America. I wanted to keep it just to those two performances. I thought it was nice tying them to the Dais anniversary, and I don’t want them to become a thing, just Drew doing this album. It’s really important for me to keep it special. I was wrung out, emotionally and physically for two days afterwards – I’ve never felt that from a [gig]. There’s always an element of that, but for it to happen at such an extreme level was overwhelming.

I’d like to do Time Machines in some more places, on other continents. If someone was to propose something interesting, with some way of keeping the specialness of the piece, I’m definitely open for suggestions, but there’s no more Time Machines performances in the near future. I’ll definitely keep an open mind as to where it can explore the globe a little.

What else do you have coming up solo?

DM: I’m going to be touring Europe in October and November, we’re just putting the dates together now for about 15 performances over the month, I’m really looking forward to that. I had to put it on hold for Time Machines, but then I’ll be working on the next LP.

And is there anything more to come from Compound Eye?

DM: Collaborating with Tres is such a pleasure, so that’s something that we both spoke about; there’s no concrete plans to do something, but we’d really love to get back together. Psychic Ills have been so busy just now, they’ve been touring a lot, so we’ll do that when we can.

I’ve been enjoying collaborating with people. I did a collaboration with Puce Mary at a festival in Denmark in May, so we’re going to put out a record together later in the year, probably in December, and I have an LP with Hiro Kone coming out on Bank Records pretty soon.

Time Machines is out now on CD and on vinyl at the end of October from Dais Records. Drew McDowall is on tour in October and November, and dates can be found here

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