In a recent obituary of the poet John Ashbery, the critic Luc Sante described Ashbery's "road-to-Damascus-style" creative rebirth upon seeing a John Cage concert and being "struck…with the power of chance." Ashbery and Cage both made lasting work by letting the outside world of luck and the subconscious directly affect the art they made. Drew McDowall, the avant-garde noise/synth/whatever musician is part of the same lineage. Like Ashbery's poetry, digression and whimsy are surface readings of a deeply felt exploration, a chance-taking and a wrestling with larger entropy. The three artists also inspire a yearning for a transcendence free of mush and force me to pose the inscrutable question asked of all out-there art that succeeds: "I'm not sure I understand what's happening…but why the fuck am I not bored?"
Drew McDowall, who has talked to Noisey before about his youth as a proper Scottish tough, has recently journeyed far enough out of his former band Coil's shadow to comfortably return to the material. He's embarked on a limited run of live performances of the revered Coil album, Time Machines, to coincide with its reissue as double LP by Dais Records on October 13. Time Machines, first released in 1998, was Coil's—then made up of McDowall, the now deceased John Balance, and Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson—attempt to make a music that would draw the listener outside of time. It used hallucinogenic drugs as song titles and hooks, but its sound was more interested in a different sort of transportation—the inspiration of various ceremonial songs of worship.
The album is composed of four drone pieces with enough color and variance to be more in the "new music" composition school than straight up noise. It's also peppy enough to avoid, you know, the siren wind-chimes call of the New Age. At McDowall's recent performance of the album (more a "variations on…" than a straight rendition) at Dais' 10th Anniversary show, held in Red Hook, large pockets of the black-clad crowd became actively blissed out, allowing sound and gravity to take hold of them. Imagine La Monte Young's Dream House in a warehouse—a love-in draped in illegible font metal shirts.
McDowall was kind enough to sit with me a week later, in between tours for both Time Machines and his most recent solo album Unnatural Channel, to talk about process, worship, and his new(ish) status as minimal synth rock star.
Noisey: Let's talk about procrastination.
Drew McDowall: Procrastination is definitely a part of the process for me. It's not that I take it into unhealthy extremes, I just want to try to get into a place where the best work is not done in the last day and I'm losing my mind in the process. But having said that, part of the prep for doing these Time Machine shows—I've been working on it for a few weeks, a few months—I went upstate to the Catskills and spent ten days up there working on it. And the ratio of actually working on the sounds instead of sitting and listening the cicadas and the crickets and the katydids was probably 80% listening and 20% working.
But that was actually a huge part of it because I realized how much that kind of thing, you know those cyclical drones in nature really inform Time Machines and especially these live iterations of it. I would sit for like an hour and just listen to cicada, and go to the studio and spend fifteen minutes or twenty minutes doing what I had to do, come back out, listen to the cicadas, go back in and it really was a part of the process. So ostensibly it could look like procrastination—and it probably was but really who cares?
Working with drones it's not like people are gonna be like, "That didn't sound like the record…" or are people like that?
It wasn't supposed to sound like the record—I tried to preface it as much as possible, give people the head's up, "don't expect a literal version or don't expect a complete copy of the record" because that's not the point of Time Machines and it wouldn't be interesting. I did want to honor the impact that it had on people's lives. People tell me how much of an impact it had on them—which is always pretty surprising.
I wanted to keep hold of that but at the same honor the spirit of it, the idea that Time Machines was to be this living organism. So I gave myself a lot of freedom of interpretation with it. Having said that, a lot of people seemed to tell me that it sounded exactly like the record. So I think they were just getting with the spirit of it. I think the effect was the same for them—that psychedelic / psychotropic effect. Which, you know, I was really going for.
The initial idea, how the title came about was the idea that frequency in music and timbre could free you of time and could create and act as a time machine. We played around with that. I had my equipment set up in my home studio in London and I was playing around with the gear and I came up with these tones, these timbres that I felt had this powerful effect. I really strongly always believed that sounds can have a powerfully psychedelic effect. Without being enhanced, without one taking any drugs—you can really change people's perception enormously. So I was playing with these frequencies, these sounds and I felt like I hit on something and I took it into the studio, t and was like, "Jeff, I think—John Balance—I think I've hit on something here. I might have touched on what we were looking for. And he was like, "Yeah, that's it—let's expand on it."
What do you mean by that? Secular transcendence?
People use the word transcendent and I'm not criticizing the way people use the word because it's one of those words like "spiritual" that doesn't really mean anything. It's more...immanence. You know the idea, rather than you're transcending and separating from something—immanence is the idea that it's part of everything in the world. I'm glad you spoke about this because it's something I haven't really spoken about that much with anyone. The idea was not for people to be transcended but for them to be like, dragged down.
You know, into this plane—this immanent plane. That's the idea, rather than transcendence. I think a lot of time when people say transcendence it's a handy shortcut to refer that feeling of otherness that's really, really hard to qualify or quantify.
It could just be a state of delirium.
The most powerful non-mundane sensations can be that feeling of complete connection to the world. And look, however people want to come at it, I'm totally happy with. If they have a profound spiritual experience, if they have this, "hey, this is entertaining, this is fucked up," that's fine. There's no real mission other than for it to do something.
So if people get hyper-aware, great. For me, when I was working on this set, I was like, 'Okay, is this having an effect on me?' If it's not having an effect on me, it's not working. It's the same thing as we were doing the record—we were the test subjects. It wasn't theoretical, this was very much lived. So, while I was working on the set, I was like, "Okay, is this pulling me apart? Is this making me forget?" I think it's actually good to forget where you are. Some of the most special moments are when I forget where I am, and when I forget who I am and lose sense of identity.
Why aren't I bored by it?
I, again, use myself as the test subject with anything because I can get really bored easily. If I feel that I'm losing interest and focus in what I'm doing, then it's like, 'Okay!' [Laughs'
While you're playing?
While I'm writing. God forbid it would happen in a performance.
Well, has it ever happened during a performance?
I would just pull the plug out.
My first instinct watching people sit or lay down at the show was, "Get the fuck up"…
No, I'm glad!
No, I know! I had to adjust my small way of thinking.
I think music and sound can have the most powerful physical effect on people. You know, if you listen to a great dance track and you want to dance! I wanted to create something that sucks people to the floor. I didn't tell anyone that was the intention—I didn't want to prime anyone. So I wasn't really looking at the audience while I was playing so afterwards when people were like, "Yeah, people were like, laying on the floor," I was like, " Yes."
Were the Dais shows the first performances you've done of it?
Yeah, I mean, I don't think I'll do any more to the US. I'm going to keep it limited. I have no plans to do it any more shows, but I'm open to the idea to do a small handful in other continents.
You don't want to all the sudden become "the Coil machine."
Yeah, it was an incredible experience doing those two shows, and I don't want to wear it out for myself.
Are you using different tools to bring it off live?
Oh, no. It's still very heavily modular based, in fact it's way more modular based in terms of the amount of equipment I took. I basically took practically my whole studio. Especially the New York show because I didn't have to schlep the stuff all the way to Los Angeles. But I still took a lot of stuff. You know, Time Machines was created with all analog modular or semi-modular. I'm not using the same [gear] but the same processes.
I know in the past that there were Coil reissues problems. Why was this different?
I think this was easier because this was just me, Balance, and Sleazy. Most of the original record was just me anyway. Listening back to the files, it was 80-90% me, so I didn't have any problem with it. There was no one else I felt like I had to confer with. I mean, I gave people a head's up about it just out of a courtesy.
Well, it's interesting also, because we talked a few years back, and you've become a bit more, famous is the wrong word. You've become a lot better known as just Drew McDowall instead of Drew McDowall "formerly of Coil."
Has that been nice?
Yeah, it's been good. I mean, don't get me wrong. I'm aware my history gives me a bit of a jumpstart because there's so many people doing incredible stuff that and their work doesn't get heard. They're doing phenomenal work. My history gives me a little bit of a leg up. It gives something for people to attach it to, like, "Oh yeah, I like this person's work who was part of that," but yeah it's great. I do love that people are just taking their releases that I do on their own merits. That's good.
I operate in circles of snipey little bastards and I heard at your L.A. show someone who's gone to see you play around for years was like, "Last time I went and saw him, fucking members of Deafheaven were there."
It's a thing . Are you scared of the "poseurs"?
Honestly, I'm kind of oblivious to that for the most part. I don't even know who anyone is. I'm the worst people in the world for knowing who someone is. I don't even know until afterwards when someone will say, "You know so and so was at the show," I'm just talking to my pals.
You used to not like playing live.
I really enjoy it now. I got over that, that initial thing you know, which I guess was like, it was not playing much. If you don't play very much, it's kind of terrifying when you do play. When you're playing a bit more—and also, I rethought how I approach playing live. It's going to sound pretentious but I'll throw it out there anyway. The reason I never play live and didn't enjoy it was like an ego-driven thing. Like, 'I don't want to fall flat on my face in front of people.' But I changed the way I view performing—it's not about me.
I don't believe in God or anything like that but I do believe in the sacred. So it goes back to the idea of immanence in that the sacred is present in everything. When I play, I try to get into this mindset that I'm doing [this] as an offering. If I can stay with that, then I have a good time playing. If I'm thinking about, 'I hope I do a good set and people like me,' and all of that shit—then it's like, I don't have a good set if I wanna play a good set!
It doesn't sound pretentious at all.
Even though I'm playing a lot more than I played before, I'm still not playing, I don't play a ton of shows so it doesn't get boring for me and hopefully it doesn't get boring for the audience. It's like, the idea being it's a shared space, this communal experience. The music should have some kind of effect on people other than just you know… My goal with music is that I strive for that, 'What the fuck is going on?' feeling.
I think that's important. If there's not some kind of aggressive intelligence behind it, it's just new age music.
That's an anathema to me. I do believe there's there's a fundamental weirdness and strangeness about existence. That's ultimately what I want to explore, and what I've always been exploring in music. If I can just crack that open a bit—because I think people forget how weird things are. We go through our lives, we work jobs, we get entranced by social media and all the banalities and the mundane but it's like, when you just stop for a second, it's just so fucking weird. It's almost so weird that it is banal. I love to be able to explore that for 35 to 45 minutes with a bunch of other weirdos in the same place.